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Chess and Playwriting

Sunday, March 28, 2010 Leave a Comment

In a recent game of chess, I felt the pull of the weird intuitive current that I usually only feel when writing plays. It was mid-game, and all of a sudden I knew which direction my pieces needed to move without actually knowing the exact moves I needed to make. It felt very much like the muscle that takes over in playwriting when a certain amount of momentum has been achieved, and I follow that intuitive current wherever it wants to go.

So I was thrilled when reading a Scientific American article that described this process in the mind. The Secrets Of The Expert Mind looked at how chess experts analyzed a board in contrast to amateur players. Among their discoveries:

  • Statistical formulas of skill predict the outcome of games with remarkable reliability
  • Good players examine more possibilities than weak players, but great players examine better possibilities than good players
  • Grandmasters do no better than weak players at general tests of memory, while doing remarkably better at chess-specific tests of memory
  • Random positions on a chess board are much harder for grandmasters to analyze than positions achieved through authentic play
As a result, theorists believe that chess mastery is learned through effortful study, the 10,000 hours of practice rule, and not through innate ability. Further, this mastery manifests itself in an ability called "chunking" which directly connects to my thoughts about writing plays.

Humans can only contemplate five to nine items at a time. Chunking is the capacity to pack information into hierarchies to get around this limitation. Says the article:
"Take the sentence 'Mary had a little lamb'. The number of information chunks in this sentence depends on one's knowledge of the poem and the English language. For most native speaker of English, this sentence is part of a much larger chunk, the familiar poem. For someone who knows English but not the poem, the sentence is a single, self-contained chunk. For someone who has memorized the words but not their meaning, the sentence is five chunks, and it is 18 chunks for someone who knows the letters but not the words.

In the context of chess, the same differences can be seen between novices and grandmasters. To a beginner, a position with 20 chessmen on the board may contain far more than 20 chunks of informaion, because the pieces can be placd in so many configurations. A grandmaster, however, may see one part of the position as a "fianchettoed bishop in the castled kingside", tgether with a "blockaded king's-Indian-style pawn chain", and thereby cram the entire position into five or six chunks...Simon estimated that typical grandmaster has access to rouchly 50,000 to 10,000 chunks of chess information."
It is not a far leap to replace chess strategies with narrative strategies. My experience of writing Jacob's House in two days convinced me that the ideal way to write a first draft is as quickly as possible. Otherwise, it is like playing a chess game over several weeks, a few moves a day, with the overall heat and feel of the whole lost.

But of course, it is very difficult to write effectively that quickly. The Lesser Seductions of History took me a very long time to reach a credible first draft, in large part because it employed very difficult, complex narrative strategies I'd never used before. And this brings us to another key point of the study:
"Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but 'effortful study' which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time."
After truly finishing The Lesser Seductions of History, I found it much easier to write credible living drafts of Dark Matter and Jacob's House very quickly. I think this may have something to do with the challenge of writing Lesser Seductions expanding my capacity as a playwright, so that I was able to better analyze the 'chunks' of narrative strategy, making the first draft more of a downhill slope of a thousand slaloms than a cross country trek of slow and deliberate choices.

Looking at my journey as a playwright, I notice a similar pattern: a play of difficulty that stretches my capacity as a playwright, followed by one or two plays that come easy. Night and the Maiden leading to Carrin Beginning, Riding the Bull and Kidding Jane leading to Good Hope, Other Bodies leading to Honey Fist.

Lately, I have felt that capacity accelerate, and I believe it is directly connected to Flux Sundays. This is for two reasons: one, I am forced to write more frequently than I ever have before; and two, I am seeing my work staged in front of an audience on a weekly basis.

I highlight that last sentence because I think it is so critically important. Writing plays that are never staged is like playing chess with yourself. You'll learn something, but that growth can in no way match the growth created by actually seeing your work staged.

So I take away from this the importance of continually writing plays that stretch my capacity, as well as plays that allow me to synthesize that growth; and to get the work on its feet, where real experiential knowledge lives. Flux Sundays does that, and allows us to create that opportunity for other playwrights and artists we believe in, and to learn from each other.

As the article says:
"Capablanca, regarded to this day as the greatest 'natural' chess player, boasted that he never studied the game. In fact, he flunked out of Columbia University in part because he spent so much time playing chess. His famously quick apprehension was a product of all his training, not a substitute for it."
Are there other playwright who have experienced this feeling of growth in capacity? Or do we really believe that inspiration is solely the gift of some capricious fairy that may or may not settle on our shoulder as we face the blank page?


  • Paul Mullin said:  

    I am fascinated by the intersection of chess playing and playwrighting.

  • lucia said:  

    I think that's exactly right, that's how our minds work - a continually building of abstract conceptual hierarchies, not only to reduce memory load, but to play freely with large amounts of information (collapsed into abstract structures). So if an idea leads you to build a particular hierarchical structure for a play, it makes sense that it would work for a couple more plays before the 'surprise' is out of it (and we only learn through surprise) and since you're no longer learning it's no longer interesting and you have to start from scratch, building a new sand castle for the next idea...I don't play chess but I could imagine here you would be able to save the past structures for future games? But it doesn't work for writing alone - but perhaps it would work for writing in a team?

  • August Schulenburg said:  


    I agree that narrative structure is an abstract conceptual hierarchy of meaning; and I think that most audience members have played so many games of story that true surprise is difficult. But that challenge of giving an audience a truly inevitable surprise in story telling is what makes playwriting so exciting!

    Paul - me, too. I think it would be fun to give narrative strategies the same colorful names that chess strategies have.

  • lucia said:  

    But here is a paradox - why great writing, no matter how familiar, continually surprises and excites. A poet once pointed this out: that what makes a poem great is that inexhaustible feeling that something new has just happened. Perhaps once that unlikely juxtaposition is discovered/created - no matter how familiar it is, it is remains 'odd' in our mind's eye and therefore vivid and therefore exciting (empirical question: if you heard the same great poem every day for many years, would it cease to have this effect??). So - all writers have to do is 'just' create the odd/true/surprising once and then your language will be fresh/surprising/emotional forever...vs. the cliche dialogue or pre-conceived plot that the audience has been trained (through zillions of screen hours) to expect, which now can never be surprising and is therefore always dull the first time it appears (why television is good for playwrights, it trains the audience and thereby ups the ante?)....And perhaps cheap thrills are good for a couple of uses (unless you keep increasing the gore quotient?)? Fascinating questions here at the intersection of cognition and theatre...what is surprise exactly and why...

  • Matt A said:  

    Surprising the audience must depend on what the audience wants, right? If a playwright plays on desires that we'll always have, the play should remain exciting and surprising!