Escape, if you will, deep into your mind and prepare to paint this scene around you:
You stand alone in a simple grey room, with an open doorway and a subtle foggy window on the far wall. With the exception of yourself and a low wooden table before you, it is an empty space. Void of distraction. With nothing else to draw you, your eyes fall to the table.
Upon which, lies a classically styled chess set.
A simple, prototypical model.
At first glance, there is nothing significant about the display—it is much like any other chess set, patiently waiting to be the grounds for a bout of intellectual warfare.
As you look closer however, you see the pieces are not rigidly lined up in starting positions with opposing colors facing each other across the board. Rather, the knights and pawns and rooks and other players are all about the board.
As if you stumbled upon the scene mid-gameplay.
Just as you have fully analyzed and digested the set-up, a strange figure rushes passed you and hurls the board to the floor.
The battle ground is crudely felled to the ground of carpet.
The faceless warriors are strewn about the room.
The scene is lost.
In the midst of your profound confusion, the intrusive and destructive stranger turns to leave, having finished his perplexing business. Before he exits, however, he turns and leaves you with one deceptively simple request: “Set it all back as it was.”
Though thoroughly frustrated, you swiftly set about to fulfill your task. Soon, however, you will come to find that your chess replication capabilities will hinge upon two elements: whether you grasp the rules of the game, and whether he who set up the original board had adhered to them.
You may now ease your way back to conscious reality, leaving behind your small stale grey scene.
For there is a lesson now to be learned.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s, a psychologist named Adriaan de Groot used this very idea of chess display re-creation to illustrate an important cognitive principle.
Subjects of his tests were given a short amount of time to scour over a partially completed game of chess. Then, the board would be abruptly dissembled, and de Groot would instruct participants to set up the board just as they remembered it. When the results were assessed, de Groot found that those most proficient in the rules and possible maneuvers of chess were most successful in returning the pieces to the correct positions. Chess masters trumped novices every time, as they were not only able to visualize where each piece had been but also how each piece had arrived there.
Inspired by de Groot’s work, the Chase and Simon chess experiment was created in the 1970’s, implementing an important twist. Again, chess masters and amateurs were ask to briefly memorize the set-up of a chess board and then to re-create the scene. However, unlike de Groot, Chase and Simon did not play by the rules. The pieces were not arranged in compliance to regulations, but places around the board at random. This time, when the memorization of the participants was put to the test, no one had the advantage.
Chaos, it seemed, put everyone on an equal playing field.
Once again, I beckon you to retreat deep into your mind if it suits you.
Shortly, you will make your way back through the open doorway to the disarrayed chess game that awaits you. First, however, I ask you to indulge a few thoughts while we are yet in the dark of your mind.
Considering the scene you recently immersed yourself in, are we really talking about a simple game?
For you, is there more incentive to replicating our deconstructed scene than your compulsion to clean up an unnecessary mess or to follow cryptic orders?
If not—if a chess set is just a chess set—then you are free to go. You may let this whole venture fade away into your subconscious.
However, if you maintain even the slightest suspicion that our ominous stranger’s instructions rang with a mysterious and enticing urgency, I beseech you start on your way back the grey and desolate scene.
For now you have a sense that this seemingly innocent experiment is not so unfamiliar to you. And it is not impersonal. Yes, as you quicken your pace to fulfill your task, memory serves to affirm that this unassuming room has been idly tucked away in your thoughts long before today, leaving the doorway open for your arrival. Inside, the chess display has been like a silent and subtle beacon, to shine a light upon a distant shore—long unseen.
And, perhaps, now you have made sense of it. And, now, it is not just a game. Your whole life, the pieces have been moving. Vulnerable pawns, charging knights, and powerful queens shifted around the board to establish themselves firmly in place for the day you would find them. And find them you did—exactly how they were meant to be.
And here we are again, crossing through the threshold of this barren room. You come inside, and the doorway seals shut behind you. As you knew it would.
Now, you will have the rest of your life to set things straight.
You will move your pieces about the board, to re-create the arrangement that was set in place for you.
But the stakes are high.
So think before you play.
Do you know the rules?
Do they matter anyway?