Jan 06

Pushing the upper bound on cognitive performance

Over the holidays, I discovered a new chess competition variant being played and streamed by Chess.com: Puzzle Battle.  Chess puzzles are a well-known training device that also have something of a micro sub-community within the chess world for artistry in creating positions with a difficult to spot but winning move.  They are highly recommended to people trying to improve at chess.

A new approach to this idea has popped up on all the various online chess sites where the idea is to speed-solve these puzzles, usually ones that aren’t as hard as the original “chess studies.”  These get called things like ‘puzzle rush,’ ‘tactics trainer’ or the latest: ‘Puzzle Battle.’  In a battle, two top-level players solve as many puzzles as possible in 3m or until they make 3 mistakes where mistake = incorrect move in the winning line.

The top performers are routinely hitting 50 puzzles solved in 3m.  This has to be seen to be believed, e.g., in the linked clip from the quarter finals of a current tournament being run now.  In fact, if you aren’t very, very experienced in chess, there’s a very good chance you’ll have no idea what is going on.  If so, slow the video way down…


What is happening is that they are getting a new chess position with up to 30 pieces on the board.  Somewhere is a winning move for the side to move.  The position must be parsed, analyzed, and the correct winning move selected and implemented.  Sometimes the puzzle requires a sequence of 3-5 accurate moves to prove the win.  The best solvers are doing 50 of these in a row at a rate of 3.6s each.

At least for me, this pushed my understanding on the upper bound of human cognitive performance out another step or two.

Potentially of note, in this linked battle (spoiler alert), an untitled puzzle specialist is beating one of the top-10 GMs in the world.  Apparently, the database of puzzles on Chess.com only has about 20,000 examples and some of the competitors have memorized a significant fraction of the db. The super-GM is certainly better at chess than his opponent, but is solving more of the puzzles on the fly so he’s tending to score more in the 40s.  Then there’s the question of how one memorizes the winning line in 20k chess puzzles so as to be found, retrieved and executed in 3.6s.

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