25263Reaction times, Fernandes, Santos, Antunes
- May 31, 2003Stephen D' Aprano wrote:
>Of course, yours is a good question. Why should reasoning speed be very
>Does nerve transmission speed vary between individuals? I'd be surprised
>if it doesn't, but you never know. Is it possible that "slow thinkers"
>are slow because their brains run more slowly?
>My second question perhaps can't be answered in a brief email. Why is
>speed of thinking considered more important than thoroughness, or
>ability to pick away at a problem for days or weeks or months until you
>have the answer? Perhaps this is a bad analogy, but it seems to me that
>if IQ tests measured running ability, marathon runners would be
>considered worse runners than sprinters. That certainly is true if you
>are running a 50 metre race, but not if you need to run a marathon.
connected with ability to perform long-term intellectual work?
In the following, please note that I'm not an IQ specialist. So, I just
have to accept Dr. Rushton statement about a correlation between reaction
time tests and other IQ tests. However, is this correlation high? And what
is the correlation of this or of other IQ tests with the 'thoroughness' you
mention (ability to study complex problems during months instead of
seconds)? I'm not doubting that there may be some correlation, but my guess
is that, if a person decides to study thoroughly complex problems that
demand months or years, success in doing so is almost independent of his
reaction times. Albert Einstein said he made his maths 'unwillingly and
slowly'. Having been myself an official chessplayer, and knowing something
about the kind of people who have success in chess (mine was at the level
of getting international ELO-ranking, but not a title such as IM -
International Master or IGM - International Grandmaster), I've always
observed differences between players. Some achieved success through being
incredibly rapid in phases of the game in which time is running out and one
must calculate well in a few minutes or even seconds. Others play
disastrously the time shortage phases but are good in 'correspondence
chess' - a variant of the game played by correspondence (nowadays via
email) in which a player can think in a single move for days.
Now I will describe three players, all of them my friends, and their
António Fernandes - He is astonishingly rapid and precise in time shortage
phases. He didn't achieve a very great 'cultural' knowledge of chess
theory, namely openings (however he is not really bad in this respect; just
less good than the other two below). The typical Fernandes' game is as
follows: during the first 20 moves of a game he thinks a lot, spending a
lot of time, and getting into trouble (perhaps because of his not very good
theoretical preparation). During the last 20 moves before control (a
typical game had a relexion time of 2 hours for 40 moves) he was typically
in very difficult positions, and with just some minutes (!) to the last 20
moves. This situation is usually hopeless for most players but not for
him. Astonishingly, he was capable of performing the remaining 20 moves
very well in some minutes, without commiting a fatal error (very difficult,
since the opponent had much more time left and was trying to trap him in
many ways), and arriving to the control (40th move) in a won position. It
was this incredible precision in such phases that made him a champion.
Fernandes learned to play when he was 5 years old. He is not fond of
theory, nor does he write about the game. He doesn't appreciate artistic
aspects (like written chess problems), he is all practical. Some say chess
is just like a 'maternal tongue' for him (alluding to his early age of
learning the game). Others used to say: 'Fernandes doesn't really
understand chess; he just wins games compulsively'... (of course the last
two statements are metaphoric!).
Luís Santos - The opposite of Fernandes, perhaps. He knows a lot about
openings (opening theory is gigantic and knowledge of it is very important
to a player), he collaborates in publications, he was a very good
correspondence player: he achieved the title of IGM (International
Grandmaster) in correspondence chess, and was one of the 16 best players in
the world sometime in the middle 80s. Despite his great command of theory,
his abundant reading, his mastership in correspondence chess, he was a
TOTAL DISASTER in 'in vivo' games in the phase of time shortage. If he
arrived to such a situation in a in vivo game, he would most likely lose,
even against an inferior player, let alone against a Fernandes. In such
situations, I've seen his hand trembling, about to move a piece, and the
clock running out, incapable of clear thinking. This hand trembling was a
clear signal that he was some seconds or minutes away from making a fatal
error that would cost him the game. However he was a great theorist and IGM
in correspondence chess! I've been entire nights with him and other
players, in which he described, to our common astonishment, the fantastic
complexity and beauty of his analyses concerning a correspondence game he
was playing; the analysis of the possible continuations after a move he was
about to play via mail (Internet didn't exist at that time) was a tree with
thousands of viable branches; after showing us, around a table, some
hundreds of these branches, he concluded: 'But I'm not sure about this
move; I must analyse it more in the next two weeks, and then I will decide
whether to play it or not'. Conclusion: a great theorist and analyser, but
slow thinker in 'in vivo' games.
António Antunes - The best of the lot. Antunes is better than the other two
because he joins virtuously the qualities of them. He is not as rapid as
Fernandes in phases of time shortage - in fact I've seen him lose against
Fernandes in these phases, when both had few minutes left. But he was, in
this respect (speed), still very good, much better than Santos. And he
studied a lot and became an openings expert, as much as Santos. He
accumulated a great 'cultural' and theoretical knowledge of the game, in
all three phases - opening, middle-game, and ending, that contributed for
him to know, at virtually any position, what to do next. So, he plays fast
in the first 20 moves of the game, not because of reasoning speed, but
because he *knows* more about openings and middle-game plans. This virtuous
conjunction of not too bad speed, and very good 'cultural' knowledge
allowed him to get the title of IGM (in in vivo games; Santos was just IGM
in correspondence; it is more valued to be IGM in in vivo games).
I must add also that Antunes has another very important quality: LOW FEAR.
Fear is a tremendous handicap in chess, because one overreacts too
defensively to the opponents' attacks, real or imaginary (this was one of
Conclusion: Antunes and Santos are great theorists, they studied a lot,
more than Fernandes. In speed of reasoning, they can't match Fernandes.
Fernandes likely wins against any of the two (easily against Santos, not
easily against Antunes) in a real game in a situation of time shortage.
Santos is *very slow* but is the best in the more analytical and slow
version of chess - correspondence chess. Antunes got the best title of the
three: IGM in in vivo chess. Fernandes is not IGM.
I suspect most IGMs of the world (you can see a list of them in the FIDE
website, http://www.fide.com) are more like Antunes: they have a good speed
of reasoning, but not necessarily amongst the highest; and they studied and
played a lot (8 hours a day, during 10 years or more) to get cultural
knowledge (myriads of opening variations and middle-game plans and
strategies, that ressemble scientific research in the sense that there are
also theories that come and go, disproved or not by 'facts' - practical
I could add dozens of other players I know that fit more or less in these
three variants, which means the pattern I describe (the quickest guy is not
the best) is not confined to this example.
Hope this post contributes a little to understanding the realtionship
between reaction times and cultural achievement. Among these 3 guys, the
quicker one got a lower title than the other two (and this in an activity
where reasoning speed clearly matters; in science it likely matters much
less, and in arts even less).
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