Imagine for one second that you could play a variant which is not the best, but would with 100% certitude put your opponent in a really unpleasant situation and thus give you the edge…
I guess most of you would grasp this opportunity. That’s what I would also do.
If chess is mostly a question of precision, the psychological impact of a position (and its possible extensions obviously) can also play a role. And in that sense, understanding your opponent’s body expresses can be a real cue to help you choose how to direct the game.
What remains is to decipher this body language and use it to your advantage.
The importance of body language in chess
To understand how body language can influence your chess decisions, let’s first define it.
According to Wikipedia, Body language is a type of non-verbal communication in which physical behavior, as opposed to words, is used to express or convey information. Such behavior includes facial expressions, body posture, gestures, eye movement, touch and the use of space.
So as a chess player, what can I learn from that definition?
- Body language is defined as a way of communication, which means we can definitely learn from what our adversary’s body says.
- The rules of chess requiring silence during a match, non-verbal expressions are actually the only way to get information.
- You can use body language to convey information, but also to express. It implies then that by mastering your non-verbal abilities, you could probably confuse the other player by sending different messages according to your needs. However, it is interesting to mention this is not an easy task as our mind tends to focus on the chess action resulting thus in unconscious body language.
Briefly said, interpreting and using body language can be an important psychological weapon; at the only condition you know how to use it properly.
World chess championship and body language: a case study
So great, our body signs tell stories and can be decoded. But how exactly is it supposed to help us decide which move to play?
To give you a concrete example, I conducted a mini research in 3 steps.
First, I investigated the subject of body language and ended up finding an interesting blog written by Sachchidanand Swami, who is a certified micro expression expert, human behavior researcher and analyst. I scrolled through his articles to make a summary of behaviors used by chess players, as well as what you can deduce from it.
Second, I watched the whole chess championship between Anand and Carlsen in 2013, analyzed their attitude and compared it to the chess position during the match.
Third, I made parallels between what I saw in the match and Sachchidanand Swami’s results.
How to interpret body signs during the game?
When you play chess, your emotions can manifest more or less distinctly through your posture and your facial expressions. Let’s focus on 3 emotions that can be unveiled by your body and which can help you determine how to continue the game.
Uncertainty- thinking too long
According to Sachchidanand Swami, this is a very classical pose we adopt while seriously thinking or planning something. The two pictures above really talk for themselves. In my last article, I described this way of sitting as the “focus posture”.
Globally, you will stay in that position most of the game as chess requires your total concentration so it won’t give you any specific cue on how to continue the game. However, if you see your opponent maintaining this concentration for more than 15 minutes, you can suppose he has discovered variations which should draw your attention as well. Such a long period of thought is usually a sign you need to make sure you have considered all the potential outcomes and that you don’t miss something which could put you in a disadvantage along the way.
Crossed arms are a typical posture in body language, and especially in business negotiation. Any sales person is regularly confronted to this type of posture, seeing that the prospect is on the defensive, trying to distance themselves from what is being said and obviously the proposed product.
As you can see with Magnus on the picture, he not only uses his arms to maintain his body, but crosses them and strongly huddles up unveiling his discomfort. You can also perceive the nervousness on his face, as he knows he has a difficult position to defend.
Indeed, a queen on h1 blocked by his own bishop in g2, Anand ready to take the pawn in e3 and threatening directly the capture of the b2 pawn with his black bishop and you have a big black advantage. (To understand how such a position occured, I invite you to review the whole game by clicking on any move here under.)
According to many observers this particular moment from game 3 was the key turning point of the whole match.
Anand played rapidly bishop d4, trying to maintain the pressure but I bet if he had noticed how nervous Magnus was because of this move Bxb2, he would have played it without hesitating.
Moreover, you clearly understand it due to the surprised reaction of Carlsen when he realizes he is probably on his way to survive thanks to this Bd4 move. (You can check the video here (3:37:39))
What to remember from all this? Next time you see your opponent in an defensive posture, chances are he fears a specific move. It might be a critical moment so instead of rushing, don’t hesitate to double check the position and see what scares your opponent the most.
Perceiving the fatigue or boredom of your adversary should convince you to play long and refuse any draw offer. Try to play as simple as possible and avoid useless complications. Even better, you can opt for regular exchanges and go for what chess players commonly call a “boring endgame” (Only if you feel comfortable enough in that phase of the game of course). Your opponent could possibly end up either frustrated or too tired and finally crack.
Carlsen has made this way of playing his specialty over the last years and has proved a game is never over.
Many signs of fatigue exist, from the most obvious like yawning to more subtle sleepy eyes, which shouldn’t be too hard to notice.
First hide your own emotions, and then have a look at your opponent
If I refer to Sachchidanand Swami’s conclusions, hiding one’s emotions comes naturally with experience. I guess it is probably the reason why Anand has managed to do it so well during the game. Besides his hand mimics which helped him destress, he rarely unveiled clear reactions during all 10 games, even after his 3 losses in a row. It is all the more remarkable since playing world chess championship in his birth town with the whole country focusing on his performance must have been quite stressful.
As a conclusion, whether you are tired, unsure or nervous about a position, it is always recommended not to show your feelings to your opponent. And when you have the occasion, have a look at how your opponent reacts from time to time; it could sway the odds in your favor.