Game of shogiShogi takes great skill to master

Scientists have discovered that expert board game players use a part of their brain that amateurs fail to utilise.

The research, published in Science, involved scanning the brains of both professional and amateur Japanese “Shogi” players.

Shogi is a Japanese game, similar to chess.

Scientists from the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan said that intuitive playing was probably not due to nature, but brain training.

Shogi is a very popular game in Japan, played to professional level.

Professional players train for up to ten years, three to four hours a day to achieve the level of expertise needed to play professionally.

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Professional players started to use the parts of the brains that are well developed in mice and rats and not so well developed in primates”

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Keiji Tanaka
RIKEN Brain Science Institute, Japan

Intuitive decisions

They are able to make very quick “intuitive” decisions about which move in any combination on the board, would produce the best outcome.

The researchers recruited 30 professional shogi players from the Japanese Shogi Association. They also had a control group of amateur players.

The professional players were presented with a game of shogi already in progress and given 2 seconds to choose the next best move – from a choice of four moves.

The researchers found that there were significant activations in the caudate nucleus area of the brains of professional players while they were making their quick moves.

Brain activity

Chess piecesChess is very similar to shogi

In contrast, when amateur players were asked to quickly find the next best move, there was no significant activation in the caudate nucleus. This brain activity was specific to professional players who were making quick decisions about the next best move.

In addition, professionals did not use that area of the brain when they were given a longer time of 8 seconds, to think strategically about further moves they could make. In this scenario, the caudate nucleus area of the brain was not activated.

The caudate nucleus area of the brain was historically thought to be involved with the control of voluntary bodily movements. However more recently it has also been associated with learning and memory.

A lead researcher on the project, Kenji Tanaka said he was surprised by the findings as the area of the brain being used was in the basal ganglia region, which he did not associate with intelligence:

“The professional players started to use the parts of the brains that are well developed in mice and rats and not so well developed in primates, so the findings were a suprise – by becoming expert, shogi masters start to use all parts of the brain.”

Mr Tanaka added that the findings supported the idea that the brain could be trained to be good at spotting patterns – and that it was unlikely that people were born with the requisite intuition needed to be good at board games.