Chess experiment shows performance dips in polluted air

Study of over 30,000 chess moves in 609 games shows bad air quality impacts strategic decision making

Russian-born Dutch chess grandmaster Anish Giri competes during the last round of the Tata Steel Masters chess tournament in Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands, 29 January 2023. EPA
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Poor air quality has a significant impact on strategic decision making, a US study involving chess players has found.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology evaluated the moves of chess players in Germany during tournaments while measuring indoor air quality.

During the tournaments, PM2.5 concentrations ranged from 14 to 70 micrograms per cubic metre of air. These levels of exposure were equivalent to those found in cities in the US and elsewhere.

They found a modest increase in fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, increased the probability that chess players would make an error by 2.1 per cent, and the magnitude of those errors increases by 10.8 per cent.

“We find that when individuals are exposed to higher levels of air pollution, they make more mistakes, and they make larger mistakes,” Juan Palacios, economist in MIT's Sustainable Urbanization Lab, and co-author of the study.

Over 30,000 chess moves played over 609 games by 121 players between 2017 and 2019 were run through a computerised analysis by the team, who said chess performance was a good indicator of strategic thinking.

“There is a large overlap in the skills required to excel in chess and those in strategic decision making,” the report published in the journal Management Science read.

“Deciding on a move in a chess game is a complex cognitive task, which requires individuals to engage their intuition, perception and problem-solving skills.”

TOP 10 MOST POLLUTED CITIES

1. Bhiwadi, India
2. Ghaziabad, India
3. Hotan, China
4. Delhi, India
5. Jaunpur, India
6. Faisalabad, Pakistan
7. Noida, India
8. Bahawalpur, Pakistan
9. Peshawar, Pakistan
10. Bagpat, India

Source: IQAir

They adjusted for other factors which could cause a drop in performance, like noise, and found errors increased even more with time pressured decisions in a polluted environment.

“We find it interesting that those mistakes especially occur in the phase of the game where players are facing time pressure,” Dr Palacios says. “When these players do not have the ability to compensate [for] lower cognitive performance with greater deliberation, [that] is where we are observing the largest impacts.”

Bad air quality, caused partly by high levels of PM2.5 and PM10, has also been proven to cause millions of deaths annually. Fine particulate matter can penetrate the lungs and enter the body through the blood stream, causing cardiovascular, neurological, respiratory and other organ systems, the WHO said.

Top 10 most polluted countries — in pictures

Since the impacts of bad air quality have been revealed by scientists, nations across the world have been working to lower their emissions. The WHO revised their guidance on levels of PM2.5 in the air from 10 micrograms per cubic metre to five micrograms in 2021.

The MIT study came as researchers from the universities of Oxford, Beijing and Imperial College London found people living in areas with higher pollution were more likely to experience depression and anxiety.

“There are more and more papers showing that there is a cost with air pollution, and there is a cost for more and more people,” Palacios said.

“And this is just one example showing that even for these very [excellent] chess players, who think they can beat everything — well, it seems that with air pollution, they have an enemy who harms them.”

Updated: February 02, 2023, 5:06 PM
TOP 10 MOST POLLUTED CITIES

1. Bhiwadi, India
2. Ghaziabad, India
3. Hotan, China
4. Delhi, India
5. Jaunpur, India
6. Faisalabad, Pakistan
7. Noida, India
8. Bahawalpur, Pakistan
9. Peshawar, Pakistan
10. Bagpat, India

Source: IQAir