The Effective Use of Nonverbal Communication as Related to the Game of Chess

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Does this three-decade-old High School Thesis Reveal How to Get Something from Nothing?

nilJan. 13, 1978
Mrs. MJ Jepson

During the past few years, the study of nonverbal communication, or body language, has come into being. Basically, nonverbal communication is the translating of bodily movements into behavioral characteristics.1 The technical name for this science is kinesics, as coined by Dr. Ray Birdwhistell, the main progenitor of the scientific analysis of nonverbal behavior.2 In order to decipher body language, one must take it in context and be sure to put every movement together, otherwise, the interpretation may be wrong.3 Nor, as Dr. Birdwhistell states, may nonverbal communication be used apart from verbal communication, for the two compliment each other.4 For the purpose of keeping it related to the “experimental” section, the theory section will concern itself with the kinesic value of the posture, head, face, eyes and hands.

The hand and face, or head, are related in two areas: deception and the movements accompanying spoken words. P. Ekman and W.V. Friesen have worked together in trying to find nonverbal clues of deception.5 They found that the head is more likely to reveal deception, (particularly because one could hide his hands), and that, though one part of the body may appear normal, another part could hint deception.6 [MJ: Eyes?] Clues of deception in the face, usually hard to detect, may include an excessively long smile or frown, while for the hands, which can be easily hidden, deception means, possibly, tearing at one’s fingernails or protectively holding the knees while the face is smiling.7 The hands, eyes, and the head all come into play as conversational markers. Towards the end of a statement, the head and the hands, as Dr. Birdwhistell found, will point down and the eyelids will slightly close.8 Towards the end of a question, the opposite is true, however, both communicate that a response is in order.9 The fact that we could fool people when, for example, we are ecstatic about receiving a ho-hum gift shows we can control our facial expressions to a reasonable degree.10 Through experiments, Ekman and Freisen have shown that, at any given moment, a face can reveal a multitude of emotions, called an affect blend.11 The blend can occur in three basic ways: (1) one emotion in one facial area, another emotion in another area; (2) one part of the face reveals two different emotions; and (3) a facial display, though containing no specific elements of either, which is associated with two different emotions.12 The face, obviously, is the focal point for most nonverbal communiqués.

Through literary history, the eyes have been the most used nonverbal device. They have been viewed as anything from a quaint meadow in the mellow summer sun to a forty millimeter Howitzer gun. [MJ:?] Apparently, authors view the eyes as important when decoding nonverbal communications. How good are the eyes in communicating an emotion? Well, Dr. Edward H. Hess has found that pupils dilate when the eyes see something pleasant.13 This unconscious reaction, therefore, puts a lucky card player at a disadvantage, (provided his opponents have read Hess). H.T. Moore and A.R. Gilliland have found that eye contact is a good predictor of aggressiveness or dominence.14 They reported that an unaggressive person is three times more likely to be disturbed when stared at, than an aggressive person.15 This is probably why we always see that famous pre-draw stare-down between the sheriff and the bad guy in those western flicks. A. Mehrabian found that, on the whole, we tend to have more eye contact with liked addressees than with unliked ones.16 A. Kendon has developed a reason as to why people gaze: (1) people tend to look away when they don’t understand something; (2) subjects tend to look at their interactants in order to check attentiveness or reaction; (3) by looking at someone, a person might be requesting or suppressing a response; and, (4) the degree of enthusiasm may be conveyed by a glance.17 Researchers have found that if a subject is hiding something from the addressee, eye contact is considerably less.18 The same is true in a competitive situation, for no eye contact would insulate each party from threats, arguments, and information.19 G. Hearn, in an experiment working with college students, reported that people have moderate eye contact with a very high status addressee, and minimal with a low status addressee.20 All in all, eye contact is influenced by the situation at hand, and the present circumstances in that situation.

The last nonverbal clue that will be discussed concerns the posture, or the body as a whole. If it is said that the head shows the type of emotion, then the body would show the intensity of that emotion.21 The main thing to look at in the posture is the physical proximity to the addressee and the overall “looseness” of the body. A. Mehrabian has found that if a subject leans toward or is generally close to the interactant, a positive feeling is present while if the subject leans away or is not relatively close to his addressee, a negative attitude is conveyed.22 This physical proximity, plus verbal builders like “really,” produces greater verbal output from the addressee.23 If the subject is of higher status than his interactant, he tends to be more relaxed – he puts his feet up on his desk, clasps his hands behind his head, or leans on the back of his chair in a slouched position.24 Birdwhistell has discovered that in an emotion such as excitement the body tenses up or becomes sturdier, while in a depression, the body tends to “hang out” and the overall posture is poor.25 A.E. Scheflen had divided the types of postures people take during social interactions into three main groups: (1) inclusive-non-inclusive, where a party arrange their bodies so to either invite or shutout other people; (2) parallel body orientation, where people are face-to-face such as in a doctor-patient, teacher-student, or lover-lover relationship; and (3) congruence-incongruence, basically, when people copy each other’s posture, the degree of congruence often indicates a group’s cohesion, and the instigator of the congruence is usually the group leader.26 The body, therefore, not only indicates the intensity of the emotion, but also a person’s attitude towards another.

I was so interested in the facets of nonverbal communication that I decided to delve a bit into the field myself. Now, being the unique person I am, I decided not to do just one of your average run-of-the-mill experiments; consequently, I chose to go the practical route and see what forms of nonverbal communication are used in a chess game, and, if possible, find some related results. The method I used for gathering information was theoretically simple – just watch a chess game. However, since I must be able to play the game too, it is not as easy as it sounds. But because I was truly interested in the “psyche-out” side of chess since ninth grade, I have developed a knack at watching my opponent and my game. My subjects, many of whom I don’t know because they were from different schools, on the whole, were usually polite, almost elite, gentlemen, as you would expect a chess player would be. [MJ:!] If a specific subject is radically removed from this definition, he will be independently described when his game is written about. Most of the subjects were relatively normal and had no outward appearance of neurosis. For the purpose of interpreting the results correctly, a few things should be noted. First, “games” divides into two distinctive types: 1) a club game, (game), where the opponents are usually mismatched; and, 2) a tournament game (match), where the opponents are relatively equal. The best “games” are the matches. Another thing of note is the average playing time – one and a half hours or forty moves. Finally, white, who moves first, usually (should) take the initiative. In other words, if black wins a match in twenty moves, he is impressive because he has overcome color disadvantage, won quickly, and defeated a player on his level. [MJ: Thank you]

As was stated previously, I actually “started” this experiment about four years ago. So, naturally, some significant “old” games will be discussed in this results discussion section. In the first experiment, and old game, I was interested to see what happens if an opponent (me) appears relaxed. I decided on this experiment because the average opponent is “strict,” so a relaxed foe may surprise a player into defeat. In this game, I was a young and inexperienced ninth grader playing a superior senior. By inadvertently following Mehrabian’s rules for a relaxed posture, (really, the posture maintained by a higher status person while addressing a lower status individual), I attained the necessary looseness. To maintain and fortify this essence, I started a relaxing conversation with my opponent. It should be noted that my foe was not relaxed throughout the game (normal). Well, at first my opponent was jolted, but at first he did start to concentrate and finally beat me in sixteen moves. Significant to say the least. When Mehrabian stated that a superior feels relaxed next to an inferior, is it possible that the inferior feels this “snobbery” and thus feels more inferior? In chess talk, does looseness in an opponent shake a player’s confidence, an essential element in playing chess. While still searching for this answer, I’ve incorporated a loose posture into my game until the point where I now put my feet up on a table, slouch, and clasp my hands behind my head. I have done this most of this year at my home matches. The result? I haven’t lost at home yet, and I’m just an average (in chess skills) top board player. Perhaps more impressive, is that this attitude has become part of the entire team’s attitude. These results? The team is undefeated at home and has lost only five (including one blunder) match games out of nineteen (one draw).

When I realized that knocking down your opponent’s confidence might be the key to winning, I looked into other ways to achieve this. One way to do this is to tell your opponent you could checkmate him in five moves (after the game is considerably developed), but this is verbal and irrelevant. (Incidentally – it drives ‘em crazy.) I first worked at adjusting my posture, then I decided to work with my foe’s posture – his chair. I gave my opponent a smaller chair or one with a short leg, but it produced negligible results – I won a couple, they won a couple. An interesting point is that giving him a small chair, (he had to look up to me), didn’t do anything while if I stood or sat on a table, I usually won. It is quite possible that unless my opponent’s confidence is low anyway, my secretly adjusting his chair won’t help me. It is also apparent that my standing or looking down at him gave me more confidence.

After using the overall body position to my advantage, I tried to go for the specifics. By being a chess player, I noticed that my enemy’s face, head, or hands don’t communicate anything relevant. In fact, the only way I’ve found to shake a person’s confidence with these bodily parts is to ask him, during a solemn moment in a close match, “What do you do with your hands during a game?” He then proceeds to get that awkward feeling and, boom! there goes his concentration. (That would be playing dirty – so I don’t do it.) Since I concluded that a player doesn’t notice the opposition’s head, face, or hands, I decided to try an experiment with the eyes. At first, I thought such an act might be to stare down the opponent into submission. This is what Moore and Gilliland might predict. I’ve found this works in only special circumstances. After an opponent’s confidence is considerably shaken, if you make a harsh move (hit the piece on the board) and then quickly dart a stare into him, anxiety will be produced. I have found this from both experiment and experience. In the first match this season, I was able to stare down my opponent in this way. First he lost a knight, then his development sagged and, well, I’ll leave out the rest of the gory details. Suffice it to say that he was done in in about 30 moves and I was playing black. However, this stare down works best in team play. I figure most teams respect their top board player, so if he loses, some of the team’s “oomph” is gone. When the opportunity arises such that my opponent is in a forced mate (he’s going to lose, no chance to win), I will ask him to resign (to attract the teams’ attentions) and inform him he will lose in so many moves. Then, I stare coldly into his eyes, a state like that of a king looking at a condemned peasant. In the team matches this year, the possibility of using this verbal-nonverbal communication arose four times – we won three of those times. The time we lost, we were in a hole by the time I won – we had to win the remaining match games. As might have been guessed from reading the theoretical section, one might predict that, because of the competition involved, there will be very little eye contact throughout a match. This is true. I found that Kendon’s reasons for eye contact can, for the most part, be related to chess: 1) players look away when they don’t understand an opponent’s move; 2) players look at their opponent’s eyes to check a reaction to a move; and, 3) eye contact occurs usually at the end of a move for the player to acknowledge his opponent’s turn has come.

It is hard to conclude anything definite from these experiments, though they’ve been going on for four years and encompassed over 100 games and close to 40 matches. It is hard to generalize because the effectiveness of the aforementioned psychological ploys depends on the opponent’s personality and the skill difference between the two players. Therefore, interpreting the results and making conclusions, I must assume that the opponent is an average person, as described before of equal quality. Perhaps the easiest conclusion is that none of these nonverbal communiqués will help you win a game if you stink and your opponent is Bobby Fischer. [MJ: I’m glad to read this] But, for an equal opponent, the secret is to knock down his confidence. This can be done by loosening up one’s posture. To the foe you appear superior, you probably feel superior too. Casual conversation helps you to relax and also puts down your opponent’s playing ability. Once his confidence is down, his screens are down; hence, he is susceptible to “cold stares.” Once you have gotten this far, your opponent is helplessly in your grasp and you’ll probably win.


1 Julian Fast, Body Language (New York: Pocket Books, 1971), p.1
2 Mark L. Knapp, Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction (New York: Jolt, Rhinehart, and Winston Inc. 1972), p. 93
3 IBID., p. 112
4 Fast, Body Language, p. 108
5 Knapp, Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction, p. 104
6 IBID., p. 105
7 IBID., p. 104
8 Fast, Body Language, p. 113
9 IBID., p. 113
10 Knapp, Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction, p. 121
11 IBID., p. 121
12 IBID., pp. 121,122
13 Fast, Body Language, p. 2
14 Knap, Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction, p. 135
15 IBID., p. 135
16 IBID., p. 133
17 IBID., p. 131
18 IBID., p. 134
19 IBID., p. 134
20 IBID., p. 134
21 IBID., p. 102
22 James K. Cole, Editor, Nebraska Symposium on Motivation 1971 (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1971), pp.110-111
23 Knap, Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction, p. 105
24 Cole, Nebraska Symposium on Motivation 1971, p.111
25 Fast, Body Language, p. 109
26 IBID., pp. 120-122


Cole, James K., Editor, Nebraska Symposium on Motivation 1971 (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1971)
Fast, Julian, Body Language (New York: Pocket Books, 1971)
Knapp, Mark L., Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction (New York: Jolt, Rhinehart, and Winston Inc. 1972)
Morris, Desmond, “Secrets of Man’s Unspoken Language” Reader’s Digest, January 1978, pp. 55-58


  1. Chris Carosa says:

    Author’s Comment: Here’s a paper from my senior year in high school – warts and all (from accidentally mislabeling my unmarried teacher “Mrs.” to just plain poor word choice). I share it for one reason: Miss Jepson said it would sell a million copies. I didn’t understand her. She then explained I showed people how to get something from nothing. I’m not sure if that’s entirely true (given my hedging language in the concluding section). What do you think?

    Still, the thought stuck. To this day, I intend to write a (mostly humorous) account of my chess playing days with this psychological theme weighing heavily in the background.

    A bit more about this particular paper:
    1) Reading it now, 30+ years later, although I’m disappointed with the writing, I am impressed with the structure. It represents (with all the footnoted historical research) one of the best scientific papers I’ve ever written (and remember, I was a physics and astronomy major). Of course, truth be told, I haven’t read my senior thesis in a while, but I honestly don’t remember that paper having 26 footnotes.
    2) The origin of the paper came about this way. This represented the final project for my half-year Psychology class I took senior year. By this time, my college applications had been sent and I was in a more relaxed mood. I really was interested in the subject, but I felt like doing something completely different – not in disrespect, but for the mere challenge of it. It wasn’t the first time I did something this and it wouldn’t be the last time. Coincidentally, these intellectual meanderings appeared to have produced some of my most lauded writings.
    3) The bracketed [MJ]’s that pop up every now and then represent direct comments from Miss Jepson.
    4) Miss Jepson never told us she was a “Miss.” She referred to herself only as a “Ms.” At the time, that particular suffix had not received universal acceptance. Of course, being me, I would have not used it even if it had been universally accepted. I really thought she was married.
    5) All the books in the bibliography came from the high school library, except for the reader’s digest. That came from the downstairs bathroom in our house. The one my father used. (I preferred the upstairs bathroom – more privacy.)

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