There is a moment, early in Walter Tevis' novel 'The Queen's Gambit', when young Beth Harmon is learning chess from Mr Shaibel. "It had been simple—merely a matter of keeping her eyes open and visualizing the ways the game could go."
Much later, she's playing Grandmaster Borgov in Paris. "By the fifteenth move she began to see combinations opening up on both sides, and by the twentieth she was startled by her own clarity."
The world record for playing simultaneous games is 48 by then 28-year-old US Grandmaster Timur Gareyev. Oh, and just to rub things in, he played those games blindfolded. And while riding an exercise bike. During the 24-hour event, he rode 50 miles and won 80% of his games.
For the record, I could probably play one game of chess whilst riding an exercise bike for 24 minutes before getting bored and pissed off. Put that in your Guinness Book of Records.
According to The Guardian report on the event held in Las Vegas in 2017, "The key to multiple blindfold play is to keep the games distinct and separate." And this is the secret. Novice chess players, like myself, take each new move as it is. It takes cognitive energy to assess all the possibilities as they present themselves.
Grandmasters have binary options at their disposal. This intimate knowledge of the possibilities simplifies the game down to manageable choices. Again, from Tevis' novel: "...she felt certain that if she played pawn to king four on the sixth move, he would follow the Boleslavski Variation... He had done that against both Petrosian and Tal, in 1965."
Chess, to a grandmaster, is a game of if/then statements. For a novice, the game is a multitude of overwhelming options.
Warren Buffett has said of his business partner Charlie Munger “Charlie has the best 30-second mind in the world. He goes from A to Z in one move. He sees the essence of everything before you can even finish the sentence.”
Munger has estimated that he has over 100 mental models he uses regularly. These mental models allow him to arrive at a novel situation, identify the 'if' part of the statement, and know within "30-seconds" the 'then' option.
We've all seen those films where the hero is facing down the enemy. The odds are stacked against them. There is no way out. The hero rallies the troops with a motivational speech and, sure enough, after some slick camera work, victory.
Every speech does one thing. It gives them agency. Agency to choose to give up or fight.
By boiling down the scary situation into a simple 'if/then' scenario, the mind can make a simple binary choice. I give up or I fight. That is a lot easier than fixating on the odds and complexity of the situation.
Grant it, I've never been in a life and death fight with an enemy that outnumbers me in every way. But I realise the value of thinking like a grandmaster. Simple binary choices are something my mind can handle.