Climate Checkmate

Image Courtesy of Hannah Shi. 

When the World Chess Championships occur, everything is accounted for—the weight of the chess pieces, the matte of the chess board, the indoor noise levels, the number of arbiters and broadcasters—ensuring that the best chess players in the world can play at the top of their game. But scientists have discovered a confounding factor that competitions don’t account for, something that people can’t even see: air quality. Many studies have already been performed to corroborate the negative impacts of outdoor air pollution on the human mind, but new research suggests that the buildings we spend our days in may not actually keep out these harmful particles. Steffen Künn and Nico Pestel from Maastricht University as well as Juan Palacios, Head of Research at MIT’s Sustainable Urbanization Lab, have studied just how badly indoor air pollution can hinder strategic decision-making by looking at the game of chess. Chess is a game of constant strategic decision-making where all players are gathered in one location, making it an ideal way to explore the impacts of air pollution on people’s cognitive abilities.

The data included over thirty thousand chess moves from three different chess tournaments in Germany from 2017 to 2019. Players in the tournament were given a total of 110 minutes to make the first forty moves, with additional time for moves past the fortieth move. Air quality data measured the concentration of PM2.5, or fine particulate matter with a diameter smaller than 2.5 micrometers, from three sensors installed in the tournament venue. PM2.5 can enter the lungs and bloodstream when inhaled, leading to harmful effects on the body.

Each chess move was analyzed independently by an artificial intelligence chess engine for optimality and errors based on the configuration of the chessboard. Overall, it was found that when chess players are exposed to high levels of air pollution, they make more erroneous moves. Other confounding variables such as time of day, temperature, traffic jams, indoor carbon dioxide levels, and the impact of the opponent’s errors on the observed player were explored to ensure that there were no other factors that could have caused these effects.

The researchers also found that air pollution has an increased effect on chess players when they are under stricter time pressure. In an evenly matched game, the last moves they make become the most crucial for the players, but also the most time-intensive. “Air pollution hits the hardest on cognition when good moves are needed the most,” Palacios said. Strategic decision-making is highly utilized in chess, but also in everyday life and careers. From managers to workers to students where day-to-day work requires intense cognitive thinking and decision-making, it’s concerning that their decisions could be negatively influenced by environmental factors, especially when these decisions could result in long-term consequences.

This study is one of the first to explore indoor air quality and the effects it has on cognitive thinking, and there is great potential for future research in this area. “We are still in the infancy of understanding what the costs are of indoor air problems,” Palacios said. A federal report done by the Governmental Accountability Office found that forty-one percent of public school districts in the United States need to update or replace the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in over half of their schools. If skilled chess players are led to erroneous decisions because of indoor air pollution, we can only imagine how poorly ventilated education buildings are affecting the learning of students worldwide. 

Unsurprisingly, worsening outdoor air pollution is correlated with worsening indoor air pollution. More research is necessary to examine how we can construct and upgrade buildings to protect us from harmful particulate matter. “[We need] better understanding of the indoor environmental conditions on humans and [we need to use this understanding] to protect us against climate change and environmental hazards in the United States and beyond,” Palacios said. We could be getting close to the climate endgame—hopefully, a victorious checkmate is still in sight.