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  • Writer's picturejennifervallens

My Knight at the Lab

It is a beautiful day in Southern California. I wake up around 6am, take my shower, drink my green smoothie and prepare to fight the notorious 405 Los Angeles traffic on my way to the UCLA campus. Today, GM Timur Gareyev, a 27 year old American chess grandmaster originally from Uzbekistan, who has held the rank of third highest chess player in the US and is training to set a new world record for blindfold chess, will undergo neurological testing at the UCLA Rissman Memory Lab.

When I first approached Dr. Rissman, I asked if he would be interested in working with Timur as he trains for breaking the world record for Blindfold Chess. He immediately responded, yes. He told me that his area of study is researching the influence of goal directed attention on memory. He went on to tell me that he references Najdorf and Blindfold Chess in one of the courses he teaches. That discovery made for quite the fortuitous call.

Luckily Dr. Rissman left me a parking pass and clear directions or I would have been spending an hour getting lost in the maze of the UCLA campus. Timur calls and has gotten stuck in the wrong lot. I guide him to P2 and wait for him to show. When he does, we give Dr. Rissman a quick text. He meets us outside of Franz Hall. He tells us we have 30 minutes before the first test and takes us to a campus coffee spot to see if we want something to eat as we wait.

Timur is dressed in a conservative button down shirt with cargo pants. Minus the flip flops he dons, he is dressed in surprisingly appropriate clothing for the occasion. But in typical Timur fashion, he has no need to order coffee or a bagel because he brought two tomatoes and two avocados with him. As we sit down and Timur bites into a tomato, Dr. Rissman enthusiastically starts telling us about all the testing he has planned for the day and eagerly starts to ask questions of Timur. Dr. Rissman is sharply dressed and I am guessing in his 30s. He tells us how he played some chess as a child and has an 8 year old son who was playing, but got discouraged when he attended his first tournament and was intimidated by a chess master with a heavy Russian accent who was a bit overzealous in his militant teaching style.

I am surprised to learn that Dr. Rissman funded this testing day out of his own pocket. This fact indicated that we found someone who believed Timur was worth looking into and was willing to personally invest in it. Dr. Rissman holds a BS from Brown University, a PhD from UC Berkeley and did his post doctorate at Stanford University. He is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at UCLA. His PhD dissertation was in Top-down control processes in visual working memory. He has published several papers on the topic.

9:30 approaches and Dr. Rissman guides us to the first testing room where Timur will undergo Virtual Reality testing. He will enter three different world environments where he will be asked to place random objects around the virtual room. He will then be asked to recall the objects in their order by mentally retracing his steps in the room. The environments are unique with one being an ancient ruin, another an animated cartoonlike environment and lastly a modern white beach house. The purpose of this study is to measure Timur’s visual memory ability.

This virtual reality testing is based on the method of loci, a mnemonic anchoring tool developed in Ancient Rome to use visualization to organize and recall information. Often memory champions use this method to increase their recall. However, success using this technique has little to do with intelligence, and more to do with practice and visual association.

As Timur is taking his test, I follow Dr. Rissman back to his office. It is located on the 8th floor of the building. He has a beautiful view of the Santa Monica Mountains from his window. Next to his many impressive credentials hanging on the walls, there are several framed published journal articles he has written and a framed DISCOVER magazine in which he is featured. The shelves are filled with books on Neuroscience and Cognitive Psychology. There are photos of his two young sons ages 5 and 8. His office is neat and orderly, but also warm and inviting.

I take out my video camera and film Dr. Rissman for a documentary that we have in the works. Dr.Rissman goes into detail about the testing he is doing. His face lights up as he describes all the parts of Timur’s brain he is interested in studying, especially the hippocampus. Dr. Rissman explains the hippocampus is the region of the brain known to play a critical role in the formation and retrieval of memories. Previous research has shown that this region can physically increase in size as new neurons and neural connection are formed during the learning. For instance, London taxi drivers who must memorize thousands of city streets in order to earn their cab license tend to have a larger than average hippocampus, and its size increased over the course of their training. Dr. Rissman is curious as to whether Timur’s brain might show a similar phenomenon.

After about 10 minutes, I am brought back to the room where Timur is undergoing the Virtual Reality testing, I follow along. Timur virtually walks through the white beach house environment and into a bedroom with purple walls. I watch to see where Timur drops his objects. He places a guitar image on top of the bed. I think to myself “ahhh, he must be laying it there because of the George Harrison song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – (sleeps). I notice that I automatically make a mnemonic reference to help make sense of the task being completed.

Timur takes a short break and he is visibly exhausted. He looks as though he just finished taking the California Bar Exam….and we are only 30 minutes in to the full day of testing. Oh boy… it’s going to be a long day.

When the break is over, Timur is asked the follow up questions to the exercise. He is asked to recall each item for a particular environment in the order in which he saw them. As I hear him answer, it appears to me that he is struggling to recall all the items in the time allotted. As I wait for the guitar to be mentioned for the white room environment, it isn’t. I guess this means the guitar was not a memorable object for him, certainly not in the way it was for me.

We take another short break and then Dr. Rissman introduces us to Julia Webster. She will be doing cognitive testing on Timur’s visual spatial reasoning. Julia is an attractive young woman with silvery blonde hair. She wears fashionably large, thick black framed glasses, black nail polish and a small piercing in her lip. She successfully projects a cool vibe while maintaining professionalism. She is friendly and outgoing and has a pleasant voice. When she speaks, she immediately puts us at ease.

Testing includes digit and letter sequences where Timur is asked to put the numbers and letters into sequential order after hearing them in random order. He is then asked to repeat a series of numbers and letters in reverse order. This is a timed test and it appears that Timur is struggling with this. To me, it is something I know I simply cannot do.

Other tests include sequencing patterns and spatial addition testing. This is a memory test where Timur is asked to remember the location of blue colored dots on a cardboard sheet with several holes. The sheet looks somewhat like a connect four playing board. 1-4 blue dots are placed in random holes. After a second to look at the sheet, Julia layers a second cardboard sheet on top and places 1-4 blue dots some of which are in the same location as the first sheet and some are placed elsewhere. She also places 1-2 random red dots. Timur’s task is to use a white “marker” to indicate which blue dots were placed in the same location and use a blue “marker” to indicate which blue dots where not placed in the same location. He is to ignore the red dots. Just trying to put it in words is difficult for me, but he appears to do very well on this test. A few other pattern recognition tests follow.

It is now 1pm and Dr. Rissman is kind enough to take us to lunch. We are escorted to lunch by his research team; Joey Essoe, Micah Johnson and Nicco Reggente. Joey is a bouncy and friendly girl with pep in her step. She leads the way to a bistro on the other side of campus, aptly named the Synapse Café. Micah and Nicco are trying to keep pace with Timur and his very long legs. It is such a beautiful day, we eat outside. Julia joins us. It is fun to relax and discuss interests outside of the testing room.

As is often the case with Timur, the team appears to be hanging on his every word as he talks about his skydiving and base jumping adventures. They are especially interested in hearing about a Chessboxing event coming up and Timur invites them all to come and watch the event. Although it has been a few years, I can easily see this is a group of people I would hang out with if I was in college today.

It seems that we are in a rush to stay on schedule. We all briskly walk to the building where the fMRI scanner is located. When we get to the room, Timur is asked to remove all metal from his person. fMRI scanners have a magnetic strength of between 1.5 and 3 Tesla - compared to just 0.005 Tesla for a fridge magnet!

Here in the fMRI scanner, Timur will be able to relax. They are testing the structure of Timur's brain They ask him to put earplugs in his ears and lay down. Timur is so relaxed, he falls asleep. I stay with the team on the other side of the glass. We can hear Timur gently snore. Later Timur reveals that he had drifted off as he was completing the Knight Tour in his mind.

One last cognitive test is completed back in Dr. Rissman’s office and it is time to go.

Dr. Rissman and his team plan to analyze the results of Timur’s tests and compare them to a number of other subjects that have undergone the same testing. Additional testing and brain scans incorporating chess related tasks will follow. Dr. Rissman also wants to do additional testing after Timur has plays in a large simultaneous blindfold chess event to see if there has been a change in activity in his brain as he is training for his 50 board world record event. We look forward to 2-3 more visits with the Dr. Rissman and his team.

Timur and I finish our day fighting the awful LA traffic as we make our way to a 4:30 Vinyasa class at Yoga Raj. What a day.

It will be interesting to see the results of the study. Stay tuned for Chapter 2…..and don’t forget to meet us in Prague in August when Timur will set a new record for Blindfold Chess.

Article first appeared in OFF da ROOK blog January 2016

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