Champs & Top Dogs: An Interview with Ashley Merryman
By Dr. Alexey Root, WIM   
October 25, 2013
TopDogauthors.jpgIn Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing (2013), New York Times best-selling authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (left) draw from psychology, history, neuroscience, genetics, economics, sociology, and endocrinology to explore the hidden factors at work during every competition and high stress performance –- from why women aren’t running for Congress to Jason Lezak swimming at the Beijing Olympics. And of course, chess!

The goal of Top Dog isn’t to prescribe one particular way to win. Instead, it’s to help each one of us identify our competitive style and use the science to better perform.

Dr. Alexey Root interviewed Ashley Merryman by phone for Chess Life Online.

Root: What is your chess background?
Merryman: I don’t have one as a player myself, but I'm learning the game, and I have studied as much scientific research about chess as I could find. My dad was a chess player. I am a chess supporter. I provide chess sets for the small tutoring program that I run in Los Angeles. But what fascinates me is that the same factors that make someone a chess master are often the same tools that make one a great competitor in baseball and Wall Street and politics.

Root: Who has the potential to be a top chess competitor?
Merryman: The goal of the book isn’t to say that one person is a top dog and that the others are not. It's about using the science to understand when one person might struggle and another excel. You can learn to spot strengths and weaknesses in your competitive profile.

TopDoglead.jpgRoot: What is the role of testosterone in chess competitions?
Merryman: The popular understanding of testosterone is that it is related to aggression. It turns out that there is no correlation between testosterone and aggression.
Instead, testosterone is the hormonal expression of motivation itself – it's one of the ways the body responds to a challenge. The surprise is that we might expect that testosterone affects physical competitions, but not affect cognitive ones. But it's just as relevant in those. In a study lead by Alan Booth, researchers could predict who would win a chess tournament, by measuring players' testosterone levels before the tournament had even begun. The winner had the highest levels of testosterone, even though he wasn't the best player overall. It was that he was the most motivated to win, on that given day.

It's important to note that testosterone's effects are equally true for men and women. Women have a lower baseline testosterone than men. But what we are looking for is the increase in testosterone in that moment of competition.

Root: Citing a Stockholm University study of 1.4 million games over 11 years of National Masters (rated 2200 and higher), Top Dog stated that “elite women are less likely to use an aggressive opening than elite men.”  Do you have further comments about chess openings or women and men in chess?

Merryman: On average, women are better at judging their likelihood of success – and they care more about the win. So they're likely to play on when they think they are going to win. Men may take a draw when ahead to conserve energy for the next round. Men tend to be overconfident while women either realistically estimate or over-estimate their opponents.

Beyond that, studies of chess matches have found that women tend to be looking for the best move – the one they think is sure to win – so they tend to run out of time. Men choose a readily-available move that works well enough, which means they are less likely to run low on time.

Root: Is chess competition good for children and, if so, for what ages?
Merryman: Yes, competition is good for children once they have a certain level of expertise. If children are still trying to figure out the rules of chess, a competition may not be right for them.
Children don’t need a guaranteed win but they need a fighting chance when they play. The eyes of an audience are too overwhelming for those who aren’t sure of the rules. Tournament readiness does not depend on age. Once children feel that they know chess and want to play in tournaments, then competitions become part of the excitement of the activity itself (whether chess, or skiing, or snowboarding). Competing with other people challenges them to prove their abilities.

Root: How might someone approach a tournament?
Merryman: You need to ask yourself if the idea of a competition is a stressful experience or an exciting experience. Psychology and physiology are connected. Under a stress or threat condition, you might think “Everyone is waiting for me to fail. I am not prepared.” There are physiological changes that occur. Your veins contract and your blood pressure rises. You burn out the glucose that is circulating. You might feel tightness in your lungs. In contrast, when you are in a challenge state, your veins dilate. You burn glucose stored in fat cells, which means you have longer sustained energy. In a challenge state, two extra liters per blood can pump per minute. In chess, that means that more oxygenated blood to your brain.

As much as you are practicing it will be different in competition. If you are stressed about tournaments, you might want to play MORE tournaments to get used to tournaments. That’s called the stress inoculation model. You will build stress immunity by playing in competitions. If you are excited about competitions, make sure that your testosterone peaks at the right time. You want to be revved up and challenged and excited but not too early – it's about timing.

Ask yourself, “Is a particular match a threat or a challenge?” Be mindful of your state of mind entering the game and during the game. Even when you are winning, the fear of screwing up may make you more fixated on an error when you need to move on to the next move or the next game.
Find out more about Top Dog at and buy WIM Alexey Root's books at USCF Sales.