How to Improve your Calculation

How to Improve your Calculation

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Hello  Magesh and Arun:
 As my question subject suggests I have a problem calculating complicated chess positions. Although I can see a single line in considerable length, when the variations become complicated and the tree of possible continuations becomes wide (with several options in each move). I cannot remember different positions in which branching occured and so my calculation speed and accuracy suffer. Is there any good method for calculation or any training to overcome this problem?
 My second question related to the first is about situations when there are so many possible moves for my opponent in each move (due to the fact that my moves are not forcing). I want to know how to calculate and analyse in such situations too.
Thank you very much in advance,

    Marcus Ong


Dear Marcus Ong,

Calculation is a major part of one's chess skill set, after all chess is a game where it all comes down to the decisions you make based on the number of moves you can think ahead. Your question is not only important, it is quite common too. Learning to stretch yourself in depth, but also widening your thought process is a hard thing to master.

Chess, being an extremely complex game is both exciting and demanding. For one to be able to calculate through all variations in an average middle game position is close to impossible. Even the best of the best chess players do not use a brute force method to calculate. It generally involves a simple repetitive process, finding a bunch of good moves to choose from, thinking ahead and finally judging the end position. These three steps are repeated indefinitely inside our brain during a chess game.

Let us study the three steps we just saw in depth and see what we can do to improve on each of them.

Candidate moves (finding a bunch of good moves)

Picking up the right kind of candidate moves is what makes a champion stand alone from a group of strong players. With unlimited time, any good player might be able to solve a given position and come up with the right move, but the more time you waste pondering over the bad moves, the less chance for you to win a tournament game as they do have a time constraint. Does the best player just stumble upon good candidate moves? Probably not. Their experience in similar situations and their knowledge will lead them to the right moves to begin with. 

Calculation (thinking ahead) 

This is the part where you are actually moving those pieces inside your head without actually moving the pieces over the board. There is only thing you can do to improve this skill: do not move your pieces when you are analyzing your games. Get into the habit of moving those pieces in your mind more often, that will help you very well in an actual game. Playing blindfold games will help immensely as well.


The final part, yet a very critical part, of your calculation tree is the judgment. All the candidate moves and calculation will be of no use if you are not sure how to judge the final position that you reach in your head. The only way to get better in this area is to increase your knowledge. The more you know, the more experience you get, the better you will get at judging positions. By the way, for beginner players, one thing they simply need to pratice is accurately counting how many pieces are on the board at the end of a variation. So set up a position at home and calculate variations and just ask yourself: what is the material count? Then play out the moves to see if you are right.

Let us take a look at some examples now. Take a look at the following position and try to follow the three mentioned steps and write down your calculation.



White is obviously the favorite, thanks to his extra space and black's weaker pawn structure. Moves you should consider include e5, Nc4, Qb3 and Qc2, and importantly Bxf6 (if you actually see the real threat from black). Candidate moves are very important, you have to consciously keep telling yourself not to decide on any move before choosing a few candidate moves. Once you practice this on a regular basis, it will start working subconsciously in your games.

This position was taken from the game Carlsen-Howell played just a couple of days ago. Here is the game with annotations.



Carlsen probably helped you understand some part of calculation and judgment, but the real problem is that it is not easy for us to grasp some ambiguous middle game position easily. Hence, your solution to improve your calculation skill will mean that you should practice them mainly in endgames. Endgames make your life easier to learn. There is often a single solution and calculations tend to be straight-forward. 

Take a look at this example, a very simple king and pawn endgame indeed.



I find this simple position amusing as the evaluation of this position will keep changing within your mind instantly as your calculation tree grows. But before we continue with the calculation here we need some knowledge to be able to make some judgment. The following position is what we need to understand.



This position is in fact the key position. This is a mutual Zugzwang, meaning either side would lose the game if it were to be their turn to play. Going back to the first position, we do know now to avoid this position with our turn to play.



To summarize the position in the order that it would occur in our mind as we try to find the best possible moves for both sides,

  • White wants to attack and win the e5 pawn

  • White realizes the mutual zugzwang position and tries to wait

  • Black wants to attack, but black understands the mutual zugzwang as well and decides to wait, so the conclusion is that the game would be a draw

  • Instead of waiting white could try and force black to come to f4 first and then get to d5 to win the pawn. White's king heads to d6 to do that

  • Black realizes the problem, but nothing can be done to save the pawn.

  • Given that black will lose the pawn is there a way to save the game?

  • Yes, taking the opposition by moving to e7 after the white king takes the pawn on e5. Remember, it was important for black to abandon the f4 square and go for the f6 square. In short, you should know when to be aggressive and when to be defensive.

  • White tries to see if there is any other way to win, but there is nothing left and hence the game is concluded to be a draw.

Now, you probably understand why endgames are easier to practice on. Improving your calculating skills just demands some proper discipline. Every single position that you calculate, you should have seen more than one possibility; keep practicing this and it will be a habit in no time. Try to analyze a lot of endgames without moving the pieces and last but not least, increase your knowledge base.

The answer to your second question is the same. Calculation does not depend upon you or your opponent. Your efforts in finding the best move for your opponent should be no different than finding the best move for yourself. Hopefully this answers your question regarding calculation.

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