The Art of Thinking

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Have you ever wondered what goes on inside a chessmaster's head during a game? Of course you have. That's why I have written this article, in the hope that you may extract some useful understanding as to how to think during a chessgame. I would like to share with you a game from one of my recent tournaments, in which I was paired with one of Bulgaria's strongest GM's. I hope that we can analyze this game together and pretend that we were playing side-by-side, so that you can maybe get a glimpse of this deceptively difficult art form.

I was White in this position. My opponent had just sacrificed a piece for only two pawns. True, my king is a little bit exposed, but it is covered nicely. The only problem seems how to nullify black's initiative, after which the conversion of the point should be a piece of cake. However, after examining the game at home, I became convinced that all is not as easy as it first seems.

Obviously, a player confronted with the position should first calculate the obvious and most forcing move, 1.cxd5. Of course, this is what I began calculating. It seems that Black must play 1...Nxe3 2.Qxe3 Bc5 or else white is simply a piece up. Now what to do? The queen must move and at the same time she must keep her watch on the g3 Knight, else the Black Queen will capture it due to the c5-g1 pin. So, only move it seems, let's close our eyes and pray - 3.Qxe5. 3...Rae8 instantly suggests itself, indeed, it must be the best move, as it brings the only inactive piece into the game with decisive tempo (or so it seems). Should we stop here? Admittedly, that's what I did (I ended up playing the excruciatingly passive 1.Nd1, which should never even be considered, and after 1...Nb4 found myself on the brink of disaster). You see, chess players are human - they have their thoughts and fears working non-stop during a game. What better time to daydream about the future than at the chessboard for hours upon end? Indeed, Black's attack looks alarming. I was scared, I did not want to go into this, so I stopped.

But this is the completely wrong way to play chess!

No, the chessmaster must go further; he must continue down his path and never look back! Let's look at this position one more time:

Think about the position for a moment, let your creative juices run, and tell me, did you notice that on 4.Qh5 Qxg3 White has the retort 5.Ne4? If you did, good job! But don't pat yourself on the back just yet! Any funky sacrifices? I don't think so - on 5...Rxe4 6.dxe4, White's king hides safely on h1, at least it seems. There is no immediate win for Black; White will consolidate and win with his extra material. Yes, HERE is the time to stop our calculations and evaluate with words. 

So, we are playing the game a second time; given a second chance. Should we jump for joy and execute 1.cxd5? But wait, check the position after 5.Nxe4 once more. What if Black simply retreats the Queen? Oh, the shivers! We spy the simple 5...Qf4, and notice on 6.dxc6 bxc6, 7.Nxc5 can be met by the simple 7...g6! What is going on here? By this time, the master is so lost in the darkness, he must finish his walk!

Let's move the Queen somewhere - we are not sure where for now. The endgame after 8...Nxc5 is not clear at all; for the moment, Black has restored material equality, and his pieces are much more active. Ok, time to rest. We can check our calculations once more to see if we have not missed something, just like a hotel guest will go through the room once more before checking out to make sure he or she has not left anything in the room by accident. Do you like your analysis? So do I. But we are not finished!

Please, go back to the original position. I think we may have left something under the drawers. After 1.cxd5 Nxe3 2.Qxe3 Bc5, do we have to take on e5 with the Queen?

Remember our last variation, the motif of 5.Ne4, attacking black Queen and Bishop simultaneously? If you have spotted the amazing resource 3.Qc1!!, you should feel awesome. For, on 3...Qxg3, 4.Ne4 and after the Black Queen moves, white takes the bishop with impunity!

You see, it is not calculation ability which separates the great masters from ordinary mortals, but rather a supreme intuition, the ability to even conceive such strange-looking moves as 3.Qc1. Akiba Rubinstein had this uncanny ability to spot these seemingly innocuous Queen moves at the end of variations. Here is how he defeated Capablanca:

And again, against Lasker:

Similar motifs can be found amongst the great positional geniuses of chess history. Just search for yourself! One more example - here is how Anatoly Karpov used this queen maneuver to refute his opponent's play:

In all of these games, White decided the game by moving his Queen just one square to the left. Just one square to the left, and the whole evaluation of the position turns upside down! In fact, it is the finding of these moves that separate the great masters from all others - not calculation ability, nor evaluation talents.

Now, suppose you had studied these games before and became familiar with them, as if they were your flesh and blood. Perhaps, in our game, something in your head ticked - you saw the tremendous effect the Queen would have moving two squares backwards diagonally. You can feel awfully proud, but don't get too excited yet! There is still work to be done!

After 3.Qc1, let's check once more if after 3...Qxg3 4.Ne4 Black has no retort. I don't see any. Do you agree? Good. But now hold your horses. What if Black recaptures now 3...cxd5? Now ...Qxg3 is a real threat, and Black's initiative looks menacing. Honestly, the position looks extremely complicated; I am not sure who is better after, for example 4.Nce2 (meeting the threat).

Ok, let's stop and take a step back for a second. We have analyzed two "branches" of our variants tree, starting with either 3.Qc1 or 3.Qxe5. Both look equally interesting, and we are not sure how to proceed. We can check our work once more to see if we have not missed something. Drink some water. It is good for the nervous system. Ok. Everything is correct? So, now let's choose our move, our clock is ticking down! But how to choose?

In a practical game, it is extremely difficult to choose this or that move when both seem equally pleasing to us. And as the time controls are getting shorter, so the chessmaster must make faster and more intuitive decisions. No time to calculate all the variations; anyways, that would be impossible for a human. We must rely on our judgement, experience, and most of all, faith in our beliefs! For even if the game is lost, we will have learned something, not only about the game of chess but also about our own thoughts and emotions. After all, we play chess as an expression of our own emotions, manifested on the chessboard - could we have it any other way?

Personally, I would choose the variation with 3.Qc1 - there is more of a fight; the pieces are not swept away as in the other variation, and I know all I have to do is wither the storm, make some good defensive moves, and everything should be alright. After all, I'm a piece up!

But I am not willing to state definitively that the backwards Queen move is stronger than the forwards one. Even after all our analysis I cannot come to a definitive conclusion. Of course, if you so believe, you may choose the variation starting with 3.Qxe5. I would respect it - but good luck! 

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