"Think Like a Grandmaster" by Alexander Kotov

"Think Like a Grandmaster" by Alexander Kotov

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This week I will be analyzing the well-known book by Alexander Kotov, Think Like a Grandmaster. This was the first part of a three-part series - the other two books being Play Like a Grandmaster and Train Like a Grandmaster.

Kotov - and this book itself - have been a little controversial in the chess world. Partly because Kotov was a bit of a Soviet toady, but also because many chess players disagree with his belief that a player's strength depends on how organized is his thinking. I also doubt that most strong chess players think in such a rigid and computer-like way as Kotov suggests that one should aspire to. Nevertheless, I still think it is a good book and was very influential for me.

Where I got it

I got this book a very long time ago - I don't know where. I think I was in a particularly obsessive phase when I was reading it, because I highlighted many parts of it and also underlined things. I can remember writing things that later seemed to me to be stupid, which caused me to cover them up with white-out.

What's good about it

However you feel about Kotov's method of thinking, I am sure that you would find that this book really has a huge amount of instructive material in it, as well as good advice. He really does a good job of quite honestly showing what it is that makes a player strong or weak. The second chapter, on positional judgment, is one of the best - he uses excellently-chosen examples to illustrate instructive decisions by strong players in archetypal middlegame positions.

The first chapter, which is about the analysis of variations, is the one which has caused the most criticism. Kotov begins by showing examples of faulty analysis - thinking in circles, analyzing the same variations over and over again, or viewing the position un-concretely, without any analysis at all. He says that he too had a serious inability to analyze, and only became a grandmaster once he improved in that aspect. He goes on to discuss the technique of analysis in minutiae, including the selection of candidate moves, the order in which the moves should be analyzed, and so on.

I really doubt that most top-level players analyze in such a rigid manner - selecting and counting the candidate moves and analyzing each one separately without any "leaps of thought". Additionally, I think a large part of successful analysis is not so much how organized is a player's thinking, but rather their ability to analyze the right candidate moves, based on pattern recognition. Quite often I see that weaker players will analyze moves which stronger players discard quickly or don't even consider.

There is a problem with Kotov's method of analysis. In many positions, you don't know all the candidate moves until you understand the position better. And quite often, a general positional assessment is not enough to sufficiently understand the position. Usually you need to actually look at possible variations to understand the position - and then later you will begin to see candidate moves that would not otherwise occur to you at the outset. In almost all complicated positions this is the case, unless the moves are very forcing.

Nevertheless, things like circular thought and vague thinking are a problem. I am not sure it is so much a problem of chess strength as it is of form. For example, one tournament I am thinking clearly and concentrating well - I trust my analysis, I don't backtrack, and I remember the variations I calculated and their assessments. Another tournament my head is full of confusion, I am mixing up variations and forgetting what I calculated. But I am still the same person - probably the bad form has to do with life events or other factors. If I manage to make my thinking persistently clear and organized, then it would be like I am constantly in good form - but it wouldn't raise my "class" in chess, for which better understanding or more knowledge is necessary.

So, while learning to analyze in a more organized way is something everyone should work at, I don't think it is really the source of chess strength. I think that has more to do with the selection of candidate moves. Of course, the whole book is not about the "tree of analysis". A large part of the first chapter is devoted to elements of chess thought which are not specifically part of the method of analysis. Kotov addresses such questions as whether to recheck your analysis, whether to trust your opponent, how to deal with situations where you have multiple possible wins, and when to analyze at all. He also discusses how to handle time pressure, and even whether to sit at the board when it is your opponent's move or not!

Additionally, Kotov has a lot of material on the reasons that blunders occur, and how to avoid them. He goes precisely into the thinking processes which produced the blunders and shows why they are wrong.

I was intrigued to find out that the rock band Rise Against wrote a song called "Kotov Syndrome". Supposedly Kotov Syndrome is a chess term for when a player thinks for a long time in a very complicated position, goes deep into the position to the point of losing touch with reality, falls short of time and finally makes a move that he had hardly analyzed, which turns out to be a blunder. Kotov describes this scenario at the beginning of the book. Now this phrase is used sometimes to describe non-chess situations - the Rise Against song is about politics. On the other hand, I had never heard or read anything about a "Kotov Syndrome" in chess (or elsewhere) before.

How it impacted me

I got this book fairly early on in learning chess. I was playing tournaments by then, but I probably read it when I was rated 1200-1600 or so. I don't remember if I innately knew how to analyze a chess position. Most people begin playing chess casually, playing the first move that comes to their mind, going on intuition and short tactics, or just "ok, I want to try to do this..." Perhaps this book introduced me to the idea of real chess thinking.

Certainly I learned a lot about positional assessments and thematic ideas from the chapters from the "Positional Judgment" chapter.

An Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from the very beginning of the book:


Recently I was invited to the closing ceremony of a team tournament in which candidate masters and first-category players were playing. I asked my audience what they would like me to talk to them about, and I was inundated with requests. Some asked me to demonstrate some interesting combination, others wanted to know how to play the Sicilian Defence correctly for Black.

            'But do you know how to analyse variations?' I asked my listeners, and without giving them time to reply went on, 'I will show you how to analyse variations and if I'm wrong, then stop me. Let us suppose that at one point in your game you have a choice between two moves, Rd1 or Ng5. Which should you play?' You settle down comfortably in your chair and start your analysis silently saying to yourself the possible moves. 'All right I could play Rd1 and he would probably play Bb7, or he could take my a-pawn which is now undefended. What then? Do I like the look of the position then?' You go one move further in your analysis and then you pull a long face - the rook move no longer appeals to you. Then you look at the knight move. 'What if I go Ng5? He can drive it away by h6, I go Ne4, he captures it with his bishop. I recapture and he attacks my queen with his rook. That doesn't look very nice...so the knight move is no good. Lets look at the rook move again. If he plays Bb7 I can reply f3, but what if he captures my a-pawn? What can I play then? No, the rook move is no good. I must check the knight move again. So, Ng5, h6, Ne4, Bxe4, Qxe4, Rd4 No good! So I mustn't move the knight. Try the rook move again. Rd1, Qxa2.' At this point you glance at the clock. 'My goodness! Already 30 minutes gone on thinking whether to move the rook or the knight. If it goes on like this you'll really be in time trouble. And then suddenly you're struck by the happy idea - why move rook or knight? What about Bb1?' And without any more ado, without any analysis at all you move the bishop. Just like that with hardly any consideration at all. My words were interrupted by applause. The audience laughed, so accurate was my picture of their trials and tribulations.

            When I revealed that I was writing a book to tell all that I knew about analysis, baseed on what I had learned from other grandmasters and what I had discovered myself I was rewarded yet again by applause. Thus I came to realise that players even in high grades have a great need of such guidance. Then I said jokingly, 'Botvinnik is working hard at trying to make a computer play chess as well as a human being, so let me teach human beings to analyse with the accuracy of a machine.'

            The case I have described of faulty unsystematic thinking is quite a common one even with players of real ability and high gradings. They suddenly abandon their analysis and make a move which they haven't examined properly at all. Let us consider one such case.

            White's attack on the king side looks very threatening, and naturally the master who was White tried to find a concrete way to shatter the enemy king or to get some decisive advantage. As it is not very difficult to see this concrete line must involve a sacrifice.

            'I have to sacrifice,' the master told himself, 'but which piece? There are several possibilities: 26.Bxh6, 26.Nxg6, 26.Ng4 and 27.Nxh6+. Which then? Let us analyse. 26.Nxg6 Bxg3 27.hxg3 fxg6 28.Rxe6 gxh5 29.Rxf6+ Kh7. The exchange down, the d-pawn weak, Black's bishop is strong. No, that's not it. What if 26.Bxh6? Let's have a look. 26.gxh6 27.Qxh6 Bxe5 28.Rxe5 Qg7 29.Qe3 (29.Rxg6 Qxg6!) 29...Bd5 and White has nothing concrete.

            'Possibly 26.Ng4 is stronger? Where will the black queen go? f5 is bad because of 27.Nxh6+ gxh6 28.Qxf5 exf5 29.Rxg6+ Kh7 30.Rxh6+ Kg7 31.Rh4. Two pawns up, White stands better. Nor does 26...Qxd4 save him, as then 27.Nxh6+ gxh6 28.Rxg6+ or 28.Rxe6! and the black king cannot be defended.

            So 26.Ng4 is good? But what if 26...Qh4? Then 27.Nxh6+ Kf8! No, White cannot allow that, queens are exchanged and all his pieces are en prise. So knight to g4 doesn't work. Let's look at the other captures on h6 and g6 again.

            And once again his thoughts dwelt on the various ramifications of those two moves, and yet again the resulting positions did not appeal to the master. Once more he returned to consider 26.Ng4 and once again he did not find a win there. How many times he jumped from one variation to the other, how often he thought about this and that attempt to win, only he can tell. But now time trouble came creeping up and the master decided to 'play a safe move' which didn't demand any real analysis: 26.Bc3. Alas this was almost the worst move he could play. Black played the decisive 26...Nf4 and after 27.Qg4 h5 28.Qd1 h4 White had to resign. Note in passing that White was wrong to reject 26.Ng4. After 26...Qh4 27.Nxh6+ Kf8 28.Qxh4 Nxh4 29.Nxf7 Kxf7 30.Bxe6+ Kf8 31.Rg4 Nxg2 32.Bb4+ Bd6 33.Bxd6+ Rxd6 34.Bxc8 Nxe1 35.Bxb7 White would win.

            Can you remember cases when this happened to you in tournament games? No doubt you can! So let us discuss how to learn to think about possible moves with the greatest efficiency.

Any Downsides?

I've pretty much already addressed this above. Basically Kotov's method of analysis leaves some things out. Besides choosing candidate moves and following the "tree of analysis", real human thought involves such things as testing hypotheses, comparing variations, and backtracking once a new idea is found.

What you should eat/drink while reading this book

Russian-style cod liver sandwich. It has omega 3 fatty acids, which will make you smarter and able to calculate like a computer.

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