Should You Trust Your Gut In Chess?

Should You Trust Your Gut In Chess?

| 8

How much should you trust your gut in chess? Should you, at all? 

It's a fact so simple yet true: you cannot see everything in chess. Even at the grandmaster level and beyond, although they see more than the general public, this still holds true. No matter how much experience one has in this ancient game, there comes a point when you must trust your instinct and take a leap of faith. This is especially so when players are short of time. 

What I'd like to talk about in this post is that exact moment where you must leave all concrete conceptions and consult the abstract, when you must enter Mikhail Tal's "deep, dark forest where 2+2=5 and the path leading out is only wide enough for one."

You must take your opponent into a deep, dark forest where 2+2=5 and the path leading out is only wide enough for one.
—GM Mikhail Tal

You ask yourself: do I know this is a good move? Why? How? Do I trust myself to play it? 

My strong NM friend David Mbonu, a natural attacker who plays very intuitively, often feels the incoming tactics before he sees them. IM Jay Bonin, likely the most active American chess player in history, rarely calculates at all, but instead allows his experience to guide his moves, which are played like muscular reflexes, something he has done for a long, long time. 

Yet still, every single chess player has reached the tragic apex of a game where you make the wrong decision after just having looked at the right one. You saw the move, you were going to play it, but then for some inexplicable reason you changed your mind—if you are like me, you would even struggle to explain to someone else why you made the move you did. 

In the following game, played last weekend, trusting my instinct worked out for me. The intuitive moves happened, fortunately, to always be the best ones, even when I was missing a few of my opponent's replies here and there. 

When it works out, it feels great. You saw all the moves, you played them, Stockfish 14 itself patted you on the back on every decision you made that game. But then, hopefully less often, there are times when the "right-looking move" is vitally far from best. In the following fantasy variation (it didn't happen but could have), White just captured a pawn on e6 with check. Black has two king moves: h8 and g7. One draws, one loses.

Be honest: which would you play? (Hit the "?" button below for just the explanation).

In the following game, played last year, I came close to earning an upset against the strong, young IM David Brodsky (whom I'd bet on earning the GM title soon). Despite my somewhat dodgy opening play, I survived into a complicated middlegame after grabbing a pawn. My stronger opponent centralized his king, thinking it would be safe, but faced a fearsome attack after Black sacrificed the exchange.

However, starting around move 26, there were so many lines and too much to see, so I had to just trust my instinct. Well, it didn't work out so well this time, and my instinctual moves were far too weak to keep the attack going. In this case, my intuition was not good enough, and I lost the game.

Anyone who knows me can attest to my daily routine of puzzle-solving—when I wake up and right before bed. The purpose of chess training, in my opinion, is not to necessarily improve your calculation at the board; it is to make the entire process involuntary. It is to drill concrete decision-making so that, when you are short of time or nervous, you can rely on conditioned instinct rather than logic. Training prior to the game is why grandmasters can often win "on autopilot," without having to think.

What do you think? Should you trust your gut in chess? How should you? 

Leave your comments below.