Getting better at problem solving: Observation and Pattern Recognition
Tal photo: WikiMedia Commons: Ron Kroon / Anefo [CC0]

Getting better at problem solving: Observation and Pattern Recognition

ForwardChess
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Imagine a Grandmaster, say our favorite former World Chess Champion Mikhail Tal, staring at his chess board with a tilted head and hands on his cheek, contemplating his position for twenty minutes.  He stares at his pieces, then at his opponent and executes what looks like a complicated sacrifice. His opponent begins to sweat, and the commentators are rushing to analyze Tal's last move. 
What went on inside Tal's mind during these twenty minutes? How much time did he actually spend on calculation alone?  What makes him pick one variation over the others? What techniques does he use to find creative moves?
These are the questions we will try to decipher in our new blog series: Getting better at problem solving. We will delve into the depth of a Grandmaster thought process and examine different techniques, which you can use in your day to day games, and become a better problem solver.

Mikhail Tal Chess


Before you can learn to think, you have to learn to see.
And it's not enough to see, one must observe!

Observation:

One of the most important tools when it comes to effective problem solving is Observation. Paying attention to tiny tactical fragments inside a position helps us paint the bigger picture. The problem solving mind requires data to churn and come up with suggestions which you can use. It's just like the different pieces of a jig saw puzzle. The more pieces you are able to recognize, the quicker you'll be able to put everything together.

Now, consider the following position:
In this particular game, I was playing black and it was my turn to move. I almost raised my hand to pick the queen and move it to f6. Then all of a sudden, there was a brief moment of shock, as if an invisible force gave me a slap on my face - the intuition at work! 
It was as if I heard the whisper "hey stupid, look carefully! There's something fishy hiding in the position."
I pulled my hand back and started to contemplate about the position for a few move minutes.

"I can protect the f4 pawn with the natural looking Qf6. But what will happen if I let white capture the pawn?"

"oh, look a pin! King on c1, Knight on f4 and my queen on g5"

" But he seems to have Qd2. Doesn't seem to work"

"But with the knight on e5 and King on c1, there's another pattern here - a fork! On d3!"
"If only I can get the Rook on d1 moving"
It didn't take much time to figure out that it was actually possible to get this pattern, thanks to my observation and my intuition for the slap!
You can find the answer below. If you want to try it out yourself, pause here and go back to the main position above.

A momentary observation can change the whole course of a game. Every little detail you notice, like a detective at the board, is a clue, a data for your imaginative mind.

Here's another example, where a punch from your intuition can be a good thing.

I (white) was consider castling on the king side and e6 (!?) in this position. But a little deeper observation pointed out a few facts...
The pawn on d5 is a critical point ( number of defenders = number of attackers) after exchanging on c5 and giving a bishop check on b5. This observation was a turning point. Instead of having to fight a long three or four hours game, a simple observation helped me finish my game in an hour and grab a hot cup of cappuccino in a near by Cafe. ☕
And answer? I'll leave it to the reader to figure it out! I'll be eagerly checking the comment section for your answers

In both the examples, we noticed that observing possible patterns or fragments of tactical ideas can actually help us come up with better moves.
To be more precise, we were able to observe:
1. Unprotected Pieces (knight f4 in example 1)
2. Critical Points ( d5 in example 2)
3. Possible tactical patterns.
In the book Tune Your Chess Tactical Antenna (by New in Chess), the author FM Emmanuel Neiman, suggests the following ideas:
 
1. King Position
2. Unprotected Pieces
3. Alignment
4. Knight fork distance
5. Trapped Pieces
6. Crucial Defender/Overloaded Defender
7. Impotent Defender/Defence too far away
Tune Your Tactics Antenna chess book
(Click the image to open ebook sample from Forward Chess)
Few exercises from the book are posted here for eager readers.
Puzzle 1: Observe weak King position/Mating Pattern
Puzzle 2: Observe unprotected pieces, critical points and possible double attack as well.
Puzzle 3: Observe unprotected pieces and critical piece.

A tough one: One of my favorite positions from Jacob Aagaard's Grandmaster Preparation series: Calculation book. (Click here for ebook sample). Heads up! It's a difficult one and will take some time.
Happy solving

Thank you for reading! I'll be happy to hear your thoughts. Feel free to post your comments below.
Signing off for now,
Arun from Forward Chess Team.