Chess Thought Process

Aug 25, 2013, 8:44 PM |

I picked up and perused a copy of Improve Your Chess at Any Age (2009) by Andres Hortillosa, also known as The Chess Improver on some online forums. Though I didn't read it from cover to cover yet, what grabbed my attention immediately was Hortillosa's primary chess weakness that he felt was holding him back from reaching the Master title.

It was his thought process.

I was amazed that this guy with an Expert title, who had beaten numerous masters in over the board competition, was struggling with the same debilitating weakness as me.

The theme of his book is the illustration of the thought process that he finally came up with to address his weakness and then game by game annotations showing that thought process in action in 3-4 important tournaments over the following year.

I have gone through a similar process over the past 3-6 months. I realized that for most of my chess career, I've lost most games to 1-3 move tactics that I should have spotted and recognized---and in fact often did spot and recognize immediately after making my move. I was playing hope chess, i.e., I was not following a consistent process on every move and making sure that each move I made was safe.

So, I took a thought process that Dan Heisman describes in his articles and book, A Guide to Chess Improvement. Just as Hortillosa did, I've committed to following this process religiously for every non-book move I make. Then, at some point, just like looking both ways before crossing a street, the process will become muscle memory and will free my mind to focus on calculation and evaluation instead of iterating through a thought process checklist.

Here is my chess thought process:

  1. WHY? What are all the things my opponent's move does? What are all the checks, captures and threats for both sides? Is his move safe?
  2. PLAN? What are all the positive things I want to do? Create or update my TO DO list. This is the planning step and importantly includes executing or stopping tactics.
  3. HOW? What are all the moves that might accomplish one or more of my goals? Create a list of those moves.
  4. SAFE? Of those initial moves in my list, which ones are not safe? Discard those from the list.
  5. BEST? Of the final candidate moves in my list, which one is the best?
  6. SANE? Write down my move and then do a double check to make sure there are no hanging pieces, mates in one, etc. that could immediately hurt me. If everything is safe, make my move and punch the clock.

I've been using this exact process now for about two months in both my games and my OTB games. As you can imagine, it takes a bit of time on each move to do this thoroughly. In fact, it takes so much time that I cannot play a G45 + 5 sec. game. I just don't have enough time and end up missing steps in the process or losing the game on time. Until I can get the thought process better into my muscle memory, I'll need to stick to G60 or longer.

So, how is it working so far? I won $1,000 and third place in a recent major local tournament! Then the very next tournament, I tied for fourth place. But, I've also been the author of some pretty bad games during this time period. In each of those disastrous games I can track my troubles directly to skipping steps in the process and hence getting clobbered by an otherwise easily avoided tactic. This thought process must literally be used by me on every single non-book move I make in a game.

It has taken me well over 15 years of play to realize that this was by far the number one issue for me, just as it is for author Hortillosa. The process I am using now is so important to my chess game at this point that I cannot understand why more people are not talking about their own thought processes or lack thereof. Is this something that most players just do naturally? Or, is it simply not as sexy as focusing on mating patterns or the latest line in the KIA?