How to Get Far in Chess: Get the Basics Right!

How to Get Far in Chess: Get the Basics Right!

May 13, 2015, 8:06 PM |

Master the basics – only then you can go any further

You study hard to be better at chess. You spend hours and hours accumulating knowledge of all stages of the game, tactics, strategy and all – till the cows come home – yet, you see only marginal improvement over the board, if any.

What’s going wrong?

Success is neither magical nor mysterious. Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying the basic fundamentals. –Jim Rohn

Aha, the basics! So that seems to be the missing part of the chess success-formula equation!

To be successful in any field you must master the basics of business. “Once you have the fundamentals, acquiring the experience is a matter of time,” Greg LeMonde, the three-time Tour de France winner (well, I wish someone had taught me the basics when I got into chess; without them, I was destined for mere mediocrity).

Dominique Digeon, Immortelle cadrée

The basics of the basics, structured board vision (Immortelle cadre/The immortal framed, art by Dominique Digeon)

But now the first and biggest problem comes in. What are the chess basics anyway? Everyone, including Grandmasters[1], would say the “piece moves” and “centralize the pieces,” then the chess community disagrees what next thing to teach may be.

How can we teach the basics if we don’t really know what they are? If we are not clear, we risk solving wrong problems at the board.

It has taken me 50 years to find out what the true chess basics really are (there is nothing convincingly definite in all chess literature about it, so it took me some time:). Now I know the chess basics are definitely not about how pieces move, about castling, en-passant, tons of nonsense they are filling the beginner with. It is really about a most fundamental and wonderful thing in the world: your problem finding and problem solving skills. It is a multi-step critical thinking process that has to be disciplined from the Day One in chess, or math, or sports (think, for instance, ice hockey[2]).

All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take. –Mahatma Gandhi

Chess basics: learning to see clearly

So the mindset is the basics of every domain! The basics of the basics is visualization skill, or board vision, as we call it in chess. It is the first and most important step of the critical thinking process.[2a]

“The single most important reason why projects, initiatives, problem solving, decisions, or strategies go awry is that the situation, issue or goal are not clear in the first place.”[3] Chess vision allows you to clearly see what issue, or problem at the board you need to tackle.

The information is all there on the board. You need to extract order from chaos. But how? Where to start looking to find patterns and meaning? Your trained chess vision will do it. Without it, you can’t extend, or go beyond any point in chess. This is the absolute chess basics. The basics of the basics.

The question now is, how we should go about developing chess vision right from the Square One?

Visualization training

Easy. We just need to employ perceptual learning; it is one of Mother Natures greatest gifts. The beauty of it is, it is automatic – there is no thinking involved!

Perceptual learning builds our visual cognitive skills[4] that allow us to process and interpret meaning from the information we get from the surrounding environment (or board position in chess).

“Perceptual vision is such an elementary skill that we forget we possess it. Remember when, as kids, we had to make distinction between similar-looking letters, like U and V, long before we could read?”

“By the time we move on to sentences and more cerebral gaming – ‘chunking the information’ into larger blocks – we have forgotten how hard it was to learn all those subtle distinctions in the first place… once our eyes mastered these subtle perceptual differences, we can focus on putting the knowledge to work.”[5]

Board vision is a vital chess skill; it has to move under intuitive control, it has to impress in your sub-conscious brain, so that you start to perceive things and “read” the position competently with little, or no conscious effort at all. This, in turn, will leave your brain room for more complex and creative work toward the solution (=your next move).

This is the key for your long-term success; only this very basic, yet extraordinary visualization skill can provide thrust to take you far in the chess sky – it is your chess rocket booster!

Now let me ask you, what do you think chess Us and Vs, that is the basic building blocks of visualization, are?

By the way, the traditional method of teaching chess doesn’t give an answer. Funny, it doesn’t even pose the question as a question much less seek to think it through.



1. Recently I have asked a Grandmaster the same question, what he thinks the chess basics are. The standard response, “the moves, centralize the pieces,” etc. Of course, he wouldn’t have become a GM without deep understanding of the basics. It is his second nature, deeply set in his subconsciousness – he does sees the things, he does have an intimate sense of what is going on on the board, but is totally unaware of it (and that is how things should be). The true problem with teaching is that teachers are unable to get down to the level of the beginner. Until teachers learn to see the world as beginners again, we will continue to create overly complex with too-much-info chess lessons that are missing the intended target, how to simply present the true chess basics.

2. See a story about the acclaimed Finnish ice hockey coach, Urpo Ylönen. Canada, the cradle of ice hockey seems to have issues with how to teach goalies. But not Finland, where an effective system of teaching is in place. The secret of their success? The basics again – the mindset.

2a. Here is another “mindset-is-the-basics,” this time from the domain of photography.

Ansel Adams (1902-1984) was an American photographer and environmentalist (“the love that Americans poured out for the work and person of Ansel Adams … is an extraordinary phenomenon, perhaps even unparalleled in our country’s response to a visual artist.”–John Szarkowski, Classic Images, 1985, p. 5)

According to Adams, the creation of a photograph should follow these major steps; again, it’s a mindset, and not just “snap, snap, snap, one button to press,” or, in chess, “I’ll move this bishop” – as a matter of fact, there should be in place a deeply ingrained thought process that precedes the actual execution (note that the discovery step below corresponds to board vision (as clarification) in chess; the visualization step matches chessboard vision as an anticipated target position to reach by using, say, a 3-move sequence, of which your next move is the first link)

Discovery of the subject, or recognition of its essential aspects will evoke the concept of the image. This leads to the exploration of the subject and the optimum viewpoint.
Visualization is the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure.
Execution. After visualization of the picture has been accomplished (and this is frequently an almost instantaneous event), the technical procedures are applied.

3. Michael Kallet, Think smarter: Critical thinking to improve problem-solving and decision-making skills

4. Visual perceptual processing can be broken into three components:

Visual spatial skills require observing an object, then accurately reporting its relationship in space relative to your own self or other objects.

Visual analysis, or visual discrimination, is used to identify, sort, organize, store and recall visually presented information. It is the ability to take in visual information remember it and apply it later.

Visual integration skills allow you to integrate information with your other senses or with other visual information. For example, if you come across a new piece pattern and then matched it with an image in your mind to help better recall what the pattern means, this would be an example of visual-visual integration.

5. Learning to see data, The New York Times, March 27, 2015.