Chess improvement #1: How to analyze a game (I)

Sep 5, 2014, 12:12 PM |

Chess improvement #1: How to analyze a game (I)

When you have a position in front of you, how do you analyze it? I have taught chess for students online and offline for many years now and a common problem I've found is that most people usually don't have any systematic way of thinking. This isn't a problem if you can just use your intuation and feel your way to a good move but for the rest of us, some guidance on a general method would be appropriate. I will share my method both here and in other blog posts about chess improvement.

In this blog post, I assume that we know there is a forced win (i.e. we're looking at a tactical exercise), this reduces the thinking process a lot. In an actual game it is more complicated because you don't know that there is a forced solution and you have to take into account both your opponent's ideas, the clock time, the weaknesses of you move etc.  But we'll look at that in later blogposts.

The method that I generally use in order to solve tactical puzzles is the following:

  1. Get a general overview.
  2. Prioritize the search.
  3. Intuition can override the above processes.

This can only be explained with the help of an example. We'll start with something simple in this first blog post:

In this position Black has a forced tactical solution. But how do you find it? When I know for a fact that there is a tactical solution, I start of by listing the forcing moves in my mind in the order that is generally the most forcing. There are 4 categories of forcing moves which are:

  1. Checks
  2. Mate threats.
  3. Captures.
  4. Threats of captures.

One could make the argument that mate threats are more forcing than just checks but you often gain some insights into just how to create mate threats by analyzing why the checks don't work. Like in this case. Here, my thought process would be something like:

Ok, I can see instantly that I have two more pawns than White (counting the material as part of the general overview) and so I probably have a good position from the outset. What is the quickest way of finishing the game?

Well, my checks are 1...Rg3+, 1...Rh5+ and 1...h6+ (looking for checks).

But these aren't mate, so how do I go on? Should I continue analyzing them or move on to mate threats?

Comment: Notice that right after listing the moves, I have to make a prioritizing decision; should I go on with the analysis of the checks or just make a mental note of them and continue with the general overview (which lists all the forcing moves)? The method I use is to quickly see how promising the checks are by counting the options that White has. Let's continue the thought process.

Well, let's quickly see how many replies White has when I employ these checks:

Against 1...Rg3+ he has three options (2.Kh6, 2.Kh5 and 2.Kh4).

Against 1...Rh5+ he has just one option (2.Kxh5).

Against 1...h6+ he has just one option (2.Kg6).

The most forcing move is the one that leaves the opponent with the fewest amount of options. So 1...Rh5+ and 1...h6+ share first place in this respect. But White's reply to 1...Rh5+ costs Black a rook while 1...h6+ doesn't cost anything. So if I'm to go deeper into these variations, I should look at 1...h6+ first, then 1...Rh5+ and finally 1...Rg3+.

Comment: Now I have an idea of how forcing the checking variations are on the first move. Basically there are two important prioritizing decisions that I have to make. These are:

  1. Find more candidate moves (option A), or go in-depth immediately with an existing candidate move (option B)?
  2. If option B, then which existing candidate move to examine first (option B1, option B2 etc.)?

This prioritizing decision is not easily answered. It generally depends on intuition (your existing tactical patterns) and how much confidence you have in a particular move. The thing is that if you don't make the right decision you'll be wasting time either way:

  1. By choosing option A you risk jumping over an excellent candidate (option B) that you've already found and waste time trying to find other candidates on the first move (which are inferior).
  2. By choosing option B you risk getting bogged down in increasingly difficult (and irrelevant) analysis, when on the first move you could've found an easy solution had you just expanded your amount of candidate moves.

I, myself, usually choose to examine a move one step further if there is only one available option for the opponent or if my intuition makes me believe that the chances are good with one particular move. But otherwise I stick to finding more initial candidate moves (option A) because this is easier since you don't have to do any analysis (you can just look at the initial position to find more candidates). Ok, back to the story:

I'm going to search in-depth on at least 1...h6+ because this move doesn't cost me any material on the first move and also doesn't give my opponent any other move than 2.Kg6. Ok, so I'm looking at the position after 2.Kg6 but the only check in that position is 2...Rg3+, and it leaves the White king with three options (3.Kh7, 3.Kxh6, 3.Kh5). In other words, the amount of possible variations expands quickly now and there is no point in going further with the analysis in this particular variation.

Ok, let's also take 1...Rh5+ since it only leaves White with one option, 2.Kxh5. But afterwards, I've lost my rook and there are no moves left that leave my opponent with only one option. Thus, I stop my analysis of this variation and go back to the initial position.

Now I have the choice between expanding my candidate moves or trying 1...Rg3+ despite the fact that it leaves White with three options. I choose to increase my candidate moves because this option is not promising neither by being forcing (White has three options) nor by intuition (why should I allow White to get nearer to my h-pawn?).

So now I expand my candidate moves in the original position by checking the mating threats.

Comment: This can be done in three ways:

  1. Bring another piece closer that takes away all available squares for the enemy king (including the one he is on).
  2. Check why checks don't work and make them work.
  3. Look for zugzwang; is the opponent forced to weaken his defenses?

Back to the thought process:

Ok, I can't bring other pieces in to force checkmate because the only other piece that can move (in addition to the a- and h-pawns) is the black king which can't mate himself. Zugzwang is also out of the question since White has a free rook. But what about looking at why the checks didn't work? The most forcing checks were 1...h6+ and 1...Rh5+. They didn't work because the squares g6 and h5 were weakened by my checks. I can't strengthen h5 to support a rook check on that square but what about g6? This square can be controlled by the king after 1...Kf7! And then I am threatening 2...h6#. White has no defense to this and therefore the solution has been found. I don't need to search any more because nothing can be stronger than a check mate. Thus, the move is: 1...Kf7 (followed by 2...h6#).

So, that's how I would've analyzed the position. It seems like a slow way but it's a lot quicker to do this when it's going on in your mind rather than in writing! Laughing


Below this blog post I want to write that I'm also a chess instructor and if you want some help analyzing your games then just send me a PM. You can check my profile also (rates etc.).

If you have any questions then just write!

Best regards,