Key to Improvement: Upgrading Your Thinking Skills
©Amy Walters –

Key to Improvement: Upgrading Your Thinking Skills


So many people have such different opinions about what you should do to get better in chess. There is no consensus among chess educators and scientists on this important issue many of us are genuinely concerned about. This is strange enough as the game has been around for centuries by now.

The above view comes from Christopher Chabris, an American research psychologist and cognitive scientist, the author of Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, in an interview for the Perceptual Podcast. He is also a National Master of chess. Yet all these qualifications don't seem to give him any clearer idea on what might be the best and most effective way for improvement in chess.


You want to improve your game. Where do you start?

  • Should you study openings?
  • Sharpen your tactical abilities?
  • Extend endgame knowledge?
  • Master your calculation skills?

How do you divide your study time among these different subjects?

Yet no matter how important all of the above may be, you don't need to master every detail of it to become a better chess player. There is something much more important, and that is developing better thinking habits. You need to focus more on how to grow an effective mindset rather than working on any specific knowledge/skills listed above.

So how does thinking work? The concept of mental models is fundamental for understanding your thought process

A mental model is a deeply held concept, framework, image, pattern, or metaphor that you use to explain things. It is an internal representation of how something works in real world. Mental models are shortcuts that play a major role in cognition, reasoning and decision-making. These inner mental constructs are rather elementary; they greatly simplify the utter complexity of the external world. Yet they are the most powerful mental tools at your disposal. 

There is no question in whether you (should) use mental models or not. They are a set of very basic ideas and beliefs that you consciously or unconsciously form based on your experiences. And you simply can't function without them. They drive your intuitive responses (the overwhelming majority of your daily decisions) to everything you experience. In fact, they are a result of human evolution and struggle for survival in order to facilitate good decision-making under limited information and time. 


Everybody thinks differently as their mindset and mental network of concepts is different. Mental models are so basic to understanding the world that you are hardly conscious of them

"[Mental models] are very elementary... Players never mention them in [speak aloud] protocols, though they obviously follow them. One cannot find them in chess books, and I have found that chess players are not familiar with them. The cognitive constraints seem to be very much like the grammatical rules. We follow them unconsciously and unintentionally to represent the environment in a senseful manner." FM Pertti Saariluoma, a Finnish Professor of cognitive science, FIDE 2350).

That is why Carlsen, or anyone of us, are unable to explain how we think at chess. Carlsen tells us it is his intuition that leads him to make decisions at the board. But how that really works isn't clear. Neither to him, nor Chabris.

What we do know it is his, somewhat mystic mental models humming under the hood. Mental constructs are an invisible net that form the structure of your world and how you perform in it. This is because they orient attention, guide perception and therefore drive your actions in the World. They give meaning to your experiences. Experience without it would be just raw data. All your tactics, openings, or endgame practice is therefore meaningful and useless unless it has been deeply conceptualized, generalized and structured to become habit of mind and part of your hidden mental repository of models

A glimpse into the inner working of brain (A theatre model for Samuel Beckett's Endgame)


Mental models are not used in isolation. A handful of them are normally used in combination. Your thought process typically starts with most basic concepts. Then they connect to and activate other interrelated and more complex ideas within your inner mental map.

Against what the Finnish cognitive scientist and FM claimed above, here is what the speak aloud protocols de Groot conducted do show us about the thinking of elite Grandmasters,


KERES: Let's first have a look at what can be taken; are there any immediate attacks?

ALEKHINE: Is the pawn at b2 really attacked?

EUWE: "...hanging position of the Knight." "overburdening of the Bishop," "Bishop at R2 undefended," pieces being "tied down," "overloaded."


What we see is that they all start off with the most basic concept of piece relationships. Keres and Alekhine's personal algorithm for decoding position focus on attacks in position, while Euwe prefers looking at how pieces protect each other and their roles in working together. From this starting point they all further expand on by associating and connecting these most elementary ideas with more complex ones within their individual mental landscape populated with various concepts. What they might be, we have no idea.


To train your brain to think better, faster and more productively you need to work on and expand the set of concepts you use. The cornerstone of self-improvement is thus upgrading your arsenal of mental models. It is like upgrading your brain's operating system.

An operating system is the most important software that runs on your cell or laptop. It supports computer's basic functions; it manages its memory and processes, allocation of processor time, scheduling tasks, executing applications. Without an operating system, a computer is useless.

The operating system is almost invisible as you run different applications on your computer. You are reminded that it exists only when its old version is to be replaced/upgraded by a newer, or better version in order to bring the system up to date or to improve its characteristics.

The same goes with how you think in chess and how to upgrade the process to do it better. Your invisible operating system, the chess core of concepts that works below the conscious level has the most important role in a) the manipulation of ideas to give the meaning to the raw information that is received from the current position on the board, and b) what specific knowledge that you have accumulated over time should be intuitively applied within the current position's context.


Here is my way of how to improve in chess. This method is not centered around openings, tactical patterns, or an endgame positions that, think about it, you may face in some instances very rarely, say once in hundred or so games. Instead, this method focuses on what you do at each move your thinking, and how to enhance it.

They say some eighty or ninety important models carry about ninety percent of the freight in making you a chess-wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy weight. Perfect only one important concept and you will already become a better version of yourself as a chess player.

Here's how it works,

1) Pick one important chess topic you feel you should get better at,

2) Use deliberate practice (Ericsson) with the right method to grow your knowledge and understanding of the subject matter with all available resources, books, videos, online content.

3) Saturate your brain with the subject matter (Koestler) and work on it until it becomes your second nature; this means until it unconsciously, without much of your intervention, connects to and becomes part of your inner toolbox of concepts. Your intuition, the INner TUtor, that is.

4) Pick another subject. Repeat ##2-3.

The big question is, what these topics could be? They should be most conducive to creating new and effective habits of mind. Here are some suggestions,

  • Always looking for targets
  • Identifying/creating/exploiting weak/strong points (closely related to the previous one)
  • Mastering pawn play
  • Use of small tactics for positional gains 
  • Art of trading pieces
  • Achieving and maintaining initiative
  • Looking for most forcing moves
  • Recognizing what matters most in position (this is von Clausewitz' Schwerpunkt, or Center of Gravity),
  • etc.

You can see that these are considerably high level subjects. For example, while you work on pawn play you will acquire familiarity with more basic concepts such as weak/strong points, how to open/close diagonals, pawn sacrifice, breakthrough etc.

* * *

As I said before, there is no question in whether your thinking is using mental models. It is up to you whether you want to work on building up your repertoire of powerful concepts and educate your intuition to make better decisions for you. Or else, your brain, vying for meaning, would form some false and ineffective concepts on its own that will be deceiving and bogging you down in chess.

The existing approach to improvement, as uttered in the beginning by Christopher Chabris, is still largely unclear and vague about the right way of how to do it.

Instead of his saying boldly "I was kind of surprised it is bad to study openings; in fact openings can be very practical, and the investment can be very practical," (well, openings actually offer the least return on investment as far as real improvement and better thinking is concerned, @RoaringPawn),

perhaps the cognitive scientist and NM should turn his attention to how mental models work to improve the chess player's thought process?