Legendary Photographer Explains Chess Player's Thought Process
Ansel Adams (1902 - 1984) Jeffrey Pine - Sentinel Dome © 2010 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

Legendary Photographer Explains Chess Player's Thought Process



Your thought process and its results in chess are closely related to visual-spatial intelligence. You use the visual problem-solving skills all the time. They help you do things like take great photos, find your way home from a new neighborhood, or when you practice dance moves you see in a video. Most importantly, visual-spatial skills help you make good moves at the board and to become a better chessplayer.

Visual-spatial processing is an individual’s ability to process visual input to understand spatial relationships between objects and to visualize different scenarios or images.

How does that work? Well, surprisingly enough, the legendary American photographer, Ansel Adams, has an answer ready for us, chessplayers. You may have already noticed that I love crossing into different domains to find links with our beloved game and the way thinking, teaching and learning work across fields. So here is the story of Ansel Adams and chess-photography connection! It will show us how our thinking is structured and help understand the typical process that makes up chess thinking.

A visionary figure in nature photography, environmental hero and symbol of American West

Ansel Adams (1902 - 1984) was the most important landscape photographer of the 20th century. He is also perhaps the most widely known and beloved photographer in the history of the United States (Britannica).

Adams felt an intense commitment to promoting photography as a fine art. He thought that art was related to the elusive quality of beauty and that the purpose of art was concerned with the elevation of the spirit.


Ansel Adams, Self portrait


The celebrated photographer was an incessant activist for the cause of wilderness and the environment. The national park system (especially Yosemite National Park), and above all, the preservation of wilderness were of very high importance to him. Adams endlessly traveled the country in pursuit of the natural beauty he revered and photographed.

Adams’s technical mastery was far-famed. He produced ten volumes of technical manuals on photography, which are the most influential books ever written on the subject.

Yet, it is his way of thinking in photography that I would like to share with you chessplayers today, not the technical mastery. I wanted to present to you his methodology showing step-by-step how a player can achieve objective knowledge concerning his or her own thinking.

The inception of a photograph

Ansel Adams really liked structure and he broke down the thought process into concrete steps. He felt that the creation of a photograph followed four major steps:

0. Need, or desire to photograph (as playing chess, this is presumably presupposed so I numbered it 0).

1. Discovery of the subject. It is an exercise in which you break down the subject into its essential parts to recognize its essential aspects; it leads to the exploration of the subject and the optimum viewpoint which will evoke the concept of the desired image. 

2. (Pre)visualization. The ability where the photographer can anticipate the final image before it has been captured. Often quoted is Adams', “Visualization is the single most important factor in photography”. It is of high value to the photographer, as it has the potential to unlock greater creative vision, and give greater control (and predictability) over the image creation process.

3. Execution. After visualization of the picture has been accomplished (and this is frequently an almost instantaneous event), the technical procedures are applied.


Cathedral Peak and Lake by Ansel Adams


An astonishing parallel from the legendary photographer with how, actually, the chess player's thought should be going! You do not just make a move, you do not just snap a photo. It is not just click your subject in the viewfinder. Snap. Snap. Snap. One button to press. Photography and chess cannot go without deeper thought, without structured, organized thinking unfolding pretty much in the unconscious of the mind, once thinking algorithms have developed and become second nature.

From the above stages that Adams has provided us with, it is perfectly clear that you cannot successfully pre-visualize something unless you have properly understood it first by way of discovery. You cannot come up with a plan for the chess position in front of you unless you have properly understood it first by discovery, or what we call position evaluation.

"The assessment of the position," wrote Alexander Kotov, "is the most important ingredient in the lessons of Steinitz. The creative process of assessment resembles that of the chemical analysis of matter. Like Mendeleyev in the field of chemistry, Steinitz produced a list of "positional elements" which impose their own peculiar mark upon every position. When a chess player is assessing a position, he must above all, isolate the elements, as a chemist does, in order to establish the individual characteristic of the position. From this information, he then draws a conclusion and tries to formulate an appropriate plan."

Without Discovery and Pre-visualization there is no successful Execution; or there might be, but if these steps are ignored, unfortunate results will follow. Pre-visualization is the contemplation of the reason for the photograph (this reminds us of Dr Lasker's "the player must always see the reason behind a move."). The steps #1 and #2 is the ‘art’, followed by the ‘craft’ and ‘science’ of photographic technique in bringing the image to print or screen. In chess terms, it is impossible to formulate a concrete plan and its effective realization and practical implementation without the key discovery and pre-visualization intangibles.

The art of photography and chess is the art of “seeing”, and the effectiveness of photography depends upon the strength and integrity of this “seeing”. It’s all too easy for a photographer to rely on the automaticity of the modern camera and become visually lazy, but we can, without a camera, see relationships and compositions between the objects in the viewfinder to start building an awareness of how the scene translates into final images.

The term “seeing” describes pre-visualization. Just as a musician “hears” notes and chords in the mind's eye of his memory, so can the photographer can “see” certain values, textures and compositions prior to capturing. The visualization of a photograph, or the final position of a sequence of chess moves, involves many extremely swift observations, motivated and controlled by intuition and experience.

If the photographer/chess player exercises these practical methods often, the visualization process is likely to come more naturally, and faster.

“The concept of the photograph precedes the operation of the camera. The print itself is somewhat of an interpretation, a performance of the photographic idea.” Ansel Adams

As it has been argued in the debate on Nimzovich between GM Yasser Seirawan and me earlier this year, ideas always maintain supremacy over action. Everything starts with an idea, the rest is just implementation of it.


Mount Williamson—Clearing Storm, photograph by Ansel Adams, 1944


Here is a rare interview, with Ansel Adams discussing the importance of visualization:

"Speaking of the external event, we will call it scenery. It happens outside in time and space. People go snap, snap, snap, and recording things for their own memory in the future. Contrasting with that, the creative work which is the internal event. This happens inside your mind, when you see the photograph. When I go out into the world I come across something that excites me. I see the photograph in my mind’s eye and make it. I give it to you as an equivalent of what I saw and felt. The whole key lies specifically seeing in your mind’s eye which is visualization. And the picture has to be there, clearly and decisively."

So what is Adams' message to us?

Adapt yourself to creating photographs through a creative process and decision-making, instead of being a robot. Snap. Snap.

A new camera does not make you a photographer. It makes you the owner of a camera. Your thinking does.

The same in chess.

Practical implementation in chess with example