How Carlsen Moves a Chess Piece

How Carlsen Moves a Chess Piece

NM SamCopeland

Note: I intend this article to be a bit tongue in cheek; the tone is taken from the pedantic stylings of Emily Post. I genuinely enjoy stylish piece movement, but of course, the only important thing is to be respectful of your opponent.

One of the simplest ways we express ourselves at the chessboard is in the the physical movement of the chess pieces. In the below interview with Charlie Rose (at about 6:30, the "Watch on Youtube button will take you to the mark...), Magnus Carlsen said "you can really tell whether players are professional or not by the way they move their pieces."



Similarly, in his book "Chess Duels: My Games with the World Champions", Yasser Seirawan describes the first time he saw a world-class player - Paul Keres - in action. Seirawan describes Keres as a "well dressed, dignified man with what might be called a noble bearing." Seirawan remembers...

It was a thrill to watch a world-class player in action. His manner, his bearing, his unhurried approach to the position, the accuracy of his moves, and the precision and manner in which he physically played his moves all made a deep impression. I was especially drawn to observing his physical movement of the pieces, as he carefully put them correctly in the middle of the square so as not to annoy his opponent. In fact, I went home to practice so that I could mimic his movements as well and to endeavor, as best I could, to play chess "properly" at the board..."

"In my youthful imagination I thought that all world-class players moved their pieces with the same grace, precision and accuracy as Paul Keres. Many in fact do and I was shocked to discover that some do not."

Like Seirawan, I have been struck by how elegantly and efficiently some world class players make their moves. These days many events are available online, and it is possible to watch many world class players playing live. Many of them have a very admirable board presence and elegance that is manifested in their piece movement.

In addition to the simple "looks cool" factor of a refined piece movement, I find that the manner of piece movement is sometimes indicative of order in the player's mind.

For instance, I have terrible piece movement skills. My movements are sloppy and inelegant; I regularly knock pieces over. This is not because I am trying to be rude, but simply because I am uncoordinated and have never thought about the technique of piece movement.

My mind can be similarly uncoordinated. I have been trying to focus a little bit on improving my physical movement of the chess pieces, and I believe it helped me to play better as well. For instance, if my physical movement of the pieces is patient yet decisive, my thinking processes seem to be a little more ordered as well. Order in thinking and order in movement may go together, but it is much harder to force yourself to think more clearly at the booard. It is easier to focus on a physical action - the movement of the pieces. Through achieving clearer movement, I find my thinking is clearer as well.

To illustrate excellent piece movement, I picked Magnus Carlesn as an example. After all, as long as the chess world deifies him in all other ways, why not deify his piece movement as well Wink As an example game, I picked a recent blitz encounter between Carlsen and Nakamura that is freely available on youtube. The game is quite interesting in it's own right, and I have annotated it in depth below.



Carlsen and Nakamura have very different styles of movement. Both are clearly magnificent blitz players, but Nakamura is known for having a somewhat warmer temper than Carlsen. I believe this is manifested in Nakamura's movement of the pieces. For instance, around the three minute mark (and throughout the game), note how Carlsen's pieces are all centralized on their squares, while some of Nakamura's are slightly off center. Around 38 seconds in, Nakamura also knocks over a pawn while capturing on d5.

What then is the "proper" technique of moving a chess piece? How can we similarly impress our opponents with our own stylish and classy piece movement? I think there are five characteristics of Carlsen's piece movement that I like.

  1. Assertive - The best players think before they move the pieces. Only once they have decided on the move do they quickly and assertively make their move. Others habitually think with their hands hovering in the air over the piece, or once they have placed their hand on the piece. In addition to the practical problem of committing to a move before having thought things through, this player is betraying his own indecision with his movement.
  2. Firm - Some players hold their pieces loosely by the head, away from the weighted center of the piece. These players often knock pieces over because they are not in complete control of the piece. The pieces are best held firmly closer to their center of weight. These players may also move their wrists when moving the piece. If the wrist is mobile, the piece is likely to be placed off balance. The wrist is better held stable so that the piece's base is placed flatly on the board.
  3. Grounded - Where possible, Magnus often slides the pieces from square to square. Rather than thumping a bishop from d3 to h7, he might slide it along the length of the diagonal. This more graceful movement also provides the mover a tactile sense of the chess board.
  4. Centered - Magnus always centers his pieces perfectly. His centered pieces seem to give a sense of the order and coherence in his own position.
  5. Patient - Despite the fact that Magnus is playing a blitz game, his movement seems relatively unhurried. Many blitz players seem to move frenetically. It seems they are trying to save time by moving the piece as quickly as possible. Often such players knock pieces over, and seem to lose more time than they gain.

There are three special moves that involve the physical movement of two pieces. These are more difficult to execute gracefully. These are captures, castling, and promoting.

  1. Captures - In the video, you can see that both Magnus and Hikaru execute their captures by first picking up their opponent's piece, then they slide that piece to the back of their hand to be held by the ring and pinky fingers within their palm. While holding the captured piece, they move their own piece to the capturing square using their thumb, index, and middle finger. Some other players make each move independent. They first remove the captured piece from the board, only then do they move their piece to the capturing square. This can be a noble styling, but it costs precious time in blitz and lightning games.
  2. Castling - Magnus and Hikaru both castle by first moving their king to g1/g8, and then moving the rook over the king to f1/f8. They use two independent movements. Some people perform a swapping movement in which they are still holding the king while their fingers start to slide the rook around the king. It can by stylish and quick on occassion, but it is often bungled.
  3. Promoting - Promoting can be executed like a capture. First the pawn is picked up, slid to the back and palm of the hand, and then the promoting piece is picked up and placed on the promotion square. The most important part is having the promoting piece ready to hand so that you don't have to hunt for it. For tournament chess sets, it is worthwhile and easy to acquire spare queens if you don't already have a pair. However, if you wish to use a flipped rook, it is helpful and practical to retrieve it from your opponent's side of the board on his time, in anticipation of queening. Practically and aesthetically, you don't want to hunt for it.

There are also a few unique types of movement that are worth mentioning. Some players tend to "thump" their moves when they are frustrated or wish to be emphatic. This is not only inelegant; it is quite rude. It is much better to let the strength of one's move speak for itself. Second, some players use captured pieces to press the clock. I am not a fan of this movement, but it is normally ok so long as the player does not use the piece as miniature hammer. Finally, to indicate resignation, some players like to tip their king. This can be a really classy guesture so long as it is not done in anger using the classic Pandolfini technique Wink



What are your thoughts on piece movement? Have you, like myself and Seirawan, ever been struck by the manner of a player's physical piece movement? Do you have any personal stylistic flourishes or movements that are unique?