The Dirty little secret of chess.

The Dirty little secret of chess.

Jan 24, 2010, 5:02 PM |


Is chess becoming too knowledge intensive?

Much depends on your experience. Some experienced players claim chess is a matter of knowing what to do, as opposed to logical deduction. Others say that logical play is the main key to quality play.

Take for example the chess position shown at right. It is white to move. And everyone knows that white needs to abandon his left pawn and rush over to the right side of the board and capture the black pawns before the black king arrives.

(But not everyone knows this, because players will attempt to walk the lone left white pawn into becoming a queen. So in effect, players have to know this. But to complicate matters further, white cannot just move his king to the right, and assume he has a won game, because the game (with best play) will end up a draw. So white has to know that he should move his king under his pawn first, and then move out! This is totally counter-intuitive.

So then one wonders how many similar positions like this happen in tournament play? And not just in the end game, but in the middle game.

Now, maybe we could figure out this first move, but we need to have some hint that this is a key counter-intuitive move, before taking it seriously enough to think deeply about it. Otherwise, most of us would not give it a second thought and just move our king to the right, assuming it is a won game, but not so.

The same with the second example shown above. White to move and draw. White needs to make the right move NOW before the black knight arrives, 8 moves in advance, otherwise he will lose the game. How is white supposed to know which square to move his king, if he cannot see more than 4 moves ahead? (there is a little rule for this situation, always put the king on the same color square as the opposing knight, and all is well. So if the black knight is on a white square then move your king to the white square.)

I posed both problems to Fritz (chess program), and it solved them both. Fritz was able to solve them, not because it had prior knowledge, but because it was able to see ahead 8 and 10 moves. Given that most of us cannot see that far ahead, we study chess position patterns and try to memorize and deal with our shortcoming this way.

The point? The average chess player should know that tournament players are full of these little rules and pieces of chess knowledge that give them a strong advantage over those who think chess is just a logical game. And if played under clocked conditions, then the advantage is greater for the tournament player, because the average player won’t have the time to figure it out.

This might explain why MENSA chess players may not be good a chess, because the game is knowledge intensive and has a long learning curve in addition to recognizing counter-intuitive positions. On the other hand, we have average intelligence players, who do well, but only because they spend so much time studying the game.

The second point is, we all can’t be grandmasters or experts, so we need to play the game because we love the hunt, the combination and coordination. We want to get better, but the improvement price might be too high. And many of us, simply do not have the time.

The last point, the chess media gives the impression that we can all become better players. This is partially true, but not as much as they want us to believe. Those of us who play in tournaments, know that the vast majority of tournament players drop out or don’t get above a rating of 1500, which is the average tournament player strength, if we are generous. And those who do break the barrier have put in a substantial amount of study time. I think what happens is that, we study a little, and we see fast improvement up to 1500 rating, above that rating, time study becomes exponential.

My experience at OTB tournaments has been that I see last years players over and over with the same rating or less! Rarely do I see players that break the 1500 OTB rating barrier.

So here is that little secret. You will only see chess improvement above 1500 OTB rating, if you are willing to invest three study hours a day, using the right chess teacher. And even then this is no guarantee, given that improvement depends in good part, on how well you remember what you have learned. The one consolation here is that, as a 1500 OTB rated player, you will defeat 95 percent of none tournament players. OTB = Over The Board