An interesting article I picked up on a chess forum ages ago

Jun 18, 2009, 3:30 PM |

Disclaimer : This is a mere copy-paste from a forum and I wish I could quote the author but I can't seem to find the source any more. Apologies to whoever it is ... you deserve to be cited for writing something this interesting!!!!

(warning: Very long read ... but it's worth it!)

Imagine you are looking for a book that you've lost in your home.  Think
about the process you use to search for the book and compare this with the
process of calculation in a chess position.

Firstly, it is very common that the search will be initially guided by where
you think it is best to look.  There may be some locations that are
initially more promising than others.  For example, there may be common
locations where you leave books, e.g. on a book shelf, next to your bed,
etc.  After mentally generating these "promising locations", and ordering
them starting with the "most likely", you'll proabably go and check these

Now, suppose that you fail to find it in the "likely" areas.  What next?
Imagine that you've got two choices:

a) look in a cupboard which happens to be pretty full and disorganised.
Assume this will take about 10 minutes to search completely.

b) check other areas such as the kitchen table.  This will take 30 seconds.

You think that (a) has more chance of success.  So, what to do?

Although, (b) is less likely to succeed then (a), very often due to it's
relatively low cost (in terms of time/effort), checking (b) before (a) is a
good choice.  You may be pleasantly surprised and save yourself a lot of

Ok, so you check (b) and you're out of luck.  But only 30 seconds or so
"wasted" while attempting to save 10 minutes.  Now, it's time to dig deeper
and look into those areas that can't be checked with a quick glance. So, to
the cupboard you go...

Suppose, you've been looking methodically through the cupboard for about 3
minutes when suddenly a new idea pops into your head:  you haven't looked in
the toilet and you know that you often take a book in there...  :-)

So, do you finish checking the cupboard?  Or switch immediately and go and
check the toilet? (assuming the toilet involves a "glancing check" as
opposed to digging around).  This very much depends on your judgement of
which one is likely to be best.  Assume that you're almost convinced it's in
the toilet, so you decide to go and check immediately.

But no such luck.  So, back to the cupboard.  Would you start looking in the
cupboard from scratch?  Of course not.  It's very useful to be able to start
from where you left off.  You finish looking in the cupboard without success
either.  What now?

There's a good chance that now you'll start to become more imaginitive in
your search.  Could it have fallen down behind the TV?  Has it been
accidently knocked under any of the furniture?  Suddenly you're ruling out
no possibilites and start looking in all sorts of bizarre locations...

How does it end?  Well, as you'll know, the book could have been found at
any of the points mentioned above or simply never found.

And what's this got to do with chess?

I think the above is a good analogy for chess calculation.  Some things to
consider when comparing the above with chess calculation...

SEARCH FOR BOOK: rather than start with the very first location that comes
into our head, it's sensible to spend a short amount of time thinking of all
likely locations.  They should then be searched in order of likelihood.

CHESS CALCULATION: same idea for identifying initial candidate moves

SEARCH FOR BOOK: we know that it's a waste of time looking in the same
location again and again, assuming we looked properly the first time round.
If it wasn't on the kitchen table two minutes ago, it won't be there now.

CHESS CALCULATION: aim to avoid checking the same variation over and over.
Aim to do it right first time.

SEARCH FOR BOOK: you wouldn't check the kitchen table without reaching a
definite conclusion (assuming it's not piled high and wide with other

CHESS CALCULATION: when you complete a variation, try to give it a definite
evaluation, otherwise you will need to look at it again!  Is it good or bad
for you?  By how much?  Is it unclear or risky?

SEARCH FOR BOOK: however, some areas are more open to deeper and more
thorough searches.  For example, we may perform a quick "surface" check of a
cupboard, or dig deeper into it - kitchen tables are usually simpler. :-)

CHESS CALCULATION: when calculating variations, be conscious of whether it's
best to spend time/effort calculating certain complicated variations deeper,
or whether you should examine some other "possibly quicker" variations
firstly and then come back to the deeper and more complex calculation.  The
other "quicker" calculation may make the deeper calculation redundant.

SEARCH FOR BOOK: deciding "where to go next" is driven by our judgement.  Is
the bathroom more promising than the kitchen?  Sometimes you'll get bogged
down in the cupboard and waste a lot of time when a 30 second search would
have found it in the bathroom.  Other times you'll leave the cupboard to the
very last, when all along that was the place that had to be searched.

CHESS CALCULATION: the general effectiveness of your calculation is
determined by your intuition.  It is this factor that decides when we should
look broader as opposed to deeper, or vice versa.  Try to be more conscious
of such intuitive decisions.  Common weaknesses include: calculating deeply
too soon, before other shallower variations have been checked; or
alternatively never looking deeply enough.

SEARCH FOR BOOK: learn as you search.  You may see something during your
search that causes you to think of a new, and possibly very promising,
location that you hadn't yet considered

CHESS CALCULATION: new ideas will pop into your head as you continue to
calculate.  Whether you break off your current variation and go to the new
idea immediately, or wait till you're finished, is once again determined by
your intuition, i.e. how good you guess one variation to be compared to the
other.  Try to minimise the jumping between lines while allowing yourself to
jump immediately to a new variation if, e.g., you're pretty sure it gives
you an easy win

SEARCH FOR BOOK: don't keep going back to the start.  It is very useful if
we avoid starting over again when, e.g, starting to looking in a cupboard...
breaking off to look in another seemily more promising location... coming
back to continue the cupboard search.

CHESS CALCULATION: this is similar for calculations: try to keep in your
mind the position you analysed up until.  Unfortunately "mental" chess
positions aren't so easy to hold in place as physical cupboard items. :-)
This is a ideal that can be difficult in practice, but aim for it

SEARCH FOR BOOK: our initial search may be driven largely by common sense
and experience when looking for a book.  However, sometimes imagination is
required in order to broaden the search, otherwise there could be many
unconsidered possibilites, including the key location

CHESS CALCULATION: likewise, our initial search may be driven by general
principles.  But be prepared to use your imagination in order to broaden
your calculation.

SEARCH FOR BOOK: motivation...when looking for something you need to be
motivated to find it.  If you don't want to find it, or aren't willing to
look for it, you won't find it.  Of course, we may not find it anyway, but
we hope that our efforts are rewarded often enough, even if not on every

CHESS CALCULATION: same when trying to calculate a "good" or "best" chess

(a follow up post)

I would say an untidy house is like a very complicated tactical position
in which you should be like a computer (or a raving lunatic running around
the house) looking for the best move (book). You might as well, because it
could be anywhere.

(a follow up post)

Calculating without positional understanding is like searching for a
lost book in a totally unfamiliar house - yes, it is possible to find
it, but you will waste a tremendous amount of time getting oriented
and familiarizing yourself with the layout of the "house" and then
looking in places where the likelihood of finding it are exceedingly slim.

Along these lines, I have recently been going through "Tal-Botvinnik 1960"
and reading your post made me think of something Tal describes as happening
repeatedly in the match.  Botvinnik is always striving for simple, clear
positions.  Thus Tal, in many instances strives to 'complicate' matters.  I
have come across the notion of a player going in for complications, but
never really understood it in a meaningful way.  However, imagining it
within the context of your analogy crystallizes it nicely - Botvinnik wants
to conduct the search for the book in a tidy, 5-room apartment, whereas Tal
wants the search to be conducted in a 50-room mansion!  Assuming (given each
players' consummate positional understanding) total familiarity with each
abode, the mansion search will inevitably take longer, be more complex in
terms of organizing a search plan and keeping track of places searched and
involve more concessions in terms of thoroughness.