Knowledge vs Belief (chess psychology)

Knowledge vs Belief (chess psychology)

Jul 27, 2014, 4:56 PM |

You might have noticed that a lot of my blog posts are inspired by my students and this one is no different. I think I am very blessed because my students are very diverse - what is a tough issue for one seems a non issue for the other, while this other student might have a completely new set of issues which I have never even thought about before, which means I really have to constantly expand my horizons if I want to improve as a coach.


You would think that most of these issues are chess-related, but you would be only half right - yes, of course they have a lot of things yet to master in chess, but they all have one commonality - they do not play at a level they are capable of playing at because of psychological reasons! That applies to me as a chess player as well, as it does to the vast majority of us I believe. It is quite incredible how important psychology is for chess and recently I have been venturing more and more into it during my lessons. There are a ton of different psychological aspects that can be an issue for a chess player, but in this post I will mainly focus on the problem of "knowledge vs belief". 


During a lesson today I was looking at a fairly complex position with one of my students and as we were talking about one of the lines that seemed rather promising he said: "It would be really hard for me to go for this line because I cannot calculate it till the end and therefore cannot properly evaluate it" (not the exact qoute, but close enough). The other day, I was looking at a theoretical opening position with multiple possible plans with another student and he asked: "I know that there are 4 plans here, but which is the BEST?". 



Both of these guys in their respective situations were seeking KNOWLEDGE. And if they couldn't find it, it would make them feel somehow weaker, incapable, cause them to doubt themselves and their future decision. "Oh, I don't KNOW this or that for sure, it means I suck!". Wrong :) 


So, how do I define knowledge? To me, it is something that is objectively true, guaranteed, based on facts and irrefutable. And this is where we run in to trouble - if we use my definition of knowledge, in chess (actually, in life too, but that is another matter) there is very little that we can KNOW for sure, and that knowledge is mainly restricted to openings and endgames.


For example, we know for sure that Q+K wins versus K and similar endgame things and one could also argue that we KNOW that certain opening lines are good/bad. It is good to know these things because they certainly help. But when we are talking about most of the middlegame positions which require evaluation, the term "knowledge", as I've defined it, goes out the window, and two new terms come in: "Personal Applicable Knowledge" and "Belief". 


Personal applicable knowledge (PAK) is a term that was coined by me and my good friend Keith Eschler years ago at like 4AM in the dormitories of University of Texas at Dallas. It is only our opinion and it is likely incorrect in someway, but I am sticking with it :) So, what is a PAK and how does it differ from "knowledge" that I've defined earlier? If you remember the definition of "knowledge" I've used, it has several important aspects to it: "true, guaranteed, irrefutable". 

PAK does not have any of these aspects. The word PERSONAL implies that it is something that we ourselves THINK we know, but it is not necessarily true, guaranteed or irrefutable. In order to better explain it, here is how PAK is created: 


1 step: Personal unsureness - we don't know what something is/how it works. For example, I see someone play some strange opening line that I have never seen before. 

2 step: Curious thought - "hm.. this line is interesting, I should check it out" 

3 step: Imagination - I start thinking about this line in my head, trying to work it out, but usually it is not enough. 

4 step: Curious action - since I couldn't figure it out myself, I take action - check it on Chessbase, check it in an opening book, ask someone who might know about it, etc. 

5 step: Personal interpretation - this is a key step that really makes a difference between a PAK and "knowledge" as defined earlier. All the information that I have gathered in steps 3 and 4, I now interpret in my OWN way at that way I gain some Personal Applicable Knowledge. In our example it could be "well, this opening line sucks". But that is only something that I personally think is true, it does not necessarily mean it IS true, right? 


So now that we have talked about PAK, let's talk a bit about belief. 

Me and Keith thought that personal belief appears after many PAKs come together to form it. For example, if I have these PAKs: 1. Girls like flowers 2. Girls like attention 3. Girls like compliments , it is rather natural for me to believe that the best possible date would involve flowers, a bunch of attention and a bunch of compliments. It is not necessarily true in general, but based on my personal applicable knowledge, it is likely. You get the point! 


Now after we have cleared up these two terms and leave the term "knowledge" for opening/endgame, IF you are still reading, we are getting back in to chess territory.


In my opinion, evaluation of position in chess middlegames in an absolutely vast majority of the cases is based on PAKs and BELIEF, and not on KNOWLEDGE. Unless we see that we gain a massive material advantage or force mate or something extreme like that, we can never know for sure that our evaluation is correct. However, based on our PAK, we can form a belief that it is. For example, before transposing to and endgame one can use PAKs such as: 1. He has a bad bishop 2. I have a nice outpost 3. His rooks are more active though to formulate a belief about the evaluation of a resulting position. 


Let's go for a chess example: 



Finally, after a very long ramble which I hope you had strength to read, we reach the main point of this blog post - EVERY CHESS PLAYER HAS TO FEEL COMFORTABLE WITH NOT KNOWING THINGS FOR SURE. In every single game there will be dozen situations where you will not be able to know for sure and will have to make a decision based on what you believe is true. And that is not a bad thing at all, since everyone is doing the same. Just that some are more comfortable with that idea than others.


Remind yourself of this the next time you are staring at a super tactical variation which you cannot calculate/evaluate till the end and therefore you are thinking about abandoning it, even though your instincts scream for you to do it. Trust your instincts, trust your PAKs and BELIEVE, for not always can you KNOW! 


I apologize for the length of this post. When I started writing I just couldn't stop and I felt like I cannot omit anything that is written. Please remember that this is simply my opinion so take it with a grain of salt, interpret it yourself and create your own PAK about this subject :) I will be waiting for your opinions in the comment section!


Cheers and a shoutout to my dear friend Keith Eschler, without whom a lot of these ideas would have never came to fruition - in this post I simply applied them to chess.