The Amazing Power of Board Vision

danheisman
NM danheisman
Aug 15, 2012, 1:42 PM |
15

     Before we do anything else, get out your stopwatch. Using the following position, I want you to generate two numbers as fast as you can and record your time: 1) How many legal moves does White have? and 2) How many of those legal moves checkmate Black? Ready, go...

     This problem can be found on page 46 of Jon Levitt's insightful book Genius in Chess. What Levitt found at the international level (and I found to be true below it), is that the faster and more accurately you can do these "board vision" puzzles, the better you probably are. In other words, there is a very high correlation between your ability to answer questions like these quickly and accurately and how well you play chess.
     That's an amazing conclusion that should tell us much about learning chess!
     It's amazing because the problem asks you nothing about finding "good" moves. Yes, it asks about checkmate but there's only absolutes there - it's either checkmate or it's not. There's no grey in the question such as "Is move X better than move Y?" or "What's the best move you can find in this position?"
     All you need to answer the problem is to know the rules of chess: knowing lots of openings, endgames, principles, and famous games won't help you here. Someone who has learned the game yesterday might get a better score than you did (not likely but theoretically possible). ---
     What does this tell us? It tells us that the ability to look at a chess board and just figure out what is happening (without having to analyze or visualize future possible consequences!) is an extremely important skill, one I have dubbed "board vision".
     But what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Does improving your board vision improve your chess, or does improving your chess improve your board vision? As with most things, it turns out a little of each. In his book Rapid Chess Improvement Michael de la Maza suggests some board vision exercises which he claims helped him greatly in a fairly short period of time. I believe Michael is correct, although he certainly did many other helpful things that affected both his board vision and his overall playing strength (one thing I disagree with Michael is his use of some difficult tactical problems for his Seven Circles, but that's a story I've already written in past Novice Nook articles http://danheisman.home.comcast.net/~danheisman/Articles/Novice_Nook_Links.htm).
     So there are many ways to improve your board vision. Consistently playing slowly in many long time control games is the main way, but it's hardly the only one. Authors like Jeff Coakley (see his fantastic book Winning Chess Puzzles for Kids Vol 2) or Bruce Albertson (Chess Mazes) specialize in the types of puzzles that focus on board vision. And my website has some board vision exercises you can do, some more easily performed with a study-buddy.
     In any case, no matter how you improve your board vision, you are sure to reap noticeable results.
     Oh, by the way, the answer to the problem in the diagram is that White has 29 legal moves and all 29 are checkmate. If you took more than two minutes to get the correct answer that's fairly slow by strong players' standards...How did you do and what caused your errors, assuming there were some? They might tell you something...