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Assessing Positions

Jul 25, 2009, 6:27 PM 0

My first rated game on chess.com reminded me of two tendencies I remember from when I played years ago.

First: When attacked, my initial reaction is to panic. This cropped up early in the game when my opponent, playing White, ventured toward my kingside. Gahh! I thought. I must defend immediately!

But something has changed over the years, something about me. I no longer (necessarily) act out of panic. In this case, I took a deep breath, remembered that I hadn't finished developing, and that one of my developing moves (castling kingside) would likely leave me with a reasonable position even if White carried out the threat. So I took another deep breath (I'm noticing a pattern here: keep breathing), castled, and hoped I had assessed the situation well enough.

I notice two troubling words in that paragraph: likely and hoped. Weasel words. More on this below.

I also notice an unwarranted assumption: That the reason I didn't act out of panic is that something in me has changed. Another possibility is that having three days per move gives me more time to think. Nuts.

The second tendency I remembered: When the situation becomes complex, I simplify and hope for the best. This cropped up twice that I noticed. The first time was early in the game, as shown in the first diagram.

It seems to me (note the weaseling) that my devlepment was very slighly better, though I was concerned about the Queen and Bishop shining like lasers toward my kingside, and that pesky Knight frolicking in my pasture. It also seems to me (now, though not at the time) that my developed pieces are poorly coordinated.

As the game progressed, White developed and coordinated his pieces. Falling prey to my unmindful simplify and hope "strategy," I willingly accepted every offer to trade pieces. As a result, I was unable to sustain whatever slight advantage I perceived myself to have in development.

The trading frenzy resulted in the position shown in the second diagram. Here, I like my pawn structure, and I very much like my rooks on the open file. It seems to me (weaseling) that I have a definite advantage here.

But again, I was not able to sustain the advantage. White played 22.Kg1. I couldn't see a good way to avoid the impending rook bloodbath, so I played 22. ... Kf7 to get a head start on the pawn fight. And we traded rooks, destroying the advantage I thought I'd achieved.

So that's twice that I thought I had an advantage, and twice I lost it. I can think of three possibilities here:

  1. My opponent played very skillfully, neutralizing my advantages.
  2. I assessed the positions incorrectly, and in fact had no advantages.
  3. I played with insufficient skill to capitalize on my advantages.

Let's take each possibility in turn.

Point 1 is demonstrably true. I want to focus on the other possibilties, because they point more directly to how I can improve my own. I'm unlikely to find a way to make my opponent stupider. In fact, he's one of the world's leading experts at getting smarter. And even if I could make him stupider ("Gaze into my stupid ray..."), that would leave the world worse off, so I'm reluctant. That said, I will want to take a closer look at White's play to see what I can learn from it.

As for Point 2, my repeated use of weasel words throughout this post makes it clear that I'm not confident that I assessed any of these positions well. My automatic response to uncertainty--simplify and hope--seems like a recipe for squandering advantages. So I'll want to improve both my ability to assess positions and my confidence in assessing them.

Point 3 is certainly true, even if the underlying problem is misassessing positions. I do not know how to translate an advantage into a plan. I can sometimes see tactics, but I never feel as if I have even a plan, much less a strategy.

All of this leads me to a learning heuristic that has served me well in the past: Get in trouble, then seek help.

As I said in my first post, my tendency is to buy and read a lot of books on a subject rather than diving in and exploring. That strategy has a few limitations. First, I don't know how to guage the significance of what I'm reading. Second, I have no strong connection to what I'm reading. So everything I read gets equal weight, modified only by my surprise ("I hadn't thought of that!") and my guesses about what situations I'll encounter in the future.

But the Get in trouble, then seek help heuristic tends to work better for me. It's based on the assumption that if the world offers me a certain kind of trouble once, it's likely to offer it again, and probably soon. So that is a great moment to learn learn a lesson how to either get out of that kind of trouble or to avoid it. At that moment I'll know at least a little bit about the context in which that lesson applies, context that will help my built-in pattern recognizer to know when the lesson applies. And at that moment I have some emotional energy for the lesson, energy that my built-in significance signifier to gauge the importance of the lesson in that context. So the next time that context appears, my pattern recognizer detects a match, and my significance signifier knows how big a mallet to use to whack me over the head.

So I got in trouble, and I sought help. The help I found was Jeremy Silman's The Amateur's Mind. It seems to be all about assessing positions and forming plans to capitalize on them. In particular, Silman recommends assessing the imbalances in a position. On page 2 of the book, he lists seven key elements to asses for imbalances, elements such as minor pieces, pawn structure, and files and squares. Without reading further, I looked at a variety of positions from my small collection of chess books, and was immediately able to see some of the imbalances Silman listed.

On page 3: Never calculate until you understand the basic components (imbalances) of the position. Again, this was immediately useful to me. I notice myself calculating often, and concerned that I'm missing something important. Understanding the imbalances of the position will (I predict) help me to notice more of the obvious possibilities, and perhaps some of the subtle ones. I'll need to apply this principle deliberately for a while.

That's what I learned today.

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