A chess epiphany: Talk to yourself

A chess epiphany: Talk to yourself

NM eltenedor
Jul 20, 2015, 5:23 PM |

I think I have discovered the key to playing far better chess (at least for me). Talking to myself. I'm not sure whether this statement is obvious or absurd (PsychCentral, for one, thinks it's healthy). I'll let you be the judge. But I know one thing: It's been working for me. Maybe it will for you, too. (This sounds like a Hooked on Phonics prelude.)

Now, what do I mean, exactly? There is no room for vagueness when it comes to such a serious topic, so let me get specific. I mean over-the-board. Not aloud, but in your head. Specific enough? Okay, let's delve deeper.

Chess is dialogue. In the most immediate and tangible sense, it's a dialogue with your opponent across the board. It is also a perpetual dialogue with players of the past and their games, as well as with your kibitzing colleagues (call them what you will, but wherever they are, they are). When you are playing a game, directly or not, you are engaging in dialogue with all of the above. And, of course, with yourself. I argue that dialogue represents both the search for -- and, at its best, the realization of -- logic. Chess is a wonderful manifestation of logic, and dialogue represents a fine way to communicate, and further contribute to, that logic. Given the instrumental role of logic and dialogue in chess, I believe that all of the above forms of dialogue are critical if one is to take their chess to the next nevel.

To clarify the importance of talking to yourself during a chess game, let me provide a contrast: the intuitive yet slightly grunt-like thinking of blitz. Perhaps this is one reason Pandolfini has beef with the activity. Fact is, when you're pressed for time -- whether during a blitz game or in the last 10 minutes of a classical chess game -- you simply don't have the time to talk to yourself. Accordingly, you don't have the time to exercise the best of logic or play the best of moves. This is why blunders often occur in time pressure.

So you must talk to yourself. In other words, you must think! This is obvious, right? I don't think so. I realized that I wasn't thinking in all of my moves. I mean really, really thinking. I mean talking to myself. Having internal dialogue. Weighing the pros and cons of various ideas, digging deep into my well of chess knowledge to consider profound positional ideas, questioning my assertions, forcing myself to double down and triple check that my favored line is sound and that my cunning enemy has not laid any traps. I like blitz, but the reality is that there is a tedency to fall into a blitz-like mode of cognition during games, where we play what "feels" right without carefully weighing it -- maybe because we're blitz addicts, or maybe we don't even play blitz (right...) and have just become lazy. For the former, the solution is simple: we simply need to switch our mode of cognition during a longer game. This is done most easily, at least for me, by talking to myself. As for the latter, if you're serious about the game, just stop being lazy. (The biggest conundrums usually have the simplest answers, don't they?)

Now, to get more concrete about how to initiate this process, literally begin a dialogue in your head. Find a way that works for you. But when all is said and done, it should emphasize the logical process combined with creativity combined with filtration or regulation. (Again, these are conclusions that I have drawn based on my own cognition; let me know if you have another that works for you, but at any rate, hopefully it will be a useful model to consider.) Let me break that down one by one:

The logical process: This is the aspect that forces you to consider the bread and butter of chess, combined with calculation. The part where you ask yourself questions (central to self-conversing, of course) about the various components of the position (or, in Silman's useful language, the imbalances) such as material, space, development, initative, minor pieces, king safety, control of key files and diagonals, weaknesses, etc. This process of internal questioning will help you to understand the position. Of course, you should also be looking for features associated with tactical possibilities (unsafe king, loose pieces, weak squares, dynamic possibilites, etc.) and the logical way to carry them out, if they exist. Most importantly, though, through logical reasoning we are able to consider various options (or lines, variegated branches of a seemingly endless tree) and to carefully weigh them against each other, using sound judgment (both learned and based on our fresh insights at the board, which feeds into the second concept) in order to arrive at a logical move.

Creativity: It would be terribly naive to suppose that chess is purely logical reasoning. We all know that intuition/emotion plays a critical role in our cognitive process and it is what largely differentiates us from our silicon counterparts. Subconscious creativity undoubtedly plays a significant role in what our hand ultimately decides to move, but that creativity can also be tapped into in very explicit cognitive ways. Really, it's about prompting. Prompting what -- perhaps the subconscious and/or our well of chess wisdom? Not exactly sure, but I believe that by talking to ourselves, and, specifically, by asking ourselves essential questions about the position, we simultaneously prompt and mold our chess cognition until it ultimately becomes second nature. The creative element also comes into play in terms of realizing the how. The logical element, to oversimplify, encourages us to explore the what of the position (What's the deal with the pawn structure? What weaknessess are there to exploit?) while the creative element encourages us to explore the how (How do I achieve this break to realize my queenside objectives based on the nature of the pawn structure, which I have come to understand through my logical reasoning? How do I get rid of that knight guarding the weak d5 square so that I can allow all of my pieces to use it as a stepping stone to my opponent's king?). This explorative process, brought about by specific questioning -- which, to belabor the point, will arise through internal dialogue -- will stimulate our right brain, encouraging us to think creatively to find solutions to the problems at the board. Piece of cake, right? Of course, it's a process.

Regulation/Filtration: I imagine this aspect is undervalued by many players, but I argue that it is absolutely essential. You know the lines, "You've been telling me you're a genius since you were seventeen / And all the time I've known you I still don't know what you mean." How many self-styled geniuses (or MENSA members) never made it very far in chess? Oh, the hands (read: emotions) have wonderful minds of their own. That's why you must sit on them! The literal element of this is easy enough (though it may lead to numbing in more than one region) while the figurative element -- you guessed it! -- entails talking to yourself. Your more authoritative, regulation-friendly self, that is, to ensure that you've put up enough red tape to stop you from committing your next chess DUI (or worse). This is the part in your cognitive functioning where your ingenuity and intuition may feel a bit, well, offended. To hell with it. Consider it a benevolent dictatorship. No, the branches of the U.S. government. A mutualistic relationship (or an attempt, anyway) is key here. So, to fulfill this part of the process, ask yourself questions like: Am I hanging anything? Does exposing my king bring benefits that outweigh the costs, or is there a simpler way? What would Capablanca [or fill in name of rational chess hero] do? (This question brings to mind an important point: Your conversation need not be between you and you (or two versions of yourself). It can also be between you and a chess mentor, alive or dead, real or imagined. That's just another way of going about this. But find something that works for you. Sooner or later, it will happen.) Another key question: Should I really be spending half an hour on deciding between these two moves, or is the time lost more valuable than any microscopic difference between the two? As you could imagine, I would recommend tailoring these questions based on your weaknesses, but the above three -- regarding blundering a piece, voluntarily denuding your king, and wasting your time -- should probably be pretty high on your list. If you have not already consciously inserted this form of cognition into your game, I would guess that doing so will markedly improve your game. Either way, let me know.

So there you have it, an inflated synopsis of my developing theory on chess cognition. I haven't read much into the literature, and I'm sure I'm stomping on ground that has been visited many times before. While I'm back in the game, though (and I hope it lasts) and thinking these kinds of chess thoughts, I figured blogging them was the only sensible thing to do (there was much self-conversing throughout the day regarding the move that my fingertips are now making, I assure you). But given all that must be out there, in addition, of course, to your own insights, I hope this sparks a conversation -- below, somewhere in the world, and yes, in your mind, which we can only hope has greatly benefited from the daily fix of riddles that Caissa so generously presents.

At the end of the day, though, my throwaway is not that "theories are moot" but that we must each find a chess theory that works for us -- it's a huge study, a monumental experiment, much like life.

But if you walk away with one thing, walk away with this: The ability to talk to ourselves is a luxury -- one that reminds us that me may just be sane after all...when we win, that is! And isn't that why we play in the first place -- to assure ourselves of our sanity? This luxury is largely free (tournament expenses aside). Don't squander it.



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