Chess Thinking, Part 1:  The Dilemma

Chess Thinking, Part 1: The Dilemma

Jul 21, 2009, 9:48 PM |

After five full years of studying chess books, I think I’ve done a reasonable job of acquiring some basic theoretical knowledge of the game from authors such as Horowitz, Chernev, Silman, Nimzowitsch, Soltis, Reinfeld and many others.  Yet how many times have I lost a game only to review it later and discover that I had failed to apply the knowledge that was acquired from those fine writers?  (The answer: Many times.)

Thus, I have lately become interested in how to think over the board.  That is, is there a sequence of specific thoughts that I should follow in order to choose better moves?

As it turns out, several famous chess authors advocate various ‘thinking techniques’, as Silman refers to them.  Here is Silman’s own, as outlined in his excellent text How to Reassess Your Chess.

1.    Identify the imbalances on the board.
2.    Decide which side of the board you should play on (i.e. queenside vs. kingside).
3.    Think of the fantasy position you would most like to achieve to leverage the existing imbalances.
4.    If you don’t think you can reach that fantasy position, then think of another that is easier to reach.
5.    Identify the candidate moves to calculate that will help you reach that position.

While I very much like Silman’s concept of imbalances, I do not particularly care for this thinking technique.  The very first thinking process that I remember reading about was advocated by International Master and World Correspondence Chess Champion C. J. S. Purdy.  Here is a summary of Purdy’s thinking process, as outlined in Tykodi’s 1992 edition of C.J.S. Purdy’s Fine Art of Chess Annotation and Other Thoughts.

1.    What are the moves I have to consider?
2.    How has the opponent’s last move changed the position?
3.    What are the key features of the position?
4.    Do I have a combination on the board?
5.    What short-term plan, with attainable goals, shall I concoct?
6.    Am I about to commit a blunder?

I prefer Purdy’s method to Silman’s if only for the blunder check to prevent my predilection for foolishness.  If you think that such elementary advice is not relevant for your fine intellectual prowess, I might suggest that you review your ten most recent losses.  Sadly (happily?) no one is immune, and in Even the Gods Can Blunder I wrote about Grandmaster gaffes.

Not long ago I discovered Dan Heisman’s wonderful Novice Nook column on  His March 2002 column, entitled “A Generic Thought Process”, provides a nice process for a majority of moves in the middle game.

1.    Understand how your opponent’s move changed the situation, in particular if that move resulted in a check, capture or a threat.
2.    Create a list of candidate moves.
3.    Calculate the likely resulting position for each candidate move by considering at least your move, your opponent’s reply, and your answer.
4.    Evaluate the resulting position, i.e. does it leave you better or worse, and by how much?
5.    Select the candidate move that results in the position with the best evaluation.
6.    Before making that ‘best’ move, perform a sanity check.
7.    If it is safe, then make it.

Notice that both Heisman and Purdy have explicitly suggested that you understand your opponent’s move.  It may be argued that such understanding is also implicit in Silman’s first step in understanding the board’s imbalances.

When I was very early in my chess playing, it was almost impossible for me to understand my opponent’s move.  I simply did not possess enough basic theoretical chess knowledge.  But after I had read several books and gained some over-the-board experience, understanding my opponent’s last move slowly became easier and my own level of play began to rise in direct proportion to this understanding.

In my humble patzer opinion, understanding the opponent’s move and performing a blunder check are by far the two most important steps for a novice to follow.

In any case, suppose that you adopt one of the above methodologies and swear on Morphy’s grave to follow that process religiously before you make each and every move.  How much and how quickly will you improve?

After performing a great amount of empirical research, I have determined with veritable certainty that just intending to follow a thinking process is doomed to failure.  Good intentions not withstanding, I have begun countless games promising myself to follow my own favorite thinking process only to discover about 3 moves into the middle game that I have sworn falsely on poor Morphy’s grave, shaming myself and desecrating his memory grievously.

The reason for such blasphemy is simple.  When you are engaged in a game, your instincts – or lack thereof – will control you.  It is extraordinarily difficult to remember to follow a mental process for each and every move once you are in the throes of a chess battle with all of the emotion and mental intensity that is involved.

However, I do believe I have found a solution to this dilemma.  I urge you to watch this space for Part 2 of this blog where I will soon reveal the solution.  In the meantime, choose your move carefully, in chess as in life.