Chess Thinking, Part 2: The Dilemma Resolved

Chess Thinking, Part 2: The Dilemma Resolved

Jul 26, 2009, 1:01 PM |

In Part 1 of this blog I discussed mental processes for move selection as advocated by authors such as Silman, Purdy, and Heisman.  I also noted the extreme difficulty of actually putting into practice any kind of thinking technique.  I would now like to suggest a deliberate training exercise designed to help you internalize whatever thinking process you prefer.

Since hybrids are in the news so much these days, I’ll mention that my own 5-step process is a hybrid from the three authors cited above.  Near the end I will explain why I chose the following words to remind myself of each step:
1.    Opponent
2.    Candidates
3.    Analysis
4.    Evaluation
5.    Blunder

When it is my turn to move, I think of the word ‘Opponent’ to remind myself to think of the move just made by my adversary.  What was its purpose?  Is there a plan behind that move?  How did the board change as a result?  Are there new tactical possibilities that are now possible, either for myself or for my opponent?

Keeping in mind my own plan (which I try to think of as soon as the opening is finished), I then think of 3-5 ‘Candidates’ for the move I will now make.  Of course, entire books have been written about candidate selection and I cannot delve into that here.  Suffice it to say that any reasonable candidate should address any threats just made by my opponent, be consistent with my plan, and/or conform to general chess principles.

Next, for each candidate move I perform a mental ‘Analysis’, or calculation as it is called by some.  If I make move A, then my opponent will likely make move B, to which I should respond with C, and so forth.  Again, books have been written on this topic – most notably Kotov’s classic Think Like a Grandmaster

At the end of each such analysis chain is a position subject to a necessary ‘Evaluation’.  (Rhetorical question:  Have books been written on this subject?)  Would this position be good for me?  Better than the current position?  By how much? 

The best move to make, of course, is the Candidate that results in a position after all Analysis with the most favorable Evaluation.  If this sounds difficult and subjective, it is.  But that is one thing that makes chess so intriguing!  To simplify this process it is best to perform your Analysis simultaneously with your Evaluation.  Evaluate the first position of your Analysis and remember the move associated with that Evaluation.  When you Evaluate your second position, just compare it to the first and remember the corresponding move that you consider to be better.  If you do this for each Evaluation, then you only need to keep one Candidate move in your mind at a time.

If a given Candidate can result in more than one reasonable position for Evaluation, then use the worst position to represent the value of that Candidate move, not the best, because you have to assume your opponent will make choices that are worse for you.  This is the well-known ‘minimax’ principle explained in more detail in my earlier blog How Your Chess Program Defeats You, part 1.

Now that you think you have found the best move, perform a ‘Blunder’ check before you actually make it!  If you make the move, are you leaving the piece en prise?  Was it protecting something valuable that is now vulnerable?  Since even Grandmasters make blunders, it is worth adding this step to your personal thinking process.

If the move is safe, then make it.  If not, go back to steps 3 and 4.

This is all well and good, but as I said in Part 1 of this blog, I have often begun a game promising myself to perform these mental steps, only to discover I have made myself a liar.

So here is my resolution to this dilemma.  I have created a spreadsheet for myself that contains a standard score sheet as well as a column for each of the steps 1-5 above.  When I begin each game on, I create a new copy where I write down my understanding of my Opponent’s move, my move Candidates, each line of Analysis, and a description of each Evaluated position.  And before I actually make my selected move, I check for a Blunder, marking an ‘x’ in the cell before making that move.

This takes significant effort and time, but just having the spreadsheet open is enough for me to remember to use it.  And I am utterly convinced that if I continue to use this spreadsheet, I will not only perform these steps faster, but I will ultimately internalize them and be able to dispense with the spreadsheet altogether. 

And why did I choose those particular words to represent my 5 steps?  It is because their first letters form an easily remembered acronym:  OCAEB (pronounced “oh-cab”).  When I no longer need to use the spreadsheet, I will just remember OCAEB as I think through the process.

Either playing against your computer or playing games on with the standard 3 day per move time control is perfect for using such a system because there is virtually no time pressure here.  Is it hard work?  Certainly, but I never accomplished anything without hard work, and I’m pretty certain no chess master ever did either.

If you would like to try out this spreadsheet, just send me a message right here at  Include your email address, and I’ll send you my Excel file.  You can, of course, modify it easily to suit your own thinking process.  I hope that it will help you to choose your move carefully, in chess as in life.