Review:  How to Choose a Chess Move

Review: How to Choose a Chess Move

Mar 21, 2008, 7:28 PM |
It is a startling truth, but there is only one thing that separates you and me from a grandmaster.  The GM can select the best of 5 candidate moves more often than can we.  To the extent that we can close that gap we will inch closer to the GM’s skill. 

With that in mind, GM Andrew Soltis’ title caught my eye when I spied it in the bookstore:  How to Choose a Chess Move.  That’s for me, I thought.  I had recently finished reading Silman’s Reassess Your Chess, and had repeatedly felt a certain frustration while ingesting his insightful advice.  He would provide some complex position, explain the various attributes of candidate moves, and point out why one was better than another.  His reasoning made so much sense that his choices were practically self-evident, yet when confronted by my own games I was filled with FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt).  Could Soltis perhaps help?

His book was published in 2005 by Batsford, and is level-tagged for club players (rather than beginners or experts).  It is organized into 11 chapters, with the first providing an interesting introduction to the problem of move selection and illustrated with several master games.  There are immediately some nice insights.  I particularly liked the discussion of Kasparov’s 1997 game against internet opponents. 

We often read discussions about moves that are forcing, such as captures and checks.  In this particular game, Kasparov reached a position where his move was dictated by the fact that it was anti-forcing.  That is, he selected it because it gave his opponents a great variety of ways to respond, thereby increasing their likelihood of making an error.  What a fabulous idea – tactical entropy!  I will return to this idea below.

In the next chapter Soltis discusses particular kinds of cues that suggest the candidate moves to seriously consider.  These cues are based on tactics, general principles, positional desirability, consistency and the concept of pieces that are problematic.  In the discussion of consistency Soltis refers to move candidates that are consistent with your plan.  For example, if you have determined that your opponent has a weak pawn, the plan would be to attack it.  Certain moves may or may not contribute toward that end, so a consistent choice of candidates would include those that do.

The third chapter discusses a very important idea:  considering the point of your opponent’s last move.  This seems elementary, but I have often committed the sin of following my own plan to the exclusion of my opponent’s, resulting in several dramatic losses.  After reading this chapter, I began spending more time to understand my opponent’s moves, and I have been spared several blunders as a result. 

The next several chapters delve into the concept of evaluating moves and counter-moves, often referred to as calculation.  Soltis discusses the pros and cons of forcing moves and quiet moves, and gives advice regarding situations that deserve careful calculation.  One such situation is when you would like to make a move on general principles, but there are tactical considerations that make the move ‘impossible’.  Soltis cautions the reader not to give up in a case like this, but to calculate carefully.  There may be a way to make it work after all. 

The seventh chapter discusses four different methodologies that can guide your move selection.  The first he calls prioritizing whereby you focus primarily on one candidate and only consider another if you find a good reason not to accept the first.  This method may be appropriate in a tournament when you are in time trouble.  Another method is elimination, which is also a nice strategy that many students follow in test-taking:  eliminate the obviously wrong answers.  The remainder must be correct (or at least good).  In ‘back-and-forth’, you may consider the merits and demerits of first one move, then another, and return again to the first.  While this takes time, understanding the consequences of one move may give insight into the other.  The fourth method in this chapter refers to building mental trees, as discussed by Alexander Kotov.  I have previously described this process in a blog (click here) that explains how chess computers defeat us.

The eighth is an interim chapter in which Soltis writes at some length how a player should not become overly concerned with all the advice, techniques and methods presented in the previous chapters.  Sometimes there just isn’t a ‘best move’ to be found.  The ninth chapter goes into move order and how it influences move selection.  I have been both the victor and the victim regarding this idea.  If you can trade either knight for an opposing bishop, does it matter which one you trade?  The answer, of course, is that sometimes it doesn’t, but often it does, and if you are to recognize the difference then you must calculate both variations in your mind.  Does it look like you can almost, but not quite, win a pawn from your opponent?  Try a different move order, and you might find that you can indeed win the pawn. 

 The penultimate chapter discusses the tradeoff between clarity and risk.  If you can correctly calculate many moves ahead, you have reduced the risk associated with the next move.  But what if you have two good moves to consider and you can calculate equally far ahead?  How do you decide between one highly valuable move in a very complex branch of the tree versus a move of lesser value in a more predictable branch?  For this common dilemma, Soltis has interesting advice.  Select the move with the greatest disparity between clarity and risk.  That is, if you can calculate only two moves ahead in the complex position, but 4 moves ahead in the simpler one, then if they have equal risk, choose the one that is clear for 4 moves.  But if you judge the risk of that move to be more than double the risk of the other, then select the other move.

Do you remember the discussion above where I characterized an idea as tactical entropy?  I find this concept to be one of the most intriguing in the book, and I’ve seen it in no other text that I have read. It comes up again in chapter ten under a subtitle called “When Messy is Good”.  Soltis doesn’t refer to it as entropy, that is my description.  In physics, entropy refers to the degree of disorder in a system.  Steam molecules are in a high state of entropy, and exhibit maximum disorder.   Liquid water has lower entropy, but higher order.  When water cools enough to become ice, the molecules line up into crystals, exhibiting extremely rigid order, and very low entropy.

Applied to chess, the notion of entropy refers to the number of choices one has for the next move, the average in a typical game being roughly 30 legal choices per move.  If you capture an opponent’s piece, he is likely to recapture, if he can.  Low entropy.  Highly predictable.  If you check his king, he must respond.  Lower entropy.  But make a waiting move in the middle game where your position is already strong, and you are forcing your opponent to consider a great many moves.

Recapturing is, with occasional exception, the correct response.  But selecting the ‘correct’ response from over 30 choices increases the likelihood of an error.  Low order, high entropy.  This is a golden nugget of knowledge.

In the final chapter, Soltis discusses how to manage time under tournament conditions.  But he really discusses more than this, for he talks about the ‘turning point’ of a game, what some authors refer to as the ‘critical position’ when the next move may determine the outcome of the game.  One nice suggestion he has is to stop and reconsider if you are about to make a ‘forced’ move that you feel is positionally unsound.  The only truly forced move involves a check or a mating threat, and games have been won by sacrificing the King’s feminine mate.  If a move feels wrong, it just might be that you don’t have to make it after all.

Soltis’ book is well written, and I have summarized several of the more interesting and useful ideas.  Does it deliver on the promise of its title to instruct us How to Choose a Chess Move?  It does instruct, but I suspect it may take me a mite longer to close the gap between myself and a grandmaster.  I may be able to identify the same 5 candidate moves as Soltis, but even after reading his book, he is likely to continue doing a better job than me of deciding which is the best of the 5 to play. 

In the first sentence of his book Soltis writes,  “Selecting a good chess move is a remarkably complex task.”  But he may have helped me close the gap between us ever so slightly.  After reading his text, I feel minutely better equipped to choose my move carefully, in chess as in life.