What's Inside YOUR Chess Mind?

What's Inside YOUR Chess Mind?


Aagaard’s book Inside the Chess Mind reminds me of my typical game.  It’s brilliant in conception, but falls short in execution.  In this thin text Aagaard presents the reader with the following 10 challenging diagrams:


For all but positions 2 and 10 the reader is requested to find the best continuation within a strict time limit that ranges from 5 to 12 minutes.  For Position 2 the reader is requested to play out the game within 30 minutes versus a strong computer.  In Position 10 the reader may take as much time as necessary to find the best continuation.


What makes the concept of the book so interesting is that Aagaard selected eight players of varying strengths and gave them the same instructions.  He then recorded their vocalizations during their thinking time, and the bulk of the book consists of these thoughts transcribed.  In addition to the eight players, Aagaard also used Fritz 8 and asked programmer Mathias Feist to interpret its results.


The intent of the book is to gain insight into the thinking of chess players as they determine what move to play.  This is attempted by selecting players with a wide range of playing ability.  One of the participants was a beginner, and one was a novice club player with an Elo of about 1400.  There was a father and son duo with Elo ratings of 2076 and 2050, respectively, and another player at 2237.


Finally, there were three titled players – IM Jesper Hall (2487), GM Peter Heine Nielsen (2638) and GM Artur Yusupov (2589).


Brave soul that I am, I accepted Aagaard’s challenge and worked each exercise, comparing my results with the experiment’s participants.  I was greatly encouraged at the very beginning when I discovered to my delight that my move choice for Position 1 was the same move selected by GM Yusupov!  This elation was boosted on Position 3 where I found the same move as all three of the titled players.  I also found GM Nielsen’s moves for both Position 9 and 10.  However, let me leave you with the opinion that you just formed, and we will not discuss my results on the other positions.


So why did I say that Aargaard’s book fails to deliver in execution?  This is not to say that it is without any merit, but my primary disappointment is that the book does not offer any particularly intriguing insights even though Aagaard does use the final chapter to comment on lessons learned.


For example, one conclusion is that “strong players do not calculate more than average players.  But yes, both strong and average players calculate more than beginners and weaker players.”  See what I mean?  That bit of wisdom does not exactly repay the $25 that I parted company with when I bought the book.

Part of the final chapter summarizes Aagaard’s understanding of each player’s strengths and weaknesses, including those of the three titled players.  Again there are no observations of great inspiration, only remarks of moderate interest.

One question in my mind when reading the book was whether I would learn anything regarding the difference in value between deductive reasoning – calculation, as it is generally referred to in chess books – and pattern-based reasoning.

What I mean by pattern-based reasoning is simply recognizing that a board position is similar to a position that the player has studied in the past, and then applying the lessons of that memory, perhaps by analogical reasoning, to the problem posed by the current position.

This is referred to as “case-based reasoning” in cognitive science and artificial intelligence.  My friend and former colleague Dr. Alexander Morgan wrote a fascinating blog about the use of case-based reasoning in a 19th century medical case that merits reading. 


Aagaard refers to pattern-based reasoning when he states that, “…patterns come instantly to well-educated players” and also, “awareness of tactics is based on pattern recognition and calculation.”

Another common notion in chess is that some players are ‘logical’ while others are ‘intuitive’ and Aagaard addresses this distinction to a small degree in his concluding chapter.

For example, IM Hall and GM Nielsen are both identified as “intuitive” players, but Aagaard does not exactly clarify just what is meant by this, aside from vague references such as, “[Hall] does not logically deduce the ideas, but rather opens his eyes and sees them on the board.”  Nielsen is quoted as describing his own thinking in similar terms, “I am an intuitive player… That means that I look at the position and more or less come with my best guess.”


When I see such statements as this, I do not conclude that intuition can never be described in concrete terms.  My only conclusion is that Nielsen is incapable of describing his own mental processes, just as untrained native speakers of a language rarely have a good conscious understanding of that language.  Just because Nielsen cannot articulate these cognitive processes does not mean he does not have them.  Sometimes an external observer can help with the articulation, but in this case Aagaard does no better in helping us understand what Nielsen is thinking.  Aagaard writes, “Peter, being a very intuitive player, calculates a lot of lines, but generally trusts his emotional impression.”


When I read chess books I am no different from most readers.  I want to know how I can become a better chess player. So what may we conclude from Aagaard’s case study?  It comes as no surprise to me that reading this book has simply confirmed what I have already learned from many other chess books.  If I want to play better I need to continue not only to play the game, but also study it.


In Aagaard’s last chapter he repeatedly stresses that it is tactical vision that separates weak players from club players, and club players from strong ones.  He says explicitly of the latter that they are strong precisely because they have studied intensively.


“Not talent, but work” writes  Aagaard.