How to think in chess?
This question has the broadest possible range. At one extreme it refers to the immediate problem facing every chessplayer with an ounce of fight left in him- what move to play next on the board. At the other extreme it refers to the lifelong problem facing every player with an ounce of ambition left in him - what move to make next in one's development.
If you want to get better, you have to change. And you have to change because some of what you do now is flawed or second-best. But which part of your thinking is not quite right? Know thyself is a developmental principle familiar since the days of Socrates, and its worth is repeatedly proved in many walks of life. It is obligatory in chess training, when it is worthwhile noting not only what you do, but also how you are doing it, how you think, and how you solve problems. This very necessary self knowledge applies both to minute details (of individual moves, and immediate game plans) and to the overall picture (of your character, and your future chess career). Unless you know where you are, and where you want to go, progress is impossible.
Let us begin with the thinking that takes place during a game. The moves on a chessboard can be praised or criticized in isolation, but they are the result of thought processes that can and must themselves be investigated. Here we draw on the classic research of the Dutch psychologist and chessplayer, Adriaan de Groot. Around the time of the famous AVRO tournament in 1938, and later, he was able to question several of the world's top players (Alexander Alekhine, Max Euwe, Reuben Fine, Salo Flohr, Paul Keres, and Saviely Tartakower) subject them to various chess tests and then compare their responses and results with those of weaker players (such as two female Dutch champions). One outcome was unexpected. To put it very briefly, when deciding on a move, the stronger players did not calculate any deeper than the weaker ones. The Grandmasters could memorize positions from typical games very well indeed, and seemed to have a huge internal store of arrangements and patterns of pieces (or "chunks"), but de Groot did not find that they analyzed more or longer variations than the others. This finding still has the power to surprise even today.
Please do not misunderstand this. Strong players can calculate deeper and faster, with fewer errors - than weaker players, but that cannot be the entire explanation for some top Grandmaster rapidly annihilating strong opposition in a simultaneous display. Just because titled players can calculate deeply, does not mean that they do that all the time in all their games, nor can their calculatory ability alone be the reason for their success.
There is another important finding by de Groot, which has been confirmed again and again by later researchers. Chessplayers, including the very best, do not as a rule immediately make a short and neat mental list of candidate moves that they then consider one at a time, just the once.
This is simply not how people approach most problems, nor is there any reason why they should approach all problems that way. It is just one solving method among many.
Why so many approaches to the problem of which move to play next? Why not a single, "true" way? Well, since many of the tactical and positional features of a position persist, what is discovered when weighing one line in detail may be relevant to the analysis of another line considered earlier; that other line will then deserve a second look. Inevitably, the same lines will be reconsidered; rightly, the human player will recheck his conclusions. These are not defects in a chessplayer's thinking that ought to be criticized and trained out. And often when studying a specific strategy or a combination, some thought has to be given as to which move will initiate the whole thing, whereas the general idea or theme is already clear. In other words, a prior selection had been made from among candidate plans rather than moves. A player may quite reasonably have decided that his best prospects in a particular game lie either in central consolidation, or in a queenside minority attack, for instance. Clearly, this was not simply a choice between two next moves.
De Groot was aware that the method of thinking aloud creates certain difficulties, due to the need to think and verbalize simultaneously. In general, though, the subjects acknowledged that their decision-making process in the experiment corresponded to that of the tournament situation.
De Groot's studies were not widely discussed in the literature of either chess or psychology, but this seminal work deserves wider attention among chessplayers and psychologists interested in research into cognitive processes. It appears that the method of thinking aloud, although time-consuming and hard to carry out, can serve as a valuable complement to chess training.
The advantages of thinking aloud and protocol analysis
- The method of thinking aloud, along with subsequent verbal protocol analyses, can develop in the chessplayer a habit of efficient, organized thought consciously applied in playing a chess game.
- In critical positions, at decisive moments of the battle, the player can initiate a fixed procedure of thought, thereby becoming independent of his emotions or other factors that could disturb the thought process.
- The trainer can gain an insight into the thought process of his young charge and discover how it progresses, something he would not discover if he concentrated only on the results of analysis.
- The implementation of a certain methodological rigor during play, particularly at critical moments, can prevent time trouble (or cure it).
- Using certain patterns of organized thinking does not at all curb creativity - quite the opposite. Skillfully put to good use, it can foster the discovery of original ideas.