The psychology of chess (Part 1)

The psychology of chess (Part 1)

Nov 12, 2014, 11:31 AM |

I have often read that psychology is a large part of chess, but the objective-seeming number we get from looking through the silicone lense of chess engines diludes the aspect of psychology.

To preface my article, I'd like to question the assessment of chess engines.  Until the engine has found a mate in all lines of its assessment (I'm not questioning mates; it will generally find forced mates very accurately and efficiently), it will display a number--an estimated point value that one player is projected to be ahead, based on material and positional considerations after the calculated number of moves (depth).  This assessment, however, is based on equations to estimate the nuaunces of the position, beyond what the computer has calculated (surely these calculations vary by engine).  You likely know some variation of the common human material evaluation of chess:

The truth of the evaluation, however (given the most accurate play by both players), is that it should be simple: 1, 1/2, or 0 (or 1, 0, -1, however you want to indicate a win, draw, or loss).  The number of moves to win is superfluous, unless it is beyond the current rules (50 moves or fewer between captures), though that should be evaluated as a draw.

Based on the results of upper level chess, I would surmise the best estimate of the starting position would be a draw, if all lines could be known (that is, without mistakes by either player, all games should end in a draw).

Before I continue, I suppose I should provide some back story.  After my first chess lesson ever (Just over a year ago, with IM John Bartholomew), I did my first personal analysis of a game (a game played here on  I had just started playing chess again, and admittedly I had many flaws in my comprehension of basic chess concepts (I still have a lot to work on).  Once I achieved a winning position, I was still marking inaccuracies with "?" or "??," since I missed opportunities to win material, despite the fact that those mistakes wouldn't change the result.  Here is the game:

If you're curious about my analysis at the time, it can be found here: but I'll give a summary that is more to the point:

My point is not to defend my inaccurate play (as, if you willingly play inaccuracies, you may be more likely to play blunders), but that none of the mistakes I marked after move 15 would have affected the outcome, even if they were all exploited.  An inaccuracy or mistake is only really relevant if it affects the outcome (though it should be relevant to your analysis if it COULD HAVE affected the outcome).

John gave me some great advice, though I will refrain from using quotations, as it was too long ago for me to remember, and even paraphrasing is a stretch:  If you see a clear win, it doesn't matter if it's the most efficient play, as long as it’s still a win.

When deciding what move to play, it is important to evaluate the position objectively, but it is also important to evaluate it subjectively.  Given two moves that should have the same objective result for the game, it may be important to decide which move will:

  • A. make the play harder for your opponent (or make him more error prone), 
  • B. Simplify the position and therefore your calculation, and 
  • C. play to your personal strengths.


One aspect of chess that always entertains me is the thought of playing “good chess,” or the thought of imposing your will on someone else on the board.  Really, if all games should end in a draw, all we can do is wait for our opponent to make mistakes, and try to play accurately ourselves.  If a tactic is available on the board, it is because your opponent made a mistake, and you played accurately.  So I will leave you with a statement we will explore further in the next two posts: A player cannot improve the objective result of a game (win, draw, loss) with any move, he can only maintain or diminish the result.

As always, keep studying!
Check in next week for the continuation of this three part mini-series.