Chess Intuition, Part Three: Conclusions.

May 15, 2015

This post concludes my discussion of Willy Hendriks’ Move First, Think Later. It was great fun to do some armchair philosophy on chess improvement again, but it’s time to return to learning chess instead of learning to learn chess ;-) Having perused Hendriks’s book some more, here are four conclusions I draw from it:

Chess improvement psychology. “Psychologizing” chess seems easy: you just look at what’s going on in your own head and analyze away, right? However, as Hendriks convincingly demonstrates, it’s actually quite hard to reach any firm conclusions about the chess that’s happening inside our brains, and therefore a modest attitude about what we can and can’t know is in order. To cite good old Socrates: You know nothing, Jon Snow! Or something like that.

Cause and effect? One more lesson in psychology that I’m taking away from Move First, Think Later is that cause and effect is a pretty tricky concept when it comes to the brain. We are easily deluded into thinking that thought A causes thought B because that is our subjective experience. Similarly, we identify a cause-and-effect relationship that in reality may actually work the other way round. In addition to phenomena such as hindsight bias, Hendrik cites the causal relationship between mastery, nature (talent) and nurture (training) as an example. When somebody gets really good really fast, is it primarily their excellent training that causes their moderate talent to bloom into mastery? Or was the effectiveness of the training method primarily a result of their talent? Is a grandmaster’s chess module simply the result of a lot of chess study, or is it really their talent that allowed them to put their study time to such good use? We are well advised to always question the validity of statements about cause and effect when we talk about the brain, because it is a hellishly complicated machine. By the same token, we may question explanations about how we find moves. To use an example given by AoxomoxoA in a recent comment: Do we find 1. … Le8 in the previous post because we ask ourselves “Which is Black’s worst piece?” or do we actually ask this question after our chess module has already subconsciously seen Le8? In a practical sense, the answer to this question is irrelevant; as long as you find Le8 (or any other good move), you’re doing fine. But we have to be aware that we might not be accurately describing what’s going on inside our chess mind.

A James Randi attitude to chess improvement. To me, Hendrik’s a bit like a James Randi of chess: with a healthy mix of scepticism and humour, he exposes illusions about chess improvement. If you seek the holy grail of chess improvement, this is a great book to put the issue into perspective.

Be wary of generalisations. As mentioned in my previous post, I do believe generalization/verbalization play an important role in teaching, and having re-read the last couple of chapters in Move First, Think LaterI don’t think Hendrik would disagree, really. While he does sketch out some non-verbal learning methods, he doesn’t object to the tried-and-tested method of simply listening to better players explain what they see in a position as long as they’re not dogmatic or pedantic, or are claiming to provide a general conceptual search algorithm for finding concrete moves. Be that as it may, Hendrik makes a fair point when he suggests we ought to be wary of generalizations. Whenever we are given advice of a general nature, we should ask ourselves “What concrete chunks and move patterns do I actually take away from this?”.

Chess improvement methods. Hendriks comments on a variety of methods and suggests some new ones using databases and computer engines. I think I’ll give his “listening to music while looking at master games playing automatically” a shot because it satisfies the most important condition of my chess improvement philosophy: have fun doing it. ;-) On a more serious note, I’ll try to discipline myself more and study concrete positions on my own before looking at general explanations, which will hopefully allow me to detect some of the deficiencies of my chess module and make it easier for my chess intuition to absorb the chunks provided by the explanations.

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Chess Intuition, Part Two: Time and complexity.

May 14, 2015

I’d like to continue my discussion of chess intuition and respond to some of the comments to my previous post with a position from Hendrik’s Move First, Think Later:

middlegame_bishophendriksBlack to Move

AoxomoxoA wrote “There is a difference between learning and doing.” This, I believe, is an extremely important observation that gets at the heart of the HendriksSilman controversy (for lack of a better label). In my current estimation, Hendrik is spot on when he’s talking about what is happening on the board, while we are doing chess, regardless of whether you’re a beginner or a master. However, I’d say where learning chess is concerned,  Hendriks’ ideas are not quite as helpful. In this, I am echoing John Watson and Jeremy Silman in their respective reviews of Move First, Think Later.

Let’s look at doing chess first. So you’re sitting at the chessboard. You’re facing the position above and you want to make a good move. Here I’ll side with Hendriks and say that simply looking at the position and working with the ideas and moves that enter your head in no particular order is just as effective as trying to impose some kind of disciplinary measure on your thinking by forcing yourself to first look at general features. And if you have no clue about what’s going on in this position, forcing yourself to think about open lines, king position, etc. won’t yield any more decent moves than just looking at the position again and to think about it some more. I’ll even join Hendriks in expressing doubts as to whether “blunderchecking” is a good idea; not so much because it’s not a good idea in theory, but because it’s not really something you can actually do in practice.

To my mind, the most convincing argument against measures such as checklisting or blunderchecking is summed up by Hendriks in this quote: “Chess is solving too difficult problems in too little time.” (136) At first glance, checklists and blunderchecks appear to help you tackle exactly that dilemma: they promise to break down the position into easier-to-digest questions that give you some sort of anchor amidst the chaos. They don’t seem to demand a huge time investment, either: after all — or so we like to tell ourselves — you “just” look quickly at the features of a position, or you “just” quickly check if your move isn’t a blunder.

But I think we’re deluding ourselves when we attest these great virtues to checklisting and blunderchecking. If you’re the kind of chess player who feels he needs checklists to help him come up with better moves, or who feels she needs to blundercheck to improve her game, you’re probably not the kind of chess player who can actually apply these measures over the board in any practical sense. Your chess thinking is messy enough as it is, and by forcing yourself to follow a protocol or do a blundercheck, you’re simply demanding too much of your chess brain. How are you going to deal with the simple question when to blundercheck, for example?

Let’s look at the position above. Say you play 1. … Bg5 and after 2. Nxg5 hxg5 3. Lxg5 you tell yourself “Stupid, I should have blunderchecked before moving Bg5!” But what you’re really saying is that you should have blunderchecked on every previous move plus all the candidate moves you’ve been calculating. Because if you’re the type of chess player who makes mistakes such as a 1. … Bg5? and doesn’t more or less immediately see that it loses a pawn, you’re the type of chess player who is prone to blunder in every position and hence the type of chess player who — according to the idea behind blunderchecks — ought to do a blundercheck every single time you make a move in your head. In practice, this is obviously impossible. The only viable, sensible way of “blunderchecking” is to look at the board, concentrate, calculate as best as you can, and hope you don’t make a stupid mistake.

And the same goes for checklists. Apart from the fact that working in earnest through a checklist in your head and pulling the various strings it creates together requires a lot of time, we’re probably deluding ourselves again if we believe that checklists allow us to do something that simply looking at the board and focusing doesn’t. If you’re a chessplayer who needs a checklist to figure out a position because you’ve got no clue what’s going on, all that a checklist’s likely going to do is confuse you eight times over — once for every item on the list. I’d imagine something like this: “Alright, I’ve no clue what’s going on — checklist time! So, what have we got here? 1. Material balance: okay, I have the same amount of pawns, same amount of knights, same amount of bishops and rooks and queens … material is equal. Alright! So far, so good. What’s next? Immediate threats. Well. Erm. Well… checks & captures, checks & captures, let’s look at those … Lxh6, is that a threat? I don’t know … I take, he takes …” and you end up right back where you started, namely in analysing a bunch of moves, trying to see as much as possible, and depending on your level ending up with a certain amount of understanding and a certain amount of confusion. The same, it seems to me, could have been achieved much more easily and economically by simply looking at the board and telling yourself to focus and think.

I know this may sound a bit facetious. But my point is this: when I try to picture what blunderchecking or checklisting would look like in practice, these seemingly “simple” methods turn out to be just as complex and demanding in their implementation as “just” looking at the board, trying to see as much as possible and not to miss anything stupid. They are not shortcuts. Rather, they’re ways of postponing the inevitable, namely that playing chess is solving difficult problems in very little time.

Here’s another argument against trying to discipline your thought process somehow: Your ultimate goal is not to use checklists and blunderchecks in real games. So why would you train yourself using them? The main argument is the notion that conscious, repeated usage will transfer them to your subconscious. But remember it’s not the blundercheck or checklist itself we want in our subconscious, it’s seeing the bad moves and good moves themselves. We don’t want an automatic, instinctive voice in our head every move that says “Check for blunders! Check for blunders!” or “What is the material balance? What are immediate threats? What about king safety? What about open lines? What about pawn structures and squares? What about pieces and development?”. That’d be hugely annoying. What we actually want is an eye that immediately sees “1. Nd5 Qxd5 loses a piece.” or “1. Te1 places the rook on an open line.” or “1. Bxf7! Kxf7 2. Ng5+ Ke8 3. Qxg4.”

Yet as far as learning chess is concerned, I’d say Hendrik has much less ground to criticize things such as “verbalization”, “general principles” or “thinking about the general features of a position”. Because what is the goal of chess learning? That over the board, good moves pop into your head. How do good moves pop into your head? By remembering chunks from our previous games and from training; and it’s often easier to remember chunks if they’re connected to some kind of understanding. I believe nobody would contest that having some sort of understanding of a chunk makes it easier to recall it later, and it’s quite clear that it’s in most cases useless to learn moves devoid of context or understanding. Just seeing this move repeatedly, like this …

middlegame_bishophendriks2… won’t contribute much to your decision to make exactly this move in the above position rather than any other legal move. Instead, it’s a combination of moves, positional context and understanding that you need to remember, something more like this:

middlegame_bishophendriks3And at this point, a coach would give you a verbal explanation of what the long-term purpose of this move is, in order to add understanding to the chunk.

As Hendrik himself points out, you won’t arrive at this move on your own by virtue of just looking at a position. Even if you were exposed to similar positions featuring this manoeuvre, you probably wouldn’t be able to pick it out as significant unless your chess understanding is already up to the task. So the reason we need a teacher’s verbalization/general principles/thinking about the features of a position in combination with concrete moves is that the position with all its features is too complex for us to isolate the pattern we’re supposed to remember. Of course, there are talented people who can pull this off on their own (and especially young learners have an uncanny ability to simply magically hone their chess intuition merely by being exposed to lots of input); but the average adult learner, who has neither the time nor the young learner’s brain to do that, depends on a competent external source to reduce the complexity of a position and isolate chunks that he or she can then try and absorb through repeated exposure. A learner, left to his own devices, won’t be able to isolate or retain any of the chunks if you just throw a bunch of positions with moves at them. Generalizations/principles/verbalization provide the reduction in complexity necessary to anchor chunks in memory and facilitate recall at a later stage.

To sum up: When doing chess, we cannot hope to reduce the complexity of a position and create the right chess chunks  from scratch on our own within reasonable time, no matter how disciplined our thought process. We have to rely on what’s already there in our chess intuition. When learning chess, on the other hand, we have a competent teacher to guide us in reducing the complexity of a position, and this competent, guided reduction will help us pick up new chess chunks.


Chess Intuition, Part One: Either you see it, or you don’t.

May 1, 2015

I’ve recently perused Willy Hendrik’s Move First, Think Later  (here’s a pdf preview) and watched the interview between Garry Kasparov and Maurice Ashely, in which Kasparov gleefully mentions that he relied mostly on intuition by playing moves without calculating lines.

Why would anyone in their right mind suggest that we should make moves without thinking? Well, chess is a game of infinitive possibilities, and we depend on our chess intuition to filter out the irrelevant features of the position and draw attention to the relevant ones. So really, we have no choice but to”move first, think later”. Of course, the question for the improving player is when to just move, when to stop and think briefly, and when to stop and think deeply.

The The Master Game series is a marvellous illustration of grandmasterly intuition in action. Two grandmasters explain their thought process prior to a move. Of course, the whole setup is rather artificial*, but I can’t help but think that it gives a good glimpse into the grandmaster’s mind. And what’s striking about their minds is how they effortlessly (and unconsciously) dismiss moves. Their assessment of the position seems to boil down to a very limited set of ideas (all backed up by deep intuitions about them). Quite often, you hear them say “This looks natural.” / “Seems clearly best.” / “There’s nothing else I can do.”, which is their filter speaking. There’s not much calculation involved, it’s merely their huge unconscious rucksack of experience that tells them “This move probably works and this move probably doesn’t.” The series is from the 70s, mind you, and today’s grandmasters might be less reductionist and less dogmatic in their thinking process. It’s quite telling that Magnus Carlsen’s press conferences are often boring because he says things like “I don’t know what’s going on.” … I think this reflects the fact that Magnus is the ultimate computer chess grandmaster, who’s keenly aware of the fact that a lot of things which are not readily apparent to our intuition or even run counter to it might well work.

Having said that, it’s clear that intuition plays an essential role in reducing a chess game to a digestible number of features with which we can cope; whenever an expert player analyzes a chess position, does he or she really have to make a conscious effort at excluding all the irrelevant bits? No, the expert simply knows what’s important and what isn’t. Meanwhile, the amateur faces the dilemma that his or her filter is too pervasive at times, drawing attention to irrelevant features, or too restrictive, leaving him or her clueless about crucial features in the position. So the question for us amateurs is: Should we adapt the same approach as the grandmaster during games, relying on our filters, knowing full well that our intuition is anything but grandmasterly, and run the risk of making bad moves based on bad intuition? Or should we rack our brains over the board in an effort to prove our intuition wrong and hopefully end up with a better, more grandmasterly assessment of the position?

As an amateur, my first instinct is to distrust my intuition. Kasparov’s intuition may lead him to play brilliant moves, but I am keenly aware of the fact that my chess intuition is nowhere near his and is more likely to produce a sub-par move than a brilliancy. Yet I’m wondering: What can you hope to achieve, really, by trying to battle your amateurish chess intuition over the board by conscious analysis and calculation? When you’re playing a position in which a4 is a good move because it stops b5, but you’ve never actually come across this idea, how likely is it that you’ll manage to produce this chunk from scratch (let alone isolating it as the best move) by looking at a position in which your only intuition is “it’s the opening, so I have to develop my pieces”? Well, I daresay the odds are against you. In addition, you’re opening yourself up to the danger of losing yourself in calculating without rhyme or reason. You won’t have the necessary filters in place to make sense of how to calculate and what to calculate and you end up more confused and insecure than before, and in despair you return to the moves your intuition suggested to begin with. That’s my experience with distrusting my intuition too much. And on average, the situation turns messier rather than clearer if I try to dismantle my intuitive plan and replace it with a “more perfect”, “more objective” plan.

In Move First, Think Later, Hendrik advises against learning checklists to assess positions. He indulges in some Silman-bashing to do this — Silman being a proponent of taking in the whole position first by virtue of its imbalances. The checklist method works something like this:

Don’t analyse moves right away. First, list the features of a position (according to the catalogue given by the teacher), and only then start focusing on individual moves.

Hendrik believes this is nonsense, and his criticism is quite convincing as well as entertaining, although I’d recommend you also read John Watson’s review of Hendrik’s book, which not only gives you a good taste of Hendrik’s style and ideas but cuts Silman some well-deserved slack. The argument in favour of checklists is that it allows you to pick up on features you’d otherwise have missed, and at first glance that seems sensible … helps you avoid blunders and allows you to split up the complexity of a position into neat bits. 5 years ago, rated 1600ish, I myself thought this was a sensible approach and I posted this gif: middlegame_thoughtprocess_0Now, roughly 300 Elo points later, my grasp on each of these positional features has improved, yet I do not (and indeed never managed to) incorporate this checklist in my thought process over the board. Instead, I just see more good or bad moves related to these features at various points in the game, and I sense more quickly when a position demands that I focus more concretely on one of these aspects. So if I had, to the best of my abilities, applied this checklist consciously in all of my games, would I be a better chess player today? Who knows. It’s probably a ridiculous question to ask, because as Hendrik states, correctly I think:

No chess player thinks like this, no one has learned to play chess by thinking like this and even trainers and authors of chess books don’t think like this. (Move First, Think Later, page 15)

I strongly suspect that Karpov, who authored the checklist above, never played chess like this, either — that is to say, consciously ticking off positional features one after the other. I’d imagine he immediately seizes on certain moves, plans and ideas after his chess has unconsciously sorted through all the rubbish. The only point of using checklists during games is to prevent missing things you already know … but I have a strong suspicion that telling yourself to focus and ask “Am I missing something stupid?” is just as effective at getting this task done than voicing an 8-point checklist in your head that you went to great trouble memorizing. And it’s certainly more efficient.

So the goal for my next couple of games is two-fold: 1) trust more readily in “natural moves” and 2) try not to rack my brains too much in positions in which my intuition offers no candidate moves, and just play a move. Long story short: Either you see it, or you don’t.

* The setup of the The Master Game series is artificial in that the grandmaster commentary was recorded after the game and obviously geared towards the audience, so the grandmasters had to reduce their comments for brevity and clarity’s sake. However, I reckon that when they say things such as “I don’t see another way …” / “This seems like the best move.” / “This looks natural.” or mention certain plans rather than others, it accurately reflects their thoughts at the time of the game and the way their filter kicked in in certain positions.