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

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.

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

  1. Signalman says:

    “Long story short: Either you see it, or you don’t.” Very true. Not seeing it should be a shorter game and a learning point : should be !

  2. ChessAdmin says:

    Interesting post on a very relevant book (and topic in general).

    One of the characteristics of strong players is that they are able to scan the board to identify the best move possibilities (often one move clearly stands out) and only then take the time to calculate variations. This is where master-level pattern recognition really comes into play.

    Re: the thought process critique, it’s true people don’t actually use checklists at the board, but key items in the thinking process still need to be internalized at some point. If you’re missing major concepts, externalizing them as part of a (short) list to keep in mind can be helpful. For those players towards the beginner end of the spectrum, this can be absolutely critical, such as with blunder checks. (I need to do this better myself, for example.) In general, I believe this is the audience at which Silman was aiming his idea of looking at certain positional concepts (imbalances) first in order to get a concrete idea of strategic possibilities inherent in a position, rather than just diving into the thicket of variations.

  3. AoxomoxoA says:

    There is a difference between learning and doing. A master dont need to look for , say “open lines” conciously anymore. After hundreds of games he did automized that process and it is now done subconciosly as “skill”. Chess is like many other things based on skills which run uncounciously and becasue of this they can be processed paralell instead of sequently! Thats the big error of “Move first, think later”. You cant look at a GM with estimatingly thousands of subconcous skills with a beginner in chess. A beginner need to think about “open lines” hundreds of times and then after doing it for many months.. he dont need to to that conciously anymore! It has become automized. GM Smirnovs training of thinkingprocesses is based on this improvement method.

    A thinking process helps you in many ways. Sometimes you dont know what to do.. then you can use this process to find a move. Most of the times you already know ( or you think you know ) “whats going on”. Then most points of such a checklist can be skipped.
    But the repetition of routines ( like for excample a blunder check or the look for open lines ) will automize this process, sooner or later you will do it subcouncious.

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    Chess Intuition, Part One: Either you see it, or you don

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