Chess Intuition, Part Two: Time and complexity.

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.


6 Responses to Chess Intuition, Part Two: Time and complexity.

  1. this implies we only LEARN when we have a coach training us and helping us absorb the context of the chunk. and that we do not chunk at all when we are simply DOING CHESS.

    I disagree…

    Instead, I think we do a fair amount of LEARNING, when after a given choice- the opponent makes the best move and the unseen POTENTIAL of the position is completely revealed! we slap our forehead, swear a few times ; and we accelerate the process of learning a new pattern.

    I truly think that this is WHY its SO important to playing above our heads; and against opposition that can truly play the best defense to attacks; and reacts to weakness.

    I also think the idea of reasonable time is… interesting. I think its very true that we can’t rush the process of improving my doing. and if we’re playing too fast.. we simply have NO ability to learn by doing. we don’t have the time to fully break down the position; and when we are playing we are playing far more intuitively.

    on the other hand, when we play slower (and I think this depends a great deal on our thinking complexity); we do , to a point think more conscientously. more variations are likely to be sketched. more relationships are likely to be noticed.

    I wanted to jump into this conversation because I do not have a coach and yet I think that in my own way-. I am learning as I do! I’ve taken a reat liking to puzzles and short studies; and I think that I still play them as if I were “doing” chess… and I find, that the “learning” phase is much better… AFTER I have done the puzzle… as if I started working on the chunk in tackling the position; and then only after I do a best attempt of finding the problem; can I benefit from well written commentary.

    The biggest problem is during the open game to see the beginnings of a chunk; and I think the biggest hint of all is; Losing! once you get a position wrong and the whole game is turning against you– you go back over what you thought about; and do the same thing as you did in the puzzle book.

    you start rewriting assumptions based on what disaster is happening to you. its kind of the same whether its a coach, a book, or a lost game – explains the consequence of your patzer moves…

    this is a great blog post! Just the kind of content that benefits many people of many different strengths…

    • AoxomoxoA says:

      You mentioned the material balance as element of a thinking process. Stronger player dont need to check the material balance , they are constantly aware of the material balance during a game. Why? Because they did check the material balance in hundreds of games when they have been weaker player, now its automized.
      Same is with any other point in a checklist!
      Most points at such a checklist can be checked during the thinking time of the opponent. Then there is only left: to update the list after the opponent made their move.

      You dont need to check on open files and diagonal if your opponent made no pawnmove! Such lists shrink to vitually nothing if applied correctly!

      The main goal of such a checklist for positional features is to find candidate moves, what should be done and what not.
      Lets look at the position above
      When white was thinking about their move , we did think about the position. But not that much in moves ( because white move will influence moves a lot!) , but in statical positional aspects ( they dont change by an opponent move that much ) One thing you should be aware of , before you find your candidate moves:

      What is your worst piece!
      ( and what is the best piece of yours.. whats the worst/best piece of your opponent…)

      The worst black piece is without any doubt the bishop at d7, its the least mobile piece of black and “has nothing to do”

      You might have already looked where the bishop would be better placed while white did think about their move. So Be8 would have been found very very quick as candidate move!

      I suggest to implemement this reduced thinkingprocess in your next games:
      while your opponent is thinking: Find your own / your opponents best/worst piece. Think how to work against your opponents best piece,how to keep his worst piece bad, think about how to improve or get rid of your worst piece…
      After a while you will be automatically aware of your best/worst pieces during your games. Then you can trash this point from your checklist

      By the way a second think to do before you move is to look for unprotected pieces !

      You can find the game here:

      Give any chessplayer the position after 14…h6 and ask them: whats the worst piece of black, and where might it go?
      And then let white do their move. Im sure there will be a sudden improvement in the results

      • positional moves… are the place where I struggle the most. alot of times; what looks strong and well placed can change after significant decisions are made.

        at any rate, I very strenously agree with you that redundantly figuring out material balance is not going to propel you to greater chess heights; but at the same time- its seems clear you can become so involved in your own calculations that the broader truth of the position eluds you.

        I remember this happened a little while back with a correspondance game. I spent quite a while figuring out the tactical firefight; when looking twice at the position I realized I had an unstoppable pawn promotion! thank goodness for my “intuitive” filter!
        no dout the ability to Recognize a pattern; the ability to create it; and the ability to accurately slog through calculations or notice important generalities are all tied up in this excercise of the mind called chess.

        my biggest point though is merely to point out that creating the pattern is a complicated process; not neccesarily exclusively done with a coach. There is no Magic in coaching; err.. I don’t think- only that a fresh pair of eyes and an encouraging fellow chessplayer (with hopefully a lot more memorized chunks), is there to direct you.

        either way (with or without a coach); it is a bit of embarassment that helps you to go over the chunk. we are hope to escape our patzer ways….

        On to part III!

      • HardDaysKnight says:

        I don’t disagree with the idea of asking yourself questions as long at it leads to actual moves. If you see that there are pieces that are not defended looking at moves that can capture them is a good thing. But that’s a far cry (I think) from the generalization, improve your worst piece. For one thing: Which piece is worse? In this position, Black has at least three bad pieces. The Bishop on d7, the Rook on a8 and the Queen. In terms of statics, I would argue that both the Queen and the Rook are worse than the Bishop. The Queen is not developed and is preventing the connection of the Rooks, while the Rook is not doing *anything*. At least the poor blocked Bishop is defending a pawn (and with a perfectly timed e5! the Bishop suddenly *dominates* the h3-c8 diagonal! And it’s already been moved once: move it? With Black behind in development? Absurd!). Also, the Rook can be made effective faster than the Bishop. One move and it’s on the open file c-file. For another: it’s hard to see how Be8 improves the Bishop. It’s doing even less on that square by not defending the pawn.

        Now, I am not pretending that I have a technique for coming up with Be8 or at least one that is easily done by carbon-based life forms. I agree with Hendriks: It’s highly unlikely that you will you find Be8 unless you have seen this idea (pattern) before. However (and this is the point) I think we should stop kidding ourselves. The generalization of improving your worst piece really doesn’t help. (In this case, I don’t think it particularly hurts, either. But I think that the habitual mindset of relying on generalizations does.)

  2. Chunky Rook says:

    Thanks for your insightful response, Jason. You’re absolutely right, my post seems to imply that chunking on your own is impossible, but I actually totally agree with you that chunking happens when you think hard about a position or are confronted with an opponent’s plan, etc.

    When I started talking about a learner “left to his own devices”, what I had in mind were chunks that are very difficult to find on your own. I don’t really buy the notion put forward by Hendriks that these chunks might be just as easily obtained by non-verbal chess study alone, which is what he proposes in a later chapter. (Although to be clear, Hendriks rightly points out that it’s very, very hard to prove the benefits of any particular learning approach. It’s very hard to determine whether one approach is more beneficial than the other.) Maybe it’d work, but I feel as though Hendrik himself provides the argument against this idea: chess is very complex, and sometimes we do need a helping hand to understand something and bring our chess to the next level.

  3. LaurentS says:

    This is a very intelligent and insightful post (I’m sorry, I couldn’t find a better word).

    On a lighter, but related note, you may enjoy the following piece :

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