Chess Intuition, Part Three: Conclusions.

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.

12 Responses to Chess Intuition, Part Three: Conclusions.

  1. Tommyg says:

    I loved the Hendriks book! About the same time I found (where? I forget now!) a small paragraph on Levenfish’s “thought process” Short story? He just scanned the board to see what all pieces could do and then figured stuff out!

    No check lists. Not actual process.

    Every time I have tried a process my chess suffers.

  2. ChessAdmin says:

    It’s not actually a new idea to run through lots of database games (either automatically or pressing the advance key yourself) in a particular opening setup for pattern recognition purposes. I’ve seen Silman advocate this in print and it also popped up in Sverre Johnson’s “Win with the Stonewall Dutch”. The latter also suggested playing a bunch of blitz games as a similar or alternative practice when initially looking at an opening, as in a relatively short amount of time it can get your brain used to seeing the common position-types, the moves that can be made in them, and the results.

  3. Chunky Rook says:

    The idea the look at lots of games in a database quickly is certainly nothing new … I remember Heisman suggesting that in his Novice Nook,for example. But watching a game like a film with the moves being made automatically to music was new to me.

  4. Question, have you had the chance to compare what Henricks said to Jonathon Rowson’s classic book “chess for Zebras”?

    I don’t have a copy of that book; but I absolutely covet what content I can get from it; either the “read it now” feature in and what is mirrorred in its many comments on

    frankly; I’m very impressed with what Rowson says about chess in that book and I think he skillfully uses pychology to say a mouthful about the reality of chess improvement; espacially in adult learners…. that said, I Don’t own that book- in a pretty big book collection because;…

    It is hard to justify to buy a book about pychological issues over a potential resource in my chess training program
    And Most importantly I think much of the analysis, he sprinkles through the text is way beyond me. Silman’s positional content seems difficult to adopt; (as eagerly as he is to explain to us patzers),- Rowson seems like another step up in complexity.

    anyway, I’m curious about how henrick does in this regard- how complex are his examples? How does studying his book compare to buying something a little more direct?? did you feel with all his philosophizing, that your chessic muscles grew?? or, would you been nearly as far ahead to run into an article challenging the dogmas of the day (by henrick) and keep at working through your book of annotated games (or whatever)?

  5. Chunky Rook says:

    No, I’m not familiar with Chess for Zebras … but I’ll take a look at the reading sample on my Kindle before hitting the sack tonight :)

    And no, my chess muscle certainly didn’t grow by reading Hendrik’s book. Well, maybe a tiny little bit because he does include a few positions featuring chunks that I think are worth remembering.

    I think the real question to be asked here if the impact Hendrik’s book as made on me will make a better chess learner in the future. And I definitely think the book has achieved that to some degree. For instance, I’ve just watched a video on handling the Alekhine-Chatard attack in the French Defence and I’ve read a short article on tactics in the opening. The Grandmaster who did the video keeps mentioning “Remember, we don’t fight for material, we’re fighting for squares” or something similar to that, and the article concluded by said “If your opponent offers you material and you don’t see any reason not to take it, take it!”.

    A week ago I would have been “Alright, fair enough.” But now I’m reading these things and think to myself: “Yeah, okay, useful advice I guess, but really I should look at the video/article again and look at the specific moves that led the author to mention these principles … because taken on their own, devoid of real moves or at least chunks, they’re really quite vacuous.

    So in that respect, I’d say Hendriks’ book definitely raised my level of awareness concerning my chess learning, and I hope it has done so in a way that proves to be beneficial rather than detrimental to the future growth of my chess muscles.

  6. Munich says:

    Chess has lots of general rules, but this does not mean they are always true. I’d say, that if you do not follow a rule, you should be aware that you dont follow that rule.
    I read “move first, think later”, too, and I feel Hendrik is quite wrong about the issue, that stronger players dont use more rules. They do!

    A typical rule Hendrik could have thought about are for instance:
    “to take is a mistake”.
    “if you have an advantage in time (development) – open up the position” (cause in blocked positions, being behind in development is less severe).

    There are lots of rules like these 2 above, which stronger players know, but the average club player has never heard of.

    • Chunky Rook says:

      Thanks for the comment, Munich.

      I think Hendriks’ shows quite convincingly that we overestimate the power of general rules in chess while making decisions on the board. When we say “oh, GM X made a good move because he followed the principle to take is a mistake”, do we really mean it? I think Hendriks is trying to point that what we actually mean is probably more along the lines of “oh, GM X just calculated a lot of possibilities and thought about a lot of positional and tactical features and all those chess chunks he knows kicked in and in the end he happened to make a move that could be explained by the rule to take is a mistake”. So I’d say we don’t even really know what we’re talking about when we say “players use rules”.

    • HardDaysKnight says:

      Yes, chess has lots of general rules but do those rules lead you to good moves in a specific position? I have not yet gotten to read all of Hendrik’s book (it’s ordered and arriving shortly), but what I gather is that he arguing that you should focus on understanding lots of chess positions rather than lots of rules about chess positions. I believe that this is a huge difference and not merely one of saying the same thing in the same way.

      I believe that there is an analogy here with language acquisition. When trying to learn a new language we can either focus on the language itself, or we can focus on the metadata about the language, otherwise known as grammar. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure that the balance of language pedagogy has shifted to immersive approaches wherein you focus on the language itself rather than the grammar. And, if I’m not mistaken, it’s been shown that an explicit focus on grammar can impede and even prevent achieving fluency.

      Could focusing on the metadata of a chess position actually impede the making of good moves or even prevent chess improvement?

      What I’m doing in my own study (using Yusupov’s chess course) now is quite different from what I’ve done in the past. With no computer, I set the position up on the board (yes, a physical board) and I study it, i.e., I move the pieces (in my mind, and physically), seeking to understand how the position works. The understanding I seek is on a move level and not on a metadata characteristic level, if you take my point. Afterwards, I wipe the pieces off the board, and attempt to recreate the position from memory. These techniques, I hope, help put the position into my long term memory.

      In my own play, since I have shifted towards a more Hendrik’s like approach in chess study (which I believe aligns very well with Yusupov’s books), I believe that I am making stronger moves in casual games, some just because I intuitively feel that it must be the right move. I have not yet been able to test my progress in OTB tournaments but I am going to a few tournaments later this month.

      FWIW, I’m 1650 USCF.

      • Chunky Rook says:

        Thanks for your comment, HardDaysKnight! As someone who knows a little bit about language teaching, I can confirm that there could be a similarity between chess and language teaching with regards to “immersion” versus “metadata”.

        Immersion is most definitely one of the best approaches to learning a language. However, Immersion requires a lot of time. If you “immerse” yourself in a language two hours a week, the results might be inferior to learning via metadata (i.e. traditional grammar teaching) because there is too little input to absorb things effectively.

        I strongly suspect that given certain time constraints, a more analytical & more structured approach (learning by grammar) can be very effective and even more effective than immersion.

        However, the overall effectiveness of learning by metadata is certainly inferior to full-scale immersion. And I think the same goes for chess: As Hendriks and Silman both have said, the best chess players simply immerse themselves in chess, playing & analyzing thousands of games from an early stage. But the casual chess player does not have this option at his/her disposal, hence it makes sense to offer a more limited but also more structured input instead. The question is: How to best present / limit this input? And here I think Hendrik is right to emphasize the role of “moves” as opposed to “rules”, albeit with the caveats I pointed out.

        • HardDaysKnight says:

          Thanks for replying ChunkyRook!

          I’m not sure that the rules work at all. Even in the opening where it’s “two or three pawn moves only,” it doesn’t really work. Watson points out in his opening books that in some Sicilian open Black makes five or more pawn moves, and we know of the hypermoderns who overthrew the rules about occupying the center with pieces. And Chessbase recently showed an endgame (, 262 moves to checkmate. The moves make no sense, or at least none that any GM can explain. So, rules? What rules? So, yeah, I’m coming to the nothing but moves school. I guess I’ve drunk the Kool-aide.

          Silman calls this “souless” somewhere, moves without principle, seemingly random moves. I’m not sure. The meaning of a position is its moves, and I think this realization opens the way to immense creativity. When we rely on generalizations we destroy, or miss, the infinite creativity possible through moves that though unruly and unprincipled are brilliant, striking, non-obvious, beautiful, and winning.

          Thanks for the discussion!

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