The illusion of control II


Chess is commonly seen as a science by many of those who practise it. Our way of talking about a position as “winning” rather than “much better” is just one sign of this. And obviously chess does contain a lot of scientific traits. Both opening and endgame work uses skills you would expect a scientist to use.
But chess is not a science. It is a game. It is all about taking a lot of difficult decisions in insufficient time. In order to do this, it is very important that we understand the nature of our task fully and the way it affects our emotions.
I have worked with a number of players over the years who have the following characteristics:

* They get into time trouble

* They don’t sacrifice material

* They calculate everything; preferably checking it over methodically as well

* They are what you would call “nice guys”

It was maybe 15 years ago that I realised that all of their behaviour was centred around maintaining control. Time trouble came from spending too much time in positions where a decision, any decision, was needed. They did not sacrifice material because they did not like the feeling of losing control. They checked things extensively, to feel in control and they were always pleasant, in a misguided attempt to control people’s impression of them.
But neither chess nor people can be handled optimally with one foot on the brake.
Chess quickly reaches a depth of complexity where it cannot be controlled. However, we can learn to evaluate our chances realistically and understand the deeper strategic needs of the position – and respond to them based on this understanding. In this way you can learn the confidence you get from knowing you do the right things (to the best of your ability). You might get excited when you sacrifice a piece based on intuition and general concepts, but you will not be frightened.
When you are a child you need the safety provided by your parents and other guardians to develop an understanding of the world. When you are an adult, you know the world, you know that there is no way to control it. All you can do is prepare, do your work, calculate the odds and put your bets where your understanding tells you is best.

52 thoughts on “The illusion of control II”

  1. I have to admit that I’m one of these guys. The main problem for me with relying on intuition is that as a weaker player (around ELO 2000) who doesn’t play much my intuition is not well developed. But I understand that there is not really any choice.

    As a matter of fact, last Sunday I returned to tournament chess after a one year break and won a nice attacking game by a dubious exchange sacrifice. My intuition told me it’s winning but analysis after the game showed I could have ended up in a slightly worse endgame instead. Now I’m not sure what I shall make out of it. Was it ok because I won in the end or was I just lucky and should try harder next time? Shall we play chess like poker where you look at the expectation value of a move (i.e. if I make this move 10 times I will win 5 times, draw 3 and lose 2) ?

  2. I’ve been involved in writing books, teaching, composing problems, solving problems, analyzing, correspondence chess,…. and of course OTB. So there is a large variety of chess related subjects than just the pure game aspect. However even in the approach of how to play there is no clear right or wrong.

    As mentioned in my blogarticle you just need to select the approach which gives you the most satisfaction which is not always the same as the one bringing the most (rating)points.

    Now I do understand that the article is about improving and my psyhological rim-ram is a bit off topic. Still sometimes I get the feeling when reading your (nevertheless interesting) articles about improvement that having fun is not the main focus which I believe it should always be.

  3. As I can only add one link per comment, I prepare a second one. On chessbase a very recent interview with Carlsen was published:

    The most important quote which I read was the following: “In chess training, I do the things I enjoy. I don’t particularly enjoy playing against computers, so I don’t do that.”

    If the best player in the world focuses on the things to enjoy then I believe it is appropriate to keep this in mind when we talk about what chess is or how it should be played.

  4. Oh dear, this is definitely me! Have decided to try and tackle the problem in part by launching into completely new and more aggressive openings…. turns out attacking is a lot more fun and my results online (30/5 games) are already much better despite being unfamiliar with the positions…. I think another common “symptom” could be that we tend to assume we are ‘positional players’ and play c6 a lot with black! 😉

  5. Speaking about improvement, as far as I know your book “Thinking inside the box” will be all about this subject, so what would be the difference between it and “Pump up your rating”?

    P.S. Dont forget about the “Fundamental Positions” project 🙂

  6. I can recognize myself too. I know that I spend an awful lot of time between move 10 and 20, choosing between different plans and not keeping things simple enough. But how to cure that? Playing more blitz hasn’t improve this aspect of my game.

  7. @wok64
    Maybe it means that you should take more risks so you get better at judging if they are justified. Basically, if you never take too many risks, it is 99.99% certain that you take too little risks. It is practically impossible to judge risks accurately.

  8. @Gerando
    I have given one suggestion in Positional Play. Basically the idea is that you need to be able to make decisions in other ways that through calculation.

  9. Yes. I have noticed this too. I would add that this group of players is attracted to the London System or one of the Colle Systems. Always the emphasis is on restricting chess to an impermeable container in which the possibilities are limited to the “known” rather than the “unknown.” The Colle System players I have met over the years usually have about ten or twelve books on this “business man’s low-theory opening”.

  10. I still have a mild case of the problem mentioned in this article. It’s like one of those moles popping out of the hole in the game “Whack-a-Mole” that you often see at carnivals. I come up with this brilliant sacrificial play one game, and it’s a true sacrifice, not a combination – throwing away your Queen for mate in 6 is not a sacrifice, it’s a combination – but after one such game, I’m back in my cacoon, playing “safe chess”, until I pop back up a month or two later and have another brilliant sacrificial game.

    One suggestion I would have for the authors here is maybe having a book where instead of having 300 individual problems, you have, in essence, 50 problems where each problem has 6 diagrams. Your job? You are told that in at least 1 of the 6 positions, and at most 5 of the 6 positions, White is better. You must decide in which of the following positions is White better, and for those problems, what is White’s best move?

    Advantages this has over the format of most books that contain problems:

    In books like the Quality Chess Puzzle Book, GP – Calculation, and to a lesser extent GP – Positional Play and GP – Strategic Play, you see that it’s White to move, and in the case of the QC Puzzle Book and Calculation, you specifically know that you are trying to get a winning position or that you are trying to draw. This seems like flawed training to some extent.

    With the format I suggested, it also would force the reader to work on assessment of the positiion. Instead of being told that it’s White to Move and Win or White to Move and Draw, or “Find the Best Move” (which, in essence, is “White to Move and Win” – Just not mate, usually), you have to determine for yourself the situation, and decide whether you should be trying to win, trying to draw, grabbing material, or sacrificing. Of the 6 problems on one page, a possible scenario might be that White has mate in diagram 1, White should put the Rook on his own 2nd rank and offer a draw in diagram 2, White is losing in diagram 3, White can win Black’s Queen with no comp in return in diagram 4, White has a technically won endgame after a 6 move combination in diagram 5, and White has very strong positional pressure and a clear advantage in diagram 6, and so the correct answer would be to take positions 1, 4, 5, and 6, and provide the lines that lead to the advantage or decisive position for each of those. 2 and 3 you pass up.

    This type of exercise is vastly different than simply saying “1 – White to Move”, “2 – White to Move =”, “3 – Black to Move”, “4 – White to Move”, “5 – White to Move”, “6 – White to Move”. The latter clearly states who is better at the start of the problem. This needs to be unknown to the solver as one mistake I see a lot of player under 2200 doing is still trying to play for a win when they should really be playing to draw! Too many people think that if material is equal, they must keep on playing for the win, when instead, they should be defending for their lives, and happy to take half a point. When you play a tournament game, you are not told that you are better and to find the move that wins, or that you are worse and to find the move that draws!

  11. “* They are what you would call “nice guys””

    “and they were always pleasant, in a misguided attempt to control people’s impression of them.”

    It seems like you’re saying that you have to be a d**k to really excel at chess.

  12. @Patrick
    There is a point here. You can be a positional player. What I have a problem with is the reasons for being cautious. If it is a style, I have no criticism. If it is because of fear, I don’t think it makes you happy. Control is illusive and clawing for it in every situation is not a path to happiness. I think the difference is obvious.

  13. Quote from

    “We are now pleased to announce that Pump Up Your Rating has been voted the 2013 Book of the Year. Congratulations to author Axel Smith and publisher Quality Chess”

    A well deserved win! I know no better book on training methodology. Congratulations to the whole QC team to make this happen.

  14. @Patrick
    Another important thing not addressed by most tactics books is the concept of stopping calculation once you have achieved a minimum. E.g. in the greek gift sacrifice if your opponent answers Bxh7+ with Kh8 you’re a pawn up and can stop calculating further if there’s no opponent threat. Most tactics book take the scientific approach and provide the full variation and subvariation tree to the optimum which is impractical and a bad time consuming habit for calculation in a game.

  15. @The Lurker
    Only after Jacobs comment and rereading the chapter I understood that indeed Jacob was stating something different so I do have understand the reason of your comment.
    Now it is still not fully clear to me what is meant with nice guys as I see 2 different types:
    1) selecting the moves solely on their merits without considering the opponent/ situation
    2) being super-sportive by giving half points in some specific situations on purpose away like David Navara

    Of both types of nice guys I wrote articles on my blog. There is surely some overlap between both types but nonetheless also big differences.

  16. On a more serious note: I guess you could also add ‘excessive opening preparation’ to the list; I think that might also be indicative of a need to keep control of the game.

  17. @Ray
    That is less clear. I know quite some players having regularly terrible time-troubles but have a weak repertoire. Besides heavily relying on studied openings to score easy points, doesn’t sound to me like nice guys as I doubt this gives a positive impression.

  18. @brabo
    I think the criteria are not mutually exclusive. For example, surely there are also people having regularly time trouble but do sacrifice material. Time trouble and not sacrificing material are two different aspects of one’s style of play, which both point towards the desire to stay in control. I was just pointing out that excessive opening preparation (mind the word excessive) could be anotother aspect. I know a guy who doesn’t dare to play a new opening over the board before months of preparation. That’s what I’m referring to.

  19. Hi Jacob,

    This article is called The Illusion of Control II. Where’s Part I? Congrats on winning 2013 Chess Cafe BOY award for Pump Up Your Rating.

  20. @Ray
    Learning properly a new opening can easily take a few months. Now there are several ways of learning a new opening with 2 extremes:
    – you just play and learn from the games
    – you first absorb all theory, add some ideas and test these in some non-rated events

    I tend to be more the first type of player but it surely has cost me already quite some extra ratingpoints compared with the other type of players. Professional players most likely are closer to the second type of player as ratingpoints are translated to income.

    Excessive is something bad and personally I find ‘to prepare openings for months in advance’ less clear than the other bad characteristics mentioned by Jacob.

  21. @Ray
    If due to fear of change, you become predictable in your repertoire or ignore the obvious weaknesses in the repertoire then I fully agree that it is an illusion of control.
    However somehow I don’t think waiting a few months with a new opening fully matches this type of fear.

    Anyway how much time one should spent optimally in advance before playing a new opening for rating, sounds to me an interesting topic for a new article. Personally i believe that I don’t study enough openings in advance to score optimally. However this is a choice as I have different priorities.

  22. @88=64
    Andrew Soltis’ new book “100 Chess Master Trade Secrets: From Sacrifices to Endgames” is supposed to be based on the 100 most important PRIYOMES.

  23. @Mario
    Interesting paper. I take 1 aspect out of it.
    Playing more draws than expected, is an indication of risk aversion. Now if this means you accept draws against stronger players in clearly better positions then it is indeed an example of the illusion of control. However if draws are just naturally more happening because of the openingchoices fitting to your style then I believe it is not.

  24. Jay :@88=64 Andrew Soltis’ new book “100 Chess Master Trade Secrets: From Sacrifices to Endgames” is supposed to be based on the 100 most important PRIYOMES.

    Hi Jay,

    I have not heard of this Soltis book but some of his recent recent books which I have seen could have been 50 pages long, instead of filling it with so much text.

    But QC is different, If they come out with a book with on PRIYOMES, each page would be worth it. It could be as good a book as “ART of the MIDDLE GAME” or “Endgame Manual” and who knows this book might win some prize 🙂

  25. @Ray
    Yes sounds excessive but again if it didn’t harm his performances then no reason to condemn his choice.

    Besides it remembers me of the legend with the Marshall gambit. They say that Marshall waited for years to play it against Capablanca. Kasparov however in his first book about his predecessors has strong doubts about the credibility.

  26. PS: you could say the same of all the other ‘ symptoms’ mentioned; if they don’t harm the performance and/or joy in chess there is no problem. But I think they should really be understood as symptoms as Jacob explained. I.e., if someone never sacrifices material because of his style (or because his name is Ulf Andersson) it’s no problem of course, but it can also be a symptom of an unhealthy fear to lose control. The same can apply to fear of playing new openings. If it’s deliberate preparation to launch the novelty of the century of course there’s nothing wrong with that, but if it is really a symptom of fear of losing control it’s another matter. At least, that’s how I understood Jacob’s post, but I could be wrong of course.

  27. @Ray

    Axel in his book Pump up your rating shows a game for Ulf Andersson with Black vs Karpov with only three minutes left on his clock sacrifices an exchange without any clear forcing continuation.

    He won that game and that was the first game Karpov lost as a new world champion!

  28. @Ray
    I do believe there is a substantial difference between the symptoms Jacob uses and others like excessive opening preparation or drawing much more than averagely expected.

    I don’t think you can become a strong player by never sacrificing material so I am sure you can ditch up games from Ulf Andersson where he did sacrifice material. Besides I am convinced that never sacrificing material is a very bad aspect of somebodies style on which somebody should work if he wants to improve. I even wrote an article about this on my blog (see july last year).

    Selecting the right opening is something which is very difficult to define even for professionals. After the world championship between Anand and Carlsen people were screaming how wrong Anands opening choices were. I mean while never sacrificing is definitely bad, it is much harder to say when an opening can/ should be played.

  29. Well, the topic could be ” Get out of your comfort zone . If you always play the ” same ” game , you won’t improve ” . Ok but if a cautious player finds himself in time-trouble in his favourite type of positions , i think it will be difficult for him to handle more complex positions and avoid his cherished time-trouble . So , training is part of the solution . The other part relates probably to psychology ( addiction for time-trouble ) !

  30. @Pimpon
    I never heard of a player cherishing his time-trouble. Players in time-trouble are nervous and anxious so surely out of their comfort zone. No I can’t agree with your comment.

  31. Getting into time-trouble/ trying to calculate everything also reminds me very much to the concept of critical moves. It you consider too many moves as critical and you apply the rule to use much more time than average on a critical move then obviously time-trouble will be often unavoidable.
    I notice 2 ways to improve:
    1) you use less time on critical moves so instead of 10 minutes, only 5 minutes
    2) you learn how to better recognize what a critical move is so downsizing the number of moves in which you think long.

    The second method is of course preferable but also the most difficult one. It requires a more deeper understanding of patterns, motives and a different approach of risk-assessment. Especially this last aspect is something which is very hard to learn from books. I believe a strong personal coach could be necessary.

  32. @ brabo : what i mean is if a player is almost always in time-trouble , there are some reasons and probably not only technical ones . It emphasizes either gambling or poor decision making process , excitation , or looking ( unconsciously ) for excuses if the game is lost , and so on .

  33. @Pimpon
    I never heard about players almost always in time-trouble because they like to gamble, it makes them excited or unconsciously look for excuses if the game is lost. The only real reason I know is poor decision making process. Unfortunately this is not something you can (easily) correct by reading some books about chess.

    One exception. I remember a case in which 2 professionals after their first move waited till they had only 5 minutes left to finish the game. The reason was that they first wanted to know the results of the other boards and then decide which result was the most convenient for both as they had agreed in advance (but no hard proof of this) to split the prizes.

  34. @ brabo : well, i have known many players with pathological time-trouble habits . Even IGM . To be fair , it was with the ancient time-control . French IGM Santo-Roman was probably the strongest and ultimate gambler i have known …

  35. I find myself falling into this category of player. But in my defense I never had a trainer when I was younger and I have had positive/negative reinforcements from computers pointing out that I do make calculation errors when sacrificing material. The sad part is that often I have the first 2-3 moves correct but the reason I don’t play it is because I can’t find the answer to a possible refutation by my opponent. The computer always finds what should have been my reply to this “refutation” and usually it is in fact a “computer” move which I missed. So I guess since I have had such a record (of finding good combinations/sacrifices but missing my reply to a possible refutation) I should get in the habit of playing my combo anyway. At any rate, I am a first time poster and big fan of GM Aagaard and his books!! Thank you, please keep writing!

  36. A proverb attributed to Emanuel Lasker helped me gradually with the fear of losing 40 years ago.

    “Schach ist, wie das Leben, Ungewissheit. Alles was wir können ist so solide arbeiten und auf Gott vertrauen.” Chess is like life incertitude. All we can do is working soundly and trust in God.

    This is by far not a help for everybody having to with the described problem. The essence is to confront yourself with this incertitude, which will help if you want to.

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