A quick point about decision making and calculation


Rowson – Bisby, Birmingham 2013


White to play

Take the time you need to solve it. Write down what you want to play and why (don’t write a novel on a stamp, but find a solid reason, be it a move or otherwise).

“The enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect plan.” ― Carl von Clausewitz

I just finished a training session with a gifted student. In preparation for these sessions I give the student “sheets”, which consist of six positions with insufficient time to solve them. The content of them is random. I do not evenly dice out positional, tactical, calculation, strategy, endgame and what-not in order to give a rounded experience. This is what I would do in a book, or would do with a student where there is something specific I would want to work on.

Although the sheets are hard and I doubt if any of my students has ever managed to score 6/6 on any of them, despite ratings that would make me beg for a draw with White, there are moments when I am very happy. It tends not to be the ones we focus on, but I wanted to give an example from today’s session. As I assume you have given it your best shot, I will give you the solution in words (so as not to catch the eye with the right moves).

But first off I want to say why I was especially happy about his answer to this exercise: because he had no evaluation or variation attached to it. It was found by elimination. For this reason it was swift and he could move on with the rest of the sheet – or game if you like. The correct move is to take the pawn with the queen, as if White takes with the king, as Rowson did in the game, Black could win by playing his rook to f7. Black missed this and the game ended in a draw after a few messy moves later on (I showed the finish in a post a few months ago).

For chess is after all not a calculation exercise (though this is an important tool at times), but a game where we have to make a lot of decisions about what to play on the next move. We do not need to “solve the position”; we need to answer the question: which is the best move – and then play it. How you make this decision is dependent on the type of position. Having a lot of tools in your toolbox is what the Grandmaster Preparation series is all about.

5 thoughts on “A quick point about decision making and calculation”

  1. @Jacob: What do you think about the concept of pure intuition-based training!? I “solved” the diagram position (that is, I confidently expected Qxf2 to be the right move) explicitly avoiding excessive calculations but merely based on experience and some basic merits of the position. Since I agree with you that chess can to a certain degree be reduced to the issue finding the best move one move ahead (and not necessarily “solve the position”) I have been wondering for some time whether it makes sense to train fast decision-making purely based on intuition and then AFTER return to a position and learn the correct solution with explicit moves and explanantions. Do you think this is a viable way of increasing playing strength!? (I personally am inclined to think that its a possible and viable way to improve!)

  2. @QC#1
    I did the same as you: I didn’t calculate anything but selected Qxf2 because Kxf2 didn’t feel right (I didn’t see …Rf7). But who’s to say it may have been sheer luck? There are probably plenty of positions where the most natural looking move (like Qf2 in this case) would not be the best move or even lose outright…

  3. It could indeed have been luck but:

    First of all this was a question mainly for mr. Aagaard since he has a lot of experience teaching chess, so I was wondering if he has ever entertained this way of solving chess exercises.

    Second, I think this is essentially very similar to what we may call pattern recognition. I think pattern recognition is very very important to chess and solving any chess problem. My idea is/was that if we keep training intuition-based decision-making (and make sure to check the right solution) we may be able to learn in which situations a certain move is likely to be the correct one, even without calculating!

    Third, I dont suggest that we should not calculate concrete variatiins at all in real games! For instance, in the above diagram I immediately tried to calculate if there was any immediate wins after Qxf2 Bh4 since this looked like the most natural reply to me. I didnt immediately see any clear path to a win and concluded that Qxf2 must be the correct move. (btw, I didnt see Rf7 either, but Kxf2 just seemed wrong)

  4. Oh, I forgot to mention that I did exactly this in my latest OTB game. I played a sacrifrice/combination almost without calculating anything, but I was just sure that it had to be winning. I more or less jsut made sure that I hadnt missed some very obvious counter combination or intermediate checks and then I went for it! In fact 3 moves down the line (which never actually occurred on the board) I still hadnt decided if move A or B would be the right continuation but still wasnt reallly worried as I was “sure” one of the two moves should give a considerable advantage. I’m happy to say that the engines fully endorsed my intuition based “sacrifice”.

  5. @QC#1
    I will take the liberty to make my answer a bit complicated:

    a) Yes, this is not entirely nuts. Obviously, recognising patterns will improve your chess.

    b) But so will anything you are doing with chess! Some things are slower than others.

    c) My problem with this is that you are not training some of the skills, like in this case simple calculation (and elimination). The exercise was simple to see …Rf7. If you had solved it with me, I would have given you 0 points, for guessing rather than solving.

    d) Because guessing and patterns does not work often enough to be used on their own. The combination of patterns and candidate moves is something along the lines of 2+2=5.

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