When to calculate – Different tools for different jobs

I was asked again about when you should calculate and when you should trust your intuition. It is one of the big recurring problems of chess techniques and rightly so.

The Law of the Instrument as first phrased by Abraham Maslow goes like this: “The man with a hammer views every problem as a nail” (though Maslow said it less poetically). The relevance to chess is that we have different ways of thinking about a position and it is highly valuable to be able to shift between them, based on the demands of the position.

In some positions we do not really have to think. We need to recapture – or we already know what to play, because we spent last night studying the variation into the early hours. In these positions all we need to do is to ensure ourselves that this is indeed the case. Or said in another way:

The first thing we need to do is to establish if we have a choice

The next thing (baring that there is indeed a choice, without which it makes no sense not to just make a move immediately), the usual thing to do is to check the basic tactics in the position. We also call this for a candidate sweep.

Take this position:

Le Quang Liem – Svidler, Tromso World Cup 2013


White to play

 It seems that there is not really a big choice, but once we look for a few seconds, we can see that there is indeed a choice and that one of them is vastly superior to the other.

After we have checked for candidates it makes sense to try to understand what our goals should be in the position. Are they short term or long term? Are they dynamic or static? Are they offensive or defensive?

In most cases the way to solve the problems we have in the position will be by gradually improving our position. But in some cases our opponent’s scope for improving his position is greater than ours (by my estimate about half the time, in case anyone was wondering) and it makes sense to consider choosing to change the nature of the game. This might not necessarily be possible, but it is something we might want to pay attention to.

Or we might want to pay attention to how our opponent would want to change the nature of the game.

I could go on – but so far I have actually not talked about calculation yet and this is sort of my point. It is an important tool. Very important. Yusupov once plucked the number 30% out of thin air as an estimate to how important it might be for the professional player.

Now some guys are calculating everything. You can recognise them easily, as they are always deeply frustrated with “boring” positions. Positions where there is nothing to calculate. This does not mean that there is nothing going on. It just means that the hammer is useless. It is time for the screw driver, the spanner or the plaster…

If this is you, I strongly recommend the 3Q method. You can find many posts about it on this blog under my training tips or you can go to the source and read Grandmaster Preparation – Positional Play.

And if you are the one hoping for a clear algorithm for when to calculate, I am sorry. Chess is too complicated for that. There are simple ways to approach things, but they will always be models. They are not the territory.

The Solution

Le Quang Liem took on d5 with the pawn and the game was soon agreed a draw. He could have secured a winning advantage with 23.Rxd5! based on 23…Rxd5 24.e6+! and White wins.

16 thoughts on “When to calculate – Different tools for different jobs”

  1. Michael Bartlett

    I’m having trouble calculating the win after 24 … Kxe6 25 exd5+ Kf7 26 Bxg7 Kxg7 27 Rd1 – or do we just stop calculating after the exchange of black squared bishops and the white rook behind the passed pawn? Or did I just make a horrible fool of myself and calculate the wrong line?

  2. Michael Bartlett

    Oh I missed capturing the Knight on c3. That’s it, right? I don’t have a computer to check this with.

  3. This kind of ties in to what people actually criticise about computer moves:
    It’s not that they are impossible to find (especially if presented as puzzles) it’s that the only way to find them in a game is to be the guy with only the hammer. I.e. to calculate more or less randomly deep into the position even if there is no immediate need.
    The guy with the hammer will find the occasional brilliant combination, because he has to look for tactical justifications for each and every one of his moves. But a more well rounded player, who finds most of his moves by positional considerations, will still be stronger (even at the price of missing hidden shots once in a while).
    So in positions where it seems like every option is bad or where there is an obvious clue that there might be a tactical shot, you should spend the time to look at every possibility. But if a computer shows me a complicated tactical shot in a completely normal and position, I’ll just go: “Cute, but if I look for stuff like that on every move, I run out of time before move 20.”.

  4. @Phille
    With all respect, can I disagree entirely? Too see some non-standard options is not the same as only calculate. The idea that if you spend 10-15 minutes in an important position, you can either spend them only calculating, or you can spend them only generalising in a “rounded” way is not what I see actually happening.

    The problem comes when you try to do your candidate moves by intuition or if you do your positional judgement by calculation. Obviously we are able to do both look for candidates and to consider positional elements in other ways than calculation. Maybe not at the same time, but I am personally able to both add and multiply numbers, with only split second intervals :-).

  5. My point is that you just cannot spend 10-15 minutes on every position to find the hidden tactical nuances necessary to make non standard options work. Most often you should just spend a minute to come up with a decent positional move.
    “Seeing” the non standard option is not the issue. Finding the tactical justification (and believing it, even if you calculate the correct line) is.

    To me computer moves (in the derogatory context) are moves, that aren’t necessarily surprising, but where the tactical justification walks such a narrow line, that it would be unpractical to try to calculate it and very risky to believe in the correctness of your lines if you did calculate it.

    Of course there are positions in which you have no other options, but those are obviously comparatively rare.

  6. @Phille
    If you need 10-15 minutes on every simple tactic you should try to improve your calculation.

    The clou of the above position is not to calculate all the lines, but to spot the tactical idea. Once you got it, everything else is easy.

  7. Jacob Aagaard

    I agree with Thomas. What people will normally call a computer move is not a long series of accurate moves, but a surprising move that is counter-intuitive. Doing a candidates sweep does not take 10-15 minutes, but 10-15 seconds. Still people who rely on intuition tend not to do this, which they should.

  8. @Jacob Aagaard
    I agree – and practice shows this happens in reality. Otherwise we wouldn’t have all these nice puzzle books full of quite surprising ‘tactical blows’ (as they used to call them in the pre-‘computer move’ era)

  9. @Jacob Aagard:-Thanks for this article. I still don’t quite understand when books on tactics are written the author plunges directly into the candidate moves to find the solution like machine, however in books on positional topics we see the author speaking a lot about positional features and rarely talking about calculation stuff. My question is that Is it not really important to keep track of both the calculation and general features of the position while making decision in any position although the emphasis might change depending on the nature but I dont believe you can completely hide the presence of either of these tools while making decision. Your opinion is highly appreciated

  10. Jacob Aagaard :
    What people will normally call a computer move is not a long series of accurate moves, but a surprising move that is counter-intuitive.

    Well, that definition of “computer move” doesn’t make much sense to me, after all humans are very capable of finding surprising moves. It’s finding complicated and “random” tactical justifications that we suck at.
    So I guess I agree with what you are writing (in this blog post and the one before), but with the caveat that you don’t really address the problem of computer moves in game annotations and puzzle solutions as I see it.
    But I guess I confused everybody by doubling back to the “computer moves”-blog post. Doing a candidate sweep or looking at non standard options really doesn’t have too much to do with my computer move issue.

  11. @Jacob Aagaard
    ?? sorry couldn’t get u. besides I am working with your book on Calculation. and I am already feeling a bit superior however I wanted to know what you meant by having an aim before starting to calculate. Can u please elaborate on that too 🙂

  12. Jacob Aagaard

    It is the old saying with: before you climb up the ladder, make sure it is on the right wall. Computers calculate 2-3 million positions a second and therefore more or less everything (I know, I know, but essentially they do). Humans struggle to calculate a move a second on average. So what we calculate is really important. Spending a few seconds deciding what it makes sense to calculate instead of going by random impulses, as we usually do, makes sense to me.

  13. @Jacob Aagaard
    Well i guess I clearly get what you mean . correct me If I am wrong. Essentially we understand the positional features to actually find the moves that are worth calculating instead of just wandering around mechanically calculating everything that comes in the way.
    So it is always about finding the right candidates and then starting to go over it.

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