Solving and guessing

The last four weeks I have been travelling through Asia, visiting 12 cities in eight countries. Sometimes for less than 24 hours, arriving at 6 in the morning in Manila, for example, and flying out at half past midnight the same day…

On my trip, I have talked a lot about Thinking Inside the Box and the core ideas in the book. It has been an amazing experience, seeing how the ideas have resonated with people of all ages and all levels, from young kids to top grandmasters. I wish I was going to write the book now, as the ideas are so much clearer in my head and the diverse ways I have found to explain them would have improved it.

One thing I realised along the way is to emphasise the difference between guessing and solving. When I was an improving player, I struggled a lot with solving exercises. I would find ideas and then my concentration would crumble. I would flick to the solutions page and see how close I was.

Because close was the best I did – for a long time. Discipline was always a problem for the younger me. I had a spine similar to cooked spaghetti, according to a friend.

What I needed to do was to get into a habit of solving positions. When we are talking about tactical exercises, you should calculate all the variations till the end, working out all the details. This is an important skill to develop in training. It will take you far.

But this does not mean that guessing is all wrong. In my model there are four types of decisions.

1. Automatic Decisions
2. Simple Decisions
3. Critical Moments
4. Strategic Decisions

I deal more with this model in both Grandmaster Preparation – Strategic Play and in Thinking Inside the Box. And in previous blog posts, most likely. (No, I do not routinely look through them!) For here it suffices to say that only automatic decisions and critical moments require a high level of accuracy. Simple decisions are often taken on an intuitive basis and are as such, a pure guess. Strategic decisions include more calculation and logical thinking, but will in most cases include guessing as well.

This is important, because we simply cannot work everything out till the end. If you try to solve every move, you lose on time. For some people this is their existence.

The average player is directed by impulses and his inability to stay concentrated. The great practical player finds a good balance between guessing and solving and is always aware of which tool he uses. Moving from the first category to the second is a big jump and one the Grandmaster Preparation series is all about (as well as a few other things).

34 thoughts on “Solving and guessing”

  1. Was very interesting to be in your class in Thailand. Am looking forward to seeing the finished book (next time try to bring enough books to last the whole tour 🙂 )

    I do have a question… I was only at the first lecture and at the end you showed a position and said you’d give the answer in the 2nd lecture… But I didn’t go to the 2nd one… Do you remember the position and do you have the answer?

  2. Always found critical moments much more easily just after the game than during the game . I mean during the game you are never 100% sure this is the very critical moment . I suppose the stronger you are , the more nuances you see and the critical moment for a top GM will not be the critical moment for an IM or a lesser mortal

  3. “I wish I was going to write the book now, as the ideas are so much clearer in my head and the diverse ways I have found to explain them would have improved it.”

    In my opinion Jacob should delay the publication of TITB and update/improve his work now, more so taking into consideration that TITB is an mportant work, the cornerstone of Jacob’s training philosophy and the Grand Master Preparation series as far as I understand.

  4. the “best” is the enemy of the “good”… so unless rewriting the book is absolutly neccessary ( that mean the actual version of “” is bad or new concepts are pumping out that make it look bad written) it should be publish as is .
    should also consider if an update/corrected version is a real improvement compared to the extra work needed.
    There is no perfection and any book, any movie, any “thing” could have been better if allowed to do it again

  5. I could rewrite it endlessly. I really could. Whenever I would get to the end, I would want to write it again. If there is something someone does not find clearly explained, ask me and I will explain it here. My obsession with metaphors and the most lyrical way to express things could go on forever. I am an artist at my core. So, let’s print.

    I will write more about critical moments in the near future.

  6. As the thinking about the thought process never ends, if you’really interested, the idea of FM To Be would delay the book forever.

  7. @Jacob Aagaard
    You have read Danny Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow I guess?
    Also I read on chessbase Positional Play is being updated for Forward Chess. Is this just minor or will there be a second edition of the hardback?

  8. @Jacob Aagaard

    I really like the 2nd edition of Attacking Manual 1. So if there is significant change, I think we always can have a updated edition 2-3 years later. For now, we are looking forward to reading the long-waited the Thinking Inside the Box book (perfect or not, let readers judge).

  9. You can always write a different book. You can do it instead of the one you have just written or as a new one. I will choose the latter.

    The Critical Moment in Dorfman’s universe did not make a lot of sense to me. I use it in the old fashioned sense, as a position where the difference between the best and the second best move will be large.

    Of course I will make Navara’s most substantial corrections available. I will ignore the place where I spelled his name with two Rs though…

    I will also make 99 exercises I made out of the two attacking manuals for a strong player in 2010 available in the near future. I have not fully recovered from the trip, so will have to wait a bit.

  10. @Jacob Aagaard
    I like your modèle of 4 types of décisions as i also usually refer to 4 éléments That drives any choice. … but i am surprised because i dont get the same conclusions. To me, automatic decision is mostly a technical decision based on knowledge and should not be too complicated. Simple decision are more about calculation skill but here again decision should be qUi te easy. I will say That strategical decision is linked to imagination and is much more difficult to handle. Finally, critical decision is all about intuition as there is no objective criteria strong enough to justified one particular decision. What do you think about ?

  11. @RYV
    I think we do not speak the same language. I cannot see how someone can come to the conclusions you have done and be understanding what these various types of positions are in that way.

  12. well type of decisions depends on situations… but also mostly on individuals and psycho. ( like MBTI for ex.)
    btw, does chess players have a specific psycho type ? is it linked to their level ?

  13. @RYV
    Psycho is short for psychopat. I accept that some people play chess like that, but think you may think of psyche instead, or personality. I would not like this to different types of decisions and I would not link it to rating.

  14. Yes, i mean personality ( not a serial killer). Thx
    Still, our psychological profile drive the way we take our décisions. So différent people will not use the same ” decision process ” for the same choice.
    For example, on a given position, not all GM will make the same choice because there are many possibilities of approximate equal value. Personality is one reason to choose one or another move.

    But, more important. On a given situation where most masters will come to the same choice, do you think they all apply the same model of decision (That leed to the same output) or is it possible that by using any of the decision model ( intuitive, knowledge, calculation, skill..) they also come to the same conclusion.

  15. @RYV
    This depends on what you want to discuss. How people play chess when they have not thought about what they are doing, or how chess is played best?

  16. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    Jacob wrote: “…you may think of psyche instead, or personality. I would not like (link?) this to different types of decisions and I would not link it to rating.”

    Jacob wrote: “This depends on what you want to discuss. How people play chess when they have not thought about what they are doing, or how chess is played best?”

    Yes this is interesting. How people play chess when they have not thought about what they are doing is … they use whatever thinking style suits their personality. I can appreciate that a person *should not* have a preferred thinking style; instead they should use the thinking style that is most suitable for solving the problem at hand. I can also appreciate that in fact people *do have* a preferred thinking style. Even if they are well trained in the correct/suitable thinking style, they can fail to use it when tired, when emotional, etc.

    Beyond that there are still some open questions: whether there is a single correct thinking style suitable for all chess positions; and whether for any single arbitrary chess position there is only one thinking style that will efficiently lead to the correct move(s). Or perhaps you think these questions are already settled? I still see some difference of opinion in the available GM literature. But in our day people play more and more like computers all the time.

  17. I have a question about “simple positions”.
    I am one of those people who use too much time on these positions (trying to make sure to find the “right” move every time), so I have started to go through Positional Play, hoping it will help me take decisions quicker.

    The book is based on the student asking himself “three questions”, to direct focus on what is important in the position. If I remember some earlier blogposts correctly, you replied to criticism about this method that it is only a training method, not meant to be used in real games (or only on rare occasions).

    I think you also wrote that after going through the book one’s intuition should improve which will help to take quicker decisions.
    But I am not really sure if that would help in my case.

    Isn’t the problem the underlying thought process -> starting to calculate as quickly as possible?
    If going through the book is supposed to change my thought process, won’t I start asking myself the three questions at the board, even though it is only a training tool?

    And if the book “only” improved my intuition (which, btw would be a big step of course), would that help if I again started to calculate immediately?

  18. Jacob Aagaard

    @An Ordinary Chessplayer
    You say something that I have found to be untrue. You say that chess players who have not thought about how to make decisions “use whatever thinking style suits their personality.”

    My observation has been that they have 1-2 ways to solve problems and rely on them to solve any type of problems. It is one of the dimensions of the “Box” metaphor. The tool box. I used to tell Ganguly that for the man with a hammer, every problem resembles a nail. But not everything should be solved by intuition or calculation. Different problems require different approaches.

    Obviously a lot of people will have developed a way to approach chess that is in congruence with their personality, but I have also trained many that did not. Technical calm people that try to play attacking chess, but just don’t feel it is a common example. Mostly people do what someone told them to do at some point. It is very natural…

  19. Jacob Aagaard

    My definition of simple positions is positions where calculation will not do much good for you. OK, we may have to check a few simple lines, but this is positions where the direct attacks are not possible, where nothing is hanging and we just have to decide where the bishop or the rook belongs.

    We have to guess a lot in chess. We cannot work everything out. This is why improving the intuition is useful. Whenever I realise that I cannot calculate something accurately, I try to find a logic to the position that will help me make a qualified guess.

    The three questions can be used at the board. I use it at times, mainly if I do not know what I should be aiming at. I do not want to use them all the time. It would drive me insane. GM Brunello has said he does this at times.

    The book is useful. Many very strong players have been through it. Yesterday day Boris told me that Najer had used it before his 7/9 in Poikovsky and had said so somewhere. (If anyone knows where, please tell me!). Navara sent me a nice list of corrections that I will go through next week. Mainly misspelling his name (shame on me!), but also a few chess ideas.

  20. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    You’re hilarious. First you say I am wrong, then you agree with me. Go ahead, say I am wrong again.

  21. Although good players have many thinking tools in their belt and will generally do whatever it takes, i do think even they have preferences or tendencies. For example i think Carlsen often has an intuition first, calculation second approach. While for MVL it is rather the inverse.

    I have a question regarding critical positions. I sometimes have troubles in positions where a fundamental decision about the future of the game needs to be taken. For example one line leads to a dry equal position and another leads to an complicated unclear position. If you are fairly sure about the evaluation of both lines. Should these decisions be taken quickly?

  22. Jacob Aagaard

    There are many more elements to consider. Time. Tournament position. Ambition in the game. Have you missed a lot of things or are you on form. And so on. Taking important decisions quickly is often not a good idea.

    Btw. this is not a critical position in my definition, which I think is fairly standard: a position where the difference between the best move and the second best move is high, let’s say half a point.

  23. Yes, that’s more or less what i was getting at. So you don’t see these positions as critical but you still think it’s fine to spend a fair amount of time on them.

    I sympathise with that (and i often do it), but does it really make sense? I mean, aren’t these decisions largely intuitive? What will 10 extra minutes give you?

  24. @Raul
    it is a common problem of “indecision” where extra calculation does not give you any solution.
    you must decide on elements that are not directly linked to evaluation of the resulting position ( as both are leveled) but on some criteria that are more subjective ( danger, risk, feeling, …)

  25. Jacob Aagaard

    What I am saying is that your thinking will have many dimensions and not just be a waste of time. There are positions that cannot be solved and we have to gueas, but blind guessing at important moment is not advisable either.

  26. Jacob,

    Other than acquiring a lot of experience over time, what are some good ways to hone intuition?

    I don’t often spend too much time in non-critical positions looking for “perfect” moves, but I also want to make sure that I am maximizing my possibilities at the board.

  27. Hi Jacob.
    I Read with great interest and benefit to myself your book ” think inside the box”., a great book , in all the senses and i improve my vision about chess after the book. , I Just have a question that i am thinking about in the last few days. , ” Simple decisions” are happening all the time in all the games we played., Don´t are a little bit confusing understand all this positions like the same importance? , as i Understand , exist very different kind of ” simple decisions” , some with any importance , and others in with we need make plans ( without calculate nothing ) etc.,my question is: Put ” simple decisions” , all of them , in the same place , don´t can
    cause a sensation that all of them are always decisions that must be taken with the same speed and sometimes even superficiality in wrong moments?
    thank you very much.

  28. just a correction, although I do not know whether my question will be answered or not, I am only questioning what you call simple Decisions, and how to understand that any simple decision requires the same effort ,can end up leading to superficial and wrong decisions at certain times. the other types of decisions I found to be extremely useful.

  29. @Joaquincel
    These categories are important because it teaches us to see the positions as different and simple positions teaches us that we will have to do a bit of guessing. When you talk planning, you are into strategic decisions. Playing a more on general grounds, with long term implications (fixing a weakness e.g.) without something concrete behind it, is not strategy. But formulating a long term plan with moving parts is.

    You cannot make decision making in chess into formulas. But with limited time available, it is nice to have a way of looking at the positions that will help us work out which ones to spend more time on.

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