Critical Moments – two opposing definitions

Having debated CRITICAL MOMENTS here on the blog with a number of readers, I received a longer email from our friend and one-time author, Amatzia Avni.

Hello Jacob,

I’m following your blog and although I haven’t yet read your “Thinking inside the box”, I strongly disagree with some observations you make regarding the nature of “critical position” (or critical moment).

First, here is your own definition: “A critical moment …is something along the lines of a moment where the problems in front of you (hold great complexity) and failing to find a good move will a) lead to great suffering, or b) lose the advantage”. 29/4/13

“A position where the difference between the best move and the second-best move is high, let’s say half a point”. 9/5/2017.

Correct. (Also, when the decision is irreversible or hard to rectify).

Now –

“If you cannot calculate everything to the end, it cannot be a critical moment”. I disagree.

“Whatever computers see is irrelevant. The whole setup is based on what you realize at the board and not what you may know afterwards.” – I disagree.

“If he had seen it, it would have been a critical moment” – I disagree.

“If you do not see that there is something to calculate, how can you afterwards say that this was the moment you should have calculated” – I disagree.

“If you do not sense that accuracy is much needed in the position, how can you afterwards come with computer analysis and say that it was critical.” – I disagree.


Basically, a critical position (or moment) is a position in which picking the right decision will make a big difference. As such it can certainly be defined in retrospect. It has nothing to do with what a player thinks or believes during a game, it’s not related to complexity or the ability to calculate correctly till the end, or to the question if you saw the possibility, nor to what the players thought or felt during the game. Look at your own definition. It’s about the position.

Let’s take analogies from life:

Suppose you have offers from several promising youngsters to coach them. The offers are similar financially and you think the players’ potential is about the same. You choose to coach Mr. A and afterwards you found out that Mr. B became a world champion while Mr. A. never crossed 2400. Was it a critical moment in your life? Sure. You were not aware of it at the time, you didn’t bother “to calculate”, nor were you aware of the significance of your decision and yet…

You are attracted by three beautiful and charming ladies. You decide to marry one of them. They all seem to have the same “value”?. Yet the one you actually married turned out to be wicked, who makes you suffer. A critical moment in retrospect, although you didn’t realize it at the time.

In WW1 and WW2 there were many mini-fights. Some of them became eventually critical, in spite of the fact that both parties didn’t understand their significance at real time.

With respect, and best wishes

Amatzia Avni


What we are talking about here are two different definitions.

Avni’s definition is objective

Avni focuses solely on the objective evaluation of the position. This is the start and the end point. Everything circles around this. For this reason, retrospective analysis can be used to determine what type of decision there is in the position. A moment that cannot be calculated accurately, can be a critical moment.

My definition is action oriented, practical and individual

Avni freely admits that he has not had the time to read my book yet, which is fair enough. I am certain he is not the only reader of this blog who has a life. But he allowed me to publish his email, as I felt my answer to it would be interesting to many of you.

Action oriented

My division of decisions into four categories are like this:

  1. Automatic Decisions – There is only one move available

Action: Check if there really is only one move. If yes, then play it.

  1. Simple Decisions – There is not much to calculate. The difference between the best move and other options is marginal.

Action: Many decisions can be taken on feeling or on general principles. I have worked with the three questions method as a training method for this type of decision, others have worked with this type of position in other ways. We guess.

  1. Critical Moments – The difference between the best and the second-best move is large. The right move cannot be deduced without finding moves that are not immediately obvious to us.

Action: I like to compare this to an algebra test. If you do not calculate the outcome accurately, you will most likely get it wrong. Guessing is not an option, you have to rely on variations.

  1. Strategic Moments – The position is too complicated for us to work everything out.

Action: We have to use all the tools we have available. Strategic analysis, calculation, general principles, logic and so on. We have to work at it, but ultimately, we have to guess.


To me 20/20 hindsight has limitations. I am interested in how we make better decisions and we can use post-game analysis to understand how to do this better.

You can claim that a position SHOULD have been approached as a critical moment and it can make it easier for us to recognise these in the future. But if we for example include mutual blunders in our definition, which I presume Avni would (marrying the wrong woman!), we change the definition to simply mean: moments where mistakes were made.

As I want to improve decision making, I want a definition that works in advance of events, not in hindsight. I want to link it to actions.

Let’s take some of Avni’s disagreements.

“If he (Carlsen) had seen it, it would have become a critical moment.” – Avni works entirely on the positions objective merit, which to me, seeing that there was a chance to calculate a tactical opportunity in an otherwise simple position. If we do not see this opportunity, it does not make sense to me to talk about the decision as critical, because we do not see anything to calculate.

As I said, you cannot say afterwards that you should have calculated in a certain moment, if you did not realise there was something to calculate. This is an improvement advice along the lines of PLAY BETTER MOVES, which is technically correct, but not helpful.


He states that it is entirely about the position. Well, I am a chess trainer, not a truth seeker. To me it is mainly about the player. Our feeling of what type of decision we face during the game is important, because it will help us make better decisions. This means that a position may not have the same type of decision for different types of players.

What would be a critical moment for a very strong tactician will be a strategic moment for other players, who are unable to calculate the position with any depth and therefore will have to guess.

A strategic moment for a 2000-player can easily be placed between an automatic and a simple decision when you have Kramnik at the board.

And so on.

Adjusting your way of finding the best move to the type of decision suitable for player of your level gives you an advantage. Knowing that the computer will see something you have not after the game does not help me personally during the game. Actually, I never think of it during the game.

A definition that does not help us make better decisions has little value to me, but of course others may have their own opinions.

Don’t get married

Choosing one spouse over another can be criticised later on. But actually, getting married is the mistake. This is not a critical moment, but an automatic decision gone wrong…

A hypothesis

I presume that a mega-study of grandmaster games would show that positions where the one player is slightly better (0.3-0.6 for the computer generation), gives this player a disproportionate higher score than the position justifies. Because deciding between unpleasant continuation is hard and often leads to mistakes.

Presuming that this is correct (which I believe based on small studies), the critical moment for the outcome of the game (comparing with Avni’s WW2 analogy) can with fairness be said to be when the first mistake was made. It does not all have to be the battle of Midway.

What is the practical use of this? I fail to see it. The idea of having four different types of decisions, linked to actions, is for us to play chess better. A definition that relies on hindsight is not useful during the game to me.

So, for this reason Avni’s words should not have been: I disagree, but my definition is objective, yours is practical. Which is fair enough, as long as we can agree that when I say something, it is based on my definition, as laid out in the book.

Thanks to Avni for his kind email and a permission for me to put it up here, so the debate can reach everyone who is interested. I am not sure if I have made my point clearly. It is close to 3am in the morning and I am more than a little overworked. But I wanted to share my opinion to those of you who are interested.

77 thoughts on “Critical Moments – two opposing definitions”

  1. I think the whole debate circles around one single word.
    Jacob is talking about critical decisions. Amatzia (and Henricks too) is talking about critical positions. And both call it critical moments.

    In a practical game you have to struggle with critical decisions. Afterwards you see if those were critical moments.

  2. In a game I’m not sure a critical decision can be separated from an strategic decision. You feel the need to spend time calculating (the main idea as I see it). Either you calculate till the end and then is a critical decision, or you do not and then it is a strategic one and you have to guess.

  3. I agree with Thomas: Buth concepts are useful, but we need to separate them with different terms to avoid confusion and unnecessary debates.

    Maybe subjectively critical moments vs objectively critical moments. Or recognized critical moments vs hindsight critical moments.

    Actually there are several kinds of hindsight: Which positions would be critical for a supercomputer with the latest engines? For the strongest humans? For human players “typically”? And most importantly for the practical player: What can I realistically do (as a player with my particular strengths and weaknesses) do to bring my “critical moment perception” a bit more in line with the objective reality?

  4. Jacob Aagaard

    Sure. But the difference is that Avni and especially Hendrix, insists that what I and others are saying is wrong. Not different. Wrong. Avni is just following a debate on a blog and is a friend that wrote a friendly email to debate. Hendrix wrote a book where he did not take the time to understand what the people he was criticising meant. The book is hilarious and everyone should read it, but critically. As with any book.

  5. Jacob Aagaard

    It really really can. It is easier to show with a lot of examples than it is with logic. But it is a bit like the opening and the middlegame. There is a gray zone where we can debate.

  6. Jacob Aagaard


    I think it makes sense to operate in both worlds. To see things from as many angles as possible. Certainly that should make us understand everything better?

    Of course we want to analyse our games and find out where we made mistakes. But what Hendrix and Avni does, is that they take a different concept and makes it cover something which we already have a name for – a mistake. In the process they invalidate an important practical tool.

  7. Jacob Aagaard

    I want to repeat that I asked Amatzia to be allowed to publish his email not to criticise him – but to explain what my point is. I have no criticism of him. He disagreed with me over something and wrote about it in a friendly way. I had a point to be made and I wanted to elaborate it. And he very kindly allowed me to use his email to do so.

  8. i am perplex.
    I find Avni’s point of view close to common sense and easy to understand. Critical position is defined from pieces on the board. From this, there is one good continuation and a lot weaker moves. So it is a critical moment whoever is playing at the board.
    From Jacob explainations, it looks like the same position at the board will lead or not to a critical moment depending on the players and their way of handling their reflexion; it looks strange to me. Also, with the same player in two equivalent situations, he might not work the position in the same way depending on many external factors ( tired, important game, memory of ancient situation…) . Is critical moment only a way thinking ?

    maybe you have an educational example availiable to show us what you are talking about ?

    I think you made it wrong when you talk about blunders as describing avni’s point of view. a blunder is one bad ( very bad) continuation within lot’s of good moves but not missing the (very) right move in a complex position.
    it is also confusing that Avni & Jacob agree on “the difference between the best move and the second-best move is high” and then came to opposite conclusions.

  9. RYV :
    i am perplex.
    I find Avni’s point of view close to common sense and easy to understand. Critical position is defined from pieces on the board. From this, there is one good continuation and a lot weaker moves. So it is a critical moment whoever is playing at the board.

    But you don’t have any of that information available at the board (unless you are Stockfish or Komodo, or in a prepared opening or technical endgame). You have to find or “feel” all of it yorself. I take Jacob to also want a more individual and practical concept of how to use and develop the feeling or realization at the board that “this is a critical moment/decision”.

    And then instead of accepting this as a useful, Avni and Hendriks just see that it doesn’t match their own preferred definitions of “critical moment”, and reject it. I think we need both (or all three) concepts.

  10. I don’t think Avni and Hendriks are making the same point at all. They are both disagreeing with Jacob, but in different ways.

    Avni wants “critical moment” to be an entirely objective concept. I think nobody disagrees this is a useful concept in analysis, but the problem is other concepts are also useful, and he rejects them.

    Hendriks argues that positions where someone actually blunders or there are plausible ways to blunder, are critical moments. This is similar to Heisman’s concept of “criticality analysis”, which also focuses heavily on tactics and blunder potential, though I think Hendriks may allow for a more subjective and indivdual understanding of it than Heisman.

    This is confusing because blunders are not at all what strong players and writers mean when they discuss critical moments. Hendriks is right that for weaker players every move can be critical, but that just means players below some level (1800?) shouldn’t bother with the concept much at all, unless the feeling arises naturally during play that “this is an especially crucial and difficult decision” and that often turns out to be correct. Instead they should just work to make better decisions in all kinds of positions.

    Hendriks’ other point that criticality isn’t an either/or thing but on a scale is of course true, but how on earth are you going to make use of that in practice at the board? I can see myself sayng “I had three critical moments last game” and cutting myself some…

  11. […]
    Hendriks’ other point that criticality isn’t an either/or thing but on a scale is of course true, but how on earth are you going to make use of that in practice at the board? I can see myself sayng “I had three critical moments last game” and cutting myself some slack that they were not really exactly equally critical. But nobody thinks “I had one 98% critical moment, one 87% critical moment, and one 73% critical moment”. At most we differentiate between the routine, the important, and the critical.

  12. If the subject is ” what it takes to improve one’s decision making process ? ” it seems clear to me that it depends heavily on the player and his/her own way to think , even if it is flawed , of moves , positions and definition of concepts ( like ” critical moments ” ) .

  13. Either there is a reality that we can all share or there is not.

    In the universe I inhabit, Avni is wholly correct.

  14. There’s one Aagaard statement (quoted by Avni) I’m not sure I agree with:

    “If you cannot calculate everything to the end, it cannot be a critical moment”

    In a recent game I had a R+B vs R+N endgame with equal pawns. I thought I was clearly better due to my active king, but unsure if I was winning. Then I saw a forced line that would exchange off the minor pieces, win a pawn (at least temporarily), and give me a passed a-pawn, but give him counterplay against my now undefended kingside pawns – a common rook ending scenario.

    This might be winning for me, but I wasn’t sure, and I thought I was still better whatever I played. So I followed the guideline “When in time trouble, avoid or delay making irreversible decisions.”

    In the game my opponent found a lot of counterplay and drew quite easily. Engines confirm I was winning but going for that rook ending was the only way to win (and the only way to keep any real advantage).

    I think this was still a critical moment in both the objective and the subjective sense even if I didn’t manage to calculate everything. There are several hypothetical ways I could have made a better decision, but I’m not sure why only 1) keeps this a critical moment:

    1) Better calculation (would require a stronger calculator and/or more time left on the clock)

    2) Knowing that the rook ending must be winning (from studying very similar positions in endgame books)

    3) Intuitively feeling that the rook…

  15. are we sure that every decision we take during a game can be categorized into one of the 4 classes definde by JA ?
    for example
    ” 2.Simple Decisions – There is not much to calculate. The difference between the best move and other options is marginal.”

    what about variations that all leads to some kind of (+=) evaluations after 30 min of heavy calculation – make a random choice ?

  16. We have all lost positions we should have won. We got excited, distracted, angry, lost our focus, daydreamed. If a perfect game ends in a draw, than any error introduces the risk of loss. But how do we assess errors in advance? Surely at the time we thought we made a sound move. There is no angel on our shoulders to wake us up and say, “here now, buckle down, this is critical.” I have read Mr. Avni and I have read Mr. Aagaard and they are both solid. But here I must lean on Mr. Aagaard’s definition that calculation requires us to look for candidates that do not come to us intuitively. I also enjoyed Hendrix’s book. I thought it was fun and posed curious questions for the reader. But there is no short cut to putting in the time needed to expand our horizons. I think Ford once said opportunity often comes dressed in dirty clothes and looks like work. How often do we stop and ask ourselves if there is a mate in this position? After 10 moves, deep into the middlegame, well into the endgame? What triggers us to pause and ask if the position holds more for us? It is impossible to scan every single possible move. We have to trim the fat somewhere. The moves we keep and moves we discard define our strength.

  17. Nice debate. Stigma, I think your endgame advantage fits into the strategic category and agree with Jacob here.

    In slightly different circumstances, I have debated whether to accept a passive but worse endgame or an active worse position that is a race. I have generally made the passive but worse decision. My GM friends have told me always take the race. It is strategic and you are playing for three results rather than two. When you add up the percentage odds from a practical perspective, active is always better. Many of the exercises in the various books seem to make this point and I am trying to change.

    One position from a recent game as a practical example for the debate., I am White and to move. White pawns on a2, e2, f2, g3, h2, Kg1, Rc1, Rc5 Qa6. Black pawns on b5, d3, f5, g6, h6 Rd8, Rd7, Qd4 and Kg7. I did not view this as a critical moment and played 35 exd3 Qxd3 36 Qxb5 which gives White no advantage. I briefly considered 35 Qxb5 d2, thought it was nuts to allow Black’s pawn to the 7th backed up by the rooks. The computer believes this is winning for White. Under Jacob’s definition, this is not a critical decision, since I did not recognize it. I always like to understand the concept behind the computer’s decision. Here, the concept seems to be that White controls the entry points with pawns on the kingside and the open b and c files on the queenside. The a-pawn will act as a decoy and be traded for the Black d-pawn. After that occurs,…

  18. OK the rest of my comments. Apologies for the length. After that occurs, White’s better king protection will be the decisive factor. Now, should I have figured that out? Where does that fit? What level is the player that figures that out?

  19. @Stigma
    I still dont get it !
    Could A critical decision ( from Jacob définition) exist without A critical position présent on the board ( Avni concept) ?

  20. @RYV
    I’m not sure I understand it either. Maybe Jacob will clarify (or just tell us all to read “Box”).

    At least there are some paradoxes. Let’s say I’m struggling a pawn down in an endgame, but I get one chance to sacrifice one more pawn and reach a drawn opposite-coloured bishop endgame. This is an objectively critical moment. It might also be a subjectively critical moment for me because I would feel a need to calculate and check that it really was a draw.

    A much weaker player (a beginner, say) might not even know that opposite-coloured bishop endgames are very drawish, and therefore not consider going two pawns down at all. So no subjectively critical moment for him. While a stronger player might see immediately that this was a draw. For her this would also not be a subjectively critical moment, but instead a forced move (“nothing to think about”).

  21. Let me try to think of an opposite case: A subjectively critical moment for me, but no objectively critical moment:
    I feel my position is so difficult I use up most of my time trying to find a move that survives. But it turns out I had a stalemate trick I didn’t see; one that would actually work in many different lines.

    So objectively, several moves would hold the draw = no objectively critical moment.

  22. @Stigma
    First point, I never stated that there cannot be more than one good move. Let us say, indeed that we are talking of a difficult endgame, where you feel that at this moment you have to be really accurate and calculate the outcome. What does it matter if there are more than one possible move. In Avni’s description, not finding the right move makes it a critical moment – because all mistakes seems to be deemed critical moments under his definition?

    My definition is based on being applicable for the practical player as he decides how to approach a position. Both in terms of how much time and energy he should invest (neither are limited) and how he should try to approach it.

    This is the big difference between a CRITICAL MOMENT and a STRATEGIC MOMENT.

    A critical moment is a moment where you think you can calculate everything to a clear conclusion. It is alike an algebra test. You need to work out what is happening.

    A strategic moment includes very complicated positions where a computer may find a clear path (more and more often they do), but you certainly cannot. You will have to use general principles, positional evaluation, calculation and so on. And eventually, you will guess…

  23. Jacob Aagaard :
    First point, I never stated that there cannot be more than one good move.

    Avni quotes you as follows: “A position where the difference between the best move and the second-best move is high, let’s say half a point”. 9/5/2017.” Where you talking about something else? Anyway, Avni is focused on objectively critical moments, and I think in his concept one clearly best move (or at least, one clearly best idea) is required. In practice/subjectively – probably not.

    Jacob Aagaard :
    A critical moment is a moment where you think you can calculate everything to a clear conclusion. It is alike an algebra test. You need to work out what is happening.

    How about my transition to rook ending example earlier, where I felt ideally I could be able to calculate it to a win or draw, but I just didn’t have time for that on the clock? Was this still that a critical moment? I tend to think it was. And maybe even if I had gone for the rook ending based on a strong intuitive feeling that it must be winning. I’m not trying to be difficult here, just interested in the borderline cases.

  24. A few questions :
    – how do you define auto-pilot sequences ? series of routine moves ?
    – sometimes the computer is at a loss in complicated non-tactical positions but not you ( you know what pieces to keep on the board , what pawns not to push , … ) you can’t calculate the details but you know the position to obtain . Is this a strategical moment ?

  25. @Stigma
    I do not see why there has to be only one way; what about two move orders to do the same. No definition worth anything would exclude that. On the other hand, you can end with some very simple critical moments, which also make no sense. Difficulty seems to be the main driver in any meaningful definition.

    Lack of time does not change anything as I see it. This gives us information about our use of time earlier in the game. Maybe we want to make changes there. You should not end up with a critical moment being something you do see or did not see, but more something looking forward. At least this is my reuirement for a useful definition: something that can help us make decidions better at the board. Even if it is just through developing our feeling.

  26. @Pinpon
    When there is only one sensible move. Obviously there are often something we miss; so we should check.

    Depends on the complexity. If you need to think hard about how to get what you want, we are into planning; the dictionary definition of strategy. If it is just putting the pieces on good squares, it is a simple decision.

  27. Adrian Mikhalchishin’s definition of what constitutes Critical Moments seems more appropriate than any other I have seen. Those are easy enough to see ‘during’ a game and therefore the most practical.

  28. Paata Gaprindashvili (whose first book has been recommended by JA), has also written a book about critical moments in chess. Has anyone read it?

  29. @mike
    I have it in front of me!

    Gaprindashvili says they arise in different situations but most frequently during the struggle to gain an initiative and prosecute an attack….which to me is too limiting. To be fair, he fleshes that out more than I am saying but there is no handy list I can give you…and it has been a few years since I looked at the book. I do remember it being a VERY good set of exercises!

    I mentioned earlier Mikhalchishin’s definition. For those not familiar with it, it is basically:

    1. Changes in the Pawn Structure
    2. Exchange of pieces (particularly the big ones)
    3. Calculation of long variations
    4. Choosing to enter an endgame
    5. Positional ‘solution’ to a problem.

    That is from memory, but I think it is right. I know these are the ‘signposts’ I started using after watching his video on Critical Moments. At home, I consciously use Jacob’s ways to label a position during a game so I can better orient my thinking – save for Critical Moments when I find Michalchishin’s just more user friendly, especially during the heat of battle. I mean, seriously, unless you are approaching omniscience (seriously!), how do you really know when the your decision is going to be ‘that much better’ than another choice…save for after the game when you can really dissect it and use an engine?

    In Thinking Inside The Box, Jacob says Critical Moments are “commonly misunderstood – or weakly defined”. Honestly, I…

  30. Got cut off…

    Honestly, I think Jacob loses his way there as well as too many of his readers are still mystified when it comes to how to think of ‘Critical Moments’. That is just my opinion of course.

  31. Jacob Aagaard

    Fair opinion. If I did not get you on board, I lost at least you. I know what I mean, but maybe I could have communicated it clearer.

    The exercises in Gaprindashvili’s second book are sadly so full of mistakes that I cannot recommend it.

  32. Jacob Aagaard :
    Fair opinion. If I did not get you on board, I lost at least you. I know what I mean, but maybe I could have communicated it clearer.

    With all the ink you have spilled over the years on trying to make it clear(er)…one could argue that maybe you just have too much invested to accept that you just might not really have a very good (lets say ‘practical’) model for defining ‘Critical Moments/Positions’ during a game? At least, I do not see it as in keeping with the simplicity you rightly espouse for the student of the game.

    These ways of looking at the game are all constructs — one author takes one approach, another takes another to try to help the student orient himself to the flow and ever positions during a game. I personally like yours…and just see your approach to ‘Critical Moments’ similarly to that little flaw which is woven into the design of every Persian rug.

    And please don’t take my critique too negatively. I am just one person. I have all the books you have written for a reason (they are good and you put a lot of work into them!) save for the Stonewall Dutch and the one on the Panov-Botvinnik set-up, which have eluded me over the years. Two DVD’s as well.

  33. Jacob Aagaard :
    Difficulty seems to be the main driver in any meaningful definition.
    Lack of time does not change anything as I see it.
    […] more something looking forward. At least this is my reuirement for a useful definition: something that can help us make decidions better at the board. Even if it is just through developing our feeling.

    So then a practical/subjective critical moment is a position you’ve got at the board that you think or feel at the time is both difficult, could change the evaluation a lot if you get it wrong, and you are able to calculate it all out if you’re on your best form, have enough time on the clock, etc.?

    I agree with this except for maybe the calculation requirement. It makes sense to leave room for very intuitive players to take even critical decisions based on intuition and still call it a critical moment.

  34. cornfed :
    I mentioned earlier Mikhalchishin’s definition. For those not familiar with it, it is basically:
    1. Changes in the Pawn Structure
    2. Exchange of pieces (particularly the big ones)
    3. Calculation of long variations
    4. Choosing to enter an endgame
    5. Positional ‘solution’ to a problem.

    I like this definition, which seems more concrete and easier to be certain about in the heat of battle. The only worry is it will often result in finding too many moments critical. No. 5. sounds very vague, and I would prefer something more exceptional (“Non-standard/initially strange-looking positional solution” for instance).

    For me, a main point of defining critical moments is to play more quickly and intuitively to conserve time in positions that are not critical. So if there are too many critical moments, that defeats the purpose. Of course, sometimes you get razor-sharps games with critical things to calculate on almost every move, but that’s not the norm.

  35. I fear there will never be a voice from beyond telling you “hey – this is a critical moment!”.
    And also no clear-cut definition from the manual “how and what to think in chess”.

    You’ll have to find your own feeling for it, depending on your knowledge and experience.

  36. Jacob Aagaard

    If I had to give a number one definition to a possible Critical Moment, it would be that you are unable to improve your pieces any further. In such situations, more often than not, direct action is preferable.

  37. Okay, we may all have slightly different définition of critical position-moment-decision but one point is That on critical moment i think we face a choice of lines / moves /variations that are commiting with a kind of no way back decision. How Knowing or feeling we are facing such moment will help us to make better choice ?

  38. @RYV it’s simple – you can for example spend more time on that move.
    Once I sacrificed a pawn and few moves later I just couldn’t understand where my compensation is. I knew if I play just a normal move I will be pawn down and that would simply mean a resignation… I spent 40 minutes(!) and finally found a beautiful idea after which I keep good compensation.
    Spending 40 minutes is not recommended, usually 20 should be enough but knowing or feeling I am facing such a critical moment led to decision to break the rule and to think as long as possible until correct solution is found.

    (You can see the game: – and the critical move I was referring to is 20.Nd7)

  39. Not so simple. But i agree that we should allow more time if necessary . Anyway, it doesnt garantees we will find A better move. Sometimes, such A better move doesnt even exist and we just waste our time .

  40. But if the alternative is to play lost position or in general much worse than our general evaluation we just can’t let it happen. So if our feeling is the position might change a lot after our next move we just need to keep searching. It is possible we won’t find the answer but then it’s different kind of problem.
    Knowing or feeling this is the critical moment doesn’t solve the problem itself – it is a clear sign to focus more and search and this helps finding much more complicated moves than usual.

  41. And if better move doesn’t exist it just means we already found the best solution but we haven’t evaluated it correctly or the position is for example lost anyway, so that’s not a critical moment anymore.
    Invest your time end effort when you believe that if you don’t do it your position will get much worse than it is now.

  42. Jacob Aagaard

    To me this game is not a critical moment, but a strategic moment. These two have a lot in common. The difference to me is that you cannot feasibly calculate everything till the end. You will need to calculate and evaluate and guess. But certainly, it is a moment that requires serious effort.

    What would it matter to us if we find out afterwards that the evaluation of the position was different from what we thought. This is interesting as far as we want to improve our understanding of the game. But during the game, this information is not available to us. I care about decision making and my model suggests different actions to different situations. I find it entirely uncontroversial, actually. It is with purists who wants to have an academic definition with a list of triggers and so on, that I have a real discussion. And it has been very polite, so I don’t mind at all…

  43. The absolute definition of the so-called ” Critical Moment / Position / Move ” is interesting but it is an endless discussion . I agree at 99% with the theme ” the CM occurs when you can’t improve your pieces anymore ” but look at how black or white players play the Hedgehog from the 80’s and how ” Theory” develops . Practice is key . Chess is moves and planning not words 🙂 .
    Poker has the solution : ” it depends ” is the ultimate answer .

  44. What do you mean by ” calculate everything till the end” ?
    Does all lines ended in forced draw or forced win/lost position ?
    In A given position, some candidate move lead to calculable variations while other require evaluations and guess . What about such positions ?

  45. I thought I calculated everything there I needed to give some evaluation which was at least clear to me it’s a compensation worth a pawn. Once the move was found it wasn’t so hard to discover that lots of tactics work in my favor and calculate it as the play has rather forced character.

    I believe in a strategical moment there would be much more guessing, less forced lines more long term plans etc. That’s the way I feel – maybe I am wrong 😉

    One way or the other the most important conclusion during the game was to invest as much energy as possible, otherwise there would be no point in continuing the game without a pawn. And this conclusion helps that decision.

  46. @piongu
    The moment we talk about compensation, we are moving into the strategy area. There are two types of strategy; strategy with technical aims and strategy with dynamic aims. This is the latter. But it is really only about definition. The main reason why I call it strategy, is because it still relies heavily on evaluation and intuition, while a critical moment is more concrete. But it is certainly a gray zone. And is it important? What matters is that you approached the position appropriately.

  47. Hmm
    Came back from hols (reading ‘Box” for some of it) then logged on to read this thread- still very confused- you seem to have changed your definition of calculation in Box from the one you use in your book ”Çalculation” and in this thread where it seems to be the more established tree of variaitions you work out to the best of your ability.
    For instance I can’t seem to match up your premise that calculation is “not seeing variations but finding variations you do not see intuitively” with your use of the word calculation in other contexts in phrases such as ” A critical moment is a moment where you think you can calculate everything to a clear conclusion”
    Any help in clarifying what you mean by calculation?

  48. Jacob Aagaard

    I have had a consistent view of calculation for the last 15 years. The first chapter in EXCELLING AT CALCULATION is called “before you can learn to think, you need to learn how to see.” The first topic in CALCULATION is “candidates.” In Inside the Box I go quite deep into the nature of the candidate search, while in the previous books, I focused more on other techniques, which are less basic. You could say that although I still follow the method of Mark Dvoretsky, I have emphasized and extended my investigations into candidates; because my experience is that this is where the problem is.
    Calculation will always include intuition; you cannot turn it off for long. The process of candidate moves is to turn your attention to looking for options, rather than letting your intuition play with the ideas it already notices. Once you find additional ideas, your intuition will automatically start to dig in them. Can’t be helped. And that is a good thing.
    I cannot see the conflict compared to anything I have written previously. I would like to know where it is, so I can clarify it.

  49. Wow, this blog has exploded during my two-week holidays 🙂 . I have read TITB twice during my holidays and I have to say it makes a lot of sense to me. As a practical player you need to make the best possible decision during the game (and not after the game). In that respect I find Jacob’s advice very enlightening and useful. I don’t mind about the definitions, as long as it enables me to make better decisions behind the board 🙂

  50. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    “The process of candidate moves is to turn your attention to looking for options, rather than letting your intuition play with the ideas it already notices.” = gold!

    I agree with the purists that it is nice for discussion purposes to have an objective definition for a critical moment/position/decision. I agree with Jacob that it is important as a player to have a subjective definition. So debating this topic can be useful for both camps, but I would never expect much agreement between them.

    BTW – The definition of “sacrifice” also runs up against this objective/subjective boundary.

  51. Jacob Aagaard :
    I care about decision making and my model suggests different actions to different situations. I find it entirely uncontroversial, actually. It is with purists who wants to have an academic definition with a list of triggers and so on, that I have a real discussion.

    It might not be only purist who want an “academic definition with a list of triggers…”, but also people whose intuition fails them a lot? If someone fails to spot (objectively) critical moments all the time, a checklist to go through consciously might be helpful. And over time, with repeated use, such a consious strategy can become automatic, as Axel Smith and probably you too at some point have written about.

    (Btw. I’m not taking about myself here – I usually spot critical moments, but I frequently don’t have the calculation skills or enough time on the clock to make the most of them.)

  52. Jacob Aagaard

    I really do not think it would help. Not a list of factors. But learning to recognise the feeling of “this is a sharp position” or “this could easily go wrong” or “I cannot find a way to imrpove my pieces in this sharpnposition.” The last one is one possible trigger, but to me it is not a fixed point. Someone else gave a list that would make 75% of all moves critical. It came short of “don’t make mistakes” almost only by omitting the first move :-). I am exaggerating, but the key point is that these lists will make a lot of decisions “critical” which really aren’t.

    This is how I see it. Other views are welcome. Let’s debate and become smarter!

  53. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    “people whose intuition fails them a lot?” … Here is a catch-22. A subjectively critical moment is precisely where intuition is not enough to guide the move choice. But you need intuition to identify such a position. A checklist will paper over the fault, but I see it as a recipe for time trouble (I have some experience there). I notice nobody is debating the definition of intuition, but if we did there might be as little agreement as on the definition of critical position. Looking forward to reading TITB, which is in the post.

  54. @An Ordinary Chessplayer
    Why do you think the definition of intuition is controversial? I think most people agree intuition is what you just “see” or “feel” at the board, without having to think very hard to find it out. And cognitive psychology tells us intuition is based on (mostly subconscious) memory.

    Intuition for critical position is something people build up gradually by playing a lot, studying commented games with critical decisions, and maybe solving. I was just wondering if it’s possible to use some checklists, self-instructions, etc. to speed up the development of that intuition. Maybe it isn’t.

  55. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    “Intuition for critical position is something people build up gradually” – just so. I think the post-mortem is mostly where this takes place.

    As the interested-in-psych person you are, I would expect you to have a clear definition of intuition. But others (including me) may have only a hazy working definition, yet still use the word frequently. That happens with many words, and *people are generally okay with it*. That was what I was getting at.

  56. Yes, intuition is developed through analysis and reading good comments. Check lists. Betond basic questions, I find them too crude. Actually, I think it is a bad idea.

  57. The definition of a critical moment as “position where the difference between the best move and the second-best move is high, let’s say half a point” as given in “Thinking inside the box” is just bad. According to this definition any piece exchange where there is only one way to take back would be critical.

  58. an ordinary chessplayer

    Maybe critical moment defies precise definition, yet it exists. Like the famous response from the judge when asked to define pornography: “I’ll know it when I see it.” Any class of objects that exists on a continuous scale is subject to the fallacy of the beard. Think “white”, “gray”, “black”. Add in the complication that a critical moment for one individual might not be for a different individual. But when all is said and done, it doesn’t matter exactly what is a critical moment. It matters that we get better at handling them in our own games.

    As for the example of simple recapture matching the definition of critical moment, that’s like saying a naked baby picture is pornography. Nice try.

  59. Seems the idea was not to get the ultimate definition of a ” critical moment ” but to help players with practical advice

  60. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    @RYV – The way to use the concept is first to identify a critical position, *while you are playing*, and second to calculate like a fiend. If during the first step you need to worry about whether Magnus Carlsen would also find this to be a critical position, it is just going to take you longer to get started on the second step.

  61. @rho
    I imply intelligence in everything. If you are into computer programming, I am not your guy. If you come with an argument as the one you do there, you are trying to have a legal watertight definition. Sorry, I am not your guy. My model is based on human intelligence and the way normal human beings think. It is a model that can help you make better decisions at the chess board. Since there is nothing in your argumentation that has anything to do with playing better chess, we are not talking about the same thing. This means you can have your definition and I can have mine. They are not covering the same territory and are thus not in conflict. Peace be with you.

  62. @RYV
    Thank you for this question. It is very clear in my mind. I shall see if I will be able to come with a good definition as well :-).

    It has to do with what is inside your abilities. There will be positions that a grandmaster would hope to calculate to a win, which a 2000 player will find difficult to understand is winning even when the long variation is presented to him. Calculating the variation till the end is simply not an option for him.

    It would be awful practical advice to tell a 2000 player that he simply should be able to calculate like a grandmaster. Sure, we all have that ambition (not the least myself), but it will not help us the next time we have a promising position.

    It makes a lot more sense to say that although this position is winning for a grandmaster or a computer, I would have to make some sort of educated guess. The same thing will happen for grandmasters. They will know that a computer thinking for 10 minutes will probably come with a clear variation that wins; but for them it is beyond reach.

    As a result, we will use not only calculation, but also intuition, our general understanding of the game, maybe some strategic concepts and so on.

    To distinguish between the positions where we have to ultimately guess (strategic decisions) and positions where we should work out the correct continuation accurately (think maths; guessing does not work) is important. It determines how we best approach the position.

    And it is individual. No two players will have the same abilities. To give the same advice to wildly different players does not make sense to me. Again, I am into decision making and getting better results. Not legalistic definitions in areas where everyone knows that it is irrelevant for the practical player (like the exchanges argument above; where the theoretical argument would be that it is an automatic decision and I am covered, but I think that point is less interesting).

    One of my big challenges as a coach is actually to get strong players to stop guessing at certain moments. So to get them to recognise these moments is imperative and leads to better results. And this is the one thing I care about.

  63. @rho
    I had an early flight and thus am a bit tired. As mentioned above, Automatic Decisions easily covers your exchanges examples without any conflict. But I am sure we can make up examples that are more challenging to my ideas; if you were to programme a computer. My argumentation should be seen in that context.

    The aspect of it being useful to an intelligent human chess player is at the centre of everything. And this allows some philosophical relativism. Because the hare cannot overtake the turtle in an old philosophical argument, because once the hare catches up, the turtle will have moved. The fault in this argument is that time cannot be dissected into infinitely small chunks, when we talk about brains and movement. In the same way decision making is not following legal definitions, but using both the brains logical and intuitive strengths.

  64. @Jacob Aagaard
    thx, your reply gives some explanations.
    I understand that sometimes the best way is to use deep calculation ( and accurate evaluation of the result) and that sometimes it will be more usefull to switch to general consideration and intuition. All my questions are ” how do i know i must now turn to concrete play & calculation instead of switching to strategic decision based on intuition and global evaluation ?”
    let’s take a position were calculation is required and where there is a (single) variation that leeds to clear victory ( critical moment as you define it?!) . Imagine now the same position with only a small difference ( for example a pawn on a3 instead of a2) that make the previous winning line not effective. In fact there are no more winning lines. but from general point of view the overall situation is the same. How do i know there is no need to deep calculation in this case. ?

  65. Jacob, congrats on your success with TITB. Had TITB long enough now and rereading has clarified some areas but some are still as clear as mud to me. Very much would like the book to be helpful when making better moves so Ch 10 to 14 are my favourites as they give real practical tips.

    However, though I think the book is great at developing your thinking skills in a training environment (though I still see no clear guide as to how to tell “Who are you?” in Ch 4 (unless I buy Lars Bo Hansen’s book) and hopefully this will have a positive effect to spill over into better OTB choices of moves but it is not so useful in a real game scenario with time limitations where you have to make fast decisions how to allocate your thinking time.
    However many times I reread it I still can’t tell how to confidently choose which of your 4 types of decisions to make for any particular position in Ch 5 or when it is good to invest a lot of time to calculate a long variation or make a quick strategic move and how to spot a critical moment. I agree with your quote above
    “What is the practical use of this? I fail to see it. The idea of having four different types of decisions, linked to actions, is for us to play chess better. “- I’m all ready to use my improved thinking skills but just don’t see the practical criteria you write about to help me make these correct decisions- you’ve loaded my gun with better ammunition but not given me a target.

  66. @RYV
    Thank you for your continued questions. I am happy to explain things as clearly as I can.

    There are two aspects to your question.

    One is what to do in a situation where you had the impression that you could calculate everything to the end and it turns out you did not find the reward you were expecting. At some point, hopefully long before you get into desperate time trouble, you accept that calculation alone will not be enough and that you have to make a decision based on calculation and other impressions. You go into strategic decision making mode. The position is complex and to some extent, you have to guess.

    The other is how to determine what sort of scenario you are in. There are some indicators of a position being a critical moment. Initial brief calculation may give this feeling. Or the fact that a lot of things are threatened. Or that all your pieces are active and activity is what makes your position good.

    To have a check list will not work. I do not believe in formulaic approaches to chess. You may know them from Silman’s work or Dorfman’s. This sort of check list approach is an attempt to replace actual thinking, logical and intuitive. I see it as doomed to failed, or at least reduce our ability to approach the complexities of the game at our best potential.

    But getting a feeling for where you are is to a great extent a question of experience. Analysing our own game is an important part of this process. Chess is deeply complex and you can put up some guidelines for which practice that will work in certain positions. But if you look for something definite, those supplying it to you will be insincere.

  67. @Johnnyboy
    Send me an email with ten positions you cannot tell which position you are in (no engine please) and I will happily write a blog post about it. I think the proof of the pudding is in the eating to a great extent.

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