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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

How to Think in Chess: Better Chess Thinking 1

Hi there!

Do you sometimes get lost in a position?

It's natural, and happens to all players, from beginners up to the World Champion. Of course, the stronger the player, the more capable he is of handling positions that are novel or confusing. They can do this because of experience in similar positions as well as being able to notice positional and tactical patterns even in positions they've never seen before.

Adriaan de Groot, a Dutch chess master and psychologist, studied how players analyze positions, and did some very interesting experiments in the late 1930's. Chess master and coach Dan Heisman has incorporated some of this research into his own training for his students and has written an interesting article about it in his popular Novice Nook column on Chesscafe.com.

In this article, he discusses how de Groot took players of all levels, including World Champion Max Euwe, and other top grandmasters at the time such as Reuben Fine and Paul Keres, and had them analyze specific positions. In analyzing the responses of the players, he observed that the top players followed a general thought process which I repeat here (the descriptions of each step in the process are mine):
  1. Orientation of the Possibilities: Getting the lay of the land, including positional and tactical possibilities such as king safety, pawn structure, open files and diagonals, the initiative, etc.
  2. Phase of Exploration: During this phase we take the elements we noticed in the first step and come up with possible moves and plans that can maximize the specific elements to our advantage. This is where we figure out our candidate moves and come up with preliminary plans.
  3. Phase of Investigation: Here, we take the plans and candidates and subject them to analysis, including calculating specific variations (especially forcing ones) and evaluate the positions that result from it.
  4. Striving for Proof: Finally, here we try to prove that the candidate we plan on making is actually better than the others. This is often a step that many beginners and intermediate players (myself included) skip. We often find a move that isn't a complete blunder and we make it.
We will improve our thinking in chess if we try to incorporate these four steps into our games. There is much to be written about each of these phases and topics such as calculation, positional imbalances, evaluation, and books have been written about each of these topics. However, it's often good to experiment with the concepts and make our own conclusions. Also, it may be helpful to observe the thought process of stronger players.

In this regard, I first recommend checking out Dan Heisman's book The Improving Chess Thinker: Revised and Expanded where he goes a lot more in depth with de Groot's exercises and you can read some of the answers from players of different strengths.

Secondly, you can check out this video series I'm starting, where I take positions from master games, my games, and games from others and go through the thought process to try to find the best move. I can't guarantee that I'll always be right, but I want to demonstrate that by systematically analyzing your positions, you can gradually improve your decision making.

Here is the first position that I used, taken from a game of my friend. It's Black to play:

Take up to 20 minutes and try to see what you would play as Black. See if you can incorporate de Groot's thought process into your analysis. Then, watch the video to see how I did and the solution.

A consistent thinking process is developed through practice and experience, as well as study of chess strategy, tactics, and positional play. However, having a template to start from is always helpful. There are many books that give various ways to think about chess, but often simple is the best. With de Groot's 4-step Thought Process, you have a simple method you can incorporate with your own methods, refining it as you develop as a player. Try it out, and let me know how it works for you.

As always, I wish you the best of luck and Better Chess!


The Improving Chess Thinker: Revised and Expanded by Dan Heisman. A very interesting read and very insightful.

Learning from Dr. de Groot by Dan Heisman. An archived article from the Novice Nook column on Chesscafe.com. (update 4/28/2016: Chesscafe.com is now a subscription website and access to this article is only for members only. However, if you happen to be a member or want to become one, this article is a good one)

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