If you want to be successful in chess, you have to be aware of all elements of the decision-making process and their respective implications.
The guy on the other side of the board with the determined look on his face most probably is.
Knowledge is power, especially in chess. There is a vast amount of concrete knowledge which can give you a nice head start in the game.
a) Endgame Theory
It is highly advisable to be acquainted with the most basic endings, especially rook endings.
If the topic of technical endings appears too dry for you, try reading a book on endgame strategy. There you learn about the basic principles that govern almost every ending you will have on the board. That really is what I would call time well spent.
b) Opening Theory
As we all know, you can easily win a game by studying an opening at home while being in your pyjamas. In such cases, your presence at the board will be reduced to being a mere executing robot. Well, I for my part never complained about a lack of challenge. At the end of the day, a point is a point.
Okay, let’s leave these extreme cases behind and rather talk about aspiring a stable advantage with White and easy equality with Black. That is something. Many of my students never worked systematically on their opening repertoire. Some of them never accomplished anything to write home about with White and had to lead uphill fights with Black. They played with a constant handicap.
If I compare today’s situation with former times, it has become extremely easy to learn openings. Almost everything is covered by a book or video. Then you have engines which give you good assistance for your analysis and 9 millions of potential model games in the free ChessBase online database. Of course, for many the problems remains, how to deal with this overflow of information.
2. Abstract or semi-abstract Knowledge
Experienced players possess a huge collection of patterns. This can be pawn structures, elements of pawn structures, clusters with other pieces involved, tactical motifs, strategic motifs and maneuvers etc. In most cases these patterns are linked to a certain evaluation („good structure“, „promising manoevre“ etc.). In a game situation every player automatically searches for these patterns, since the search for patterns or pattern recognition is the most basic cognitive brain function. This search happens on different levels of consciousness and in different degrees of abstraction.
a) Concrete Models
A chess player recalls (tries to recall) a specific game or a similar opening variation which he then intents to use as a model. His task is to check, whether conditions allow to apply the method of analogy and copy the respective pattern into his own game. Even though I am talking about concrete models I am not using the term “concrete knowledge” but “semi-concrete knowledge” or “semi-abstract knowledge” (see header). The reason for this is that the positions of the game situation and the models are not the same. As we know, the devil is in the detail, so sometimes a model turns out to be useless in a specific situation.
In many cases , the origin of the pattern will have slipped into oblivion. Obviously, this kind of knowledge is more abstract, also because the similarity between the forgotten source and the game situations tends to be less strong. Often, they only affect a small part of the board, so we could name them „mini-patterns“. Nevertheless, such a mini-pattern could be very relevant in a specific case, especially if it is tactical in nature.
As it occurs very often, a player might „feel“ that a piece belongs on a certain square or that a specific sacrifice yields adequate compensation in the long run. Often this feeling cannot be explained in a very concrete way, or the player doesn’t bother to do so within an interior dialogue before executing his move.
There are different ways to define the term intuition. I would like to use it in order to describe the above phenomenon. Our positional understanding can be considered as the sum of all our experience, the total of all patterns accumulated. According to this interpretation, intuitive feelings or actions based on such feelings are nothing else but the process of accessing this immense treasure of patterns we possess on a sub-conscious level.
The state of sub-consciousness can have different origins. The patterns we retrieve may not belong to our active memory but to our passive (sub-conscious) one. Or we are sub-consciously creating new patterns during the game by means of deduction or synthesis (combing patterns).
What is the biggest advantage players of master level have against less experienced opposition? Yes, you have guessed right. It is their immense supply of patterns. Their tool box simply is so much bigger. Or if you prefer another picture: Their vocabulary is considerably more extended. They speak the language chess with maybe 50.000 expressions while you might look at only 5.000 or 10.000 of them.
It is not the case that the masters necessarily perform faster calculation. They perform more efficient calculation. They know exactly where the goal is and where to search for quality. Inexperienced players lose a lot of time during the game, because they are getting distracted with irrelevant aspects. They are partly walking in the dark. By contrast, strong tournament players are enlightened by their treasure chest of patterns. The are able to focus on the most important topics.
Klaus Fischer 1977 – “Goal of the century”
3. Application of Logic
The less you know about a position, the more you have to resort to abstract thinking. At its core, chess is extremely logical, so by logical thinking you have to arrive somewhere. In most cases you would browse all areas of value (you are most likely acquainted with lots of rules and principles attached to these values), such as:
- king safety
- piece activity
- center and space control
- pawn structure (weak pawns, weak squares, mobility, lever potential)
After that process you would have a good notion of the existing imbalances (which side is good and bad in what specific area of value).
The imbalances indicate what main themes or primary concepts may exist.
Now you can develop a plan. Take the main theme(s) into account. Push your assets, try to contain the ones of your opponent.
What is calculation? Calculation is where it starts to hurt. Suddenly, chess is not fun anymore, but work…
Well, in a perfect world it shouldn’t be perceived as such. Finally, everything is a question of attitude. If you embrace the truth that chess is a very concrete game by nature, you might also embrace the need for calculation. In the end, your success depends on that, so calculation definitively is not your enemy. Get to grips with it and make it your ally.
It is true, they exist, these closed positions or bubblegum situations we know from flank openings. There, calculation plays a minor role. But most of the time, there is some friction between both armies. This is were we have to be alert and accurate.
Calculation is the implementation of our ideas, goals and plans (generated in step 1 to 3), taking into account the concrete interaction of the pieces.
There are formal aspects of calculation with regard to
- working with a candidate list (brainstorming)
- working with a candidate list for your opponent (prophylactic thinking, blunder check)
- knowing when to stop calculating
- goal orientation
- including pragmatic thinking etc.
Then, there is an important overlapping or interaction with semi-abstract knowledge (step 2):
You have to know what to look for. You need patterns in order to calculate.
We should also be aware of how rather abstract positional aspects interact with concrete tactics:
1. A certain tactical motif can be a defining positional element.
Some positions are strategical viable only because specific tactical motifs exist
2. A specific tactical operation results in a positional advantage.
3. A positional idea has to be executed in a way which circumvents tactical pitfalls.
4. Distinct positional advantages will lead to tactical possibilities (most positional squeezes end with a tactical strike).
As it should have become clear by now, concrete knowledge (opening and endgame theory), semi-concrete and abstract knowledge (patterns), logical and methodical thinking and concrete calculations are all important parts of the decision-making process of a chess game. It is this variety which makes chess so demanding. In order to be successful in chess you have to make adequate use of all these instruments. Try to find out whether you neglect some important aspects and adapt your training accordingly.