Playing chess successfully has a lot to do with practicing good thinking routines. How they possibly interact with the decision-making process is indicated by the following model:
1. The value system
The foundation of chess thinking is the value system. The 10 criteria below represent all aspects of the value system .
2. Weighing the criteria according to relevance
By more or less automatically answering the questions within the 10 criteria below, which can happen on a subconscious level, logic decides which values are relevant or most relevant, based on the following questions: What are my goals? What problems have to be solved? Is there a strategic main theme? How concrete is the position in nature? Do I have to calculate?
Calculation is performed, if necessary.
A move is decided upon, based on the most relevant strategic topics, calculation and metagame considerations.
The first two parts of the decision-making process ought to be as much automatized as possible. The more automation, the more time remains for conscious operations, which happen in step 3 and 4. Compare it with driving a car. As a beginner, you have to fully focus on all aspects of the driving process. After one year of driving, most actions are running smoothly in the background. They are now dealt with by a different part of your brain. The part which is responsible for conscious thinking is free and you can use it for having a conversation with your passengers.
If you belong to the group of the less experienced players, you might realize that the thinking routines below are not yet part of your programming in their entirety. Well, now you know what you have to do. Try to be aware of them and incorporate the new information over time. This is a process, so be patient.
If you learn them by heart and try to apply all of them per checklist in your next game, you might have bad results due to information overload. Imagine you teach yourself the piano and manage to play simple pieces. Now you visit a teacher and this professional throws his hands up in horror. “Your hand position is completely wrong, we have to break your fingers!” When applying the correct hand position, you may find out that you cannot play your simple pieces anymore so fluently.
Maybe you want to pick one or two topics at a time and try to focus on these while playing. Once you think you have incorporated them in your automatized thinking routines, you tackle the next item. Patience is key. Remember, chess is a marathon, not a sprint!
1. Direct tactical Opportunities
Tactical operations have a bigger impact than positional ones. Hence, before you immerse yourself in elaborating lengthy strategies, scan the position for direct tactical opportunities.
- Can I take something?
- Can I give a check, which is difficult to meet?
- Can I create a threat, which is annoying or even lethal for my opponent?
2. Potential tactical Opportunities
You should always scan the position for tactical weaknesses, as they form the condition for tactical strikes.
- Is my opponent’s king sufficiently protected?
- Are there weak pawns which I could attack?
- Are there unprotected pieces, which could fall victim to a double attack?
- If these conditions are met – how can I make a tactical strike work or more probable?
3. Direct tactical Dangers
After your opponent has moved, make yourself aware of what has changed.
- Is he threatening to take something?
- Is he threatening to give an unpleasant check?
- Is he threatening to create a threat that cannot be parried anymore?
4. Potential tactical Dangers
Scan your position for tactical vulnerabilities, as they could cause trouble in the future.
- Is my king safe? Are there enough pawns and defending pieces around?
- Do I have weak pawns or unprotected pieces?
5. Pawn Mobility
Think about putting your pawns to good use.
- Can I gain space by advancing with my pawns?
- Can I open lines or vacate squares for my pieces by moving my pawns or even by sacrificing them?
- Can I restrict my opponent’s pieces with my pawns?
- Can I create a passed pawn?
6. Creating Weaknesses
Strong players normally avoid to weaken their position excessively. Hence, you have to force or create weaknesses yourself.
- Can I violently hit a dent into my opponent’s pawn structure?
- Can I provoke a weakening or seduce my opponent to weaken himself voluntarily?
7. Avoiding, mitigating or liquidating Weaknesses
This is the flipside of the previous point. Always have in mind that moving a pawn will always create a weakness in your position. Often, the benefits are bigger than the weakness, but sometimes not. As pawns cannot move backwards, most of the time weaknesses cannot be undone.
- If I move this pawn, can I live with ensuing weakness?
- Can I get rid of a weak pawn by exchanging it?
- Can I secure a weak pawn or a weak square by protecting it with my pieces?
8. Attacking the King
Obviously, the king is the main target in chess. Hence, attacking the king should always be on the agenda, if the circumstances are right.
- Do the conditions exist for an attack on the king?
- Is my opponent’s pawn shield weak?
- Can I storm his fortress with my pawns?
- Can I mobilize more attackers quickly than my opponent can mobilize defenders?
- Can I destroy his defenses with a sacrifice?
9. Piece Activity
Piece activity is at the core of chess strategy. It influences anything else.
- Do I have passive pieces? How can I activate them?
- Where are the ideal squares for each respective piece?
- Do my pieces cooperate together?
- Do my pieces obstruct one another?
- Can I exchange a passive or moderate piece for an active enemy piece?
- Can I decrease the piece activity of my opponent by means of restriction?
10. Prophylactic Thinking
Prophylactic thinking is one of the hallmarks of mastery, but it should already be practiced at lower levels. Above, we already dealt with the topic of preventing short-term tactical threats. But the concept of prevention stretches out much further and also comprises strategical planning.
- What plans or goals does my opponent have?
- What is the intention of his last move?
- How can I prevent his plan?
- How can I render his plan harmless?
- How can I setup a trap, in which he falls when following through on his plan?