Many players spend a lot of effort improving what they *know* about chess. This may include opening lines; tactical pattern recognition; or how to play a certain endgame. And this can indeed be useful.
But we’re also aware that in addition to what we know, it is important that our minds have an effective thought process. While our thought process is often aided by having more knowledge, there are many players who know a lot but have a poor thought process.
e.g. during a seminar by a strong IM, a spectator asked “what if White had instead played Re5?”. Myself and others automatically started calculating a response… “so Re5, Nf7, Rf5, etc.”. But the IM paused for a moment, and then replied “I see, you want to attack the knight”. Before doing anything else, he had paused to fully understand the idea behind the last move. Only then did he consider candidate moves, etc. Whereas my thought process hadn’t fully understood the idea behind Re5 before it raced ahead to start calculating variations. This isn’t about knowledge. This is about thinking habits.
Developing good thinking habits is a key factor to playing good chess. This is sometimes neglected while we continuously strive for more knowledge. It may be useful to discuss some factors associated with thinking habits, just to help highlight whether we give them enough consideration.
As a review, here’s an arbitrary list of examples derived from various books, etc… I don’t claim it’s complete…
A chess position contains many interactions between pieces and squares. Often we do not allow ourselves enough time to just observe and register such interactions. I’m not referring to calculation; but rather just noting immediate factors about the position.
e.g. have you realised the queen can retreat to h8? Or that the pawn on g6 is pinned and cannot capture on f5? Did you know that f7 is attacked 3 times? Our subsequent ideas and calculations can be completely wrong due to overlooking such fundamental facts. Players often rush observing because they believe it is fully automatic. However, sometimes our minds need prompting to look and see more of the details of the position in front of us; we should patiently observe as much as possible.
Related to this is the concept of “echos”. This happens when our mind believes something about a position because it was true earlier in the game, especially prior to the last move. e.g. “I thought my knight was defended” (because it was prior to last move). Or “I didn’t think you could do that” (again, because it wasn’t possible earlier).
When a move is made – either on the board or as part of our mental calculation – we need to fully acknowledge the changes this makes to the position. Players are biased towards the destination square of the last move… where is that knight going… why did it move there? But remember that every move also involves the vacating of a square; and the opening/closing of lines - we need to register all changes.
In particular, after a change of pawn structure or an exchange of pieces, it pays to patiently absorb how the position has changed… our subconscious mind may need to catch up with the new reality. We must re-adjust to the new situation and not let previous assumptions dominate our thoughts.
Observation leads to the generation of ideas. E.g. I may observe that my opponent’s king and queen are on the same line. Consequently, the idea of a pin or skewer may come to mind. Ideas often appear spontaneously, but involved ideas will need more investigation into the position.
A common flaw here is to stop looking for ideas once an initial group of ideas has occupied your mind. Instead of looking for further ideas, you start to calculate based on the initial ideas and never look for more. Instead, once you have calculated some initial ideas, try telling yourself that you must hypothetically play something else. This helps prompt for alternative ideas.
Another potential problem with ideas is due to associating ideas too closely with specific moves. Sometimes an idea can be implemented by various moves, but we may not see this if we consider the idea bound to a given move.
“Wanting” happens when we ourselves try to dictate what’s required in a position, rather than the reality of the position itself. So, e.g., we attack the king because we want to, and not because the position warrants it. In order to address “wanting”, we need to be critical of our thoughts and look for objective justifications for our ideas. E.g. what is it about the position that justifies an attack on the king? Are there factors that suggest another plan is more to the demands of the position?
In a recent game, I wanted to gang up on a pawn and try to win it. But with more thought I realised that this pawn was going to have little influence on the game (in this specific position). Instead, the key factor was whether I could ward off a long term attack on my king or not, so I forgot about winning the pawn and focused on what was more relevant to the result of the game - not what I “wanted”, but what was needed.
Losing the thread
“Losing the thread” happens when we incorrectly assess an initial position, and base our subsequent analysis too much on this wrong assessment. E.g. if I think I’m winning, I will dismiss lines which lead to a draw. But if the reality of the position is that I’m close to losing, dismissing drawing lines is not what I want to be doing.
A lesson here is that we can’t get too hung up on an initial assessment. We must be prepared to back up our assessment with concrete analysis. And if that analysis doesn’t confirm our assessment, we need to reassess.
I could add more but have ranted enough for now.