Thursday, December 14, 2006

Thought process: chess training wheels

Thinking more about the back-and-forth on thought processes in chess (as exemplified in my previous post and in J'adoube's recent post here), I think I've come to a better understanding of what a thought process will add to a beginner's game (note I am not talking about GMs, but to people who believe there is something missing from their game other than just pattern recognition).

There are certain things you must do if you are going to play well against players at your level in slow time-control games. Most relevant are:
1) Consider alternatives. You need to have the restraint to consider multiple candidate moves, not just the first one that pops out at you.
2) Analyze. That is, when considering candidates, you have to be able to think through continuations to see which candidate leads to the best position.
3) Evaluate (implied from 2): you need to be able to determine who is doing better (otherwise you will pick stupid candidate moves because you have evaluated the resulting lines incorrectly).

If you aren't doing 1-3 on some moves, you are either playing blitz-style chess, or are in positions you have played before so are operating on pattern recognition. In those common middlegame positions where we don't see any obvious single patterns and need to actually think, the above three things need to be done, and beginners should be told this.

A chess thought process, by which I now mean those explicit lists of steps to go through when finding a move, is an extremely helpful device to force beginners to appreciate what they need to do to play well in slow games against their peers. We don't just naturally do 1-3. Beginners tend to impulsively want to go with the first move that pops into their heads. They are well advised to slow down, stop, and think about what they are doing. Providing a neat little algorithm is a great pedagogical tool, which is like a ladder that they will discard once it becomes automatic and second nature. Making it explicit provides a common language for discussion and evaluation of their performance, and gives them things to work on (e.g., their visualization skills).

As I said in my Chessplanner document, the fact that most thought processes are written as a serial set of steps, like a computer algorithm, should not be taken that seriously. There, I wrote (and I still completely agree)
[I]s it important to go through the steps in order? No. While it is important to apply each step on each move, the order of application is not essential. Though the Chessplanner decision procedure is written as a serial thought process, this is largely an artifact of the medium used to describe it (namely, written English), and things are rarely so tidy in practice. For instance, when a material threat pops out in Step 1, I typically consider multiple defensive moves right away, and eliminate some of them as obviously foolish (officially part of Step 3). This seems to work for me, and trying to impose a serial order on such a spontaneous and useful process would be foolish. Pattern recognition is not independent of board evaluation (Step 2) or understanding move consequences (Step 3), so with practice, many aspects of Chessplanner will fall under the purview of "pattern recognition." I welcome this as a sign of developing chess expertise.

So, in sum, an explicit thought process is like training wheels on a bike. You don't expect to need it forever, but it lets you build up good habits and provides a safety net so you don't crash and burn. There is nothing sacrosanct about the linear, step-like nature of the thought processes. What is important is that you do the thinking, not the order in which you do it or whether you are consciously working down a set of boxes you are checking off in your head.

Finally, I'll end with a quote from MDLM where he describes his experience after completing the Seven Tactical Circles:
When I first developed this study program there was no third step. I thought that the first two steps [vision drills and the seven circles] would be enough. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that transferring my tactical ability to OTB games was quite difficult. Repeatedly I would look at the board for a few seconds, decide that there was no tactical shot and then make what I thought was a reasonable move. Time and time again I would turn out to be wrong and lose my queen or give up a mate. As a result, I decided that I needed to develop a more structured way to think about my move during the game. I experimented with several recipes and finally arrived at an eight-step procedure.
Even for Michael, knowing the patterns in a computer tactical puzzle context wasn't enough for the knowledge to show itself in real games. In my experience, without a thought process, the knowledge I've gained about chess is much less likely to show up in games. If you are beyond that stage, then congratulations. You have graduated to a two-wheeler.


Blogger funkyfantom said...

I sort of sympathize with your quest to probe the mysteries of chess thought- I assume you have heard of the Adrian de Groot studies.

It is definitely an interesting topic. Jacob Aagard has that "Inside the Chess Mind" book, where GM's make their thought processes explicit.

Silman's 'Amateur's Mind' has some of this kind of stuff, too.

Ultimately, though- there are no shortcuts to chess improvement, and that is what makes chess such a fun game. The mystery persists.

We play, we do tactical excercises, we read through game collections, we play solitaire, opening and endgame manuals, etc. We analyze our defeats.

We have fun, and over time, if we stick with it- we get better.

And then we still win half our games and lose half- only to more highly ranked players. It's all relative, finally.

12/14/2006 03:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

GM Shabalov has an alternative thought process that may appeal to some. He said, “In most games, I am thinking about girls for about fifty to seventy-five percent of the time, another fifteen percent goes to time management, and with what’s left over I am calculating.” "You can tell if it's closer to fifty or seventy-five percent by the quality of the game. Fifty percent is great chess, seventy-five percent I can play okay, but where it is really dangerous is when it slips up to ninety percent," Shabalov is quoted by Jennifer Shahade in her unique study of women's chess champions, "Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport," recently issued by Siles Press.

12/14/2006 06:03:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Patrick: lmao.

12/14/2006 07:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

> In most games, I am thinking about girls for about fifty to seventy-five percent of the time

Finally!!! A thought process that makes sense. Count me in!

12/15/2006 12:17:00 AM  
Blogger funkyfantom said...

Obviously, Shabalov was making a joke, though not a particularly witty one.

If he were thinking about girls even 5% of the time during his games, he would be rated about 1400 instead of grandmaster level, since all you need to lose a game is one single small lapse of concentration, as recently demonstrated by Kramnik.

12/15/2006 09:44:00 AM  
Blogger funkyfantom said...

One other thing. Shabalov was probably trying to show how he was a "real guy" and not just a chess geek who spends all his free time studying the intricacies of the Botvinnik Semi-Slav.

I've heard similar remarks about all night partying and drinking before a big tournament- same deal.

That's why that recent fight over the girl between those young GMs in Europe made such a big media splash.

Man bites dog.

12/15/2006 09:52:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Funky: come on. If it had just included the stuff about girls, it would be moderately funny. But the additioal 15% for time management? It's a good bit.

Chess professionals aren't known for their hygiene or social skills. It promotes a lifestyle much like mathematics: a hermetic and lonely life.

12/15/2006 10:07:00 AM  
Blogger takchess said...

enforcing a thought process is difficult for me. I am sharpest when I am into a flow of a game,Scanning and rescanning the position and trying to figure what a move did to change the game and I am working on more of delta's of the position, looking for how his structure is weaker, stronger, created new threats etc. This seems to be the only things that has helps.

12/15/2006 02:40:00 PM  
Anonymous J'adoube said...

Well, I'm in general agreement with you on this.

I reviewed my own process of thinking about games and while I don't think I have a process (remember that for me, a software engineer, process has a distinct meaning) I do have a pattern of play - I look at the board and if I get a tactical twitch (read Spidey sense), then I look for a tactic. If we are in the opening, I look for the next opening move. Otherwise, I go into strategic mode.

Is that process? Not to me, but it is definitely a disciplined effort.

Maybe I am parsing words after all[grin]

12/15/2006 03:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Did you really think that you were the only one clever enough to realize that Shaba's comment was mainly an attempt at humor? Your condescending tone suggests to me that you did.

Some things are so obvious that they need not be pointed out, and any effort to refute absurdity or satire is rather wasted, IMO .........

12/16/2006 05:13:00 AM  
OpenID crashing-xombie said...

I think you can't teach someone what you're saying. At some point in their path to enlightenment they will learn it. Systematizing these ideas is a fair thing but IMO as with most things, systematizing thought goes too far.

One will realize, ultimately, that a player at 2100 is no better than someone at 1600, except that the 2100 thinks, but the 1600 can think, but does not. I am, as may be made out, completely in agreement with your ideas on patient, slow thinking.

2/19/2009 01:48:00 PM  

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