Friday, April 20, 2007

Planning: who needs it?!

I have a couple of questions about planning in chess. Let's define playing with a plan as playing toward concrete goals that are generated by a thorough evaluation of the position. (E.g., I see that his queenside is weak and I may be able to open up my c-file: my plan may be to open up the c-file and form a battery to hammer at this weakness).

Many authors say "It is better to play with a bad plan than no plan at all." Is this really true? What is so good about playing with a plan? I can think of two reasons. One, you get a kind of consistency and harmony across moves. Is this more than merely aesthetics? Another reason is that having a plan (e.g., opening up the c file) suggests candidate moves on the present and subsequent moves. But concrete analysis, ultimately, tells you whether you should stick with a plan.

I have a second question about plans. Most authors distinguish planning from analysis (crunching through consequences of candidate moves in your mind's eye to find the best candidate move). Is this distinction between planning and analysis qualitative or quantitative? I am starting to think it is a quantitative distinction between looking ahead in an optimistic, broad-brush way often couched in general principles (planning), versus a more concrete, calculating, and pessimistic way (by pessimistic I mean you really have to look for your opponent's best move, while during planning you can be more imaginative and hopeful, and discharge the responsibility of getting real to analysis).

Anyone have any thoughts on the relationship between planning and analysis? Do you make plans, list candidate moves, and then do analysis on those moves? Or do planning and analysis tend to all happen together for you?

My entire framework is starting to look much more fluid and messy than I would have liked. :) Back to the drawing board. I hate drawing, I'd much rather win.


Blogger Coffeehouse Patzer said...


Rather than analyzing the board as a scientist, how about looking at the board as an painter would study his subject? Don't you think these approaches are mutually exclusive to some degree?

Naturally the best article written on this subject is "Visualization Example" at chessforblood blog, which you have so hastily removed from your sidebar. ;)

Nice blogg.

4/20/2007 04:41:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Patrick: Huzzah! Great to see you.

The existence of your blog has had me thinking lately that I should create a special sidebar Memorial for blogs that I still read regularly even though they are inactive.

I think your analogy of the painter versus the scientist is actually great. They are somewhat mutually exclusive (at one time), but I tend to use the two parts of me in two separate phases when I'm looking for a move.

When I'm first looking at the position, it's much more holistic, creative, optimistic, imaginative, thinking through the "what if's" that Buckley talks about (e.g., what if I could make any even exchange I wanted: which would be best). This creative hippy surge creates all sorts of ideas about what to play. The hippy is happy.

But then the scientist must come in and kick that hippy's ass with his jack boots. That scientist is analysis, and wants to destroy the flights of fancy by taking away the hippy's LSD and showing him what the world is made of: e.g., there is a Knight on f6 so you can't mate him with your queen on h7, ya frickin' hippy. Analysis, calculation, logic. The scientist tries to bash the ideational gifts of the planning hippy. Just like in science, some theories survive attempts at falsification and the strong remain.

At the end of a won game, the hippy painter and scientist are seen as the yin-yang twins. At the end of a loss, usually the hippy is to blame.

P.S. Patrick is a hippy.

PPS I may have to steal this metaphor, with acknowledgments, and put it into the Chessplanner vice.

4/20/2007 05:12:00 PM  
Blogger BlunderProne said...


You are one of the most articulate bloggers to post about chess and what goes on between the ears. I can only share my experience strength and hope in how I sort through the differences.

First, before I realized the importance of having a plan, I would start out like gang busters practicing the platitudes of opening principles per Reubin Fine’s Ideas Behind Chess Openings and I would hit a “now what?” wall. I meandered for a while until I realized that part of middle game is planning and strategy. The concept used to be very vague for me. Wasn’t my plan to win? Ok, how about check mating my opponent? OK, how about check mating my opponent on the king side.

That whole process took me a while to evolve to where I am today. Depending on what aspect of the game I am in, I have mini plans that lead up to the ultimate “ I want to win” plan. In the opening, it may mean preparing and playing a variation tailored to an specific opponent ( good practice if you know what they play). Once I am out of Book, I look at weaknesses and this is where question 2 comes in…analysis.

Once I recognize there are several ways to reach my ultimate goal ( through exploitation of opponent’s weaknesses… providing there are some), I then start to evaluate which weakness is the most practical and less likely for me to blunder 

If my opponent is strong, which the case has been lately for me, I tend to take a more cautious plan and look to my own weaknesses to secure. I analyze which ones are most critical to patch.

Having a plan gives my pieces a sense of purpose. There is a certain satisfaction that they get harmonized and work together. Its especially highlighted when I see my opponent’s pieces less unified.

There are those times, when I simply picked the wrong plan even after the evaluation. The error is usually an inadequacy of my analysis. Whether I was too quick to review the candidates or plan old didn’t see the saving response. The end result is a learning opportunity that I carry to the next game. A lasting impression is made even though I had a harmonious attack on the wrong side of the board.


4/20/2007 06:47:00 PM  
Blogger XY said...

I need it. :)

I'll base a post on your questions.

4/20/2007 07:16:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

BP: very helpful. Especially the stuff about it carrying over. A plan, especially a longer-term plan (attack kingside) that goes wrong can be very helpful in helping us learn I think. Plans tend to be at a higher level of abstraction than analysis, to be in terms that you can think in quite different positions. Analysis, on the other hand, is a slave to the exact concrete position in front of us. This is its strength but perhaps also a weakness in terms of implanting ideas in memory for use later.

Definitely something to chew on.

Incidentally, I wrote to Heisman about this, and he was amazing. He was like: this is too complicated for email: read these four articles and give me your phone number. He's like the chess paramedic. I haven't talked to him yet, but I'll let everyone know what he adds when I talk to him.

If he cares that much about some anonymous spud on the internet, perhaps he'd make for a good coach.

I'm glad people know what I'm talking about. Especially the second question: I was so confused I wasn't even sure it was a coherent question.

XY: I look forward to seeing what you think.

4/20/2007 08:52:00 PM  
Blogger Grandpatzer said...

In a nutshell, strategy/planning begins where analysis ends. Theis pertains to your second question, and I'll have a scientific analogy at the end of my message, but let's address your first question, erm, first.

Playing with even a flawed plan means that there's purpose behind your moves. You are making a move that you feel, in some way, makes your position better (or at least inflicts the least damage, if you're losing). When calculating tactics doesn't provide one candidate move clearly better than the others, strategy and planning allow you to find moves with a purpose, moves where you can answer the question, "What wonderful thing does this move do for my position?" . Planning helps you to find quality candidate moves. At least, it beats "eeny meeny miney mo..." for reliability.

Planning often arises in endgames, where you can visualize the type of position you want to aim for. Another case of strategy is in this game of mine, which is a typical IQP position. The person playing against the IQP tries to trade off minor pieces, control the square in front of the IQP, and gang up on it. In that game I avoided piece exchanges that would allow Black to get rid of his weak IQP. I could calculate a variety of piece exchanges for soundness, but I mostly only considered the ones that eliminated his good defenders and rejected the ones that helped him eliminate the IQP. That's how strategy and planning help you select better moves and avoid poorer ones.

As to your second question: think about the sciences. Mathematics is very concrete...2+2 = 4, and not "2+2 may =5 for exceedingly large values of 2". Physics is pretty concrete. Chemistry is less concrete, with general rules of thumb cropping in. Then biology is even less concrete (hell, they're still not 100% sure why a cat purrs, for Pete's sake), then sociology/economics.

Beyond the horizon of human calculation, you have to have some way of judging a position beyond material considerations. That's where strategy and planning come in. If you're a pawn down, and your opponent offers to trade rooks, and you can't calculate whether the exchange is better or worse for you, you can go by general strategic principles and keep the rooks on.

Maybe this will clarify tactics vs. planning. Your opponent has a backwards pawn on d6. You would like to plant a N on d5, but Black has a N on f6 covering that square. You calculate that, if you swap your dark-squared bishop for his f6 N, your N will be immune to capture after a subsequent Nd5 and you'll have a good N vs. his bad B. You calculate the tactics and see they can't prevent your plan, so you execute it.

Planning isn't restricted to epic "I saw it 30 moves away" schemes. Your games can contain many "mini-plans" such as the one above. You may not be able to calculate from "My N is better than his B; plus he has a backwards pawn" to "Checkmate!", but with experience you should be able to tell that you'll have a better, more promising position.

I personally enjoy trying to accumulate small advantages for the win. Unfortunately all plans, big or small, require tactical justification. A generic though process would be:
-what does my opponent threaten?
-how did his last move change the position?(PLANNING involved here because you have to consider your opponent's plans as well as your own)
If there's no fires to put out, then what would I like to play?
-Is there a tactic?
-If not, how can I improve my position or thwart my opponent? (PLANNING involved here)
-Is the move I want to play tactically justified?
-After I make this move, what will my opponent most likely play?

Planning is invoked when tactics alone don't indicate clearly superior moves. However, tactics don't require positional justification. My post here gives an example where a weakening pawn move is better because it wins material.

This was a rather long-winded way of saying: Planning is where you can't calculate all the variations, but where through a combination of strategy, positional principles, experience and intuition you arrive at a tactically-justified series of moves that hopefully improves your position.

When you play guitar, your left and right hands are performing completely different tasks, but working in concert towards one purpose. When I play guitar, it's less like I'm operating both hands than they're working in unison. That's what strategy and tactics are like.

4/20/2007 09:24:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

GP: You (and BP) provide useful answers about my first question. I think your focus on planning as part of strategic, more than tactical, playing is sound, but I would want to say that even tactics involve a plan: the plan of gaining a material advantage, but this is just semantics and many authors use 'planning' to refer only to thinking strategically rather than tactically. In general, plans refer to goal-directed play, and of course sometimes the goals will be positional.

The second question is really more pressing for me, more confusing of an issue. Planning versus analysis (by analysis I mean calculating through variations, 'looking ahead', 'real chess').

Part of the confusion is that 'plan' is used in two different ways in the literature. Some (like Silman) use the word to refer to goals only, the other (Heisman sometimes, sometimes Kasparov) refer to plans as potential move-sequences to reach the goals you've decided are most important. If the former definition is used, there is a clear distinction between planning and analysis. If the latter, it gets fuzzy.

I use it in the latter sense, and would describe my thought process as first looking for goals (e.g., attacking kingside, complicating the position), and then plans to reach those goals (e.g., lift my rook so I can swing it to the h-file). Because of this, I've realized that analysis and planning are not separated in a clean way. And this is probably how it should be.

In practice, there will be little to no observable difference between people who use the different definitions.

The problem is, I've got planning and analysis as two 'steps' in my thought process (evaluation leads to goals, which leads to plans (move sequences); first move in a plan is a candidate move, and then need to analyze each candidate move)).

So, in my linguistic framework, where goals and plans are distinct, I think the painter-scientist analogy works. The painter is driven by principles, goals, a big-picture forward-looking optimism, while analysis tells you whether the absolutely most important part of the plan, the first move, can withstand the concrete demands of the present situation (tactics, and all other considerations used to evaluate the position at the end-nodes of the analysis tree).

It's as if I filter down through various layers of generality in my thinking. Planning is thinking at a very abstract, principle-based level. Then once I've settled on some clear plans and candidate moves, it is time to really buckle down to the specifics: the data in front of me on the board and an attempt to analyze where it will go if I play a certain candidate. There is no hard and fast distinction between the planning (looking for move sequences to achieve a goal) and analysis phases of move selection, but a kind of refinement from general ideas to concrete data.

I imagine that people who think of plans only as goals, and then go to look for move sequences to reach those goals (what I would call plans) play a similar way. First is a creative burst of possibilities for implementing the plan, but you have to prune away at these finding the best one by considering the tactical and other demands of the position.

This will likely take me a little while to figure out to the point where I am happy with my understanding. Heisman, on the phone message, said that there is no consistent vocabulary out there, but that as long as I am internally consistent in my thinking and writing, I should be fine. Unfortunately he'll be unavailable this weekend so I missed my chance to chat with him.

4/20/2007 11:54:00 PM  
Blogger takchess said...

This explains it ! I am some sort of chess playing Dennis Hopper. All I can say is :
Power to the People!

Peace, Love and Knight Forks,
Volunteer for America

4/21/2007 07:16:00 AM  
Blogger Pale Morning Dun - Errant Knight de la Maza said...

It may have been Napolean, but I think it may been a WWII general that said, "No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy."

Playing with a plan is important but in many cases it is a very fluid situation because your opponent may react in ways that require you to adjust the plan or in many cases just throw the idea out the window.

I tend to get more "plan like" in the endgame. It's just easier for me to deal with those problems. Such as, I have a knight, he has a dark squared bishop, I need to get my pawns on light squares then I'll work my knight around to cause problems....that sort of thing.

When most of the pieces are on the board I find that simple development is the best plan for me. Get the pieces out so you can use them and avoid any missed tactics. Hey that sounds like plan,no? If I try and get more complex I end up completely redoing the whole plan process the next time it's my move because my opponent has played something completely inconsistent with what I thought they were going to do.

In short, I think the simpler plan of development early on is more flexible and cable of dealing with the constantly changing environment on the field of battle. And I think Dangerous Dan Heisman would agree.

4/21/2007 11:26:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Get the pieces out so you can use them and avoid any missed tactics.

Yes! The most important plan. Heisman's planning primer makes a similar point, now that you mention him.

I missed another call from him tonight. I'm looking forward to talking with him.

4/22/2007 02:09:00 AM  

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