Sunday, November 02, 2008

Lines of force (or for the hippies, auras)

When I had a chess coach, he frequently instructed me to imagine 'lines of force' emanating from my long-range pieces. Imagine the lines going through all squares, even those presently obstructed by material (I mentioned it here). This seems to be quite common amongst masters, and I have found it helpful. It helps me recognize pins, discovered attacks, and gives me ideas for which lines I want to open up with sacrifices or pawn moves when it is time to attack.

Imagining lines of force is not unique to my coach. Buckley, in his inconsistent Practical Chess Analysis, advises readers to imagine that pieces have "auras." He says:
[T]o see ahead, you first need to know the squares to which a piece may move...These potential moves enliven the piece, giving it an "aura." The aura refers to the array of squares available to the piece...

The aura is unaffected by obstructions. Think of the piece as if it were on an open board. Try to fuse the piece to its aura. The idea is simply that potential moves determine the value of any piece, and the aura comprises just those moves.
Buckley says this aura-visualization habit is a great way to improve your analysis skills, making it less likely that you will miss potential moves as you visualize the game tree in your mind. As you visualize the game tree, be sure you are 'adjusting the auras of the pieces that move. Let each new position soak into your imagination.' This makes it less likely that you will miss certain moves that people often overlook (e.g., horizontal rook moves).

Finally, we have a gorgeous demonstration of this phenomenon well before it was articulated by chess enthusiasts. In 1894, Alfred Binet (who invented the IQ test) published a book Mnemonic Virtuosity: A Study of Chess Players. One aspect of the study involved having masters literally draw what their mental image of a remembered position "looked like" in their heads. The following is one such diagram (position on left, diagram by master on right):
Gorgeous, eh? The little jester on c1 is the Bishop.

What we see are lines that pass through pieces and project to important parts of the board. These aren't exactly the lines of force or auras, as the lines don't project everywhere possible, but only along key squares. The position is stripped of almost all detail. No black and white squares (indeed, the black and white squares are not essential to chess, and initially chess boards had all squares with the same color), not even particular pieces labeled.

The abstract nature of the mental image seems to reinforce the idea that blindfold chess is not a great technique for regular chess improvement (I discussed this a bit here). It also seems that those study methods which have you memorize square colors are not very helpful. Such details are not particularly relevant for the position, and when visualizing moves you don't want to add a bunch of clutter. You want to visualize only the essential details. I have heard people say when they visualize moves, they try to visualize the 'woody grain' of the pieces, how the Knight looks, that sort of thing. This seems worse than unhelpful, since it adds additional load to an imagination that already has plenty of relevant details to think about.

These themes will come up again in my summary of Chapter 6 of Rowson's book Chess for Zebras.

Note I learned about the above Binet study in Shenk's book The Immortal Game (overall the book is just OK, but does include some interesting historical tidbits I hadn't seen before). The above image is taken from page 125 of his book.


Blogger chesstiger said...

In the diagram i immediatly saw that white is winning since white can simply take the pawn. If black takes the rook then Bb2 and game over i would say. All this because the rook is pinned thanks to the black king on h8. So this aura thing isn't such bad advise although it doesn't always work.

11/02/2008 03:50:00 PM  
Blogger DenisWilson said...

It is very interesting. To Blue Devil Knight. Did you read the book "Practical Chess Analysis: A Systematic Method for Analyzing" by Mark Buckley? How do you think, is it good?

11/02/2008 06:46:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

CT: I'm not sure when it wouldn't work. Can you think of a case? It isn't a panacea, but it shouldn't ever hurt your play.

Denis: I have skimmed it. I reviewed it in my Chess Book Reviews, though I don't know which review it is in. :)

Overall, sort of underwhelming, but I would need to read it more closely to have a stronger opinion. He suggests you learn the squares and their colors, which I think is useless. But there is some great stuff in there on analysis that I use all the time (e.g., ranking your candidate moves according to degree of threat).

11/02/2008 07:11:00 PM  
Blogger Polly said...

Aura! Far out man! I haven't heard that term since my high school days back in the 70s. LOL

But the idea of looking at the lines of a piece beyond the blockages created by other pieces is very important. Recognizing the lines on the simplest level is the discovered attack or pin depending on whose piece is is blocking the pathway.

It becomes more complex with more pieces on the lines. How many moves does it take to clear up the blockage(s)? What is the impact on the position when those lines are cleared?

I think if I could see through the lines clearer I would not have much a tendency to miss long distance captures, pins, and discovered attacks.

11/02/2008 11:12:00 PM  
Blogger chesstiger said...

@ Denis
I read the book of Mark Buckley and it's not so bad although i must say that i not really studied it. It's not a topnotch book but certainly a good purchase.

I have to go thru my games to find a position but sometimes the king just moving out of the pin is enough to defend. Or if one has a pawn to defend like in your example a pawn on e6 would do the trick.

11/03/2008 01:13:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Polly: yes, I am trying to do it more diligently.

CT: why would that be a case of visualizing lines of force not working? It is just a tool, not something that should solve every problem. And seeing that there is a pin, and looking for resources like a pawn on e6, would be aided by doing this.

Again, it's just a took for visualizing. It shouldn't ever hurt you unless you use it to the exclusion of all other thought. For instance, visualizing lines of force through an enemy piece without realizing you can capture that piece for material gain would be a big mistake! :)

11/03/2008 09:08:00 AM  
Blogger chesstiger said...

Just wanted to say that visualisation isn't enough, one still has to calculated, aura or no aura. :-)

11/03/2008 04:06:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

CT: I agree.

11/03/2008 04:32:00 PM  
Blogger James Stripes said...

I've read Shenk's book, too. It is an interesting hodgepodge of a lot of tidbits held together loosely by an artificial structure, albeit one inspired by a game of chess. Did you know that
Alfred Binet's book
is available through Google Books? The whole book, completely free.

11/03/2008 06:26:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

James: a great description of the book. Shenk really stretches things, making chess sound quite a bit more important than it is.

Awesome find on the google books!

11/03/2008 09:07:00 PM  
Blogger BlunderProne said...

I don't see auras... I see trails MAN!

Seriously, Degroot had similar diagrams in his landmark book as well which was an extention of Binet's studies.

11/04/2008 04:55:00 PM  
Blogger Chessaholic said...

On the topic of auras, take a look at this. Useless, but fun.

11/04/2008 05:09:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

BP: lol. Catchin' trails on the 64. Groovy.

Chessaholic: I had forgotten about that, which BCC posted a few years ago.

11/04/2008 05:58:00 PM  

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