Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Chess thinking process

Note: slightly revised 12/12/06.

A couple of bloggers have recently been discussing the need to come up with a thought process (Nezha, Tempo and Fierabras discuss it here, here, and here, respectively). Also, a while back Patrick over at Chessforblood wrote up his own thought process, VICE(TM).

While quite a few players poo-poo the idea of using a thought process, my attitude is this: everyone uses a thought process. Some people apply it consciously and explicitly, others unconsciously and automatically, and some are in-between (perhaps in quiet middlegame positions they consciously go through various board-evaluation criteria such as pawn structure, looking for a good plan). Further, some people do just fine without an explicit thought process, and some people will be helped more than others by making their thought process more explicit (what if Kramnik had had a simple blundercheck step in game two against Deep Fritz?).

We all know a lot about chess. A thought process increases the probability that the knowledge we already have will express itself in real games, decreasing the likelihood that we will miss obvious tactics or mates. Most coaches suggest that their students initially follow a set procedure for finding moves during a game. Since they are better than me (and probably most people reading this blog), I'll bet that this is because conscientious application of a thought process helps their students get better faster. With experience, the process should itself become largely automatic and unconscious, and not feel like such a stiltifying pain-in-the-butt to apply.

Ultimately, most thought processes usually boil down to the following steps:
1. Evaluate the present position to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each side.
2. Pick candidate moves that will increase a strength or eliminate a weakness.
3. Analyze the variation trees of the candidate moves, and pick the candidate with the best evaluation in all possible continuations.
4. Blundercheck.
5. Move.

A few months ago, I spent a lot of time writing up a thought process, which I called Chessplanner. It basically consists of the above five steps, but the first step in CP is unique as it explicitly says that right after the opponent moves, don't think, just allow your pattern recognition machinery to work its magic, and see what tactical or other interesting moves pop out for you. As I said in the document linked above, "In previous versions of Chessplanner, I didn't explicitly make accommodations for pattern recognition, but it was an obvious shortcoming when I tried to apply it in real games. Previously, the first step was to evaluate the board, but it was counterproductive to start right in with such explicit calculations as it impeded the operation of my pattern recognition abilities."

In retrospect, it isn't only pattern recognition that this first step makes room for. It is much more inclusive than that. It allows room for all those powerful spontaneous, unconscious processes that we possess, built up via experience. It is while playing from this reservoir of unconscious knowledge that we achieve that 'flow' experience that Nezha and Fierabras discuss in the posts above.

Personally, though, just being in the flow isn't enough for optimal play. I often find even better moves when I consciously look for them, considering possible discovered attacks and the like. As I improve, though, these simple tactics pop out without effort. This is why I am not dogmatic that people need to consciously use a thought process: most players are so much better than me that things I need to think about just occur naturally for them. I bet that GMs hardly ever consciously apply a thought process. I have found my thought process especially helpful in forcing me to avoid bad habits (especially playing too quickly and not blunderchecking), and this may be the main reasons many coaches suggest that novices use a process.

There is a lot out there on the topic of thought processes in chess. Material I have seen that includes substantive discussions of thought processes are:
1. Kotov's Think Like a Grandmaster is the locus classicus of most subsequent work, though it actually doesn't lay out an explicit thought process. He focuses most on how to evaluate a position and the importance of being efficient in thinking through variations (e.g., don't analyze the same line multiple times). His approach of thinking through vast game trees is now considered somewhat unrealistic for use during games in today's relatively short time-controls.
2. Various Heisman articles such as A generic thought process.
3. Soltis' How to choose a chess move. He doesn't suggest any single thought process, but reviews different types of thought processes and evaluates their strengths and weaknesses in different positions. It is the most recent major revision of Kotov's work, and is quite good. I probably won't read it closely, cover-to-cover, for a couple of years, though.
4. Harding's Better chess for average players, a wonderful little gem I just found that is meant to be your 'second' chess book. It includes a cool 10-step thought process in Chapter 6 (but it basically reduces to the above five-step process).
5. Silman's How to Reassess Your Chess.

If anyone knows of any others that explicitly discuss thought processes in chess, please comment it in! In the next year, when I revise Chessplanner, I'll want to incorporate quotes and insights from all the major resources out there.


Blogger phorku said...

I recently wrote a post about my thought process evolution

12/13/2006 12:38:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

secrets of practical chess by john nunn.. early on he addresses what he thinks are flaws in TLAGM.. the first chapter is the tree of analysis revisted..

12/13/2006 07:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Presumely I get the most benefit from developing a thoughtprocess during the developement of it. It forces me to make knowledge explicit.

The power of a thoughtprocess is based on the ability to assess a resulting position. For in instance in one of my latest posts where I was left clueless http://temposchlucker.blogspot.com/2006/12/clueless.html
I counted pawn islands after I considered cxb6. That resulted in too much pawn islands for me. But other considerations made the move cxb6 still viable. This assessment can only be learnt in practice.

12/13/2006 07:34:00 AM  
Blogger funkyfantom said...

Heisman's articles in Novice Nook cover the "thought process" subject pretty well, IMHO.

12/13/2006 11:54:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Tempo: I think you are saying that (aside from mating and major tactical blows), it takes a lot of experience to be able to evaluate a position accurately and balance all the competing factors (e.g., initiative vs pawn structure) to come up with the best move. I would agree with this.

Funky: Heisman is great. Indeed, I included his main thinking process article in the list.

12/13/2006 12:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Practical Chess Analysis by Mark Buckley has a few chapters on this topic. I will post more about it eventually....... (been distracted lately)

Thx for the link, and for respecting my trademark rights. :p

12/13/2006 05:11:00 PM  
Blogger takchess said...

Cut and Pasted from amazon review of Tisdall book,Improve your chess now. which speaks to this subject

Tisdall takes as his starting point Kotov's "Think Like a Grandmaster", praising his tree of analysis for its usefulness as a training exercise, but questioning its value in practical games. To quote GM Anatoly Lein, which Tisdall does at the very start, "I don't think like a tree - do you think like a tree?" so we are given a more practical guide on how to calculate. Many of the methods advocated are, of course, not entirely new (the idea of pattern recognition is a well-known example) but there is often a refreshing twist. For instance, in the section illustrating strategical themes, the minority attack (as in the QGD) is examined from various angles, including where both sides have castled *queenside*. There are also exercises to develop calculation skills: playing through games blindfold (an idea borrowed from Alexander Beliavsky), and the use of 'stepping-stone diagrams' (a Tisdall original - while trying to visualise a position some moves hence, a player fixes a half-way position in the mind's eye, then, when this is secure, continues calculating).

12/14/2006 11:32:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Tak: thanks. I ordered that book a couple of weeks ago and will probably add it to the list once I can vouch for it....

12/14/2006 12:25:00 PM  

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