Monday, April 23, 2007

Plans, goals, analysis, and all that

I had a nice chat with Heisman on the phone tonight about my confusion about the relationship between analysis and planning in chess. I think I have come to a much better understanding of the different substantive and terminological issues here. What follows is the summary and positive view I am developing (I am not quite done yet: it seems to take me 3-4 posts to clearly work something out). It is the email I sent to Dan (slightly edited, and stuff in brackets was not in the original):
I very much appreciate the time you took to help me understand my confusion (the most important thing I realized is that I shouldn't be worrying about this as much as getting better at tactics and analysis!).

While my question is largely one of semantics, for novices starting out, clear definitions are important (and it is especially scandalous that GMs scold amateurs for playing without a plan, but rarely provide clear and useful definitions and advice on how to avoid this).

I think there are two major discrepancies in the literature. There are two major definitions of plan:
1) A goal (note at Silman's web site the glossary defines a plan as "A short or long-range goal on which a player bases his moves," and Sierewan uses this definition in his 'Winning Chess ...' series).
2) A method for accomplishing a goal (Heisman), but you stop short of including specific moves as plans, even though moves are the ultimate method for accomplishing goals in chess. Rather, it seems your picture is one of general goals that spawn more concrete goals that are suggested by the position [lots of room for the creative hippy to find the most clever and imaginative concrete goals, such as pawn storms or sacrifices].

For example, 'Maximize piece activity' is a general goal, which may suggest, based on the position, the more specific goal 'Activate my bishop' that you might call a 'method for accomplishing the [general] goal.' Once the general goals percolate down to that level of specificity, it is time to start thinking of candidate moves to reach that goal [room for creativity here as well]. Typically, and interestingly, the general goals tend to be longer-term, while the most concrete goals tend to be short-term.

I like the idea of a heirarchy of goals, at the bottom of which are goals that transparently suggest candidate moves, and at the top of which are goals that are too general to be helpful. But note, in both 1) and 2) a plan is still a goal, but in 2) it is more explicit that plans are those goals in the bottom of the heirarchy, those which connect with the concrete: candidate moves.

A second point of definitional disparity is that some authors include tactical considerations in their definition of plans, while others only use the term to describe strategic, as opposed to tactical goals. Fine (Chess the Easy Way), Kurzdorfer (Every Chess Basics), and Rosario (First book of Morphy) include gaining material as plans (and not blundering away material of one's own). For instance, Kurzdorfer separates plans into 'tactical plans' and 'strategic plans.' On the other hand, you, McDonnald (his book 'Planning'), and many others have a different usage: planning is what you do when there are no tactics, and tactics are just something that you need to watch out for as you struggle to implement your strategic plans. Planning is based more on general principles, while tactical situations call for concrete analysis.

I tend to go with those who allow for tactical/material 'plans' partly because it seems a forced use of English to refuse to say we have a goal of forking his queen and king with a knight, or at least to refuse to say it is a goal that is special in that it doesn't count as a plan. Note it is still not quite a move-sequence, but it suggests that we look for ways to get the knight in the danger zone for the opponent. That is a method for accomplishing a goal, no? Of course it is perfectly legitimate to simply stipulate that you are using 'plans' only to refer to strategic thinking, but to me this seems forced and I'd rather have a more general inclusive definition so I don't have to keep track of all these different uses of the word 'goal.' Tactical goals are those in which the distinction between planning and analysis starts to dissolve. This seems fine to me.

Please let me know if I am off my rocker here, or if I am making sense. I think I am coming to a better understanding, one that will let me adopt a usage more in line with the experts out there, but also that I find useful in practice. It really is strange how many books I have that stress the importance of planning which never clearly define what they mean (McDonald's entire book called 'Planning' never actually defines the term, but is basically just a primer on positional chess).

Thanks to Dan Heisman for his help. He is a smart guy, very personable, and while I already have a coach I think he would be great. His handle is phillytutor at ICC. He asks lots of questions that often have surprising answers (e.g., Question: who knows more about chess: the 34 year old 1600 player who has read a lot of books, or the 14 year old 1900 player? Answer: the 1600 player: he knows a ton more, but just isn't as good at analysis and needs to work on that rather than reading up more on weak squares: his book knowledge is probably 2200, way behind his playing abilities).


Blogger transformation said...

it sounds to me like you are making a good, strong, honest effort to improve.

aside from technique and concepts, of course, just like in the old saying 'time heals all old wounds', so here, time aussages chess learning: (i)

next to last, as you well know, as a component of time * effort over time = results: playing much chess, playing much chess against better opposition, playing much chess against better opposition and subjecting our mistakes to a thorough analysis or review, (ii), and:

time * effort over time, using a plan = improved results. :)

then effort, over time, using a plan, and lastly, revising our plan after evaluating results (iii).

warm regards, david

4/23/2007 03:25:00 PM  
Blogger katar said...

You vastly underestimate the painter. Who has a keener perception of the subject--

Michelangelo the sculptor
scientists with calipers and non-digital measuring devices

My point is that an acute "vision" of all the board's features can make the checklist of criteria irrelevant.

Michelangelo doesn't run through factors, "Ok her nose starts just below her ears, looks about 2/3rds as wide as her mouth"... No, he just "sees everything"...

Good players do not run through space, time, mobility, activity factors... They simply "see" the geometry of force vectors (pieces). Critical vertices of the vectors (weak squares, focal points, etc) protrude off the board or appear in vivid red. Me, i see in a grainy, distorted 2-D monochrome. GM's see in movie theater high-definition. "Weaker" players don't "see" at all but simply do a "i go here, he goes there, i go here, he goes there" type of analysis which is clumsy and slow. and more error-prone.

4/23/2007 10:59:00 PM  
Blogger katar said...

Well, i generalized more than i wanted to in my comment. What seems true to me may not be true at all. But there it is for your consideration.

4/23/2007 11:03:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Coffee-Patzer: If GMs don't consciously plan, they sure spend a lot of time writing about planning. However, I agree that the hippy has an important role to play, especially when just visualizing the board looking for moves, especially if he has a lot of experience and trustworthy intuition.

On the other hand, what is the hippy to do when there are multiple goals, some in conflict? He'll call in Francis Crick to analyze the position, help decide which goal should be a higher priority, which is possible to achieve.

Also I think a 'thought process' shouldn't be conscious anyway. That's just inefficient. Don't think "now i need to look for checks", just look for checks is the goal. Don't think "time to plan and evaluate the position": just evaluate the position and plan.

4/23/2007 11:08:00 PM  
Blogger Frisco Del Rosario said...

Fine (Chess the Easy Way), Kurzdorfer (Every Chess Basics), and Rosario (First book of Morphy) include gaining material as plans (and not blundering away material of one's own).

I'm pretty sure neither Fine nor I said that. Fine said in Chess the Easy Way that we shouldn't plan to capture all their stuff, because that's too broad (a plan must be made for specific purposes, he said). When I repeat Fine's bases for planning, 'material' is just one of five considerations (material, mobility, pawn structure, king safety, threats). While 'gaining material' is usually a good thing, chess teachers ought to stress 'bring more pressure to bear on some chunk of material' rather than 'grab it'.

Having said all that, may I suggest that you're giving too much thought to the acts of planning, making goals, analysis, and all that?

I tell people that if they keep ONE goal in mind at the chessboard, they'll do better than most of the other people in the room: Use inactive force. If you combine the biggest threat possible with bringing up the most unused force (and, ideally, minding Fine's principles while influencing the center but that's a LOT to ask from one chess move), that's probably the best move available.

If you're *always* thinking "What can I threaten? Where are the threats, mine and his? HOW CAN I BRING UP MORE NEW FORCE?"... if you're *always* thinking that, you win.

7/24/2007 02:03:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Frisco: thanks a lot for your comments. It is quite a treat to have the author of one of my favorite chess books comment here! When I talk about material plans, I really just mean having the plan 'look for threats', but I wasn't all that clear about it.

On the other hand, that most important of plans subsumes the plan, 'grab free material if it is offered', something too obvious to say, but for beginners it is important! When I was starting out, I made the mistake of not taken free pieces with a pawn before because I didn't want to mess up my pawn structure!!!

In practice I almost exclusively use the Purdy two-factor analysis that you are implicitly suggesting, as I discussed here. Sometimes, though, it is helpful to also consider pawn structure and king safety even if such considerations are just special cases of activity/threats (as I discuss there in the comments).

I am away right now, but will put your comments up as a separate post to discuss when I return in a couple of days, where I will have access to your book.

7/24/2007 09:54:00 AM  

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