Friday, October 09, 2009

Look around, not ahead

It is amazing that nearly every game in the lower levels of chess are decided by people literally not seeing obvious interactions between pieces on the board. Leaving a piece open to be taken, or forgetting a piece is pinned, or even not seeing mate in one.

Yet many of us in these lower levels still insist on looking many moves ahead in silly lines. We aren't losing because we fail to look ahead enough moves. We are losing because we don't look ahead one or two moves in the correct lines. We look ahead six moves in the line that might get us a nice outpost, but don't see that our rook is about to be taken due to a one or two move tactic.

So, instead of looking ahead in a particular game tree, first relax and inspect the trunks of the different trees. Look around. See what is going on in the position, its most elementary tactical and strategic contours. What if your opponent was a beginner? What kinds of mistakes would he make? Perhaps he was kind and made such a mistake. You won't know if you don't look. Don't assume he knows what he is doing. Lord knows I never know what the hell I'm doing, but my opponent gives me too much credit and misses the little treats I leave him on the board.

This can be really hard to do when you feel "momentum" in your game, when you are caught up in plans you made four moves ago. But yesterday's plan can easily become today's disaster. 'Long analysis, wrong analysis' as they say. You can see the board in front of you now much better than you could visualize it four moves ago. Slow down, don't be like a hyperactive teenage boy shown a boobie for the first time. Keep it in your pants. Look around. Take stock of the situation in front of you. Don't let momentum push you about.

Note added: since we can't explore all of the game tree all the way to the end, we have to choose whether to cut our exploration short by not considering as many shallow trees, or by not considering as many branches on one tree. My argument here is that it is better to err on the side of considering too many trunks, rather than too many leaves. Of course, some extremely sharp lines are so promising they need to be visualized, so in really sharp positions you probably want to err on the side of thinking ahead in fewer lines (e.g., if he is about to mate you, then there may be only two or three lines worth considering). The quieter the positon, the more trees the better, but not deeply, just a quick walk around the forest.

This is already in my Chessplanner stuff (see blog highlights), but not in the same language. If I ever update it perhaps I should phrase things in terms of width versus depth, looking around versus looking ahead.

As an added bonus, below is my favorite new video game song from Portal. The lady singing is GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System), who is your guide in the Portal world...This game is intellectually challenging, but unlike chess I was actually able to figure out how to beat it. If you have played the game, the song is hilarious. If you haven't I'm frankly not sure how it will come off.


Blogger wang said...

Great points, however your analogy of a teenage boy seeing a boobie doesn't resonate with me. I still giggle and chuckle and think that they are way cool....

but I get your point.

10/10/2009 04:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you've touched on a very important point here. Even if there is no immediate tactic, sometimes it is close. If you then ask yourself "Why doesn't this tactical idea work?" you may be on your way to a more complicated tactic or on your way to understanding that you can't make any headway on that front right now.

Width>Depth, it's true! A bit of a brute force method for the first 3 ply is a good idea for humans as well, even if our natural strength compared to computers lies in exploring the right branches, rather than deep brute force.

After getting used to finding the important one or two-move tactics consistently by brute force, one can then go about refining the branch approach again and spending less energy on the brute force, because you have a better intutition what to consider and what to ignore. The brute force approach has gone from the conscious to the sub-conscious and you get only presented with the results. Then you have more time to think on your move about other things than just safety and tactics.
But as long as you haven't reached that point considering deep lines or complicated plans is counter-productive, even if fun. But where's the fun when you had a great plan, but then loose to a simple combination.
Safety considerations usually take up >90% of my time on each move, except in the opening.

10/10/2009 06:14:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Wang lol.

Anon: great stuff thanks for the comment!

On a similar vein, I was talking to Loomis (blogger extraordinaire) and was surprised when he said something about checking every line, every possible move. I'm sure he was probably exaggerating a bit, but anonymous said the same thing. In a nice long game, how could it hurt to literally consider every move one or two moves deep? What great training to ultimately make the filter unconscious.

My hunch is anonymous is much better than me at chess, and I already know that Loomis is. It's a nice way to unpack my original post.

People like me in the Knights Errant focus so much on making basic tactics unconscious, easy to spot, but what about looking wide rather than deep? That is so damned important but for some reason not stressed much.

10/10/2009 12:48:00 PM  
Blogger Polly said...

Excellent post! Ties in greatly with what has been happening in a number of my losses at slower time controls. I keep seeing moves and discount them because I either miss the danger that's a couple of moves away, or miss the position change in my mind when considering the possibilities.

With the extra time I've found myself overly focused on one idea. I work out all these branches based on certain moves, and then the opponent plays something from a whole different direction that I had not considered.

10/10/2009 11:20:00 PM  
Blogger From the patzer said...

A few years ago our chess club decided to start with youth chess lessons. Five years in a row i taught children chess.

We have also parents who stay during the lessons and the form a seperate lesson group.

This year i am teaching this adult group. Previous week i had them playing a 30 minutes game against eachother so that they also learn how to play. Today we analysed one of these games and i must say that BDK is completely correct.

Beginners play moves, not plans. Beginners make moves that allow their opponent one or two move threats.

I have given my pupils a three rule way to look at a position before deciding about a move.

1. Am i standing check? If so you have to deal with it.

2. Can my opponent take a piece for free. If so, what is the best move so that you not give away a piece.

3. The most difficult rule. Does my opponent have threats? If so, how to defend against it. Offcourse this implies that you can see threats and beginners have great difficulties with this.

If you can answer no for all three questions then improve your position. This can be by doing the threat (taking a free piece, mate in three, ...) you have or to put one of your pieces on a better square.

Now lets hope these little rules help them to play a little bit better already.

10/11/2009 05:28:00 PM  
Blogger BlunderProne said...

This is a great post. The other thing that comes to mind as we mere mortals are wasting precious brain capacity on wrong lines, is going into attack mode and trying to force things. A lot of times, I am finding that games at this level proceed as such:
1) both sides “know” there opening enough to get a middle game.
2) One side doesn’t know the line and throws the other out of the book first.
3) The one thrown, after a deep think, decides to attack because he thinks he can “punish” his opponent for making such a mistake.
4) The attack is premature, looses steam, and then the initiative is given back to the first player.
In “quiet” positions, I have a hard time not stirring sh*t up. But experience teaches me this is bad. I am learning to develop my worst piece in positions where there are no threats, no requirements to defend or no real chances ( by this I mean… the tree of analysis is as clear as a sugar maple in early fall… you can see it for miles) of a clear attack. Nimzovitch’s essence of prophylaxis was called a “positional move” one that was neither attacking nor defending. I’ve been trying to internalize it as a means to improve my worst piece or positional concession in a quiet position.
What I am finding now, in the lower sections, if you practice this and wait for it, your opponent will most like stretch first and create a weakness.

10/11/2009 08:15:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Great comments from all. BP that is a great description of what happens.

10/11/2009 11:25:00 PM  
Blogger wang said...

BDK to your point, I think that the problem with the circles approach is that you don't "learn" tactics.

You've touched on this before, how you basically memorize certain positions, and hope to recognize these patterns.

My theory is circle training coupled with increasingly harder tactics books would yield more people results that MDLM witnessed.

I have the books picked out and I certainly have the desire, but alas I don't have the time to prove my theory.

10/12/2009 10:32:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

My theory is circle training coupled with increasingly harder tactics books would yield more people results that MDLM witnessed.

He went from 1400 to clear first in World Open U2000. Not sure anyone could hope for much better than that.

I have argued that there is nothing wrong with memorizing tactics, but that is only necessary not sufficient. I talked about this at length here.

10/12/2009 10:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Older Anonymous here. So, BDK, what are you studying these days?
1. Are you doing tactics,how much?
2. Are you studying any books, what?
3. Are you going over your games?

To all......I've read a bunch of blogs and read different opinions on how to get better at chess. I have books, mostly tactic books, but others as well. As a 1400/1500 player, (I guess I am), how do I improve, where do I go from here? The rating I have now I'd have to say is from tactics and just getting a feel for what is going on in a game. But, how do I improve my middle game, how do I improve my positional game, where do I go from here? The 30+ books I have (I can't believe that, wowie)I have never completed one except for Bain's Chess Tactics for Students and have gone over that 3 or 4 times already. What should I be doing next? More tactics? Suggestions please.

10/13/2009 12:50:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Anon: I'm presently treating chess as a fun diversion with little to no serious study or play. I play a few blitz games a day for fun. I still do a bit with the International Chess School, which is really good you might check it out. That forum is where I spend most of my time these days.

My hunch is (depending on your rating) the key is to play in slow tournaments and understand why you win/lose each game, with the help of a good coach (other than keep at it with learning methods of attack and tactics and initiative, as they say until you hit 2000 that's what it's all about).

Perhaps others have ideas.

You said you guess you are around 1400-1500. Does that mean it's an internet rating (in which case you are not 1400-1500 in USCF or FIDE), or is that some kind of provisional rating?

10/13/2009 01:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BDK, yes that is a Internet rating, I'm not a member of the USCF and don't think I will ever be.

I will play in my first non-USFC tournament next month. I'm kind of excited about it. My friend (mentor) tells me they play something called a swiss style?? I guess weak players play the top guys first, if you lose you play some other player that lost??

Anyway, I bought a book that I believe was you that talked about it, The Art of Checkmate. I read a little of this and came away with a headache. I guess this is a very popular book and has it's place, I just don't think it should be in my plans for now, what do you think? That is a lot of pattern recognition to deal with, yes?


I try every time I sit down to a board to think of chess as a "fun diversion" but it just doesn't work. People that are somewhat competitive in general, or are somewhat of a perfectionist, just can't be happy with chess as a "fun diversion", at least I don't think they can, do you?

10/13/2009 02:34:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Some people are casual about it, others aren't. Right now I am very casual in my approach.

My rating is about 1400-1500 at ICC slow games, but only around 1100 USCF so be careful people in USCF are just better!

I'd get a coach if I were serious about improvement.

10/13/2009 02:44:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

First, regarding the topic of the post, by coincidence I just happened to be browsing through Andrew Soltis's "The Wisest Things Ever Said About Chess" and I came across yet another bit of proof of BDK's chess wisdom under "wise thing" #112: "It is more important to look around than to look ahead!" (Soltis is citing CJS Purdy here)... :)

In response to Anon, I'd just like to say that I identified very much with your self description - I have more than 30 chess books too and have a hard time actually finishing any of them, and Bain's book was the first one that I went through a few times (about 10 times actually - I made flash cards out of the problems and mixed them up, first). And I also play mostly on the internet and like the "fun" aspect more than the highly competitive aspect...

Anyway since we seem to have a similar profile I thought I'd mention the couple of other books that I *did* manage to finish, and which were not too painful, or even kind of fun:

-- "Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess" (you can get this at almost any used book store for a couple bucks and it's really good for what it does, which is basically to teach back rank mating combos. You don't need a chess board, and you don't even need to read chess notation!)

-- Murray Chandler's "How to Beat Your Dad at Chess" and "Chess Tactics for Kids" (these are a great next step after Bain, involving common patterns that sometimes go a few moves deeper than the Bain combinations - in fact "Beat Your Dad" is like an easier and more fun version of "The Art of Checkmate", for lazy people). I like the bite-sized chapters, and I really had the sense that I could feel myself getting smarter was I read these books... :)

-- Josh Waitzkin's "Attacking Chess" -- nicely written and very accessible, fun insights into the psychology of chess as well as lots of helpful hints, patterns to learn, and general tips.

-- AJ Gillam's "Better Chess" tactics puzzle book series (lots more easy tactics in the Bain style, that you can go through quickly and feel like you're "getting something done," since the books are really skinny)

-- Chernev and Reinfeld's "Winning Chess" (one of the most fun tactics instruction books ever - only available used, if you can find it. Another one where I had the sense that I could feel myself getting smarter. The emphasis is on setting up the Bain-style tactics, one or two moves earlier, often with some kind of exchange or sacrifice or deflection/decoy move)

-- next up for me, hopefully: Irving Chernev's "Logical Chess: Move by Move". Probably one of the most recommended books ever, by realistic people (not those old timers who tell beginners they "have" to read Nimzowitsch's My System)...

I can't claim these are all the "best" works of their kind, but they are the ones I've learned the most from because I actually *read* them, as opposed to the dozens of other books that I started but didn't finish because I'm usually too lazy to set up a board and actually play through variations... :)

Apart from that, my 2 favorite and most useful sources of info have been:
--BDK's blog (I think you know about that!)
-- Dan Heisman's "Novice Nook" column at

Sorry for the long post - I never seem to be able to figure out how to be concise!

Best regards,

10/14/2009 02:56:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Good stuff, Hank. Thanks for sourcing the 'look around not ahead' quote--I didn't know where I stole it from, sort of like 'Long analysis, wrong analysis' it's one of those quotes that is so good it becomes part of folklore.

I second 'How to beat your dad at chess'. It does what 'art of checkmate' does but in a more digestible form if the full annotated descriptive annotation format is not your style.

10/14/2009 09:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The last time I finished Bains, I had mixed up my 4"x6" flash cards too. I'm now starting them again and trying real hard not to make any mistakes. I too have Winning Chess and yet to really go through it. I also have Irving Chernev's "Logical Chess: Move by Move but have not gone through that either. Same with How To Beat Your Dad.

Since starting chess a little over two years ago, and at an older age, it's hard to make the progress I'd like to make, but I understand. The other thing being, seeing that I am somewhat competitive, I just feel like I "have" to study something to get better at this game, I don't know. I enjoy BDK's blog also and visit here often.

Hank, you inspired me to get started with either Dad's or Logical as I finish yet another round with Bains.

I also have Hays, Winning Chess Tactics for Juniors, this has harder problems to solve than Bains. OK, thanks for all the output, appreciate it.


10/14/2009 11:13:00 AM  
Blogger Loomis said...

I'll give your recollection a jump. I spent a couple of tournaments where the first thing I did when it was my move was to list in my mind every legal move of my pieces and every legal move of my opponent's pieces. So it wasn't about looking at lines or trying to brute force the game tree, but it was getting me in the right frame of mind to not overlook moves.

I did this right after I played a tournament up a section and found that I was really miserable at foreseeing my opponent's moves. I literally wasn't considering my opponent's moves as candidate responses to my move. And not because I was playing hope chess -- I was trying to figure out my opponent's best response, I was just failing. Not failing because I dismissed the move, failing because I didn't even see it!

I figured if I listed all the legal moves in my conscious mind first, then my unconscious candidate move selection would be more likely to spot them. I don't know if this actually works.

For context, I was rated about 1700-1750 (USCF) at the time.

10/15/2009 03:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Intermezzo said...

Hi there,

Been enjoyoing your blog for a while as I've come to realise that chess blogging is a sort of "group therapy" for the addicted.

Therefore I decided it was time for me to "stand up" confess to my own addiction and start my own chess blog...

I hope you'll find to come visit sometime as I've managed to find someone who knows the moves from the Lenin vs. Hitler game.

Keep up the good work my brother.

10/19/2009 05:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great advice. I'll show my husband your article.

Mrs Chessloser

10/23/2009 08:01:00 PM  
Blogger Grandpatzer said...

Late to the party, but Heisman's column at last month on the "Three Show Stoppers" was really good. It didn't so much introduce a new concept, as bundle them together to make it really clear what needs to be fixed first in the move selection process. I'm working on a blog post about it.

10/24/2009 06:07:00 PM  
Blogger rpd said...

Nice one BDK

I have not a clue what that video was all about!-Strange & odd but having a young child who puts me desktop screen picture to Charlie from 'Candy Mountain' makes me more open to such stuff (even with spelling mistake-belive-believe-but maybe it isn't a mistake ?!). Anyway the only connection to chess I could get is they are both weird in a fascinating way?!

Nice post-keep taking the tablets & take care-best wishes :-)

10/25/2009 04:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Smite Knight said...

Hi BlueDevil,
I would like to join the Kights Errant. It appears as though the secretary is inactive? Can you help me? Your post reminds me of some some comments that I read about Lasker on having a great "Geometer", looking around for features and only then calculating.

11/03/2009 02:51:00 PM  

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