Do chessplayers think?

The late Simon Webb had a wonderful idea a while ago, to record chessplayers of different strengths for 10 minutes while they considered a chess position.  He published them in Barry Wood's old CHESS magazine in the 1970s, and I've used them before with groups.  We tried this last week; I gave them all this position:


Fridrik Olafsson
Svetozar Gligoric

Los Angeles (1)
1963

No. 1

Position for analysis from Simon Webb

* [Webb]
----rrk-
-bqn-pbp
pp-p-np-
----p---
P---PP-Q
--NB-N--
-PPB--PP
----RR-K
b - - 0 15

Black to move.  [Take 10 minutes yourself, if you like.]

Without being able to record them all, I asked people to write down their thinking while they were doing it.  I then asked people to describe, not what they were thinking about (specifics), but how they were thinking about it.  If they found this difficult, I got them to just say their moves, then I tried to re-describe their thinking in terms of process, as follows.

Player A's actual comments:
What I wrote down:
  1. I felt uncomfortable as Black and very cramped
  2. I wanted to swap off pieces
  1. General assessment of position
  2. Plan based on position

Here are their comments:

Player B
  1. Is there anything easy for me to pick off?
  2. Can I make a safe advance?
Player C
  1. Threats for each side
  2. Positional objectives: how can I improve my game, disrupt my opponent's?
  3. Compare pairs of pieces: do I have a piece that needs help?
  4. Candidate moves selection
  5. Analyse forced/semi-forced sequences
  6. Choose
Player D
  1. Threats
  2. Combinations for either side
  3. Structure
  4. Long-term plans
Player E
  1. Threats against me
  2. (Hold the centre) = plan based on position
  3. Defensive responses
  4. Short-term plans
  5. Medium attacking plans
  6. Long-term plans
Player F
  1. "Overprotect e5" (=plan based on overall positional assessment)
Player G
  1. Material?
  2. Strength of material?
  3. Strong/Weak pawns/squares?
  4. Potential long-term features
  5. Static/dynamic assessments

Now, there's nothing to say that a different 7 players might have come up with something totally different, nor that the same 7 players might not do something totally different when faced with a different position. Also, I don't know if they would recognise the descriptions I gave them... Anyhow, all good food for thought:

  1. Of the 7, 4 didn't mention looking for White's threats.  Ever get surprised by a blow of your opponent?  Often?  Is that because you don't routinely check for threats?

  2. I think you can put these 7 in order of organisation, but, without wishing to embarrass anyone, I think this order would be different to order of playing strength.  I suspect that if the strongest players were more organised, they would be better, rather than concluding that thinking organisation is irrelevant.

  3. From the various models given in the session, I think a couple come close to Purdy... if we listened long enough, maybe we would discover they were doing a lot of what Heisman says too.

  4. I rather warmed to player B: once they get some error-checking in, they have the basic survival kit for beginners down pat.

  5. Player C was just awesome... Lots of appropriate questions used in sequence.


No.1: Fridrik Olafsson Svetozar Gligoric Los Angeles (1) 1963 [Black to move] No.2 Rudolf Teschner Leonid Stein Stockholm (9) 1962 [White to move]
----rrk-
-bqn-pbp
pp-p-np-
----p---
P---PP-Q
--NB-N--
-PPB--PP
----RR-K
b - - 0 15
--rrnb--
-q---Pk-
p-bpn-p-
----p---
----P--Q
--N---NP
-PP---B-
R----RK-
w - - 0 28
Mikhail Tal Paul Keres Curacao (2) 1962 Victor Kortchnoi Fridrik Olafsson Stockholm 1962
[Black to move]
-----rk-
-----pp-
---q---p
R--N----
-P--RP--
-------P
P-----P-
------K-
b - b3 0 32
[White to move]
r----rk-
-ppqppbp
-nn---p-
p----b--
---P----
-PN-PNP-
PB---PBP
R--Q-RK-
w - - 0 12
Miroslav Filip Efim Geller Curacao (25) 1962 Pal Benko Paul Keres Curacao (27) 1962
[White to move]
--------
-----k--
-R------
----pp-p
P------P
-P--K-P-
r-------
--------
w - - 0 46
[Black to move]
-----nk-
-p---pp-
-Pp-q---
-P----p-
r---p-P-
----P--P
-Q---P--
---R-BK-
b - - 0 42

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