A Thinking Process

I often think, only a correspondence player has the luxury of adopting a genuinely consistent thinking process. The rest of us have to contend with the clock, our emotions, our laziness...

I have struggled with this issue all my life, it seems. There has to be something which balances the thorough with the realistic.

For juniors, I have been playing around with a THINking scheme, which was really driven by the need to correct some common errors; it goes:


  1. Look for your opponent's threats.  If there is something you have to deal with it, use your dealing with threats routine (*1).
  2. Look for your own opportunities: examine every check and every capture, especially if there are clues that a combination(*2) might be around.  If there is one, play it.
  3. If you haven't got a move yet, look for one of your pieces that isn't doing much, and do something to improve the position of your worst-placed piece.
  4. If you can, play with a plan (*3).  Have some idea what you might be wanting to do next, over the next 5 moves.  You can get clues about  what you should be doing by looking at the position (*4).
  5. Check your move before you play it, in case it loses a piece or something.
    Because I like acronymns as mnemonics, that works out as THINC (Threats, Hopes, Improvements, Next, Check)
  • (*1) Dealing with threats is ABCD: Avoid, Block, Capture, Defend (actually, it is ABCDX, but using X=counterattack can go badly wrong).
  • (*2) Combinations come in six flavours: MJFNPT (Mates, Jumps, Forks, Nets, Pins and Ties).  If it helps to go through it, you Might Just Find a Neat Powerful Tactic.
  • (*3) Making a plan comes in three stages: Ready, Aim and Fire.  The Ready bit is looking at the position(*4), the Aim bit is deciding what you should be doing, and Fire is finding a move that helps you do that.
  • (*4) Looking at the position comes in six stages: TKWPFLC (Tactics, King safety, Weaknesses, Piece placement, Forcing moves, Lines, Centre/space).  Again, if it helps: To Know What Plan to Follow, Look Carefully.

Beginners, I'm happy if they do just 123 and 5.  If they can't manage that, then just 1 and 5 will do.  If they can't manage that, then just do 3...    Anyone who regularly does every step between 1 and (*4) can probably outplay me.

Purdy suggests:

  1. First impressions (which may be left over from earlier thinking): what are my candidate moves?
  2. What did my opponent's last move change?
  3. What is going on in the position? (he gives a list, which overlaps with mine above)
  4. Is there a combination? (he gives another list)
  5. What is my plan?
  6. Return to decide on a list of candidate moves, analyse and decide on one, then:
    1. Visualise it clearly on the board
    2. Do a safety check

Purdy adds: "Being unmethodical by nature, I have never been able to train myself to use my own system throughout a game!"  Although he adds, having made a list of errors after a tournament, he was convinced that at least half of them would have been avoided had he done so.

Dan Heisman regards organising your thinking as one of the Big Five things to get right.  He also, helpfully, provides us with an example, described in a dozen pages, which I summarise:

  1. Can I checkmate my opponent?
  2. What changed? (New threats or opportunities, Old threats or opportunities that disappeared)
  3. What am I threatened by? (deal with any threats, but until you're pretty good, don't counterattack)
  4. What are my candidate moves?
  5. Analyse each line until quiescence, i.e. the position settles down to manoevring, remember what the best move is so far.  Things that help with this include:
    •  does my opponent have a killer threat?
    •  what is my evaluation of the position? e.g. +=
    •  is my evaluation of the situation after my best move so far the same?  i.e. +=
    •  do I have something to achieve, a 'mini-plan'?
  6. Choose, but don't play, your move.
    1. Is there something better?
    2. Try one last sanity check

This is quite a lot, for sure, but he reassures us that a lot of it becomes automatic -- it's not something you go through like military drill.

OK, this all may be too much advice by now.  How can you respond to all that?  In particular, how do you make sense of three overlapping but contradictory schemes?!

Some suggestions:

  1. Reflect on how you decide on a move in various positions. That sort of translates as: try and notice yourself thinking while you're thinking. Also, reflect on your mistakes.
    • If you're keen, make a recording of yourself thinking what to play
  2. What do you do when you are thinking?  Is there any order to it at all?  Could you organise it better?
  3. What's missing?  Are there things suggested above that would be useful to include, for example, routine blunder-checking?  Try including one or two steps at once, get them rehearsed, build up your habits until your thinking process is complete.
  4. Write down some sort of organised scheme for yourself to follow.  Compare it with the schemes above: what steps might you be missing out?  Don't make it more complicated than you need.
  5. Try and stick to this scheme in as much of as many of your games as you can manage.
  6. Go back to 1 after a month or three of practice, see how you sound now.
""

Chess Quotes

A quote from Richard RETI's Masters of the Chessboard(p 395):
"In general, it can be established that there are two defenses against 1. e4, which make it absolutely impossible for the first player to take any initiative, and which give Black such an even game, without any difficulties at all, that it has now become useless in practice, since these defenses are generally known. They are the Caro-Kann Defense and the variation of the French Game: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 dxe4."
Glad that's settled! :-)
— Randy Pals