13th_July_2010: Thinking

A thinking task (de Groot)

Six positions to consider; pick one, perhaps the one in the top left.  Now, I want you not just to think up a move, but notice how you think it up.  You will need to write down your thoughts, or get someone to write while you think.  Off you go, take as long as you like.

de Groot A. Scholtens C. NLD Ch prelim 1936 Shafritz A. Heisman D. Main line CC Chp G/75 (3) Palm Handheld, 2002
[White to move]- - 0 17
[White to move]- - 0 17
Wind J. de Groot A. Club Competition 1935 NN NN de Groot (2) Ernie, 2010
[Black to move]- - 0 29
[White to move]- - 0 1
Pannekoek J. de Groot A. Match (12) 1934 NN NN de Groot (1) Zyme, 2010
[Black to move]- - 0 17
[White to move]- - 0 1

I liked
(a) the way Charlie started off with 'what are my opponent's threats
(b) Jonathan's search for a direct forced win
(c) Charlie's use of a list of candidate moves

I didn't like so well:
(a) some people didn't mention the opponent at all!
(b) lists of candidate moves sometimes didn't include very direct moves like captures
(c) having spotted a threat, you didn't check to see if your chosen move met the threat
(d) some people didn't check their chosen move at all

Flip-Coin Chess, Hope Chess and Real Chess (after Dan Heisman)

hopeless chess

Unless you're playing Real Chess, every move, you will be accident-prone.  It's slow for us, I think, when GMs seem to take in so many tactics at a glance, but the ideas are not complicated, we just need to be consistent and to be thorough.

Chess is unlike the 'white to play and win' problems from books and magazines, where there is a right answer which you may be able to spot quickly, and where you might spot the first move almost instantly.  Mistrust what you think, as your opponent will surely try to find out what is wrong with it.

A thinking mnemonic (the least we have to do)


A thinking process (the best you can do)

Do you know how to analyse?

"Recently I was invited to the closing ceremony of a team tournament in which candidate masters and first-category players were playing. I asked my audience what they would like me to talk to them about, and I was inundated with requests. Some asked me to demonstrate some interesting combination, others wanted to know how to play the Sicilian Defence correctly for Black. `But do you know how to analyse variations?' I asked my listeners, and without giving them time to reply went on, `I will show you how to analyse variations and if I'm wrong, then stop me. Let us suppose that at one point in your game you have a choice between two moves, R-Q1 or N-KN5. Which should you play?' You settle down comfortably in your chair and start your analysis silently saying to yourself the possible moves.

`All right, I could play R-Q1 and he would probably play B-QN2, or he could take my QRP which is now undefended. What then? Do I like the look of the position then?' You go one move further in your analysis and then you pull a long face--the Rook move no longer appeals to you. Then you look at the Knight move. `What if I go N-KN5? He can drive it away by P-KR3, I go N-K4, he captures it with his Bishop. I recapture and he attacks my Queen with his Rook. That doesn't look very nice ... so the Knight move is no good. Let's look at the Rook move again. If he plays B-QN2 I can reply P-KB3, but what if he captures my QRP. What can I play then? No, the Rook move is no good. I must check the Knight move again.  So, N-KN5, P-KR3, N-K4, B x N, Q x B, R-Q5 No good! So I mustn't move the Knight. Try the Rook move again. R-Q1 , Q x RP.'

At this point you glance at the clock. `My goodness! Already 30 minutes gone on thinking whether to move the Rook or the Knight. If it goes on like this you'll really be in time trouble. And then suddenly you are struck by the happy idea -- why move Rook or Knight? What about B-QN1?' And without any more ado, without any analysis at all you move the Bishop. Just like that with hardly any consideration at all. My words were interrupted by applause. The audience laughed, so accurate was my picture of their trials and tribulations."

Think Like A Grandmaster, Alexander KOTOV (Tr. Cafferty)
A good model

Positions A-C are taken from de Groot's PhD study in the 1930s (published as Thought and Choice in Chess, 1946), and Dan Heisman has used the other positions in the same way, as reported in his recent book The Improving Chess Thinker.  This was Max Euwe's approach to position A, which might be a model for how to approach a fairly lively position.

( Italics are for tactual clarity and do not represent G5’s emphases.)


Euwe’s verbalisation



First impression: an isolated Pawn; White has more freedom of movement.

Orientation (de Groot);
Evaluation (Heisman)



Black threatens...QxNP. Is it worthwhile to parry that? It probably is; if he takes, then QR3 is also attacked. Can White then take advantage of the open file? Does not look like it. Still again 2.NxB and then by exchange the Pawn at QR3 is defended by the Queen. Indirectly in connection with the hanging position of the Knight at KB6 and possibly because of the overburdening of the Bishop at K7. But wait a moment: no, ...QxNP is rather unpleasant after all because the Bishop at R2 is undefended. Can I do something myself?

Consider opponent’s threats (Heisman)


f6 & d5

Investigate that first: the pieces on KB6 and Q5 are both somewhat tied down.


Let us look at the consequences of some specific moves.

Exploration (de Groot)

1.Nxd5, 1.Nxc6

1.NxN, possibly preceded by 1.NxB. Then 1...RxN is probably impossible because of taking on Q5.



Black has a number of forced moves, there may be a possibility to take advantage of that.


It's not yet quite clear.


1.Bh6 f7

Let us look at other attacks: 1.B-R6 in connection with KB7 - but I don't really see how to get at it.


1...Nxc3 / 2...Bb5


1.P-QN4 in order to parry the threat - but then exchange on QB3 will give some difficulties in connection with 2...B-N4 - oh, no, that is not correct, one can take back with the Queen.




So far a somewhat disorderly preliminary investigation. Now, let's look in some more detail at the possibilities for exchange: 1.NxB or 1.NxN or maybe 1.BxN/5 or maybe first 1.BxN/6

Investigation (de Groot).

Candidate moves (Heisman).

All forcing moves (Heisman); note the order – the most positionally desirable first.

1.Nxc6 Rxc6
2.Nxd5 exd5 b2
2...Nxd5 3.Bxd5 Rxc1 / 3...Bxg5

1.NxB RxN; 2.take on Q5; for instance 2.NxN PxN; wins a Pawn but there may be compensation for Black on QN2. But better is 2...NxN; then 3.BxN RxR is nearly forced, no, it is not, he can play 3...BxB as well. I see no immediate advantage. 1...PxN is not forced therefore; and even if it were, you couldn't be quite sure of winning. It's happened before that such a position proved less favourable than at seemed to be. The point Q5 is reinforced by it, that is a disadvantage.



(So let’s think about) 1.taking on Q5. 1.NxB at any rate gives the pair of Bishops; if I don't find anything better, I can always do this.

Bookmarking ‘best so far’.

1.Nxd5 Bxd5 d7
2.Bxf6 Bxf6 3.Nd7 Qd8

1.NxN, BxN; is that possible? Q7 is free then. 2.BxN, BxB/3; 3.N-Q7, Q-Q1 can then be done.


1.Nxd5 Bxd5
2.Bxf6 Bxf6
1...Nxd5 2.Bxd5
Bxg5/ c6 / f2-f4

1.NxN, BxN; 2.BxN, BxB/3 will probably yield something. 1...NxN is also possible; maybe better. Then 2.BxN BxB/5 and now there are the possibilities to take on QB6 or to play something like P-B4; once again:


1.Nxd5 Nxd5
2.Bxd5 Bxg5
3.Rxc6 2.Bxe7 1...exd5

1.NxN NxN; 2.BxN, BxB/5 - no, nothing then, 3.RxB does not help any; it is a cute move but at the end of it all everything remains hanging. Something else: 2.BxB - he just takes back. 1...PxN is very favourable; he won't do that; it needn't be investigated.


1.Nxd5 Nxd5
2.Bxd5 Bxg5
3.Bxc6 Bxc1
1...Nxd5 2.Bh6 Red8 3.Qf3

1.NxN NxN remains. 2.BxN BxN; 3.BxB, BxR is then possible. No, can find no way to make anything out of this. 1...NxN; 2.B-R6, KR-Q1; 3.Q-KB3 with some threats; if Black now has to play his Bishop back to K1 then one gets a good position.


1.Bxd5 Bxd5

1.Bxd5 Nxd5

1.BxN/5: this must be looked into. Does that make any difference? 1.BxN/5, BxB is again impossible because of 2.N-Q7. That is to say, we will have to look out for 2...B-B5, but that we can probably cope with: the worst that can happen to me is that he regains the exchange, but then I have in any case some gain of time. 1.BxN/5, NxB; 2.Same difficulties as just before. No, that is now impossible: 2.NxN wins a piece.


1.Bxd5 Bxd5
2.Bxf6 Bxf6
3.Nd7 Qd8
4.Nxd5 exd5
1.Bxd5 exd5
f6 / e7 / c6 1.Bxd5

1.BxN/5, BxB; 2.BxN, BxB; 3.N-Q7, Q-Q1.Let's have a closer look at that: 4.NxB/5, PxN and I'm an exchange to the good: very strong. 1.BxN/5, PxB is therefore forced. But that is good for White. The Knight on KB6 is weak, the Bishop at K7 hangs - and the Bishop on QB3 stands badly. On positional rounds one could already decide on 1.BxN/5. Is there some immediate gain?


1.Bxd5 exd5

2.Qf3 f6


1.BxN/5, PxB; it looks bad for Black. Probably some more accidents will soon happen. Much is still up in the air. One plays, for instance, 2.Q-B3. Defending the Knight on KB6 is not so easy; 2...K-N2 looks very unpleasant. Yes, I play:


Proof (de Groot) Check

Not sure how good it is, but is sure that it’s good and is better than the rest! (Heisman)

Euwe discounts the possibility that a non-forcing move will be any better. (Heisman) Improve

To be honest, not every GM analysed so long or in such an orderly manner; you almost got the idea that Fine homed in on Bxd5 in the first minute or so and spent the rest of the time justifying it!  But if you don't have his judgment or intuition, try Max's approach.

Tips for thinking

Lots of ideas there: candidate moves, bookmarking, looking at forcing moves and generally desirable moves, trying things in different orders...  Here's a set of tips.

  • Unhelpful thinking habits
    • Overlooking key features of the position
    • Thinking for yourself, not your opponent
    • Playing without a plan (and playing by general principles more than the position in front of you, and playing openings without understanding the ideas)
    • Endgames are boring and complicated
    • Wishful thinking (also anxiety, haste, vagueness, confusion and simple-mindedness)
  • Helpful thinking habits
    • List all the candidate moves to start with and look at them all quickly first
    • Look at forcing moves first
    • Try different move orders
    • Check moves before you play them (this doesn't mean go round in circles - decide first, then check!)
    • Exchanges are just moves: don't prefer or avoid them without a reason
    • Good positions don't win games - good moves do
    • "Play a move which improves your position no matter what." - SILMAN
    • Expect your opponent to play the best move
    • Take nothing for granted
    • Set priorities:
      • Opponent's threats rather than your dreams
      • Pieces rather than Pawns
      • Sooner rather than later
      • Flexible rather than committal
      • Central rather than wing play
      • Preventable before inevitable

Instead of a conclusion:

I think this sort of exercise is useful.  Repeat once in a while, and see if your thinking process gets any better.