Visualization/Analysis in Chess

From: (Dan Scoones)
Subject: Re: Visualization/Analysis in Chess
Date: Mon, 20 Jan 1997 07:43:26 GMT
Organization: Island Net in Victoria, B.C. Canada
Lines: 86

On Wed, 15 Jan 97 02:36:49 GMT, (Eugene N.
Young) wrote:

>... how does a good chess player calculate mentally, ie, 
>what is the mental process by which he/she "sees" many moves ahead?? Is it 
>pure visualization of the board and pieces? Is it memory of the move sequence 
>while all the pieces stay put in the mental image of the board? Or is it 
>something else? Has anyone studied or analyzed the process or does it just 
>come naturally with the right talent? How does one who has a very difficult 
>time with this process practice mental analysis?...

Great questions.  You don't say what your playing strength is, but
I'll assume you're not a complete beginner.  Here goes...

Start simple.  Get a book like "1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate" by
Fred Reinfeld, and set up the first position on your board.  (It's
best to start with checkmate because the goal is clear-cut.)  If you
can't spot the solution, look it up in the back.  Leave the position
set up on your board, and mentally visualize each move being played in
sequence.  If you can't get all the way to the end, make the moves on
your board, and then go back and recapitulate mentally.

Make sure you keep getting material that is on your level or slightly
above it.  After Reinfeld, go with the Informant combination books,
and then with the combination sections in the back of Informant.
After that, go with actual game situations (e.g., taken out of
Informant) featuring lots of analysis of many different variations.
Another good system is to work your way through the best game
collections of strong players, or through well-annotated tournament
and match books.  As you make progress, you'll be able to apply the
same methods to positions calling for more strategic solutions.  A
good book for this purpose is New Ideas in Chess, by Larry Evans.

When a strong player visualizes, say, a knight having moved from from
f3 to e5, it does not mean "seeing" a full mental image of a chess
piece, complete with carved eyes, mane, etc., resting on e5.  Rather,
there is a fairly abstract image of something having the *powers* of a
knight being on e5 (and, just as important, no longer being on f3).
Supporting this image is an episodic memory trace of having played
Ne5, which is strengthened by the prior idea that Ne5 would be a good
move to play for either positional or tactical reasons.  So to answer
your specific questions, visual memory is the key, but both episodic
memory and positional understanding play supporting roles.

Kotov's book Think Like a Grandmaster is very inspiring, but I think
he puts some emphasis in the wrong places.  For example, I've never
heard other grandmasters talk about the so-called "tree of analysis,"
and I've never heard other grandmasters talk about disciplining
himself to go down each branch of the tree only once.  When you're
working with visual images, especially ones that arise after several
half-moves, your mental chessboard is naturally somewhat less clear.
If the position is sharp, you don't want to risk losing unnecessarily,
so if there's time, by all means check your analysis.

In my opinion, Kotov's follow-up book Play Like a Grandmaster is much
more helpful.  In that book he boils a master's strength down to three
elements: positional understanding, an eye for combinations, and the
ability to calculate variations, and gives exercises for strengthening
each element.

One thing I've noticed about less-experienced players is that they may
be able to calculate a tricky variation, but when they get to the end
of it, they either can't evaluate the position correctly, or they
can't visualize it clearly enough to allow an evaluation.  Learning
the elements of positional evaluation is good for your analytical
ability.  It is very important to combine this with knowledge of
specific types of positions, because such positions tend to recur.
That is also why many authorities recommend that you specialize in
certain openings rather than try to play all openings.

Constant practice will strengthen your mental chessboard and allow you
to penetrate even complicated positions quickly and accurately.  Your
intuition, or "feeling for position," will also develop.

Play, analyze, and study.  Use the right material and the right
methods.  After you've played in a tournament, analyze your own games
and find your mistakes.  Get help from stronger players.  The list
goes on...

For the record, I think De Groot's book is overrated as a teaching
aid.  It's more a cognitive psychology tract than a chess book.  If
you must read something on those lines, I recommend a book called The
Psychology of Chess Skill... can't remember the author's name, though!

Good luck,
NM Dan Scoones