27 January 2012

Simplified Thought Process (that works)

As I admitted in the last Chess Performance Inventory, my thinking process has been a weak point in my play.  Starting out as a self-taught player, I found very little guidance on how to organize my thought process during a game when selecting a move.  Books like Kotov's Think Like a Grandmaster offered little practical utility for me, simply being too complex or unrealistic.  I found a few useful pieces of advice in the general literature, such as Botvinnik's practice of primarily thinking about positional characteristics on an opponent's time and calculating concrete variations on your own time, but that did not come close to fully addressing my needs.

The result of this lack of a structural thought process was most obvious in how I would regularly miss seeing good candidate moves, both for myself and my opponent, when examining a position.  My play therefore lacked a broad awareness of tactical opportunities and I was particularly weak in falsifying my own candidate moves.  Training games played since this blog was started had reinforced the idea that this was a key area that I needed to work on (nothing like blundering won games to a computer opponent to get you motivated).

But how to work on this area?  There has been a lot of material published on the chess thinking process, ranging from the superficial to the incredibly detailed and theoretical.  After a few months of absorbing material and deliberately working on testing my thinking process using the Chess Tactics Server, I was reasonably satisfied that what I had put together was a significant improvement.  (I've been studying tactics as well, so my overall tactical awareness has also improved.)  The combination of improved thinking process and tactical study has raised my accuracy on CTS from 80% to 90%.

The real test, however, comes in slow games and over-the-board (OTB) play.  I was fortunate to have the chance recently to participate in an OTB tournament, where despite some early round tiredness due to hotel issues, I was able to significantly raise the level of my overall play.  This included my best win to date in terms of my opponent's rating (2100+).  In large part, I credit the improvement in performance to the simplified, structured thinking process I've developed.  Here's the outline:

What did the opponent's move change about the position?
  • Examples include: new threats from the piece moved; new threats from other pieces uncovered by the move; squares weakened; new opportunities for checks, captures and threats on my part.
Checks, Captures, Threats (CCT)
  • Examined in the most forcing order of move types; look at all of the possible checks and captures - both yours and your opponent's - to avoid eliminating possible good candidate moves and to identify potential tactical threats.
  • Calculate until quiescence (no more forcing moves).
Update Plan / "To-Do list"
  • Do my current objectives still make sense in light of my opponent's move and CCT?
  • Are there new possibilities in the position for tactical or positional exploitation?
  • In the absence of a clearly superior/winning plan, how do I best improve the placement of my pieces?
Finalize Candidate Moves and Falsify Them
  • Look seriously at each move, to avoid dismissing a better move too early.
  • Look for overlapping ideas that can be applied from different variations (tactical themes and key in-between moves such as checks and threats).
  • Put effort into "switching sides" mentally and attempting to destroy your position after visualizing the selected move.
The usual caveats to thinking processes apply.  The sequence is generally followed rather than rigidly applied on each move and some elements will be emphasized more, depending on the nature of the position (e.g. highly tactical vs. closed).  It doesn't include everything I will think about during the game, especially strategic and positional considerations, but does represent what needs to be accomplished on each move in order to have it be sound.

Some annotated references:

"A Generic Thought Process" by Dan Heisman.  This was useful to read through and draw on for ideas, although I found it too broad and complex as something to remember and apply each move.

"Think Like a Strong Player" by the International Chess School.  Although I'm not an ICS student at this time (perhaps in the future), I greatly appreciate their approach to study and their willingness to put some of their foundation material on their site, which of course is a good way to attract interested people.

"Going in circles, so I'm making progress" and "Blown away by the idea of Checks, Captures and Threats"  by Temposchlucker.  His long-term theoretical research and experience did a lot to validate CCT in my eyes.

"How I won my section at the Portsmouth Open" by Blunderprone.  His paragraph-long description at the end is a good example of practical thinking.

"Real Chess, Time Management and Care: Putting It All Together" by Dan Heisman.  The lead quote by the author ("Your game is only as good as your worst move") sums things up nicely.

"My chess thought process" by Blue Devil Knight.  A lot of good points to consider.

[EDIT: see also "What to think about on your opponent's time"]


  1. Hey ChessAdmin!

    Nice thought process!

    I cobbled one together combining some Heisman and Silman concepts and it was very helpful although lately I have forgotten to use it and I need to reinstall into my brain. I think styoko exercises help with that. I also agree that a simpler thought process is best. I remember looking at Purdy's thought process and it was a nightmare!! :)

    It would be easier to memorize all of the Ruy Lopez theory then to keep track of Purdy's process.

    I basically do the Heisman CCT thing, and then go through Silman's imbalances from "The Amateur's Mind" to get an idea of what the position wants and then pick a few candidates and try to calculate that out. (when I actually use my process that is!)

    Your process is very clear!

  2. This is a fabulous post! Obviously, there is nothing new per se, but you've done a fantastic job of summarizing and linking to all the content that many of us have been reading over the years.

    Have you submitted any posts to Robert Pearson yet (for the blog carnival)? If not, then I think you should at least submit this one.

  3. Thanks for the comments!

    My brain's comfortable "span of control" is around 5-6 elements, so having a four-element thought process works about right; even when I'm tired, I can work through it well enough. I think implementing this has put a much higher "floor" under my play, which raises my overall game.

    The most practical benefits, targeting my weaknesses in play, have come from: 1) doing full CCT (i.e. don't completely ignore any forcing move possibility); 2) emphasizing the improvement of my piece placement; and 3) making a real effort to falsify my candidate move. The last one has probably been the hardest to implement, since attempting to mentally tear your own position to shreds can be a little jarring (and is not the desired outcome!) - yet it's the key to neutralizing your opponent's play and making your own most effective.

    Re: the next blog carnival, this didn't make the deadline, but I'll certainly look at submitting it for the following one. Would certainly like to hear more about how others have looked at this subject.

  4. This is one great post. I really liked it.
    I read your blog frequently and I can say that it's one of my favorites (chess-related) I will continue to do so, but I just wanted to let you know that you are doing a great job. Thank you, and please....keep them coming!

  5. Thanks Paco. I'm glad this post was especially useful to you (and the others who commented).

  6. The first installment of the Best of Chess Blogging Carnival is up! The Best Of! Chess Blogging, Part I: Openings

    Of course, you are in it! :)

  7. There are 2 thought-processes: the one you do if you have to move and the one if your oponent has to move. Where ever i look, no hint what to do if its NOT your move. I think the best thing to think about then are static-positional things.
    I think a good thought process "if its your turn" could be a little more detailed. It is not that difficult to learn it by heart and get used to it.

  8. Hi, thanks for stopping by. When the opponent is on move, I follow Botvinnik's dictum mentioned above and think primarily about positional characteristics, including examining latent tactics possibilities based on weak squares, piece placement, open lines, etc. I try to avoid calculating long, specific variations unless there is a clear forcing move for my opponent that he is likely to play. During this process, sometimes move ideas will occur to me, whether they are ones that are immediately possible or a "dream position" to aim for.

    The above thought process description was deliberately simplified to emphasize what is /necessary/ to consider on each move. It of course can be easily (and almost infinitely) expanded upon; some of the linked resources provide much longer or more detailed examples. For my practical use over-the-board, it has worked quite well and has led to a significant breakthrough in my performance. So, the bottom line is that it's simple but effective, at this point in my chess career.

  9. I have in my website http://www.chessib.com/ a section 'Philosophy And Psychology Of Chess Struggle' http://www.chessib.com/philos.html
    Maybe it is interesting.

    1. Hello Boris, thanks for the comment. (For those who don't know, Boris Schipkov is a top opening theoretician). I particularly liked the annotations to your game with Oleg Vasilchenko, a Slav Defense.


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