23 August 2017

What to think about on your opponent's time

While the Simplified Thought Process (that works) I think is a good practical framework, there are some aspects of it that could use more depth.  One aspect that can have a major impact on play - since on average it will occupy half of your time during a game - is what to think about on your opponent's time. The famous Botvinnik quote, which I paraphrased in the above-linked comments section, is a good place to start:
When my opponent's clock is going I discuss general considerations in an internal dialogue with myself. When my own clock is going I analyse concrete variations.
(From http://chess-quotes.blogspot.com/2014/07/botvinnik.html)
I've been participating in more tournaments recently, and the experience has reminded me of the importance of efficient clock use.  Not just to avoid time trouble, but to really make the most of your limited available time and get the best result you can.  The idea of not analyzing concrete variations on your opponent's time is indeed very efficient, since unless time is short or there are obvious forcing moves on the board, mathematically speaking you will inevitably spend the majority of your thinking time on variations that will never get played.  This process may not be a complete waste of time, as you should be spotting available ideas for both you and your opponent.  However, I think there are much more efficient (and less mentally tiring) ways of identifying key ideas and even concrete sequences, than to be constantly calculating speculative variations.

So that still leaves us with what to think about when it's your opponent's move.  "General considerations" per the above quote is quite vague, and I've often seen it paraphrased as "positional considerations" - but I would argue that is misleading.  "Positional" characteristics or general considerations about the board position can (and should) in fact encompass things like tactical ideas, including up to short sequences.  These often will not be playable ideas - yet - and therefore cannot be calculated like true variations, but they help uncover the potential of the position and also offer strategic goals to work towards.

(Important! It's always necessary to think about your opponent's ideas as well as your own - so do this for both sides. This should come naturally when it's your opponent's move, as you are looking for his threats and trying to identify his plans in order to stop them.)

As a practical approach, I would suggest starting by recognizing important general positional features, followed by identifying more specific ideas involving individual pieces.  One outline for this process would be:
  • Explicit recognition of the open lines - diagonals and files - available for use, and possibilities for opening additional lines (including via sacrifices)
  • Visualizing the pieces' "power projection" along both open and closed lines.  Another way this idea can be expressed is as perceiving "lines of force" that emanate from each of your pieces along their movement axes; knights have an "arc" of force around them.  Being able to constantly perceive the pieces' power in this manner is very helpful for spotting latent tactics, for example those involving discovered attacks and backward movements, and I would say is another indicator that you are becoming a stronger chess player.
  • Noting all loose pieces, including ones that are pressured and could become underprotected. One of the most basic mantras for tactical sight is "Loose Pieces Drop Off" (LPDO)
  • Pawn levers / breaks that will open up the position and change it significantly (as in Annotated Game #176)
To get at the full potential of your pieces, the idea of conducting a piece "status examination" as presented in Understanding Chess Tactics is a valuable one and can quite profitably be done by you on your opponent's time.  This goes beyond "LPDO" and forces you to evaluate the status of each piece - what is it doing right now?  Is it vulnerable to a threat by my opponent?  Can it threaten anything? etc.  These lead to tactical ideas, but also strategic goals, as one of the most important ideas in general with chess strategy is to improve the position of your worst pieces; this will naturally result in a stronger position and give you more options.  Some specific considerations:
  • What is your worst piece - in other words, which piece is "not playing" for you right now? How can you best improve it? Common options include moving it towards the center (which automatically increases the "power projection" of all pieces except rooks); opening lines (via pawn moves, moving other pieces out of the way, etc.); or simply maneuvering the piece to a new square where it has more activity (for example on an open line), especially when it can directly influence key squares in the enemy camp.
  • Be on the lookout for potential near-term forks / double attacks that can be conducted by each piece, as the most common tactic.
  • Examine potential pawn advances, especially by passed pawns, for both their tactical and strategic power.
  • Evaluate where you currently have the best prospects for active play on the board: queenside, center or kingside.  This can change based on your pieces' status and tactical possibilities.
As with the original Simplified Thought Process description, the above isn't intended to be 100% comprehensive, but should help fill in some of the more important "general considerations" when thinking on your opponent's time.

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