27 April 2020

Functional fixedness

I would say that the #3 thing that holds me back in chess - following the top two things - is functional fixedness. One general definition of this phenomenon is "A mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem". In the chess context, this means an inability to see possible moves by pieces beyond their "assumed" current function. Some common examples of this in tactics are:
  • Where one side is able to force a break of a pin (not against the king)
  • Material sacrifices, especially large ones (queen sacrifices tend to be the most surprising)
  • Inserting a key intermediate move in a sequence (for example postponing an "automatic" recapture).
In all cases, these tactics appear because the other side had not considered the move "possible" - even though, of course, the rules of chess say otherwise.

This cognitive fixedness can be a significant problem when coming up with candidate moves and also in the subsequent visualization process while doing calculation. Our brains fundamentally tend to be lazy. (This is in fact a survival trait that cuts down on unneeded energy for processing.) They therefore like to make assumptions, which help simplify whatever task is in front of us to solve. Fighting this tendency requires both a conscious awareness of your cognition - in chess, this means consistently following a suitable thinking process - and enough energy to keep your brain functioning at a high enough level.

It may seem a little backwards, but I've found over time that focusing on energy management has had the biggest payoff in my quality of play. It makes it that much easier to focus and actually implement your thinking process, especially when there is a need to erase previous assumptions in order to uncover the new possibilities in a position. Just looking at two basic questions - 1) What did my opponent's last move change about the position? and 2) What CCT (checks, captures, threats) are available? - can go very far in finding opportunities for both your opponent and yourself.

1 comment:

  1. Very thought provoking post. Maintaining (mental) energy throughout the game is challenging. But I think this fluctuates over the course of a normal game. During the opening and while you are still "in the book" is an area where the least amount of energy should be used. As soon as one crosses that threshold... thrown out of the book or reached the tabia of the position, then a core amount of mental faculties are required. Positional evaluation, combinational motiffs, strategies and plans. During the course of the middle game, outside complicated positions, once you have a strategy and put a plan in place, then the energy shifts down slightly as you execute to plan doing safety checks and asking " does my plan still work after this move?" The end game is another area where once a plan is in place, execution like a machine should come with some less energy.


Your comments and ideas on chess training and this site are welcomed.

Please note that moderation is turned on as an anti-spam measure; your comment will be published as soon as possible, if it is not spam.