05 July 2021

Developing board sight


There are various definitions of "board sight" or "board vision" in chess, but fundamentally it means the ability to (mentally) see all of the various possibilities for moves by your pieces (and those of your opponent). While it is closely related to your level of tactical skill, it is not quite the same thing. In fact, I would say that, once you have been exposed to the full range of tactical ideas and patterns, whether through books like Understanding Chess Tactics or sites like Predator at the Chessboard, more often it is a failure of board sight in a particular position that will trip you up and cause you to miss a tactic. There are examples of this at all levels, including Kramnik's infamous missed mate-in-one.

One of the benefits of analyzing your own games is to see how particular issues repeatedly appear in them, which allows you to better correct them in future games. When looking at missed tactics, it is therefore very important to understand why you missed them - both for yourself or your opponent. In the latter case, I have long had a bias toward focusing on my own plans over the chessboard and not looking hard enough at the possibilities for my opponent; I have been working on this using a better thought process with tactics training. This expansion of mental focus, while helpful in general, will not necessarily eliminate board sight problems - although it should at least increase my chances to spot additional threats.

Here are some specific examples of "hard-to-see" tactical moves that can fool our board sight:

  • Backwards piece moves, especially by bishops and queens. It is more natural to focus on forward / attacking moves by long-range pieces, and miss the ability to retreat, even short distances. 
  • Horizontal piece moves, especially by rooks and queens. Again, there is a natural bias towards forward movement (toward the opponent), which may lead us to miss pins and attacks along the chessboard ranks.
  • "Impossible" moves by a piece onto a protected square. This can be a "naked sacrifice" where the moving piece looks like it will simply be captured, or a breakthrough sacrifice where for example a protected pawn is taken by a piece. In both cases, doing the usual math about how many times a square/piece is protected does not work, due to other tactics being present on the board.
The diagram at the top is a convenient illustration of all three of the above phenomena. Black has just snatched a pawn on c2 with his bishop, rarely a good idea in these kinds of positions. The key to the resulting tactic is a backwards queen move (Qf3-e2) which blocks in White's bishop. Moving a major piece a second time in the opening, while preventing the development of a minor piece, is not a normal occurrence, which may have helped bias Black when missing the move. The result is a double attack, horizontally against the Black Bc2 and vertically against the e7 pawn, which as a result is pinned. Afterwards Nc4-d6 is possible, threatening mate. So Black must guard against the mate threat and lose the bishop.

The obvious question, then, is how can we improve our board sight. Much of the general advice in that regard is along the lines of "practice more tactics" and "play a lot of games". It's hard to argue with these ideas, since greater experience normally translates in practical terms into better play - at least for a while. However, I would offer up the following practices as addressing more directly the issues involved with board sight failures, when you are actually playing a game:
  • CCT (checks, captures and threats). Incorporating a CCT scan into your thinking process will make you consider everything that is a forcing move on the board.
  • Status examination, as outlined in Understanding Chess Tactics. Essentially this means you will have an explicit awareness of what each piece can do and understand which are weak pieces and squares on the board.
  • Thinking on your opponent's time. This is more of an overall mental strategy, but the efficiency gains from doing the above two practices while your opponent is thinking, rather than doing things like calculating variations, will be significant.