How to manage your mind at the board

by ChessBase
9/28/2011 – Psychologist George Zeigler of San Diego has been playing chess for thirty years. Ten years ago he went over all his losses and discovered that well over 80% of them had little to do with being outplayed. Rather they resulted from his state of mind at the time the moves were made. This led to his studying the key skills utilized by the chess master. Here he shares his results with our readers.

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How to manage your mind at the board

By George Zeigler

Chess is infinitely profound, and contains a wealth of mysteries waiting to be revealed. That's because the game of kings can be viewed from many different perspectives, so let’s examine them briefly.

We will start by looking at the art and science of chess. Clearly, it is a science, subject to absolute laws which can be classified and studied. At the same time, it is clearly an art form which lends itself to high levels of creative thought and interpretation. This is exactly why it often comes to pass that several strong masters study exactly the same position, and each one plays a different move. And yet, at the same time, each master may be equally correct, based upon his unique interpretation of the truth contained within the position. That’s because there are many truths contained within a single contest, and each chess master interprets the position according to his own psychology, and his own fighting style that has developed over a lifetime of analysis.

Both the art and science of this ancient contest exist simultaneously within all positions, and each element may be emphasized to different degrees, depending upon the exact configuration of pieces upon the board. Positions which emphasize a player's artistic temperament, contain a large number of possibilities, resist precise analysis, and require higher levels of assessment skills and abstract positional judgment.

The scientist prefers fewer possibilities, and a higher degree of certainty upon the board. The scientist loves positions that rewards precision and deep analysis. Since these two archetypes call upon different skills, it is true that the skills and thought processes that each chess master invokes are a unique blend that determined by his fundamental personality and style of play over the board.

In his classic dissertation "Think Like a Grandmaster," Alexander Kotov provides us with two very strong metaphors that describe the two extremes of this spectrum. The artist builds thickets of analysis filled with many branches and possibilities that are contained only by the boundaries of his imagination and the latent potential hidden within the position. The scientist prefers positions that contain forcing variations where his opponent has fewer options. This allows him to build a decision tree more like a picket fence than a thicket. The configuration of analysis is deep, but not necessarily wide.

In fact, some studies have shown that in many positions the master considers far fewer possibilities than his opponent of lesser skill. That’s because he has a clearer sense of exactly “what he should be looking at.” The chess master has learned to know himself which positions he likes most and plays best. We can therefore proclaim to the world that in chess an honest self-appraisal is a good thing, and the chessplayer can echo the words of Shakespeare with confidence:”to thine own self be true."

This knowledge of his own chess nature is the inspiration which leads the aspiring master to design an opening repertoire which ensures that his opponent ends up playing inside the laboratory he has thoughtfully designed. Having thoughtfully considered the differences between the artist and the scientist, we will add a final archetype called “the fighter.” This third character rounds out the three most fundamental styles of play: “artist, scientist, and fighter.” In my own experience, I have discovered these three archetypes provide a highly insightful model for self-assessment. And without question it’s equally true that any aspiring player can use this model as a great vehicle to propel him along the rocky road towards mastery.

The fighter wields the weapons of the artist and the scientist and directs them fiercely across the board with his brainpower and will to win. It is absolutely necessary to energize this fighter, because as the brain grows tired from all that hard thought, it is only an intense will-to-win that sustains the concentration required for a five-hour test of wills. It’s interesting that all this energy is channeled on a playing field that is filled only with thought.

I can provide an example dating back over two decades ago, when I was a youthful and ambitious warrior aspiring to achieve the title of chess master. And I can still remember vividly that moment over twenty years ago when I was playing for a prize of $6,000. After making my move, I suddenly realized there was a serious flaw in my analysis, and my emotional response was so intense that I broke into a cold sweat, my forehead started dripping beads of sweat and the collar of my shirt became soaked in a matter of seconds. This was an incredibly unpleasant sensation – the physical response to mind-numbing fear, and the only time I have experienced this phenomenon.

I looked away from the board, as I hoped against hope that my opponent would not discover my error, as he coldly scrutinized the position. Sadly, he did find the truth, I did lose this vital contest, and my prize was reduced from $6,000 to $25.00.

There are many archetypes and skills the chess master must cultivate. These include:

  • long-range planning
  • concrete analysis
  • theoretical opening study
  • the building of decision trees
  • managing extreme thought processes while his time clock relentlessly ticks down at the board.

All these mental activities have to be managed and prioritized, which leads us to a fourth and final archetype, called the manager. In some ways, this fourth archetype represents the most profound decision making skill of all. That's because the manager must decide which archetypes to invoke, and how to weave them together as he imagines the pieces flying around inside his brain.

These are the bricks from which the chess master builds his house filled with thought. Many things must be considered, and mastery is earned only through a substantial amount of hard work and dedication. This is exactly why we are drawn so strongly to our endeavor. It demands much of us, continually testing us and challenging us to the limits of our capacity. Truly it is difficult to imagine another calling that inspires us to call so deeply upon our inner resources, and this makes every contest a character building experience.

Chess contains an incredibly large number of possibilities and that means we will add one more skill the chess master must patiently cultivate if he wishes to achieve success. This final skill is a manager responsibility, and we'll call it the ability to prioritize. There are always many things happening within the matrix, some of them are readily apparent, while others are deeply hidden.

The chess master has to be able to look at all that is happening upon the board, find the "strongest theme," and then build a decision tree to support his thesis. In this sense, a beautiful game of chess is like a piece of classical music or a great book. The strongest themes continuously thread themselves through the work at hand in a diverse number of ways.

The chess master continuously visualizes the board in his mind, forming and refining his decision trees, until he finally finds a pleasing shape that supports his thesis. He then assembles the moves in their proper sequence, and deploys them with a firm will to victory. The ability to visualize the board as it changes in his mind's eye during the process of analysis, is another vital skill the chess master must cultivate. That's because the ability to visualize all these possibilities in the course of a single contest, is the exact skill which allows the chess master to build his decision tree, and finally make the best move.

This is the essence of analysis, as we touch once more upon the science of the game. However, no matter how deeply he is able to penetrate the position using his highly developed visualization skills, at some point the chess master must form a final position in his mind, and do his best to make a final assessment. Although the chess master must remain completely silent during the contest, his mind is continuously racing and his inner dialogue is intense and continuous.

Here is a real life reenactment from one of my own recent games. As I gazed upon the the endpoint of my analysis, and held that image clearly in my mind, I said something like this to myself: "Well, my opponent has a space advantage, but his pawns are weak. Over the next dozen moves or so, I'll be able to mass my forces in the sector of his king, and in the meantime he'll be breaking through in the center, and will ultimately advance in that area. However, it looks highly probable that my attack will culminate before his central play becomes truly meaningful."

This is a classic example of assessment and the chess master will be rewarded if he is objective and accurate in his final appraisal. At the same time, there is also an alternative perspective. In making his final assessment, a very strong master might say something like this: "Well, I'm probably objectively better in this final position, but I'll have to end up defending for about ten moves, and I'd prefer the other position where I maintain the initiative, even though it's unclear, and I could even be slightly worse, so I'll make the other move instead."

This example of preferring one type of position over another is an example of the chess master’s style. Every strong master has a preferred style (some examples are: strategic, aggressive, solid, cautious). The very strongest players are able to play multiple styles, depending upon such things as their mood, their position in the tournament, and how they can best create a field of struggle that will be uncomfortable for their opponent. In this very real sense, the board reflects the personality, and so despite the fact that the game is subject to absolute laws, making it pure science, there is always tremendous opportunity for preference and interpretation. That means that in its true essence, the Game of Kings will always be a place where science and art come together as one. The chess master has an interesting craft. He invokes each archetype in its proper proportion. He then applies the strict laws of science, and then interprets the board according to his own style and preference.

Chess offers us a rare context for the search of truth and beauty. The chess gods provide us with a living matrix of light and dark squares. The chess master infuses that matrix with profound thought, fills it with images, and invokes multiple archetypes to achieve his goal. He contemplates the pieces on the board, and brings them to life through his imagination. He applies an iron will and subjects the board to deep inquiry and immutable logic. In his mind he pictures all the potential configurations of his pieces, and builds his tree of analysis. He builds this living tree one branch at a time, until he penetrates through to an understanding of the deepest truths contained within the position. Finally, he forms his plan and makes his move.

And in that same Spirit contained within every great work, we hope he creates an evergreen, a timeless mix of those elements woven out of his own psyche that we have already described:

  • Art and Science
  • Logic and Concentration
  • Imagination and Creativity
  • Willpower and Warrior

all contained within the living matrix of light and dark squares.

How to manage your mind at the board

The following is a rough outline corresponding to the article above, although it does add some material, specifically in the section called “Elements.” In that sense it supplements the article, and could be useful for further reflection or teaching purposes.


  • Artist
    • Thickets Of Analysis
    • Intuition
    • Creative Thought And Interpretation
  • Scientist
    • Precision
    • Picket Fence of Analysis
  • Warrior
    • Will-to-Win
    • Concentration
  • Manager
    • Prioritize.
    • Make Final Assessment.


  • Center
  • Initiative
  • Attack
  • Defense
  • Structure
  • Space
  • Weak Squares
  • Square Color
  • Powers Of The Pieces
  • Endings
  • Positional Play
  • Openings
  • Tactics

Skill Inventory

  • Concrete Analysis
  • Research
  • Study And Research
  • Analysis (Decision Trees)
  • Visualization
  • Logic
  • Concentration
  • Imagination
  • Creativity
  • Management
    • Extreme Thought Processes
    • Time Pressure

Dynamic And Evolving

  • Know Strengths, Weaknesses and Preferences
  • Develop Style of Play
  • Build Opening Reportoire to Support Style
  • Sharpen Tactics
  • Turn Weaknesses into Strengths

About the author

George Zeigler graduated with degree in Psychology from Penn State in 1982, and received a Master's degree in 1984. His current profession is Lifecoach and Hypnotherapist. He has played chess for 33 years. His highest rating ever was 2199, currently it is 2090. He is not the strongest player at the San Diego Chess Club, but has defeated almost every master there on multiple occasions. He is well respected for creative and original play, with a high percentage of his games decided by combinations. Cyrus Lakdawala (USCF 2550) called George, who beat him and drew him once, "the artist of the San Diego Chess Club."

Aside from his natural orientation, the following will help explain his strong interest in the psychology of the game. About ten years ago George went over all his losses, spanning a period of several years, and discovered that well over 80% of the losses had very little to do with being "outplayed." Rather they were the result of making errors that were well beneath his level of ability, meaning they were errors that he normally would not have made.

This fact helped the psychologist George Zeigler understand that the errors resulted from his state of mind at the time the moves were made. This led to the realization that in order to immediately improve his results he didn't have to become a better chessplayer. He simply needed to do a better job of managing his state-of-mind at the board. This process represents an ongoing two-way feedback loop, in which the psyche of the artist is continuously shaped and revealed as he searches for meaning within the context and boundaries of his craft. In addition we must remember that the process of searching for truth and meaning within the art form is always mirrored by a search for truth and meaning within the self. The creative process represents a desire to express the deepest part of the soul within the context of the art form. And in the end, the artist also is shaped and refined through this endless dialogue between his craft and himself.

Copyright Zeigler/ChessBase

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