Mind Games: Who is Doing the Playing?

by ChessBase
12/10/2008 – Discoveries on consciousness have inspired the Norwegian philosopher Rune Vik-Hansen to forge a new view on development of chess skills. Challenging the current pedagogical climate, which claims that talent is insignificant and exposure to material a magic formula, he clarifies why blunders in chess are caused by a lack of interplay between consciousness and mind. Treatise with summary.

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Born out of recent findings from the field of consciousness and mind, the article explains that chess playing is based upon a fine interplay between a mind subconsciously triggering moves, and a well disciplined consciousness knowing what to keep and what to discard. The highly popular opinion that chess playing is done solely by a conscious self is challenged.

Disputing the concept of “conscious memory”, it is shown that that one cannot remember material by acts of volition, and that development of chess skills cannot be explained by concepts revolving around consciousness. The article takes to task the current pedagogical claims that talent is of no significance and that exposure to chess material will bring the aspiring player equally far, and also the prevalent understanding that passion for, taking an interest in and believing in what you do are important components in improvement, chess or otherwise. On the contrary, the text demonstrates the significance of innate ability, and that passion and interest merely can direct our attention towards certain fields of study, but that acquiring skills involves different mental processes than these. Avoiding blunders being a major component in development of chess skills, they are here explained as caused by a flawed interplay between consciousness and mind, based upon the distinction between seeing and perceiving. A possible solution to the problem is suggested.

A closer look is taken at the highly popular concept in chess lingua, “pattern recognition”. By pinpointing practical as well as conceptual problems, it is shown that the concept does not meaningfully lend itself to explain chess playing. Specific idiosyncrasies between patterns and structures are scrutinized to show that the conceptual problems run deeper than mere semantics. The fundamental difference is argued by looking at how these two relate to each other, and how they are expressed in chess discourse and chess literature. Since no formal definition of “pattern” in chess exists, it is impossible effectively to meaningfully communicate “pattern recognition” as a workable concept to explain the development of chess skills. To then explain chess playing and support the claim that the idea of “pattern recognition” is highly problematic, “exformation” is introduced as a new concept to chess discourse, thinking and communication.

Upon closure, chess playing is compared with judgment in the field of morality, trying to explain that just as in morality, chess players constantly encounter and have to deal with situations (positions) never before encountered.
Finally, it is offered why many present methods of study will not seriously improve or develop chess skills. In context of the undertaken analysis, Kotov’s method is suggested for chess improvement, and it is explained why it works.

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Development of Chess Skills – A New Understanding

In light of recent discoveries on consciousness and mind, a whole new framework regarding development of chess skills and chess playing has to be forged, and the present discussion takes as its point of departure Jonathan Rowson’s well written and thought-provoking article from NIC 2008/05. Rowson addresses the role of talent and also the relationship between opening work and general chess ability, explaining it by “conscious memorizing” and the more familiar “pattern recognition”. Our analysis will revolve around these concepts, revealing a different position than Rowson's as quoted later below.


The premises for challenging Rowson’s point of view are based upon The User Illusion, Tor Nørretranders’ outstanding and still relevant book about consciousness from 1991 and we will first have a look at some basic premises for acquisition of chess skills.

Research (Kornhuber, Deecke, Libet, later reproduced and published in Brain, 1991) has shown that any apparent act of volition normally begins subconsciously with studies showing that the brain subconsciously prepares actions before consciousness is informed.

The distinction between what we are conscious of and not, might be called “the interface of consciousness”, which illustrates the lack of transparency of the human mind. Illustrative might be an analogy from the world of computers; what you see on screen is only a fraction of what is going on beneath the surface. The problem with the notion that man consciously can act on will or by volition, is that if one finds oneself in a vacuum, a “nowhere”, so to speak, it is in principle impossible to stringently argue why some actions are to be preferred to others since all possibilities in some sense might be considered logically equivalent. This implies that, contrary to popular and traditional beliefs, consciousness cannot trigger or initiate of actions but what it can do is to “veto”, or abort, impulses leading to unwanted, awkward, unfortunate, embarrassing or immoral actions. Thus, the problem of choosing among an infinite number of equal possibilities is solved; when some possibilities are presented to consciousness, some more than others already matter to us, and we are in no position to determine what possibilities should matter. In this respect, when we say that we by acts of volition want to do something, we are confusing the concepts, since we do not “choose” by acting out of some nowhere, but merely relate to possibilities already subconsciously mattering to us.

Thus, the “free will” is, in a negative sense, saved, since it does not purposefully or intentionally initiate or trigger impulses/actions, implying that decisions are “conscious” only in a weak sense, meaning that “conscious decisions” exist only in the veto, and not in the triggering. Consciousness might be said to be in the receiving end, so to speak, of cerebral processes, resembling what our German chess playing friend uses to say: “What have we here?” These, apparently, quite abstract findings, certainly have some revolutionary, concrete implications regarding human life in general and chess playing specifically.

Conscious memory

Regarding the extent of the relationship between opening work and general chess ability, we begin our discussion by quoting Rowson from p.83-84 (italics ours):

“You may think you are learning opening moves, but while you are consciously memorizing variations, you are also subconsciously learning new structures, feeling new squares, picking up new patterns and ideas and most of these things probably makes you stronger in a more general sense.”

There are several quite confusing and problematic issues (see italics) in this quote and to start out; there is no such thing as conscious memorizing, due to the fact that memory and cerebral activity are (subconsciously) independent of consciousness and possible acts of volition.

A certain Fischer, for example, was renowned for his memory, writing down all of his 22 blitz games at Herceg-Novi in 1970, and this had nothing to do with him “wanting” to remember, for natural reasons, the games stuck in his memory. World class chess players are said to have a strong memory but there seems to be no reason to assume that they are more “conscious”, in the sense of being stronger willed to remember, than lesser blessed wood-pushers. Differently put: chess players, irrespective of strength, share the same quality or “amount” of consciousness, which again, is different from “presence of mind” or “awareness”. There are, of course, different memory “tricks”, which in turn, paradoxically enough, also must be remembered, but when it comes to remembering chess theory, main lines, subvariations, all their ramifications, different structures etc. these are simply too ineffective to work properly.

If memory were conscious, memorizing would seem to rely on acts of volition where we would have no reason not to remember what we should, including anything from all kinds of chess material to our loved one’s birthdays. Also, memory tends to fade with age, which would not be a problem if based on acts of volition, since we at will, whenever, could reproduce any chess material whatsoever.

Acquisition of Chess Skills

Moving forward, regarding development of chess ability, Rowson (p.84) goes on to explain Karjakin’s and Magnus Carlsen’s acquisition of chess skill more by their exposure to games, positions, structures, etc. than innate talent or ability, which, incidentally, also is in accord with the pedagogic spirit of the times, underestimating the significance of inborn talent.

Karjakin and Magnus’ talent (i.e. their brains’ ability to absorb and assimilate what it is exposed to) plays a far greater role than Rowson seems to admit. Without the ability to absorb or assimilate what one is exposed to, it does not matter how much or how many times one is exposed to different games, structures, etc. Rowson’s point of view reduces chess learning to a rather mechanical exercise and also implies that far more players far more easily would become far stronger than is actually the case, simply by being exposed to chess material. If Rowson is correct, we would be hard pressed to explain how younger players come to be stronger than older ones who have had far more experience and time to assimilate and absorb infinitely more chess than young prodigies. True, work can do much, but without talent one will forever sing the song of mediocrity. What characterizes talent is a certain ability or capacity to much better exploit, apply and take advantage of a smaller amount of material than lesser gifted players might. Talent is extremely effective use of presented material, and this is why both Karjakin and Magnus are as strong as they are at such a tender age. What characterizes talent, prodigies and whiz kids, is the ability to absorb and assimilate material amazingly fast which the brain generalizes and then produces one brilliant move after another, which would be impossible to explain if exposure to chess was the main component. Differently put: full conscious transparency with unlimited access to information would seem to render talent superfluous and we would be hard pressed to explain why there should be differences in playing strength between players. Rowson is right when quoted as saying “probably” since nobody knows or has even the remotest idea about how the brain generalizes or processes the absorbed material for the simple reason that consciousness is “denied access” to these inner processes.

Who is Doing the Playing?

Research (Kornhuber, Deecke et.al) showed that thinking, generally and more specifically, is independent of consciousness and acts of volition (not be confused with wishes, urges, cravings and desires, which are subconscious) and that most of the information passing through our central nervous system is subconscious but we might be able to direct our attention or awareness (though having our attention caught, might also be argued to be subconscious). The thinking processes, the material and the preparation themselves are all subconscious, i.e. outside our conscious control, with the implication that we cannot think “what we want”, and access only the results of these processes (Julian Jaynes & William James). The possibility of directing our attention might not be as straight forward as first thought: the phrase of having our attention or interest caught implies that something outside our consciousness does the catching, i.e. we do not decide what to be interested in, what to desire, urge or crave, nor as to what to direct our attention to. We do not know that we can turn our head until we are made aware of that we can turn our head. We do not have to turn our head, but to be able at all to turn it, an impulse making us aware of the possibility must subconsciously be triggered. When thus turning the head, a timely question whether this is conscious or not might appropriately posed. If attention were consciously directed, again we face the problem concerning actions in a vacuum or a nowhere; why would we direct our attention towards this and not something else, and again we cannot seek refugee to subconscious processes like urges, desires or whims, as long as these are subconscious and therefore outside conscious control. The fundamental problem regarding acts of volition, is a question about justification; why this and not something else? Of paramount importance is to recognise the implications of thinking being subconscious as this seems to undermine the notion and understanding, not only of who is doing the playing, but also how this playing is explained.

Thinking being subconscious, moves are triggered by the brain and consciousness working by the “veto”, chess playing (and human activities in general) is left in the hands of the fine-tuned interplay between conscious and subconscious processes (rather than a definite and isolated self acting out from nowhere, so to speak); knowing what to keep and what to discard among all the suggestions, whims and ideas with which the mind comes up with. Consciousness more or less functions as blunder check, quite lightly monitoring our play, making sure that no pieces are left hanging or put en prise. Most of the time when playing, consciousness is not involved at all. If chess playing were conscious, we would never make mistakes since nobody blunders on purpose. Why would they? Simply by acts of volition, we could decide to play the best moves as the chess board in front of us would yield access to full information; we would have the entire overview of what is going on since consciousness would be transparent, and the position on the board would be there for everyone to see. Traditionally, chess games are explained and moves attempted justified in the analyses after the game and this is usually the order of the day; first play – then explanation.

If chess playing were conscious, logically, it should be the other way around; first we explain why certain moves are to be played and then the brain triggers the requested moves, right? If we could give perfectly viable and reasonable explanations for every move we make, why would our brain trigger a blunder or not produce or come up with moves best fitting the explanation thus making chess the rational game it is perceived to be? The Russian proverb; “We are all satisfied with our reason, but not with our position”, nicely captures this apparent paradox. In blitz and rapid games, where consciousness is almost absent, these kind of games are merely perception and intuition, this being even more apparent since there is no time to ponder possible explanations before a move is to be triggered.

Who is blundering?

Blunders might be perceived as some sort of spontaneously ill-conceived move- suggestions, i.e. impulses to moves which would be detrimental to one’s position if not aborted. However, we are not talking about strategically weak moves on a general level, like misplacing a piece due to lack of general chess ability and understanding but moves literally occurring out of nowhere, moves there apparently are no sensible reasons to play. The key question is; if consciousness does not do the playing, then, who does the blundering? Someone or something must be responsible for players blundering, and who or what part of us might that be?

As mentioned, a light consciousness monitors while playing, whereas full consciousness announces itself the moment a chess player blunders, which his/her body language just too well illustrates. Note the order; we never come across players announcing their blunders in advance; we only hear about the ones that blundered first, and THEN became aware of it. We have seen them, haven’t we? The howlers? Amateurs and professionals alike in the aftermath of a game, trying to explain their blunder, shaking their heads in disbelief, scratching their brows, sighing while desperately trying to come up with a rational explanation. This time, only briefly can we touch upon the “whys” and “hows” of blunders but as a general pointer, we might say that blunders occur due to lack of interplay between brain and consciousness and seem to have only three possible explanations:

  1. We take in only parts of the position due to inadequate vision, focussing only on certain parts of the board.

  2. We take in the whole position but something happens while processing the material resulting in apparently spontaneous and inexplicable blunders.

  3. Even when seeing the whole board, our brain does not take it all in.

The first explanation might be the most clear-cut, implying that inadequate focus results in lack of information and thus absence of interplay between the brain and mind resulting in being consciously unable to abort the impulse. Mistakes in this department might be caused both due to fatigue but also due to lack of general chess ability and experience. Differently put: GMs might fall victim to these kind of blunder due to fatigue rather than lack of proficiency, whereas amateurs might suffer from it both because of fatigue and lack of chess skills.

Regarding the second explanation, blunders are something we try to avoid, so if blunders have anything to do with what we take in, why would the brain process the material in such a way that it leads to blunders?

This seems to happen only if there is a problem with the “wiring”, so to speak, which is conceivable if not too frequent. Having consciousness purposefully misinterpret the information seems to lead to a conflict of interests since the goal of playing chess is to mate your opponent and why would you want to cock things up for yourself?

The plot thickens when arriving at the third explanation, valid for both amateurs and professionals, raising a timely dilemma: it would seem impossible to blunder when seeing the whole board with our own two eyes, right? Wrong! This reason for blundering is closely linked to our point about the order in which chess is played and explained and research shows that only a fraction of all information passing through our eyes is perceived by consciousness, implying that we might see the whole board and still not perceive it. This means that there might be chunks of information our brain does not take in or misses even when our eyes physically are seeing the board. Amateurs and professionals literally perceive different boards even if they see the same one and the reason is simply that the minds of professionals are better trained to perceive more information than amateurs’ minds are. This is so since perception is not based on acts of volition and the brain works independently of what we think it should perceive, think, etc. Blunders happen because humans are fallible and ill-founded impulses prove stronger than our ability to abort them. Precisely because of the interface of consciousness, chess players can be held only partially responsible for their moves and chess might thus be said to be a game of metaphysical luck, since chess players, not being responsible for their wiring, neither can know what their brains might come up with on the next move nor if they will be able to stop themselves when about to blunder or make a bad move. Towards the end of the article we will discuss a foolproof method for fighting impulsiveness and blunder tendencies.

Pattern recognition

Chess players, chess authors and chess psychologists attempt to explain chess playing by the concept of “pattern recognition” which at first may sound plausible. However, closer examination reveals serious practical and conceptual problems needing to be dealt with.

Practical problems

We are told that GMs need to learn 100,000 patterns and that pattern familiarity is what distinguishes GMs from more ordinary players. The number appears to be rather random. How are numbers of patterns delimited and measured? Are lower rated GMs from 2500-2600 familiar with fewer patterns than GMs from 2600-2850?

If “pattern” is understood as “piece configuration”, it would seem to make the acquisition even more cumbersome, depending on how fast one can set up different positions either manually or on a computer screen. On average, with 10 learned a day, it takes 27 years to acquire 100,000 patterns which, in turn, makes it hard to explain how young super-GMs, like Magnus Carlsen (GM at 13, learning chess at age 8, means 20,000 patterns a year and 55 patterns a day), at such a tender age can be much stronger than older GMs having had much more time to acquire far more patterns. Or, are we talking about different GMs being familiar with different sets of patterns reflected in the rating differences?

Since nobody knows all possible patterns, there is no way to know if players acquire useful patterns or are wasting time and the way to beat a GM would be to get non-pattern positions on the board, since this will shut down much of what the GM has on his personal “hard drive”. If pattern recognition is how chess is played at GM level, we are hard pressed how to explain why GMs’ performances decrease when growing older as one would think that patterns acquired still are in their brains and that a GM by some effort could bring back relevant patterns and thus still keep their performance at peak. Do older GMs’ performances decrease because other cerebral factors, unaccounted for, interfere with the GM’s ability to reproduce relevant patterns during a game? This clearly illustrates that chess playing is more than just mechanical reproduction of patterns and it is impossible to determine how much is pattern recognition and what is ability to spontaneously produce high quality moves. Pattern recognition seems to apply only to seeing something resembling something seen before, but moves still need to be made and if the brain triggers a blunder, the value of pattern recognition is instantly reduced to zero, which seems to indicate that the ability to trigger moves works independently of the ability to remember patterns.

Another fundamental problem is that as long as thinking and learning are subconscious, there is no way to tell if the brain perceives different positions as patterns but psychologists try to make it look like a mechanical, conscious process making pattern a straightforward way to try to explain human behaviour but, strictly speaking, it does not explain the real course of events. The only way is to reverse the process; what is called "pattern" is something established only after the so-called patterns are learnt and we rationalize and justify what happens to make it possible to make recipes and write instructional texts etc. to learn more quickly. When learning it, we do not know it is a pattern so a pertinent question is; how and when exactly does chaos transform into pattern in the chess mind? Learning chess resembles Wittgenstein's idea on how to learn to follow a rule; there must be something going on underlying our ability to understand rule bound instructions before we know the rule, and it is the same with chess. We conclude that there seem to be too many problems linked to the practical use of the concept of pattern recognition to give it the explanatory force it traditionally is granted.

Conceptual problems

Intuitively, “pattern” seems to indicate something like a whole or some sort of totality, repeating itself in its entirety, and what exactly constitutes a chess pattern? Due to the diversity of chess and the characteristic of identical repetition inherent in the concept of “pattern”, as a means for explaining development and acquisition of chess skills, the concept seems to be fundamentally problematic and what strikes us when using the word “pattern” in connection with chess is the apparent abyss of discrepancy between the two and how are the two to be reconciled? A single position can never constitute a pattern as long as repetition is an inherent component of the concept and each and every position appears uniquely different. A fundamental problem is how to generalize completely different positions into the same definition of pattern which appears impossible, since the positions are uniquely different and that no player will live long enough to see if a position repeats itself and thus be able to establish a pattern. Due to the diversity of chess, there will always be a principal problem of formalising a pattern definition comprising the infinitely occurring unique positions while not violating the notion of identical repetition. To many, a fianchetto castling would appear to be a pattern since this specific configuration is known to repeat itself numerous times in different kinds of positions.

To show that this is anything but philosophical nit-picking, we might mention that already Kant (1724-1804) brought our attention to the fact that concepts are never defined by their use. The colour “red” might be suitable to illustrate the point in question: if we ask someone what “red” is, most will point at cars, pictures or books, which, strictly speaking, are only instances but do not define what “red” is, i.e. delineate what red is in contrast to for instance blue or green. Back to topic: different kinds of castlings or mating images as patterns are problematic for three reasons:

  1. The positions as instances do not yield any definition of pattern (the analogy to “red”)
  2. The positions are immediately different, where the question of how to incorporate these into a single definition of pattern comprising both (as already pointed out) and
  3. Castlings are different from mating images in that the former seem more static whereas the latter appear to be more inherently or intrinsically dynamic where a series of moves are played out to reach some goal (mate) where more precisely than (static) pattern would seem to be to speak of tactical operations or combinations, which are different from patterns.

Two implications seem to follow from this: if a single definition, incorporating different positions, cannot be given, diverse positions cannot serve as examples of pattern or we are applying one definition of pattern to each and every position, but this does not solve the problem and leads to a circle; again we might ask what is it about castlings that make these constitute or make up a pattern and thus we are right back to the problems of definitions. For the question of development of chess skills to be adequately solved, of utmost importance is that concepts are precisely defined before being used or applied.

The perceptive reader would have noted the difficulty to pinpoint when a pattern occurs, since a single move results in a completely new position and the whole position must be considered when evaluating what move to make. Will the change in the position of a pawn imply merely a change in an already existing pattern within a position or are we talking about a completely different pattern due to a completely new position?

Considering the conceptual and practical problems, regarding the question of learning and what to look for, studying the games of the masters appears to be some sort of the same paradox we face in one of Plato’s dialogues; How to search when not knowing at all what you are looking for? How to search for something you do not know at all? If finding it, how will you know that this is what you did not know?

Pattern vs. Structure

Having discussed practical and conceptual problems linked to “pattern”, we arrive at another concept having sneaked into Rowson’s quote, viz. structure, without adequately distinguishing betwixt the two and we will try to show what the difference might amount to.

Contrary to “patterns”, “structures” might be defined as a certain smaller configuration or distribution of forces occurring at certain delimited sectors of the board within positions as a whole and which might be repeated without the whole context within which they occur having to identically infinitely repeat itself. Smaller parts or fragments within a greater totality, naturally will repeat themselves more often than whole positions which take much more to repeat and happen extremely rarely. Even if we have only remnants or fragments of broken or shattered structures, instantly, we recognize the contours of an intact structure within positions as a whole regardless of what the rest of the board looks like.

In other words, when seeing a broken castled position with pawns on f7, f6 and h7/h6, we immediately spot the possibility of a Knight on f5, this having more to do with recognizing a structure on a restricted part of the board rather than an all-comprising pattern.

Familiarity with themes, motifs or structures might facilitate the speed of calculation but still more important appears the ability to produce concrete, correct moves as otherwise we would be hard pressed to explain how super strong young GMs like Carlsen or Karjakin so well handle and play positions never seen before, having had less time than more experienced (by age) players to be acquainted with all these new structures, motifs and themes.

Also, chess discourse seems to suggest that “pattern recognition” is not the most accurate term when explaining acquisition of chess proficiency. On different DVDs or books we never encounter the term “pattern”, only “structure”; we “weaken/change/ruin/expand/improve the structure of the position”, not “the pattern of the position”.

We conclude that “pattern recognition” more appears to be an idealized simplicity rather than a concept apt to explain acquisition of chess skills, paving the way for the timely question; how to clearly define what a pattern is and if “structure recognition” is acquired by playing and studying chess, how does “pattern recognition” relate to this?


To explain chess playing abilities and to show that the notion of pattern recognition is more than just apparently problematic, we will introduce a concept new to chess literature and chess thinking.

Effective communication might be said to depend on a shared and implied body of knowledge between the persons communicating and this shared context is called exformation, a term meaning explicitly discarded information coined by Tor Nørretranders in his book The User Illusion published in English 1998.Thought, argues Nørretranders, is in fact a process of chucking away information, and this detritus (happily labelled exformation) appears instrumental in automatic behaviours of expertise.

Exformation is everything we do not actually say but have in our heads when, or before, we say anything at all - whereas information is the measurable, demonstrable utterance we actually come out with. If someone is talking about cows; what is said will be unintelligible unless the person listening has some prior idea what a cow is, what it is good for, and in what context one might encounter one. From the information content of a message alone, there is no way of measuring how much exformation it contains.

Exformation, in our context, might be described as the sum total of chess knowledge in our heads when or before making a move and which is actually not being played out at all though it remains implied. When chess players study games, books, magazines and watch chess DVDs, etc. they are building the foundation of chess knowledge upon which exformation is made possible. Effective chess playing and communication might therefore be explained as depending on a shared body of chess knowledge between players, and talk about patterns would be unintelligible if we did not already possess some kind of a prior idea of what a pattern is, what they are good for and in what context they might be encountered. During play, it is impossible from the moves themselves to read off the underlying context of exformation. Chess thinking and playing might thus be explained as subconscious chucking away information, just like a statue is carved out of a marble block, though in our case the information explicitly discarded leaves us with moves which might be said to arise out of the shared context called exformation. Subconscious chucking away information is exactly what makes automatic behaviour possible since, if brought to the attention of our time consuming consciousness, it would render the behaviour anything but automatic. Contrary to automatic behaviour, like riding a bicycle or playing the piano, chess might at best be described as semi-automatic as chess players constantly need to consider the moves of their opponent before deciding on what to do next. However, it appears that the extent of automation depends on the resistance although automatic play comes even more to the fore in blitz or rapid games where thinking time is severely limited.

We conclude that due to conceptual and practical problems, it is in principle impossible to effectively communicate “pattern recognition” as a means for producing chess moves nor is it a workable concept to explain the development of chess skills.


Not surprisingly, chess playing ability might further be said to have strong similarities to a phenomenon known as moral judgment associated with Aristotle’s discussion of phronesis. Aristotle reacted against what he perceived to be Plato’s belief that virtue consists solely in the knowledge of general principles and protested that moral action depends on the exercise of judgment in applying these principles to particular circumstances. Judgment itself is not governed by general rules; instead, it must always respond to the peculiarities of the given situation. Thus, judgment cannot be acquired by being imparted some kind of formal doctrine but only through practice by doing right actions. The point of judgment (morally and otherwise) is to enable us to confidently handle situations never before encountered (since it is impossible to practice all kinds of situations one might end up in).

The perceptive reader will have noticed that due to the diversity of chess, chess players most of the time find themselves in positions or situations never seen before and the crucial question is how to handle these confidently. Regardless of chess literature studied, chess players still find themselves at a loss when facing new ground which goes to prove John Watson’s point that chess is a rule independent game and cannot be played according to general rules or principles, i.e. each and every position must be played on its own premises and not somehow based on other (different) positions.

Moral and chess judgment might be explained as being performed by the interplay between brain and mind, since, if judgment were fully conscious and transparent, we would never display poor judgment, now, would we?

Along the lines of morality, we might also say that chess playing ability resembles speaking a language where we somehow are able to understand and utter sentences never before uttered or spoken and Richard Reti’s apt description of chess as Capablanca’s mother tongue still springs to mind.

Playing on Noam Chomsky’s LAD, or Language Acquisition Device, we might say that chess players are guided and supported by a, perhaps slightly Kantian sounding, CAD; “Chess Acquisition Device”, making it possible to display sound chess judgment with the foundation being the subtle interplay between knowing what to keep and what to discard among triggered moves and in the final part of this article, we will have a closer look as how to increase and improve our chess judgment to form better decisions over the board.

Chess Improvement

Chess players are often encouraged to read chess books and watch DVDs to improve their playing strength. Although these might inspire, motivate and fascinate, they crucially suffer from didactical lopsidedness. They will not genuinely help players improve as they to only fill up the players’ RAM (i.e. short term memory or consciousness) at the time of reading or watching, whereas high quality moves are governed by subconscious processes.

There is, however, a foolproof method for increasing playing strength, improving chess judgment and combating, if not completely eradicating, blunder tendencies. This method targets the subconscious as opposed to the insufficient books and DVDs targeting the conscious. As rendered in Alexander Kotov’s Think like a Grandmaster, it goes as follows:

  • No matter what position you choose to analyse, opening, middle game or end game, complex or simple; find annotated games and play through them till you to come to the point with the greatest number of variations.

  • Cover up the annotations with a sheet of paper and, without moving the pieces, analyse the position from 30 minutes to an hour. If the variations are extremely complex, you might write down your analyses while analysing.

  • When time is out, stop analysing and uncover the annotations in the book or magazine, and compare your notes with the annotator’s. (This is crucial since this trains and disciplines the brain’s ability to perceive positions correctly)

Strictly speaking, this, and not his highly criticised graphic presentation of tree-analyses, is the Kotov-method. This was the method catapulting Kotov to super GM strength and even if Kotov was unable to, we can partly explain why it works, and in short, it can be put as TWT or “Targeted Wiring Training”. As long as thinking is subconscious, we have no idea what the mind looks like when pondering or producing chess moves or analysing positions. Kotov was merely trying to create some sort of order in an otherwise inaccessible world, but what we do know, is that this method seriously improves our chess playing abilities regardless of whether the mind looks like trees, boats, shoes or penguins. This method simultaneously teaches a whole array of different chess skills even if not targeted individually or specifically. When starting out, there might be a great discrepancy between your analyses and the annotators’ but with time, you learn to delineate relevant moves and variations as this training and final comparison will exercise and target the mind’s ability to perceive chess positions and produce high quality moves. Initially, this system of training may appear time consuming and even monotonous, but patience and diligence will return generous rewards since you will:

  • Achieve total mastery of a new and important position
  • Attain absolutely confidence in your ability to play that position against anyone – from either side of the board.
  • Increase your comprehension and enjoyment of published games featuring that position.
  • Learn the various opening lines and move orders which will transpose the game into your position.
  • Broaden your opening repertoire and the theoretical knowledge, while improving your study habits and research techniques.
  • Become better acquainted with positions of similar pawn structures or themes (note; not “pattern”)
  • Absorb motifs and finesses which you can also apply to other positions.
  • Dramatically improve combinative skill.
  • Improve both long and short range planning.
  • Analyse more deeply, accurately and efficiently.
  • Train yourself to think objectively and reduce dependence on dogmatic principles and stereotyped opinions.
  • Heighten your awareness and respect for the myriad possibilities and hidden resources in a given position.
  • Expand your sense of creativity and capacity for discovering original ideas.
  • Discover that your analytical potential is not as limited as you perhaps thought.
  • Increase concentration and attention span.
  • Sharpen board visualisation, and develop a facility for piece coordination and spacial relationship.
  • Develop patience and perseverance, and control impulsive tendencies.
  • Discover the importance of adequate home preparation.
  • Stimulate your appetite for studying and playing chess.
  • Raise your rating and overall playing strength to a much higher level.

Kudos to Alburt for listing virtues Kotov seems to leave out (“Test and Improve your chess”, pp. 38-39)

Finally, we might add:

  • Play more resolutely, faster and less indecisively
  • Gain confidence when playing stronger opponents
  • Overcome tendencies of underestimating weaker opponents
  • Increase & trust your intuition and resourcefulness
  • Develop & improve your judgment

Copyright, Rune Vik-Hansen, 2008-01.12

About the author

Born in 1968, Rune Vik-Hansen graduated from the University of Tromsø in 1999 with a thesis on Heidegger's concept of Dasein. Other fields of interests are metaphysics, ontology, theory of science and political ethics.

Besides having worked as a teacher on different levels, Vik-Hansen also writes philosophical texts, chronicles, papers and essays as well as children’s literature.

He is currently actively involved as a mentor on writing, philosophy and chess projects with school children in New York City.

Reports about chess: tournaments, championships, portraits, interviews, World Championships, product launches and more.


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