Grumpy silicon and happy carbon

by Jonathan Speelman
2/21/2021 – In this week’s column, Jon Speelman focuses on the importance of ‘trusting your hand’, noting that “playing chess is one of the few times in our lives when we are totally self-sufficient and self-reliant. It’s the joy and horror of the game that you can take all the credit for your triumphs but have nobody else to blame for your mistakes.” Unmissable! | Photo: David Llada

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Trusting your hand

A fortnight or so ago, my desktop computer started to get rather grumpy, making increasingly loud harrumphing sounds. A week later it began to go on strike, with the power cutting out completely, apparently at random.

Jonathan SpeelmanBack in the day, I even once changed a disk drive in a computer, but nowadays I’m rather phobic about playing with them. My wife heroically opened the case and took a (cold) hair dryer to the interior, clearing out a vast quantity of dust, but the problem persisted and the old codger — it’s more than four years old which makes it heaven knows how ancient in human years — is currently being ministered to by a nice man down the road, who has confirmed that it needs a new power supply and is testing for any other ailments.    

In its absence, I’m communing with an even older codger, my laptop, which is a nice machine but also not entirely ungrumpy (don’t get me started on its wilful backspace key). It’s not set up for streaming or recording and like the cats in this house — not to mention me — resistant to change, so there’s no video version of today’s column or at least won’t be until I get the desktop back, with luck on Monday.

In contrast to grumpy computers, we focus today on happy people who have played nice games of chess and in particular on move selection and trusting yourself.

Playing chess is one of the few times in our lives when we are totally self-sufficient and self-reliant. It’s the joy and horror of the game — and of course other similar games like Go, Shogi and Draughts (Chequers) — that you can take all the credit for your triumphs but have nobody else to blame for your mistakes.

Go, China

Go, an abstract strategy board game invented in China

This applies to all players including children, and when I’m teaching adults or kids I make a point of not telling them what types of position or openings they should play. Or rather not pressing the point. Certainly I will express an opinion, and if I think that a line is purulent nonsense then I will try gently to wean them off it. But while they are doing well with it, they should continue if they like, until they play stronger opponents who will prompt them to change their own minds.

The same applies to move selection later on in the game. By the time that people become club players they will already have a fairly strong feeling of the moves they want to play and this will harden as they improve. For me, when I’m in the zone — and to work at its strongest this really means being at a chessboard faced with the danger of losing — I have a visceral reaction to the choices available and normally know immediately what  I want to play (or at least what I want to choose between) unless the position is very confusing. Indeed, one way I evaluate positions is by looking at the moves I want to play and seeing whether they are possible. If they seem okay, then all well and good, but if my top choices palpably lose then I may simply have a bad position.  

One of the most important lessons in improving is to trust yourself (or, as I often think of it, trust your hand). If you like a move then you must check that it isn’t a blunder, but you shouldn’t talk yourself out of it, especially when playing stronger opponents — when there’s a tendency to believe that the great man or woman opposite you couldn’t possibly have allowed such a strong move, so there must be something wrong with it.

So if you see a strong move and can’t see a good reason not to play it then trust your hand, but equally you must look at possible refutations, and the higher the level of play the more important it is sometimes to rethink — because, however good your hand, it isn’t always right.

Vladimir Kramnik is one of the players who most trusts his hand, and this has led to some fantastic games, though occasionally, against really strong opponents, to disaster too. Today I’m reprising one of his best games before his retirement from professional play, but also another game from the same tournament — the  Berlin Candidates of 2018 — when he couldn’t resist his hand and eventually lost.

Vladimir Kramnik

Vladimir Kramnik at the 2018 Candidates in Berlin | Photo: World Chess

I’m finishing with a game I’ve given here before a couple of times, in which I really wanted to play a move but had a feeling of unease about it. I was right to do so and got splatted, though engines later told me that I could have got away with it.


Select an entry from the list to switch between games

Master Class Vol.11: Vladimir Kramnik

This DVD allows you to learn from the example of one of the best players in the history of chess and from the explanations of the authors (Pelletier, Marin, Müller and Reeh) how to successfully organise your games strategically, consequently how to keep y


Jonathan Speelman, born in 1956, studied mathematics but became a professional chess player in 1977. He was a member of the English Olympic team from 1980–2006 and three times British Champion. He played twice in Candidates Tournaments, reaching the semi-final in 1989. He twice seconded a World Championship challenger: Nigel Short and then Viswanathan Anand against Garry Kasparov in London 1993 and New York 1995.


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