The Winning Academy 14: The Trap of Beauty

by Jan Markos
9/29/2022 – What could possibly be more satisfying than playing a beautiful combination, or winning a splendid positional game? And yet, it is dangerous to rely too much on your sense of beauty, on your intuition. Why? Jan Markos explains. | Photo: Hardebeck Media on Pixabay

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Well, intuition is nothing else but experience that has become habit. We subconsciously recognize patterns and relations in a position because we have seen them many times before. Similarly, an experienced driver seems to have a sixth sense when driving, expecting danger well before it becomes imminent. Why? She has developed her intuition because she has been in similar situations many times before.

Therefore, intuition is a very useful tool to evaluate situations that are standard and typical. In chess, intuition helps us mostly in strategical positions. On the other hand, in situations that are unique and non-standard, intuition tends to fail us. There are simply not enough similarities with what we have experienced before. In chess, intuition tends to fail us in concrete, tactical positions. Therefore, in these positions, intuition should never substitute concrete calculation.

Please, don’t be lazy in tactical positions. Don’t just play a move that attracts you, without working out the concrete lines! Such a superficial approach could spoil your entire game.

Let us have a look at one example from my own praxis:

Markos-Manik, Czech Team Championship 2007, White to move:


White clearly has a huge positional edge. With a pair of bishops, a lead in development and a beautiful outpost on e5 for his knight, he is dominating the board. However, while many moves lead to an almost won position, only one gains material right now. Can you spot it?

If I was using only my intuition to solve this position, I would probably play either 15.Ne5 or 15.Rhe1. Both active, attractive moves. However, after calculating a bit, I found out that the modest 15.Bc2! actually wins the d6-knight. White threatens to play Bg5-f4 and 15…Qc6 is answered by 16.Be7.

(Why 15.Bc2 and not 15.Bb1? Well, White needs to block the c-file so that Black can't get counterplay with 15…Rc8.)

Here's the complete game:


Quite often a beautiful idea tempts us so much that we lose our objectivity. "This feels so right, this must be good", a silent voice whispers in our heads and we are unable to resist the temptation.

In the following position, Alexey Shirov was tempted:

Shirov-Grischuk, Grand Prix Dubai rapid 2002, White to move:


Anyone who knows Shirov's chess philosophy would expect him to play 16.Qxb4?! Bxb4 17.Bxb4. What a wonderful outpost the e4-knight has on d6! And yet this idea is flawed, the investment is too big. After no more than seven moves, White's initiative had evaporated, and Black was winning. Only a huge tactical oversight by Grischuk has enabled Shirov to draw the game.

In the diagrammed position, White should play the humble (and admittedly ugly) 16.Qa3!, keeping a slight edge, as Black can't play 16…Nxc2 because of 17.Nd6+ Bxd6 18.Qxd6 and the knight is trapped.

Here's the complete game:


Sometimes our intuition fails us even in strategical positions. This happens mostly when we don't have enough experience with the specific pawn structure or opening, and therefore we try to apply patterns and ideas from other types of positions.

Let us have a look at a nice example of this phenomenon:

Khalifman-Bologan, Aeroflot 2005, Black to move:


I am pretty sure that most club players would disregard 14…f6 for purely aesthetic reasons. It simply does not feel right to weaken one's king position in such a manner. Also, the g7-bishop would look very strange.

However, Bologan knew better. He understood that the e5-square need to be taken from White's pieces, and that the g7-bishop, however idle now, is an important guardian of the Black king.

Therefore, he played 14...f6! and later drew the game.

Here's the complete game:


Ever since computers became be an inherent part of the royal game, many ideas that would have been previously rejected as "too ugly to be playable", have been accepted and found interesting.

I have a strong suspicion that the following idea was found by a computer engine:

Giri-Anton Guijarro, Carlsen Invitational rapid 2021, White to move:


In this Open Spanish subline, white players unanimously played 16.Be3. No surprise: it is a logical, developing move that covers the sensitive f2-square.

However, Giri had a different plan in mind. He played 16.Ng3!? Bxf3 17.gxf3, voluntarily spoiling his own kingside structure. This seems to be plainly wrong unless we start to perceive the hidden positives. Firstly, White has earned a bishop pair. Secondly, the g3-knight glues the kingside together nicely. And thirdly, the f2-pawn is now hidden behind the f3-pawn.

Please, be sure that you have a look at the entire game (below). Giri's play is both instructive and pleasant to watch.


After reading this article, you might ask yourself: "Should I trust my intuition at all?" Of course, you should. Most of the time, your intuition will be correct. However, it is not infallible.

The same applies to concrete calculation. Most of the time you will calculate the lines correctly, but sometimes you will fail.

Therefore, you should use both these skills – intuition and calculation – together. You should test the advice of your intuition with calculation and double-check your calculation with your intuitive insight.

This is the best way how to make sure that you will produce as few mistakes as possible.


Jan Markos is a Slovakian chess author, trainer, and grandmaster. His book Under the Surface was the English Chess Federation´s 2018 Book of the Year. His last book, The Secret Ingredient, co-authored with David Navara, focuses on the practical aspects of play, e.g. time-management over the board, how to prepare against a specific opponent, or how to use chess engines during the training process. Markos was the U16 European Champion twenty years ago. At present he helps his pupils from several countries to achieve similar successes. Apart from focusing on the royal game, he is also the author of several non-chess books, focused on critical thinking, moral dilemmas, and phenomenology.


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