Sunday, April 12, 2009

How to Manage Your Mind at the Board

How to Manage your Mind at the Board

by George Zeigler

The Game

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5 Bc5

The Master steeped in tradition knows that Karpov is well-known as an ultra solid and cautious player.  I was surprised to see some older games that featured him on the black side of the Wilkes Barre defense, and decided to give it a try. I’ve driven through Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania on my way to Penn State, and the terrain and people are both quite rugged.

5.Bxf7+ Ke7 6.Bd5

I had a pamphlet on the Wilkes Barre Defense when I played this game, and the writer recommended this course of play as the best option for White.

6...d6 7.c3

I seem to recall this is a "departure from book," and am resisting the temptation to do any research. [7.Nf7 Qf8 8.Nxh8 (8.Bb3 Nxe4 9.0–0 Nxf2 10.Rxf2 Bxf2+ 11.Kh1 Rg8) 8...Bxf2+ 9.Kf1 Bg4 and the queen is trapped.] 7...Qe8 8.0–0 Bg4 9.Qa4 h6 10.Nf7 Rf8 11.d4 exd4 12.b4

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’ll start out 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.

The ART AND SCIENCE of chess exist simultaneously in all positions, and are emphasized to different degrees, depending upon the exact configuration of pieces upon the board. Positions which emphasize a player's ARTIST ARCHETYPE contain a large number of possibilities, resist precise analysis, and require higher levels of assessment skills and abstract positional judgment.

THE SCIENTIST ARCHETYPE prefers fewer possibilities, and a higher degree of certainty upon the board. This kind of position requires less judgment and interpretation, and rewards precision and deep analysis. Given these two ARCHETYPES and the different forms of analysis they require, this means that the skills and thought processes The Master must invoke are diverse and varied.

In his classic dissertation "Think Like a Grandmaster," 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 few options. This allows him to build a decision tree which more resembles a "picket fence" than a "thicket," deep and not wide.

Different openings and strategies tend towards one or the other, and they all contain elements of both. The Master knows which positions he likes most, and plays best. This knowledge eventually leads him to develop an opening repertoire that ensures his opponent ends up playing inside the laboratory he has thoughtfully designed.

To summarize these archetypes and perspectives, and to paraphrase Bruce Baker, one of the strongest masters at the San Diego Chess Club, this means "there are fundamentally three different types of chess players "ARTIST, SCIENTIST, AND WARRIOR.”

The WARRRIOR ARCHETYPE type rounds out “THE BAKER THREE" and together these three archetypes provide an insightful model for self-assessment. THE FIGHTER wields the weapons of THE ARTIST and THE SCIENTIST and directs them fiercely across the board with his raw brainpower and will-to-win.

Mr. Baker has many profound insights concerning the way these three styles interact, and this deep understanding is one reason he frequently dominates play at the San Diego Chess Club.

The need to highly energize this WARRIOR ARCHETYPE and the fierce competitive nature of chess also make it a SPORT, and it is necessary to conjure up extreme competitive intensity while sitting quietly at the board. The psychological requirements of high level play are very intense.

I can provide an example of these extreme psychological states from my own personal experience. About 20 years ago I was playing in an Expert Tournament in Philadelphia for 1st place and a prize of $6,000.00.

After making my move I suddenly realized there was a serious flaw in my analysis, and instantaneously broke into a cold sweat. This is the first and last time in my life I have experienced this strange biochemical event. I waited fearfully, trying not to give away my state of mind, and hoping that my opponent would not discover my error, as he coldly scrutinized the board. Sadly, he did punish my mistake, I did lose this vital contest, and my prize was reduced from $6,000.00 to $25.00.

There are many ARCHETYPES AND SKILLS the Master must cultivate. These include strategy, concrete analysis, theoretical opening study, the building of intricate decision trees, and managing extreme thought processes. In the meantime, his time clock relentless continues ticking, and this extra pressure often leads to chaotic “time scrambles,” near the end of a contest.

This calls to mind another WELL BAKED INSIGHT, as Bruce once shared with me that his strength greatly increased when he became a better MANAGER at the board. This leads us to a fourth and final archetype, as viewed from THE BAKER MODEL, and it is the MANAGER ARCHETYPE who carries out the most profound decision making skill of all. That's because THE MANAGER decides which archetypes to invoke, and how to bring each one to bear upon the position at hand.

These are the bricks from which The Master builds his house filled with thought.  This final insight is a key point of separation. Much of The Master's skills and knowledge are technical, and they can therefore be methodically developed through study and application. However, the deep psychological insights Bruce has discovered are of the nature which separates GRANDMASTERS from the rest.

These are deep insights, and they are earned only through years 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.  While doing so, it invokes and strengthens different ARCHETYPES AND ASPECTS OF OUR CHARACTER. Truly it is very difficult to think of another activity that calls so deeply upon our inner resources. This makes every contest a character building experience.

That being said, there is one final comparison to make. That's because  in its truest essence chess is an application of physics. This conclusion becomes apparent if we compare a physics book to any beginning chess book.

The first chapter of any beginning chess book is always called something like "The Elements." They are always listed as time, space, and force, and every single physics equation is designed to quantify one of those same three variables.

Part of the beauty of chess is that we have the opportunity to "trade off the elements." For example, many openings involve “gambits” where a pawn is sacrificed for development. This represents a direct exchange of force for time.

We are finally ready to return to the position at hand. Having played this game about 15 years ago, I now look at the position on the board and the phrase that comes to mind is "tremendouly chaotic."

I am very fond of these kinds of positions, as they are full of anomalies which disrupt the orderly thinking of the CALM AND METHODICAL SCIENTIST.

We've reached CRITICAL MASS.  There truly is a crystal baking inside this chaos, and this brings us to THE FINAL PERSPECTIVE. A game of chess contains an incredibly large number of possibilities, and we will add one more skill the Master must patiently cultivate if he wishes to achieve a high level of success.

This final skill is a MANAGER responsibility, and we'll call it the ABILITY TO PRIORITIZE. There are always many things happening in a chess game. Some of them are readily apparent, while others are deeply hidden.

The Master has to be able to look at all the events simultaneously 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 can be likened unto a piece of classical music or a great work of literature.

In music and literature, the strongest themes continuously thread themselves through the artist’s work, and in chess they also weave their way through the board in a multitude of sequences and combinations.

In the game at hand, this is a perfect opportunity for the reader to take a moment to distill Black's strongest theme out of the extreme anarchy that initially greets the eye. In that spirit, I will share the way I evaluated the position.

The quality of a Master’s analysis will be determined by the quality of the questions he asks himself. That’s because those questions will establish the contents of his analysis, and the themes he uncovers, as he works out the details. And so it is the questions he asks himself that determine the exact configuration of the decision trees he builds in his mind, as he gazes silently upon the board.

Regarding the position at hand, first I asked "What is the weakest point  around his King?" The answer to this question did not reveal itself, so I asked a second question, "Where are my greatest strengths?" This question yielded an important piece of information which I added to the analysis.

Now we’ll see how these conclusions led to the construction of a real live variation. After calculating the results of two consecutive exchanges I was able to determine the location of “my greatest strength.” The reader can probably discern the answer with this clue, as it becomes clear that after capturing the bishop on d5, the knight on f7 will fall next, and my queen and rook will form a very powerful battery on the f file.

After observing this, I asked a third and final question "Is there any way to undermine the defense of f2?" The answer was clear, and so in the end, the information I received by asking these three questions led to the continuation I played in the game.

In summary, we can say that the essence of The Master’s task lies in his ability to prioritize, find the strongest theme, and then build the decision trees necessary to support his objectives.

During a game of chess The Master continuously visualizes the board in his mind, forming and refining his decision trees, until he finally finds an outcome that supports his objectives.

This ability to visualize the board as it changes in the mind's eye during the process of analysis is another vital skill. That's because the ability to visualize all these combinations and sequences is the exact skill which allows The Master to build his DECISION TREES, and finally make the best move.

This is ”the essence of analysis." However, no matter how deeply he is able to penetrate the position using his highly developed visualization skills, at some point The Master must form a final position in his mind, and do his best to make a clear assessment.

Here is a very typical real-world assessment example. As The Master gazes upon the endpoint of the analysis he has formed in his mind, he will form an interpretation something like this, "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 break through in the center, and 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 Master will be rewarded if he is accurate in his final appraisal. At the same time, there is an alternative process, which allows for the Master to unfold the position according to his will and style.

In making his assessment, The Master might say something like "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 this other position where I maintain the initiative, even though it's unclear, and I could even be slightly worse. It’s just that I know I’ll enjoy playing that position much more."

This example of preferring one type of position over another is an example of The Master's STYLE. Every strong Master has a preferred style (examples: strategic, aggressive, solid, cautious). Despite inherent preferences, the very strongest players are able to play multiple styles, depending upon such things as their mood, position in the tournament, and their assessment of how to create a situation they sense will be uncomfortable for their opponent.

In this 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, which means that the Game of Kings will always perform as a  TIMELESS ART.

12...Nxd5 [12...Bb6 13.b5 Nxd5] 13.exd5 Qxf7 14.bxc5 Be2 15.cxd6+ cxd6 16.dxc6 Bxf1 17.Qxd4 Ba6 18.cxb7 Bxb7

The bishop completes it's circumnavigation of the globe (c8-g4-e2-f1–a6-b7).

19.Nd2 [19.Ba3 Qd5 20.Qxg7+ (20.Qxd5 Bxd5 21.Nd2 Rf4) 20...Rf7 21.Qg4 Rg8 22.Qxg8 Qd1#]


I would probably put this move somewhere in my Personal Top 10 Favorites. Here's the point - I'm up an exchange for a pawn. However, my king is extremely exposed, and could easily come under a fatal attack after White completes his development.

Therefore, by sacrificing a pawn with check, I am able to force White into an endgame which (a) eliminates the danger to my king, and (b) I am almost assuredly winning based on my large development advantage, and the fact there are many open lines for my rooks.

20.Qxg7+ [20.Qxf4 Rxf4 21.f3 Rc8] 20...Rf7 21.Qd4 Qxd4 22.cxd4 Rg8 23.g3 Rgf8 24.f4 Rc8 25.Rb1 Bd5 26.a3 Kf6 27.Kf2 Rb7 28.Rxb7 Bxb7 29.Nb3 Bd5.

White resigns.


  1. Excellent insights. I really enjoy the art in chess but lack enjoyment for some of the more technical aspects. This probably means I will never be a master. But with this discussion in the article at least I'll understand why! :)

  2. Great insight about who you are as a chessplayer ... "know thyself" (Socrates) ... on the road to improvement chessplayers often get involved in very deep technical study ... which can be quite arduous ... you have identified THE MOST IMPORTANT THING OF ALL ... which is to "enjoy the activity" ...

    I am highly visual ... and the art of the game is what compels me ... I really like the patterns ... working out the Science (detailed variations for over the board analysis, opening study, endgame study, etc) is a discipline I have to impose upon myself ... and now do less and less ... simply because I don't enjoy it very much. The good news is there is much to enjoy about the Game of Kings ... an abundance of riches ... pick and choose what pleases you the most !!!

  3. Great insight about who you are as a chessplayer ... "know thyself" (Socrates) ... on the road to improvement chessplayers often get involved in very deep technical study ... which can be quite arduous ... you have identified THE MOST IMPORTANT THING OF ALL ... which is to "enjoy the activity" ...

    I am highly visual ... and the art of the game is what compels me ... I really like the patterns ... working out the Science (detailed variations for over the board analysis, opening study, endgame study, etc) is a discipline I have to impose upon myself ... and now do less and less ... simply because I don't enjoy it very much. The good news is there is much to enjoy about the Game of Kings ... an abundance of riches ... pick and choose what pleases you the most !!!

  4. Excellent blog, I found it very interesting. I need to work on my own deep analysis skills myself. Quite often almost right away I have a move in mind and have a hard time trying to pry myself away from it.

    Mike Friedel

  5. Thanks! If a certain move is stuck in your mind, one idea is to ask yourself some new questions that can lead you to see the position in a new way, which could lead to the discovery of a new and better move ... here are a couple examples of questions you could ask yourself ...

    *** What are the imbalances in the position ?

    *** Which one is most favorable to me (what are my best assets) ?

    *** How can I build upon that?

    *** Should I increase or diminish the tension in the positon ?

    *** How can I neutralize his best piece ?

    *** What's the highest priority right now ?

    You can add more questions to ask yourself. The list is limited only by your imagination. I have created a list of 20 good questions to ask myself while analyzing. On Wedneesday night, before the game I review and sort of meditate upon the list for a few minutes before I go in to play my game. I have found this practice keeps my mind very active during the game, and these questions help my creativity, my flexibility, and my ability to generate new material for analysis.


  6. Joel,

    I never read "The Art of Learning" ... but just looked at the table of contents online ... it looks very interesting ... I'm going to touch upon it again at the end of the email.

    One of my favorite books that I recommend highly is "How to Reassess your Chess" by Jeremy Silman.

    One of the most practical things you can do to improve your over the board play is to do trainingbot exercises on ICC … there’s no better way to increase your tactical vision, and I’ve found that when I do these on a consistent basis ... just 15-30 minutes a day ... then I analyze much more quickly and accurately over the board.

    Back to "The Art of Learning" ... maybe you could share with me very briefly the thesis behind these three chapter titles:

    · - "Breaking Stallions"

    · - "Changing Voice"

    · - "Making Smaller Circles"