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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Looking for Moves in Chess

In this blog entry, I’m going to discuss a few things about ‘moving’ in chess. This will be mostly aimed at beginner to mid-level players, because I think it’s something often misunderstood. The difference between ‘looking for moves’ and ‘carrying out a plan’ may seem subtle to the newcomer, but they are vastly different.

When asked how he wiped away his opponents, Alexander Alekhine said something to the effect of: I think up my own moves, and I make my opponent think up his.

That’s pretty powerful, when you think about it: he’s saying that no matter what the other player already knows, how ‘booked up’ he is, or how brilliantly he may play, Alekhine would still be able to out-think them in a match.

Alekhine is well-known for leaving book lines early in the game. He liked to mix things up, to dare his opponents to walk into his territory. Sometimes it worked and other times it didn’t, but no matter the outcome of the game, it was always a down-and-dirty street fight with Alekhine.

So, what was his deal? Yes, he is known as one of the most studious masters of all time and yes, he possessed oodles of talent and was a very intelligent man. But what did he mean by ‘thinking up his own moves’? Well, he wasn’t referring to single moves, I can tell you that.

A leg is a leg, and an arm is an arm. A torso is weird without a head, and legs are odd without feet. But, put them all together in the correct order and place, and you have a body. The same goes with chess. A move is just a single move; it can either be good or bad, or even indifferent, but it’s still just a move.

Each move indicates, or should indicate, a small part of a larger plan. The amateur just slaps out the first ten moves of an opening he kinda-sorta knows, and then ‘looks for moves’. In other words, he’s looking for knock-out blows like piece wins or immediate threats which may cause his opponent to blunder badly.

Masters look for moves, too, don’t get me wrong. But when they are looking for moves, they are trying to find moves that best support the plan they have come up with in their head. This is what’s largely referred to as ‘seeing X-number of moves deep’. Contrary to popular belief, there is no set number of moves ahead that a certain GM, or anyone else, can see. Depending on the position, that number could be low or high for all of us. It’s more that the GM can see the plan inside the position, rather than an exact number of moves deep. Through years and years of serious play and study, the board vision of a master becomes quite keen.

An amateur doesn’t understand the importance of a sound position. He or she just wants to have fun making threat after threat, sacrificing pawns and pieces, and doing their best to find brilliant moves. If they stick with the game long enough, they’ll find that brilliant moves are just an indication of a brilliant plan, and nothing more.

So what am I trying to say? I’m saying that instead of necessarily “looking for moves” each turn, formulate an all-encompassing plan. Of course, plan-less games are won every day by thousands of people, but not against strong opposition. If two inexperienced players have a few games, they can literally be as interesting as watching strong GM games, and sometimes more so. The wild piece sacs, the unsound pawn pushes, the ‘see a check give a check’ mentality; it’s all very entertaining. It really is.

But, you cannot go off half-cocked against a master and expect good game results. Why? Because in any given position, and I do mean any position, a master is going to come up with a better plan than the amateur. Because of that, he’s going to find better, stronger moves.

If you find yourself often without a plan in chess, you need to stop and reevaluate that part of your game. The ‘looking for moves’ bit works against 1500s on the Internet, sure, but if you hope to ever scalp a master, you’d better ‘look for a plan’, instead.

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