6 tips on how to improve your chess

The intention of this series of articles is to present you with a different view to the game of chess. One of the things that I have become more and more convinced of over the past few years is the great importance of the psychological side of playing chess. The term “psychology” can be explained widely of course, but I would like to characterize it as follows: “Thinking and feeling in the game of chess”.

Despite the fact that more and more attention is given lately to this more human side of the game of chess[i], it always has remained in the shadow somewhat and deserves as much attention with respect to playing stronger chess as the traditional chess technical approach in which the improvement of opening-, middle- and endgame knowledge occupy a central place alongside the analysis of games and the solving of tactics puzzles.

I look at psychology in chess from three different angles:

  1. Know yourself! (strong points and weaknesses)
  2. Know your opponent! (psychological warfare)
  3. Scientific aspects (thinking processes, pattern recognition, memory functions, talent etc.)

It is my experience that the first angle is by far the most important when trying to reach a higher level of play. Therefore the main focus in the coming articles will be on recognizing and improving our strong points and diminishing our weaknesses.

The way I want to take on these matters of the chess mind is a provocative one. In analogy with the student of Psychosynthesis[ii] who states that:

“Man often wishes that he were a god, not realizing that he actually is a god who thinks he is a man”

… I would like to state here that:

“We chess lovers hope to play like masters one day, not realizing that we already are masters who just have to get rid of some psychological inconveniences”.

I use this hypothesis to be able to break with the common notion that playing chess stronger mainly depends on the measure of talent, knowledge, experience, intuition, calculating abilities and more of these definable aspects of playing strength. Basically what I’m saying is:

“Every mistake has its psychological cause”.

In this light it is actually very helpful to see a mistake as a “little accident” or as “something clumsy” committed by the chess player during the game. It helps to conceive of a mistake as such, because it takes away the focus from chess technique, which is often related to playing a stronger game of chess. As a matter of fact it would be good fun to be able to say that a mistake, in case “something clumsy”, has nothing to do with chess at all. But if we talk about chess like this, we still emphasize this chess technical side of the game, whilst it is also clear that this little accident has been committed by that very same chess player. Realizing this, we cannot hide from the fact that any chess player who wants to become a stronger player should deal with the prevention of accidents.

The first step in learning to prevent accidents is learning how to recognize them. I encourage you to see if you can identify with the examples that I give.

To split up the subject I have chosen the following division:

  1. Clumsiness in relation to appreciation of and honesty towards the game
  2. Clumsiness in relation to mentality during the game

The second group I will deal later with.

The Adoration of Caissa

To many of us Caissa’s ways are incomprehensible. And I am sure they will always be like that. But studying the feedback she gives in the shape of a won, drawn or lost game through whatever causes, gives rise to the conclusion that the chess player who takes notice of that has a better chance of getting her appreciation. To put it differently: a chess player will never start to play stronger if he does not learn to appreciate a number of aspects of the game. The solution therefore lies in the adoration of Caissa, the loyalty to and the execution of her commandments. But which are these commandments? Well, the first, all-embracing commandment is:

Commandment 1: The game of chess is tremendously complicated!

We all know the well-known saying: “The game of chess is like an ocean in which a mosquito can bathe and an elephant can drown”. This commandment makes sure that Caissa always has our attention. The consequence however is that we never can and may let down during a game. Okay, now for something a bit more specific. The second commandment is:

Commandment 2: You don’t play alone!

If only you would have to feed all chess players that barely or not at all reckon with their opponents you would soon be broke! It is understandable: It is no good fun let alone simple to have to reckon with your opponent. The temptation to make your own plans and to execute them is often strong and hard to resist. Nonetheless, the player that plays like that will face the consequences for the simple reason that he is not allowed to make moves in a row one after the other, but that his opponents gets to move in between. One characteristic of a player who has this tendency is the setting of traps that are not justified by the demands of the position. This type of trap setting is good fun, because it makes the adrenaline level rise and stirs up hope that the opponent will fall for it, which in turn leads to soothing the nerve system since the chance that the game can soon end in a positive way seems bigger. However, strong players agree that trap setting of that kind will haunt you if (of course) the opponent will not fall for it. Imagine playing someone who has been “turned down” by Caissa enough times to realize that you should never be seduced by your opponent and always have to carefully check any possible sneaky intentions before progressing with your own plans or adjusting them. Therefore we often see that the position will turn against the trap setter. A simple example that we encounter often at the junior levels is the following:

Diagram 1: Black moves [iii]

In this case white has just set a trap based on the experience that many juniors choose 2…g6??, which would be answered with the devastating 3. Qxe5+. However, black does not play 2…g6??, but 2…Nc6! which defends the pawn on e5, develops another piece and introduces the possibility to chase away the white queen on the next move, thereby maintaining a good command of the position.

Another tendency of the player that does not reckon well enough with his opponent is the not or insufficiently wondering what the opponent is up to or more precise what he is threatening. A noticeable example:

Diagram 2: Black moves [iv]

What stands out most in this position is the black bishop on h4. White’s last move was 1.Qd1-f3 with obvious intentions. However, black did not take his time to try and see through them en played 1…Qd7?? After 2.Dh3! he lost a piece and the game. It pays off to reflect on black’s mistake. The person who played with the black pieces must certainly be considered as someone who understands the power of 2.Qh3. Nonetheless, he played 1…Qd7?? That brings me the conclusion that black had not seen 2.Qh3 at all. What he probably did see, was that white might sooner or later try something with f4-f5 to which black could respond with castles long to bring the black king into relative safety. For that matter this could indicate the common appearing phenomenon of a chess player approaching the position from a more strategic perspective which in turn leads to a diminished sense of danger, whereas “Get real” should be the motto. In this concrete example the black bishop is pretty lonely out there! A second reason I can think of is that black simply didn’t allow himself the time to take a closer look, probably because he had already spent so much time during the opening (I believe that black took over an hour for his first fifteen moves). Sooner or later there comes a moment that the chess player says to himself: “Come on, move!” For that matter this indicates the value of a surprise in the opening. The third reason of course is that black’s Pavlov-reaction didn’t work. After seeing the move 1.Qf3 a master would almost instantly think something like the following:

“Hm, strong. If I allow Qh3, I will lose a piece.”

In short: an accident!

Commandment 3: Caïssa is all for truth, not beauty!

In the game of chess Temptation comes in many shapes, but none of them is worth pursuing. Only if beauty and truth come together Caissa will be pleased.

Diagram 3: Black moves [v]

In this position black is winning with his mighty rooks, bishops and two extra pawns. A move like 1…Rc2 will do the trick. But black wanted to play “beautifully” and go for another pawn on d3 with 1…Qf5?? After 2.Ng5! however, he was in terrible trouble on the white squares because of the possibility Qd2-a2+ en resigned several moves later.

Commandment 4: Trust and use your intuition!

For the simple reason that chess is to difficult to solve every position with a well calculated answer, chess players often need to trust to their intuition. That in itself is nothing special. But to dear to listen to your intuition en to act upon it is a different ballgame. Intuition often comes (with me al least) in the form of strong feeling of strong inner voice. That way you can recognize it. If it is there it is not for a social talk and will at least take on your rational brain. Often your intuition represents your unpredictable but visionary and adventurous chess nature. Careful chess players often have trouble following their intuition. That is a pity, because you might compare your intuition with an enormous powerful complex of previously built up rationality based on knowledge, developed skills and experience. That way this rationality is also included in the solution proposed by your intuition. Your intuition can also be the fuel for an experiment during the game. Because in fact you should think of every game of chess as an experiment in which you are testing everything that you have gathered in playing strength at that time. In that sense your intuition is also your teacher that encourages you to experiment and experience in order for you to grow. Of course your intuition will let you fail every once in a while, because we can only learn from our mistakes! We will get back to the struggle between reason and intuition on other occasions, but here is one example:

Diagram 4: White moves [vi]

My intuition told me to play the simple 1.Rac1. The more pieces get exchanged, the closer the win. And what’s more, white’s rooks are not really participating. Basically, I could have played this move à tempo. However, being confronted with the fact that this was hopefully going to be my first win against an IM ever and a good deal of time more on the clock, my mind introduced the thought that I should play this position in the most precise manner, because letting go of such a big fish was of course no option! And that is how I also came to consider the exotic looking 1.f3?! Just by the look of it and the fact that black would not be able to take on f3 because of the pin – oh, what beauty – I got the impression that this move might just be that little bit more precise than the trivial 1.Rac1. And thus fooled, I played – after a twenty minute thought! – 1.f3?! only to find out that I was still better, but that I also had made my technical task more difficult – of which my opponent made good use – and that despite being two pawns up in a rook endgame I had to settle for the draw because of a serious lack of time! And that’s often how it is with intuition. Usually there will be duality between two moves, one of which represents our ratio and the other our “direct thought”, the feeling if you like. Reason then suggests that the intuition move is still not profitable enough en comes up with alls sorts of reasons why not to play the move but also why you should consider “his own” move. And if you do the latter long enough, you will fall in love with that one – since you put so much energy in it – and play it… We will deal with recognizing and keeping reason (little devil?) and intuition apart later.

Commandment 5: Every situation is different!

Knowledge is a valuable thing, but don’t overestimate it! The advantages of opening knowledge are that you may be able to play the opening faster thereby saving time on the clock, that you have a better understanding of middle game structures that result from these openings or that you may be able to punish your opponent better if he does not play according to the book. Knowledge of the middle game such as standard attacking and defending techniques, tactical motives or structures and so on is also very useful. Endgame knowledge refers to knowledge of standard endgames. And this knowledge too is very useful because a chess player with this knowledge is able to quickly judge whether a certain position is won, drawn or lost when both sides play correctly. Actually, this last form of knowledge is the most absolute chess knowledge you can have since opening theory is prone to fashion and systematizing middle game knowledge, although done by numerous writers, is always difficult because you can never be complete. The endgame however, can be best systematized. Therefore the more this knowledge runs from the end of the game to the beginning of the game the more dangerous it becomes to rely on it. Therefore a chess player always has to appreciate that every situation is different and that he should carefully the use of knowledge within that margin. An example:

Moes – Van Oosterom [vii]

1. e4 c5

2. Nf3 e6

3. d4 cxd4

4. Nxd4 Nc6

5. Nb5 d6

6. c4 Nf6

7. N1c3 a6

8. Na3 Be7

9. Be2 0-0

10. Be3 Ne5

11. 0-0 Dc7

12. f3 b6

13. Qe1 Re8

14. Qf2 Bd8

15. Rfd1 Qb8

16. b4

And white slowly got a strong grip on the position and later also good chances to win the game.

Not long thereafter I played the following game:

Moes – Ten Hoor [viii]

1. e4 c5

2. Nf3 e6

3. d4 cxd4

4. Nxd4 Nc6

5. Nb5 d6

6. c4 Nf6

7. N1c3 a6

8. Na3 Be7

9. Be2 0-0

10. 0-0 b6

11. Be3 Bb7

12. f3 Nd7

13. Qd2 Rc8

14. Rfd1 Qc7

15. Bf1

Clears the way to f2 for the white queen. The favourable course of events of Moes – Van Oosterom still in my mind, I wanted to place my pieces in a similar way and put pressure on b6. However, I didn’t sufficiently realize that black is treating the opening better than in the previous game and that the situation is of course different…

15. … Nce5

16. Qf2?

Still on automatic pilot, white voluntarily moves his queen opposite the black rook on f8 and doesn’t even take black’s next move into account!

16. … f5!

Accentuates the vis-Ã -vis of Rf8 –> Qf2 and opens up the diagonal of Bb7.

17. Dd2?

Disappointed by the sudden change of events white retreats his lady still not fully aware of black’s potential. More careful was: 17.exf5.

17. … fxe4

18. Nxe4

Also 18.fxe4 Ng4/Nf6 is no fun.

18. … Bxe4?

After 18…Rxf3! I would probably have resigned immediately out of sheer repulsion. Now I could manage to hold and reach a draw from a worse position. That’s how fast such a tough Maroczy can collapse! And all this because I thought I could use my knowledge whilst in the process I was losing my fresh look.

Commandment 6: Use all your energy but don’t make a big deal out of it!

With this commandment we return to commandment 1. Especially since chess is so difficult you should use all the energy you’ve got. However it also often goes wrong if you make to big a deal out of something, because chess is also to difficult for making big deals out of something! Amongst others this has the consequence that it is usually better to think and look broad than deep, because otherwise you will get lost in lengthy variations while overseeing the solutions that are at the surface. We touch upon the important subject of generating candidate moves. There too it is of great importance to use all your energy to look for moves. An interesting example:

Diagram 5: White moves [ix]

What are the candidate moves in this position?

You probably come up with ideas like: 1. Nxb7, 1.Bxb6 of 1.exd5. But if you notice the fact that the black queen is both protecting the knight on b6 and the bishop on b7 you may hit on the idea to remove the overworked queen. But how? Ha, the surprising 1.Qc3! wins a piece by broad daylight! Did you see that? Well, I didn’t, played 1.Nxb7 and after a hard fight eventually had to settle for a draw in a won position since the hard battle had cost me too much time and I was about to lose the game on time. 1.Qc3! would have saved me a lot of trouble! In another article entitled “Missed that one? Use your eyes!”, I will discuss the matter of generating candidate moves in more depth.

It has not been my intention to be complete with these “commandments”, but they are all of great importance in playing a better game of chess and in getting a better relationship with our goddess. In the coming articles I will deal further with the matters set out here. With this introduction into the love of Caissa I hope I have set the fashion for a different approach of the game of chess for everybody who feels that it is worthwhile!

[i] In my opinion the most important publication of the past few years in this respect is Jonathan Rowson’s book “The Seven Deadly Chess Sins”, Gambit Publications Ltd 2000

[ii] Psychosynthesis: spiritual psychology developed by Roberto Assagioli, an Italian psychiatrist who was a student of Freud and a contemporary of Jung.

[iii] Little trap: often occuring junior example

[iv] Moes – Duister, Baarn 2002

[v] Van de Veer – Moes, Baarn 2002

[vi] Moes – Berkvens, Bussum 2003

[vii] Bussum 2002

[viii] Amsterdam 2002

[ix] Moes – Mawira, Bussum 2002

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