6 tips on how to find candidate moves in chess

About the gathering of candidate moves

Playing strong chess demands sharpness of mind. Therefore it is important that the chess player “thinks” well and “feels” well. All this takes place during a process we call the analytical process. Analyzing a position, be it during or after the game, can be divided into four phases:

1. generating candidate moves
2. calculation of variations
3. judgement of variations
4. eventual choice of move

Chess players master these four phases to a greater or a lesser extend. Below I want to give a number of useful tips for the first phase: the right way of generating candidate moves.

How often haven’t we heard a chess player complain that he or she didn’t see a particular move.

“Yes, but I missed his move!”, or: “If only I had played this move, then I would have won. I didn’t see it…”

They’re all complaints that you and I have heard or said many times. And yet it is strange! If you missed a move or didn’t see one, maybe you weren’t looking well enough? After all, if you had sleuthed better you might have been able to prevent the catastrophe or been able to really win that won position. Therefore the first tip is:

Tip nr 1: After your opponent’s move, always ask yourself: What is he threatening?

You may say: Like I didn’t know that! Yes indeed. But ask yourself: do you always do this? I can assure you it will save you a lot of chess misery. You may also ask: But how about strong chess masters, do they always ask themselves that question? The answer is: yes and no. Often they will ask themselves explicitly what is threatening, but more often they will skip the question and go right on to the answer:

“Hmmm, Ng5 is threatened, I should prevent that.” Or: “Hmmm, no real threats here, I can safely continue with my own plan.”

The thing is that for every chess master posing the threat-question has evolved into a Pavlov-reaction. Since the chess master has dealt a lot with these matters at a young age, this has developed strongly. And that comes in very handy! By deciding to do that during one of your next games, you can practise this. The more you do it, the easier it gets. And don’t be afraid that is may cost you valuable time on the clock, because it’s better to invest that little amount of time rather than not to see your opponent’s threats because in that case chances of an accident will seriously increase! Of course on occasion you may oversee your opponent’s threat, even when you are seriously on the lookout. This may indicate however that you don’t understand the position well enough. But what strikes me is that chess players in general have a good understanding of moves and the situations they might lead to, but that that understanding never gets a chance to prove itself since it is not triggered by seeing a specific move. Choosing candidate moves is easier if you know what the opponent threatens. After all, if your opponent’s threat is not a “ghost” that you should not be afraid of, your countermove should meet this threat. Of course you can defend in many ways, but in any case this sort of diminishing the group of countermoves comes in handy while gathering candidate moves. Let’s have a look at an example:

Diagram 1: black to move [i]

In this position it is black’s move. It is tempting – especially in time trouble – to check the white king: 1…Ra3+. However, that would be a fatal mistake. Black is better advised to – even when in time trouble – to wonder whether white is threatening anything. And indeed, white threatens 2. Rh8! (2…Ra7: 3. Th7+ winning). Realizing that, black should limit himself to moving his king, because after the cursed 1…Ra3+?? 2.Kb4 black is faced with two threats: 3.Ka3: and still 3.Rh8!, en that would be one too many. But which king move then? Now as well it helps to know that white is threatening 2.Rh8! For that reason the king should stay close to the corner and also on the 7th rank. The right move therefore is: 1…Kg7 and black holds the game. Not: 1…Ke6/f6/g6 2.Re8/f8/g8+ followed by 3.a8Q. And so we see hat recognizing threats can diminish the group of candidate moves significantly!

Tip nr 2: Think broad, not deep!

While generating candidate moves it is of great importance to “look beyond your nose”. What happens very often when chess players see a move that appeals to them, they investigate it very thoroughly.
Especially when the move somehow doesn’t work – the idea might be strategically correct but fails tactically – chess players will try to calculate the move more deeply, look for solutions in sub variations, in order to get the whole thing going at any price. What a pity! Very often it is the case that the solution is not in the depth, but in the breadth of the position. If only you had just turned around for one moment at the first level – the level of the candidate moves – in gathering candidate moves, you would have noticed the solution right behind you. Instead of focusing yourself to dea(p)th on one or two variations, you thereby give yourself the opportunity, as described in the previous paragraph, to test your understanding of the position. Moves that represent a solution to the position do quite often produce a so-called “Aha-Erlebnis”. A good rule of thumb is that you try to gather at least 4 to 5 moves before you actually start calculating them. If you don’t do that right at the beginning while gathering the candidate moves, you won’t do it no more for that specific move… Wouldn’t it be nice never ever having to say again:

“What a pity, if only I had seen that move, I would have simply won the game”.

Try getting used to looking “around” a bit. Let’s have a look at another example:

Diagram 2: white to move [ii]

In this position the white bishop on b3 is attacked. When I gave a lecture to a group of club players on the subject and showed the position, I asked them to sum up the candidate moves. They came up with the following suggestions:
1.Nxh6, 1.Nxg7, 1.Bxh6, 1.Qg3, 1.Bxe6, 1.Bd5, 1.Bc2 en 1.Ba2. The best move (1.Bc4) was only suggested as the 9th (!) move after quite a while. To pick out the best move out of a group of nine is not an easy job. Elimination could go as follows: the first four suggested moves do not deal with the attack on the bishop and belong to the category “vague attacking chances against the black king”. A chess player with some sense of reality can discard them quite easily. Ok, that’s easy. But what about the remaining five that do deal with the attack on the bishop? Suppose you had not seen the fifth possibility (1.Lc4), then you will try to put one of the other four to work, but all have their disadvantages: 1.Bxe6 trades an attacking piece and hands black control over d5 and f5, which means that the white knight can’t stay on f5. 1.Bd5 Lxd5 plombates black’s weakness on d5 and takes away the support point of the knight on f5. And 1.Ba2 en 1.Bc2 can be answered by 1…b3 after which the bishop would be blocked out. 1.Bc4 however, could give rise to an “Aha-Erlebnis”:

“Oh, but of course! Bc4 is good. After all, when black exchanges on c4 I maintain control over d5 and f5, my knight can stay on f5 from where it hits the weak pawn on d6, and I will be able to put pressure on the d-file. My pawns will be doubled, but they are not so weak, instead they control important squares. All my pieces will be able to find active squares. And after 1…Bxf5 2.Qxf5 I will dominate on the white squares and have good attacking chances.”

Strictly speaking, calculating and judging moves is outside the scope of this particular article, but these matters are difficult to separate. This example illustrates very well that good judgment only gets a fair chance if the key move is seen. Therefore put some effort in good sleuthing!

Also helpful while gathering candidate moves, is knowledge. Knowledge of openings, patterns, structures, typical tactics and so on. The next tip therefore is:

Tip nr 3: Look at the position from a perspective of knowledge and let every association come up freely.

When looking at a position in such a way, helpful thoughts may come up. Someone that has studied an opening well may see immediately which move is called for or knows why in the same opening a countermove is probably not correct because he has studied the ideas of the opening. Also studying the classics helps of course. What are the candidate moves in the next diagram?

Diagram 3: white to move [iii]

Wasn’t it Nimzowitsch who said in his classic “My System”:

“Take any centre pawn when such can be done without any greater danger!”

What Nimzowitsch meant was that it is favourable to exchange a pawn of your opponent that is in the centre for a pawn of your own that is not (yet) in the centre. In his book he gives the well-known example of the sham piece sacrifice as for instance in the Vienna Game or the Italian Game. A player that does not have this knowledge will arrive later or not at all at the idea of playing 1.Nxe5! in the above position. Having that extra little bit of knowledge also helps to realize that the usual antidote in such positions, the counter sacrifice of the bishop-to-be-forked on c5 with 1…Bxf2+ does not work here, since white is not forced to recapture with his king but can do so favourably with his rook. After 1.Nxe5 Nxe5 2.d4 Bxd4 3.Qxd4 white is nicely centralized and has the pair of bishops. Of course 1.c3 is also a good candidate, but knowing that white can consider 1.Nxe5 in such positions, at least opens up the possibility of playing this often strong alternative. So yes, knowledge is power!

A fourth important factor in generating candidate moves is the realization that it often pays off to look for “forcing” moves. In this case “forcing” means: attacking moves, capturing moves, chasing moves, luring moves etc. The beauty of forcing moves is that they usually start some kind of mechanism that is very often related to the deciding moments of a game. The fourth tip therefore is:

Tip nr 4: Look for forcing moves!

Let’s have a look at the following example:

Diagram 4: black to move [iv]

In this position we have a number of forcing moves: 1…Qxa2, 1…Qxc3, 1…Ba6, 1…f6, 1…Bh6. All these moves fit within the above definition. But did you also spot 1…d4! ? Well, I took some time spotting this move. Maybe it was because the move is a sacrifice. Possible this was also style oriented. Maybe I am too cautious a player, but especially sacrificial moves should also be taken into account while generating candidate moves. Having generated the candidates, chances will be that 1…d4! will give rise to an “Aha-Erlebnis” with the likes of: “Wow, that one looks strong!” The calculation of the move, to which I challenge the reader, shows that black gets a winning advantage.

A fifth phenomenon in gathering candidate moves is the “unreal” move. “Unreal” means: the silent move, the move that somehow cannot attract our attention etc. So, also for looking at unreal moves would I like to ask your attention. Tip 5 is therefore:

Tip nr 5: Look for unreal moves!

In the next diagram we have yet another fine example:

Diagram 5: black to move [v]

What are black’s candidate moves? If we stick to the principle of the unreal move we come up with the amazing 1…Qxa3+!! And indeed, suddenly that move could have saved black’s game! This move precedes comprehension so to speak. Therefore in this case gathering candidate moves does not go hand in hand with the right comprehension of the position. Because also the realization that the black king has no legal moves and that the black pawn also cannot move may suggest that black can try to play for stalemate. In this case comprehension very classically precedes the move. You may wonder which method costs more time and effort. Every chess player should answer that question for himself. Everything always depends on the specific circumstances such as time trouble (as in this case), (pattern)knowledge and a good understanding, but also on the extend to which the chess player has integrated tips such as I give in this article.

Concluding we may say that it is of great importance to try and look and sleuth more and better over the course of a game in order to give our understanding, the Aha-Erlebnis, a better chance. Also we should keep in mind that candidate moves should be collected before we continue with their dismissal, calculation or judgment. Chess players love to do the exact opposite, but before they know they’re in deep and get stuck in variations and their judgment. It is often an illusion tot think that in such a case one has the flexibility to return to the beginning and to “look around” some more. Another illustrative example:

Diagram 6: white to move [vi]

Playing white I reached this position out of the Sicilian opening. I was inclined to think that a heavy positional battle was going on, in which I had gained control over the important d5 square. Being still in that positional “state of mind” I reasoned as follows, not realizing that I could win at once:

“Hmm, if I can occupy d5 with my queen, I will tie black’s queen to the defence of f7. Next I’ll play my queen to c6 and win black’s b-pawn. If he wants to protect it by means of Bd8 he will lose the pawn on d6. I have a winning game in both cases. Either I will win because of my then free b-pawn, or because of the fact that the pressure on f7 will become too high. The problem however is that I cannot move my queen to d5 yet because of black’s knight on f6. Hey, how did Bronstein handle this type of position against what’s-his-name back then? [vii] I remember him bringing his g-pawn forward threatening to bring it al the way to g6. That looks neat. After g2-g4 I threaten to chase away black’s knight on f6 so that I can occupy d5 with my queen. Also I might eventually push my pawn to g6, if necessary with the aid of h2-h4. I can also play this last move if black decides to defend against my little plan with h7-h6. Also g4-g5 with chances against the black king looks very strong then. Yes, that’s what I will play, g2-g4!”.

If only I had been a little fresher or flexible I would have seen that 1.Qd2-g5 would have won immediately! Check the variations! After conducting a positional battle revolving around the d5 square, it apparently was “too much” to win with a simple but winning mating threat. Apparently the character of the struggle so far had benumbed me somehow which was intensified by the application of a little bit of knowledge of a Bronstein game! Isn’t that something! Knowledge played a blockading role in this case.

This example shows once again that a chess player should not bother too much or delve too deep, but should always strive to see the position with a fresh eye. The fruit that gets ripened through positional play should be reaped at some point. And often that fruit is ripe faster than you might think. In this respect flexibility is a very important character trait. All this reminds me of the remarks that Hungarian Grandmaster Peter Leko made in the documentary “Not just a game”.[viii] In this film he says that it is a good thing to take a walk every now and then during the game. Not just to relax, but rather to distance yourself from variations you just calculated or plans you just formed. The last tip therefore is:

Tip nr 6: Be fresh!

Below you can once more find the tips that help us in finding candidate moves better:

1. After your opponents move, always ask yourself: What is he threatening?
2. Think broad, not deep!
3. Look at the position from a perspective of knowledge and let every association come up freely.
4. Look for forcing moves!
5. Look for unreal moves!
6. Be fresh!

Of all six the tips we have seen an example. Now it is up to you to practise them. Next time I will give you tips on how to best choose a move from a group of candidates.

[i] Theoretical rook endgame

[ii] Keres – Tarnowski, Helsinki 1952

[iii] Duister – Losekoot, Baarn 2002

[iv] Vlug – Moes, Baarn 2001

[v] Moes – Duister, Baarn 2002

[vi] Moes – Van der Staaij, Baarn 2002

[vii] Bronstein – Milic, Belgrado 1954

[viii] Wendy van Wilgenburg, 2001

1 Comment

  1. Rolf Wasén March 14, 2016

    Very valuable advices! Will try to apply some of them to gliding which sometimes is like 3-dimensional blitz or rapid chess!

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