6 tips on how to calculate candidate moves in chess

Dutch IM Hans Bouwmeester once told me about the post mortem of his game against young Anatoly Karpov from a simultaneous display that Bouwmeester had given against young upcoming talents. He had noticed the fact that Karpov analyzed so calmly and slowly. And that explains immediately the title of this article: C.A.S.A. stands for Calm And Slow Analyzing.

Calm and slow analyzing means that you analyze more broadly than deeply, register the changes after every move and above all, think and feel well about possible candidate moves for both sides while calculating. The chess player that analyzes in this way will be spared lots of sorrow. A simple example to illustrate this:

Diagram 1: white moves [i]

In this position, which was studied during a post mortem, black had just suggested (and executed) 1…c6? White proposed the follow up 2.h4? and the comment of both players was something like:

“Yes, then we will get that type of game.”

However, both players had not calculated calmly and slowly, After all, after 2.f4 (instead of 2.h4?) 2…Ng4 3.dc6: Black loses immediately.

It is interesting to realize how often and how fast some moves can be dismissed only if one would analyze calmly and slowly! Therefore the first tip of this article is:

Tip nr 1: C.A.S.A.!

The above example shows how concrete the game of chess can be. That concreteness is therefore a great resource in assessing the value of a move. Another important resource in assessing the value of a move is to look for the differences between the candidate moves. I remember a chess-talk-game from the Dutch KRO radio chess program “Man en Paard” between IGM Sosonko and IGM Van der Wiel. During that game the grandmasters were thinking aloud, although they could not hear each other of course. In this game the audience at home was given a peek into the kitchen of a grandmaster. At a certain moment, Van der Wiel contemplated two candidate moves. But at first he just couldn’t make up his mind. At some point he said to himself:

“Well, I might as well do Heads or Tails, because I’m not going to be able to make a good decision.”

But, as is becoming of every strong chess player, he pulled himself together and said to himself: ”

But wait, that can’t be possible! I am a grandmaster and should look for the difference between these two moves and then play the best one.”

And that’s what he did. I remember him winning the game. The technique of looking for the differences could have helped me out in the next game as well:

Diagram 2: white moves [ii]

Black has just made a calculation error and will lose a piece. White only needs to figure out how he will win the piece. 1. Qd7: is possible, but 1.bc3: also of course, since after that both black bishops remain under attack. Both moves suffice for the win, but as a chess player it is also your task to make the win as easy as possible and that is why this is an important moment. I realized this, but preferred to be lazy and just choose a move. After all, first bc3: and then Qd7:, or first Qd7: and then bc3: won’t make a difference will it? I played 1.bc3(?) and managed to win the game after 1…Bf6: 2.Qd7: with some unnecessary effort. If I had been a bit more disciplined and had looked for the differences using C.A.S.A., I would have noticed an important difference between both move orders! Better was 1.Qd7: Bf6: (1…cb2:? 2.fg7:! etc.) 2.b3! en White does not have to compromise his queenside since he avoids doubled pawns on the c-file. Another advantage is that now White has some kind of a queenside pawn majority, which controls a few squares. Also the pawn on c3 is more likely to limit blacks pieces in their mobility rather than be dangerous. In this manner White could have added an extra asset to his position and he probably would have been able to win the game more easily. So that was the difference! White does not have to take on c3 when he starts with 1.Qd7:, because the queen is no longer attacked on d2.

This example indicates that looking for tactically oriented differences between variations can help us in making our final choice. Also the search for more positional differences can help us. To illustrate this another example:

Diagram 3: Black moves [iii]

In this position I could choose from 1…dxc3, Bxc3 en Rxc3. Because I was “afraid” of a possible pin of Rb3 by Qa2 I chose, quite lazily, 1…Rxc3? If I had put in the effort to try and notice the (positional) differences between the three captures, I would have realized that 1…dxc3! is much stronger. After all, that move has all the positional benefits that you can think of: Black gets a far free pawn, the possibility of playing his bishop to d4 (this will even be with check when White decides for an eventual counter play by means of f2-f4), the black rook is supported on the second rank (b2) and the combined power of black’s heavy pieces on the d-file towards White’s pawn on d3 is released. That 1…dxc3 2.Qa2 need not be feared, is easily spotted: 2…Be6 3.Bh3 Kf7(!) and Black has everything he could hope for. After taking on c3 with the rook Black is still winning, but is has become that more difficult, where it shouldn’t be. The bishop on b4 in a certain way remains bad and Black has to regroup to supply his pieces on the d-file with new tasks. In short, the win needs more sophisticated technique and from that point of view it is not surprising that because of the stagnating winning process Black later blundered seriously and lost the game…
Therefore the second tip is:

Tip nr 2: Find the differences!

A third resource is simply the calculation of series of moves. Often the chess player finds it hard to calculate. That is a pity because the truth can be found “on the board”. By means of calculation we can often discover very simply why one move is possible and another one is not. Let’s have a look at the following example:

Diagram 4: White moves [iv]

If you were asked: “What is better, 1.a3 of 1.c3?”, what would you answer? Finding positional differences doesn’t really help us. Both moves support a possible b2-b4 and both Chase away the knight. 1.c3 covers d4, but possibly weakens d3. Well, let’s get calculating then, maybe we’ll find out that way!

§ 1.a3 Nc6 is ok, and

§ 1.a3 dxe4 2.dxe4 Nc6 is also ok

and now:

§ 1.c3 Nc6 is ok, but

§ 1.c3 dxe4! 2.dxe4 Nd3+ is not ok!

In this position White will forfeit the right to castle and possibly lose his pair of bishops, but I can imagine that Black wants to maintain the octopus on d3 for as long as possible. The weakening of the d3 square after all! So 1.a3 is the best of the two. This example shows us that a simple bit of calculation can lead us to the truth quickly. Also it indicates that the tips discussed in this article cannot be strictly separated from each other, because you can maintain the notion that the thought “1.c3 covers d4 but also weakens d3″, gives the calculator a clue… Anyway, tip three is:

Tip nr 3: Calculate!

In many cases knowledge can also be the deciding factor in choosing the right move. Instead of looking for differences or the calculation of moves you might well be able to make the right choice immediately because you know the position. In the following position there are two candidate moves: 1…Kg8 and Kf8.

Diagram 5: Black moves [v]

What to do? You might reach a solution with a lot of calculation, but if you have knowledge of the concepts of “key squares” en “(distant) opposition” you know immediately that 1…Kf8! is the only move that leads to a draw. For those who find this abracadabra, I advise you to train this position with a sparring partner or look it up in an endgame manual. Knowledge of standard endgames is of vital importance, since then you can judge much quicker if a position is winning, drawing or losing without having to invent the wheel once again. The next tip therefore is:

Tip nr 4: Ask yourself: can I solve the problem with the help of knowledge?

We now enter into the area of more psychological means to foster a proper calculation of candidate moves and their variations. It is of great importance to realize that you are never playing the game just by yourself. One of the worst ways in which a chess player can sabotage himself is not reckoning with the opponent. Therefore when calculating you need to take into account all of your opponent’s countermoves. In doing so you should strive to find his best possibilities as if you were trying to falsify you own variations. Only then will you get to the truth. Trick and counter trick! I ask your attention for the next fine example:

Diagram 6: White moves [vi]

How will Blacks adventure end?

He had hoped for: 1.Nxd5 Rxf2 2.Qxf2 Qxa1+ 3.Qf1 Qd4+ and he will regain the piece. But did he take into account all of White’s moves? White played the sober 1.Rb1 and must have been happy with himself. Because of the attack on the queen and the weakness of black’s back rank he will now win. But did White in turn take into account all of Black’s countermoves? Black played the surprising 1…Bxa2!! and entered into an advantageous endgame after 2.Rxb2 Rxb2 3.g3 Rb1 4. Qxb1 Bxb1. This pattern of queen-and-king-on-the-first-rank-with-the-king-locked-behind-two-or-three-castlepawns-without-airhole-can-be-dominated-by-rook-and-minor-piece is one to remember[vii]. A nice example of trick and counter trick!
Time for the next tip:

Tip nr 5: Reckon with your opponent!

The second psychological resource is wrestling. This can be wrestling with your intuition when you have the idea there is “something” in the position. It can also be wrestling with the advantage in your position, in order to coast that home. A few examples:

Diagram 7: White moves [viii]

In this position I felt that there should be something strong. The black king has not castled yet, White has the bishop pair, black’s knights are placed a bit weird and there are open lines and diagonals for attack. Could a bishop sacrifice on e6 work? Of course Black can castle after 1.Bxe6, but then White has regained his pawn for nothing and he remains with the better chances because of his bishop pair.

OK, then let’s check what happens if Black accepts the sacrifice. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating”! 1.Bxe6 fxe6 2.Qxe6+ Qe7 and Black also protects the knight on d6. Hmm…pity. It doesn’t work, right? But also after this short line I was not satisfied. I didn’t “belief” it. And yes, some “wrestling” showed me that in this line after 3.Re1! Qxe6 4.Rxe6+ and 5 Rxd6 White remains up a pawn with a better game.

Whereas this example has to do with some kind of inexplicable nose for tactics we can come up with a number of other cases in which the chess player should wrestle with his advantage on the basis of more objective criteria, because it is not his intention to draw a winning position or even lose it. An example:

Diagram 8: Black moves [ix]

In this position it is much more obvious to see that someone (Black) should win than in the previous example. The white king is out in the cold, black’s Queen has entered dangerously, the bishop on e3 is attacked and the feature of the bishops of opposite colors is to the advantage of the attacker, in this case Black. So Black has some kind of obligation to wrestle and coast home the victory. But will 1…fxe3 2.Qxe3 do for Black? After all, 2…Qxh2+ 3.Ke1+(!) leads to a chase not of white’s king, but of black’s! Huh, surely that can’t be true? No, exactly, and that is the right attitude! Black should wrestle until he has found the solution. After some contemplation we see that Black should not play 2…Qxh2+??, but the chances-of-the-opponent-into-account-taking 2…Re7!. After this powerful move, with which Black fights for the e-file, he maintains a decisive advantage in all the lines. I advise the reader to do a little visualization exercise and check this. In conclusion the sixth tip of this article is:

Tip nr 6: Wrestle with your feeling and the position!

[i] Post mortem Legemaat – Van Oudvorst , Baarn 2002

[ii] Moes – De Groote, Baarn 2002

[iii] Van de Veer – Moes, Baarn 2002

[iv] Construed

[v] Theoretical endgame

[vi] Rudenko – Strekalovsky

[vii] For a similar example (with reversed colours and the combination rook and knight) Seirawan – Timman, 5th KRO-match game Hilversum 1990

[viii] Moes – Wurtz, Baarn 1999

[ix] Meeuwissen – Moes, Baarn 2001


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