The power of association in chess

A few years ago I conducted an interesting psychological experiment at my local chess club. While showing my audience an empty (demonstration)board, I placed a black queen on d8 and then moved it to a5. Next, I asked everybody not to discuss the issue but to write down individually all White’s moves that came to mind for in response to Black’s 1.Qd8-a5.

The weaker players couldn’t think of more than 3 to 5 moves, but the stronger players could wrote down 8 to 10 moves!

Amongst the moves written down the most common ones were:

Defending against check:
– 2. b4
– 2. c3
– 2. Nc3
– 2. N(b)d2
– 2. Bd2
– 2. Qd2
– 2. Kf1
Chasing/surrounding the queen:
– 2. a3 (preparing b2-b4, with the rook still on a1)
Strengthening c3:
– 2. Bd2
– 2. Qd2
– 2. Rd3
Counterattacking:
– 2. Nd5! (if a possible white queen is on d2 and cannot be captured with an in-between check, e.g. Karpov-Kasparov 1990)
– 2. 0-0! (sometimes sacrificing a2 after 2.Bxc3?! 3. Rxc3 Qxa2)
Defending e4:
– 2. 0-0
– 2. Bd3
– 2. Bd2

After this small exercise I asked my audience to reflect on the ideas and threats that Black might pursue in playing 1.Qd8-a5, and to write them down.

1. Checking the white king (!)
2. Attacking c3 (possibly threatening to double the c-pawns)
3. Threatening Qb4/c5 with possible double attack on White’s minor pieces
4. Threatening pawn/square e4 by pinning Nc3
5. Preparing to switch to the K-side (Qa5-h5)
6. Preparing to switch to the center (Qa5-e5)
7. Preventing f4-f5
8. Attacking pawn a2
9. If white-colored bishops are exchanged: Qa5-a6 which could prevent White from castling kingside
10. to play b7-b5 (in a Benoni structure where Black has played a7-a6 and White has played a2-a4 and moved the Queen to d2, leaving the rook on a1 undefended)

Association exercises like these show us the chess knowledge we have and also the measure in which we may be able to apply it.
It may have seem more logical to change the order of the two exercises, that is to first write down Black’s possible plans and threats and subsequently White’s possible answers, but I wanted to stress the fact that plans and threats are not to be taken too seriously when they can be countered effectively.
In doing so, this exercise will help any black player considering to move Qd8-a5, knowing which replies are possible and are “standard” reactions of the first player.
Spotting 2. Nd5! for instance, which if possible is usually a strong move, could immediately stop the second player pondering any longer over the queen sortie and thus save valuable time.
For me, it would not be the first time that I played this move, only to be confronted with the quiet 2. a2-a3 and the threat of b2-b4, with White’s queens rook on a1, realizing that the move was premature.

A similar exercise could be done f.i. with the move 1. Qd1-b3 or the mirroring 1.Qd8-b6. Very often, especially in queen pawn openings, these moves can be met with exactly their mirroring moves!
In the case of 1. Qd1-b3 that would be 1.Qd8-b6 and in the case of 1.Qd8-b6 that would be 2. Qd1-b3.
Here too, I frequently used to play 1.Qd8-b6 never having developed enough “ringing bells”, or Pavlov-reactions if you like, in relation to 1.Qd8-b6 only to find out that 2. Qd1-b3(!) took all the sting out of it.
Subsequently I found myself confronted with nagging psychological issues.
The first one was always: “Damn, simply missed that one!”
Or: “Trading queens is not what I envisaged”.
Especially against a weaker player this is something you don’t always want to do.
Apart from that, it would open the a-file, giving the white rooks an opportunity to join the fray.
That leaves retreating the queen, which is psychologically very difficult or leaving the queen where she is and see what will happen.
The latter is what I usually did.

“Taking back” moves however, that seemed right at first, but at second are not is a hallmark of the stronger player.
Especially since it is psychologically very difficult only more experienced players will have that sense of reality that tells them, always considering the specific circumstances of course, it might just be the best thing to do.
Funny thing is that quite frequently the “withdrawing” player senses a nice feeling of having conquered his mind and having listened to the voice of reality.

“Retreating” moves like that can also be played of course on purpose and in accordance with a correct strategy.
In this respect the game Karpov-Timman, Mar del Plata 1982 comes to mind:

Karpov - Timman, Mar del Plata 1982

In this position Timman played 22.Dh4-d8!, fooling the white queen and switching to an eventually winning queenside attack in which his knight could participate very well free from any counterpart.

So, that’s it for now on association in chess.
How do you think about association in chess?
Would you like to share your experiences?
I’m looking forward to your comments.

Cheers, Waldemar

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