Intuition And Decision-Making In Chess

Great chessplayers are usually depicted as masters of calculations: men who can see far into the future of the chessboard. However, those who strive for mastery at chess know that calculation is merely one component of good chess. Just as in life, it is sometimes more important to feel what the right course of action is, and this feeling is called intuition.

As a young man, the Argentinian chess grandmaster, Miguel Najdorf, witnessed a game between the world champion Alekhine and Finnish Master Böök. In this famous game, Alekhine sacrificed a piece for no apparent compensation at move thirteen. Twelve moves later, however, Böök was forced to resign.

After the game, Najdorf marvelled at Alekhine’s genius, who, it seemed, had seen 12 moves into the future. Later, Najdorf had the chance to ask Alekhine about this game. Had the world champion really seen 12 moves into the future? “Not at all”, replied Alekhine. “Then, how is it possible for you to play such a game?” to which Alekhine replied: “I have a big nose.”

In the same way, I am often asked how many moves I can see ahead in time when I play chess. The general assumption seems to be that it takes a lot of calculation to play good chess. However, calculation is merely one component of good chess. Positional understanding, tactical vision, memory and other abilities that come about due to innate capacity, experience or training, are also important components of good chess.

Furthermore, calculation cannot exist in isolation. It has to be based on something. If chessplayers only calculated , they would have to take every legal move into account. Even if they only considered three candidate moves at each turn, the task would be nearly insurmountable. Seeing three moves into the future would then take a calculation of a total of 27 positions. Seeing twelve moves into the future would take a calculation of 531.441 positions. This had all been pointed out early in the last century by the Czech grandmaster Richard Réti, who replied to the question of how many moves he could calculate with: “I see only one move. But it is a very good move.”

Therefore, chessplayers frequently turn to the other components of good chess to help them in their decision-making. More often than not, their experience assures them that they have made the right decision. Perhaps they have played or witnessed a similar position before. Sometimes, however, players find themselves in uncharted territory and sometimes the position is too complex to be categorized. It is precisely at this moment that the truly good players rely on their intuition.

Great players like Alekhine have intuition in abundance. That is why Alekhine referred to himself as having a “big nose”. He had a feeling for the position, a feeling for what was the right move, and this feeling rarely let him down.

It is interesting that Alekhine chose to call his intuition a big nose, rather than big eyes or big ears or any other of the five senses. I myself have often felt a sensation in my nose during a game of chess when I have an intuitive vision of how to proceed in the game. This sensation also makes an appearance when I am faced with decision-making in other areas of my life, and I have come to regard it as the harbinger of intuition.

In life, as in chess, we are constantly faced with the need to make decisions. It is tempting to try to calculate the results of each of the possibilities, but this is usually impossible. At the chessboard, the possibilities are limited and yet they are too many for extensive calculations. In life the possibilities are unlimited, which makes extensive calculations impossible. Therefore, the best method is to rely on our intuition.

The only problem is that our intuition does not seem to be switched on at every moment. In life and in chess, most of my decisions are based on experience or some kind of knowledge, simply because my intuition was not working at that moment. However, this does not necessarily have to be so, for intuition can be cultivated.

The reason why Alekhine had such a great intuition in chess was because he had such love for the game. I feel that anyone can increase their intuition in chess, simply by cultivating their love for the game. In the same way, I feel that by cultivating our love of life, we increase our access to intuition in life.

As my spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy has explained: “Intuition is an inner faculty which all human beings have. But everyone has not developed this faculty or brought it to the fore so that he can use it, so some people are not yet convinced that they have it.” (Aspiration-Plants by Sri Chinmoy. New York, 1974). In my case, intuition is something I have felt and something I would like to feel a lot more of in all areas of my life.

Suren is a student of Sri Chinmoy living in Iceland. He is a member of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team and participates in various running races. He is also a keen chess player and writes about techniques for improving performance

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1 Comment

  1. SonofPearl June 17, 2008

    Nice article. I think the idea of intuition in chess is unappreciated.

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