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Friday, June 11, 2010

Training the Mind’s Eye

Situations in which an obvious advantage fails to win often leave us puzzled. The answer is everything depends on the specific setting. Whenever the balance is fairly even in a sharp position, analysis becomes the only way to tell who stands better. It’s this evaluation of current and future positions that separate the master from the average player.

Studies show the biggest difference between amateurs and masters lies with their intuitive judgment. Masters see numerous strategic and tactical patterns that the average players miss. For example, in the Benoni Defense Black would be loath to offer the exchange Bg7xNc3 without substantial compensation, because of the Bishop's special value; in contrast, the exchange Bb4xNc3 often favors Black in the Nimzo-Indian Defense. The difference is in the pawn structure, a major element in any positional evaluation. Masters are, well, masters at this kind of pattern recognition.

As a beginner you saw an unlimited number of moves that seemed plausible, but with experience, you learned to discard most of these moves because you simply “knew” they were wrong. A master’s experience has developed intuition because many problems are seen and solved repeatedly. Over time, scores of games may be played focusing on the same theme, so the master tends to think in terms of ideas familiar to him.

For example, Fischer wrote in My 60 Memorable Games referring to a win against Larsen's Sicilian Dragon, "I'd won dozens of skittles games in analogous positions and had it down to a science: pry open the KR-file, sac, sac ... mate!" He added he could win such positions in his sleep.

One reason I think it’s better to study the old masters’ games is because their play usually contained clearer strategical ideas. The play of modern GM’s is eclectic because they borrow schemes and adapt them to the position in ways that often make it more difficult for us to comprehend. When the player fails to recognize a particular strategy or tactic it will mean the loss of the game. Herein lies the difference between the average player and the master. Average players often concentrate solely on positions they enjoy: openings and tactics usually. They are loathe to study strategy and endings and play over hundreds of master games. For some reason many of them think they should wait until they are rated at least 1800 before they undertake this and many will never reach that goal precisely because they fail to undertake the study of these areas.

Another area players need to concentrate on is correcting specific faults. A player must find the cause of his errors and attempt to correct them. Too often though I’ve heard players say the reason they lost was because they overlooked a combination without realizing that there may be a deeper reason they aren’t finding them.

One player told me a GM told him the way to find a combination is to look at the board and try different moves. While that method may work for a GM with loads of experience and lots of stuff in his mental database, I doubt it will work for average players because they often don’t know what they are looking for. The reason is because they don’t know the motifs that make a tactic possible or they fail to recognize positional aspect of the situation that gave rise to the tactical solution.

Most errors fall into categories and for most players the random blunder is not the main cause of defeat. For instance a player may realize he has an advantage but somehow it seems to dissipate. What happened? Maybe he doesn’t understand the requirements of the position. It’s important to remember good moves meet the requirements of the position! Improvement of the basic skills of foresight and judgment is critical but often neglected.

Fundamentally a master’s ability consists of the ability to analyze positions and correctly evaluate them. Much of this ability depends on the ability to see ahead and the clarity of the image held in our mind's eye.

The master has the skills that enable him to clearly see a situation that is far different from the one on the board. Practice is needed in this area.

Calculation hinges on our skill in holding the image in our mind's eye. Suppose the combination we are contemplating appears successful but we begin to wonder if our King is safe from counterattack but the picture in our mind is not clear. What do we do? Gamble and play it anyway or do we play it safe and defend? In either event we are relying on guesswork rather than calculation.

As we look ahead, the image becomes increasingly vague and renders judgment difficult. To extend the range of our radar look at the board position and retrace the sequence of moves to the forward position. At each move trace the auras of all the significant pieces and pawns that figure in the attack. Yes, pieces have an “aura.” In fact this is the way chess players think. We don’t physically “see” future positions. We “see” lines of force and auras. Tracing these lines of force and auras can be strengthened.

Blindfold players practice the reinforcement technique by replaying the game mentally. After each move they replay the game, from the first move, in order to keep the image fresh and accurate. We can borrow this idea when we analyze: run through our intended line several times until our mind's eye retains a clear picture of the future position. Over time this process gets quicker and things get clearer. This is another reason why it becomes important to correctly evaluate a position. It is better to see two or three moves ahead and make a correct evaluation than it is to see six or eight moves ahead, have a fuzzy mental image of the position and completely misevaluate it. For some reason many players simply cannot seem to grasp this.

Korchnoy, an expert in calculation, suggests studying chess books without using a board, doing all the analysis in your head. Most of us haven’t reached the level where we can to that, but the idea is good practice when playing over games. Speaking of which, I’ve noticed that playing over games is something many lower rated players simply don’t do.

Here is a position to practice on that was taken from Mark Buckley’s book, Practical Chess Analysis.

When attempting to follow the game without moving the pieces, pay attention to their auras and lines of force. Constantly trace them in your mind’s eye to reinforce the new position of the pieces. When the position becomes fuzzy, advance one move and begin anew. This is a difficult but valuable exercise that will help a great deal in practicing what this article is about.

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