Wednesday, June 10, 2020

How to Calculate (1/2)

We've all had that moment when we reach some position on the board, it's our turn, and we hear that familiar line of thought in our head: "I go here then he goes there then I go here then...". That, of course, is calculation - an essential skill to play a good game of chess.

Calculation ability is undeniably important, and is a deeply explored area of chess with many good books written about it - for example, GM Alexander Kotov's highly acclaimed Think Like a Grandmaster is a popular suggestion on the subject. Today, I'll share some of my practical experience, and give a training position from one of my own games.

First though, I want to make a clear distinction between "calculation" ability and "tactical" ability, because the two are easy to confuse. This quick example below will help explain what I mean.
Lombardy - Fischer, US Championship 1960-61; black to move
The tactically observant will spot that black has a neat trick: 1. ... Rxc3+! 2.bxc3 Rxe5+ 3.Kd2 Rxe1 4.Kxe1 to simplify the position by force. This short sequence of moves is what I call a "tactic". When I think of "tactical ability", I mean how well you are able to spot such opportunities.

What I mean by "calculation" is different though. In the resulting ending after all the pieces are exchanged, can black win? You would be correct in thinking that black has the better chances because of the ability to make an outside passed pawn with ...b6-a5, but if you wanted to be convinced, you might "calculate" the following variation: 1. ... Rxc3+ 2.bxc3 Rxe5+ 3.Kd2 Rxe1 4.Kxe1 Kd5 5.Kd2 Kc4 6.Kc2 b6 7.Kd2 a5 8.bxa5 bxa5 9.Kc2 a4 10.Kb2 a3+ 11.Kxa3 Kxc3 and, looking at that position, you might then be satisfied that black will easily be able to march the king over the kingside and gobble up all of white's pawns.

That entire line ending with 11. ... Kxc3 is not really a "tactic" - there are tactics in it (1. ... Rxc3+!), but the whole thing itself is just some long variation. The skill of calculation is essentially how well you are able to consider an important line like that and has two core components:
  • Ability to visualize or keep a position in your head
  • Ability to decide which moves to consider for both sides

These two bullet points are the bulk of what I want to focus on here. I'll hit this last bullet point too since it is a common practical concern:
  • Calculation is a time-consuming and mentally strenuous process, so how do we efficiently manage our clock during all this?

Now, on to the real position!

White to move
This was taken from one of my own games, and black has just played ...e6-e5. Suppose you're playing white and have about 50 minutes left on your clock. What do you do? If you really want to get the most out of this, sit down with a physical board and set up the position. Analyze out loud, recording your thoughts (don't move the pieces!). Take at most 30 minutes to decide what you would play as if this was a real tournament game.

I will make a second post that has the solution and a summary of what my own in-game analysis looked like here.

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