Calculation in Chess

Recently, Jacob Aagaard wrote a new book called Grandmaster Preparation – Calculation.  It is a very instructive book with lots of advice for chess players at all levels.  In 2004, he wrote Excelling at Chess: Calculation.  His new book is updated with lots of diagrams and positions to work through from recent games.

The main advice seems to be concentration and deeply analyzing a position.  If the position is of a positional nature, there is not much to calculate.  For tactical positions, however, you must learn to calculate.

Aagaard recommends that you keep your ideas simple, which will assist you in focusing on the most important aspects of the position.  Forget about that complicated idea about the tree of analysis, recommended by Kotov in Think Like a Grandmaster.

Calculation is only a tool to aid in the decision-making process in choosing a move.  It is not important what you see on the chess board, but what you play,  Making better decisions is what improving in chess is all about. 

The first step is to come up with candidate good moves to choose from.  You may see a few candidate moves right away, but there is no guarantee that they are the best candidate moves.  You need to train yourself for additional ideas to come up with a bigger list of interesting moves.

Look for combinations.  Almost all combinations are based on some well-known pattern that has been played many times before.  In order to be good at calculation, you need to spend some significant amount of time solving combinations.

Pay attention to your opponent’s ideas and counter-chances.  Look for his threats.  Focus on your opponent’s intentions to attack or defend.  Try to see tricky plans and traps for your opponent, so you can prevent them in time.

If you come up with two similar decisions on what move to make, you need to compare these decisions and work out the difference.   Look at the advantages of one move over another as well as some subtle idea that makes the difference in choosing the best move.

Be able to analyze what’s wrong with a move rather that what’s good about it, especially when trying to defend your position.

When everything else has failed, try setting a trap.  Make a move that your opponent is likely to make a mistake if he doesn’t find the best move.  It may not work every time, but if you are desperate, or running out of time, you may try to play trappy chess.

Calculate forcing moves first.  They are usually easier to calculate than quiet moves that are not so forcing.

Only analyze necessary variations.  Calculate slower but more accurate.  This will save you a lot of time and it is more practical for effective decision-making.  Your analysis should show quality, not quantity, so make sure you are calculating the right variations.  And sometimes you have to calculate more slowly and check out every legal move in a position to make sure you don’t miss anything.  That is very true in correspondence chess.

Consider whether or not it is necessary to calculate a variation deeply and calculate only what you have to.  Aagaard quotes trainer Mark Dvoretsky that “new ideas at the start of a variation are a good deal more important than refinements at the end of it.”

When you think you have made up your mind, make your move.  If you keep thinking after you have decided on what move you want to make, you may change your mind and make a weaker move as well as run into time trouble.  If you have made a definite conclusion, you don’t need to waste time analyzing deeper.

One good tip that Aagaard recommends is to calculate one half move longer.  He says to make it a habit to look for candidates for a brief moment to avoid any nasty surprises or traps against you.

Look for clear simple solutions in winning positions and look for the opposite in lost positions.

When you go over a game, get into the habit of moving pawns and pieces in your mind more often.  Avoid moving your pieces on the board right away when you are analyzing your games.