In 2005, Andy Soltis wrote an excellent book called How to Choose a Chess Move. Here are some observations that Soltis has made when chess players try to chose a good move in chess.
Soltis asks what enables one person to play better chess than other. It is the ability to spot good moves, to evaluate them quickly and accurately, and to choose the best of them to play on the board.
Masters often annotate their games and reveal which alternatives they considered and why they preferred one move over another. Most players have forgotten how difficult it is in selecting a good chess move. That's because the advanced players uses various time-saving steps as shortcuts. Without these shortcuts, selecting one move from dozens of possibilities would almost be impossible. As a player improves, he learns to immediately dismiss some moves to concentrate on better moves. A player needs to automatically rule out the moves that make his position worse, such as hanging pieces and horrible blunders. These types of moves can be immediately be disregarded. With more experience, players begin to look at moves that do no obvious harm, but these moves can be rejected also if they make little or no sense.
Eventually, a player goes beyond hanging pieces and moves that make no sense, to moves that are OK or possibly good. These are known as the "candidate moves." They are the finalists in the move selection process that a player considers. The idea of candidate moves was first put forth in Think Like a Grandmaster, by Grandmaster Alexander Kotov (1913-1981), published in 1971.
Trimming down the dozen or so possible moves still requires a fair amount of understanding. Most players limit their thinking to just a couple of candidate moves. It is rare that a human gives serious thought to more than 3 or 4 candidate moves at any one turn. In fact, chess masters usually consider fewer, not more, candidate moves, than amateurs. An amateur will usually look at 4 candidate moves about two moves deep, whereas a master will look at two candidate moves, 6 to 8 moves deep. The stronger the player, the better he is at avoiding calculation — and the more efficiently he thinks.
When a player says he is calculating a move, that means looking several moves deep. Masters sometimes just need to calculate a move or two to prevent a threat or attack. The master has taken a shortcut in calculating all the possibilities and all the other legal moves. Again, it is rare that you have to look further than three moves into the future before deciding on a candidate move. Soltis quotes Botvinnik when Botvinnik wrote, "Reshevsky's strength is calculation. He calculates two or three moves, but sees a lot." Soltis also quoted Kasparov, who said, "Normally I would calculate three to five moves. You don't need more."
Soltis looks at the thought process of a beginner, novice, improving amateur, experienced tournament player, and master. The beginner trusts his candidate moves too much. They play quick when they find a move they like, usually based on a favorite piece or a favorite square. Perhaps they like hopping the knight around, or moving a bishop along the long diagonal, or pushing pawns. If a beginner analyzes the consequences of his candidate moves at all, he relies on unrealistic expectations. He may make moves and hope his opponent doesn't play the best move or a good move. Most victories of a beginner occur when he plays another beginner that has left his pieces unprotected (en prise). A beginner has also not mastered the opening principals such as control of the center and quick piece development and early protection of the king (castling). Beginners often overlook the possibilities of a pawn fork on two pieces or a knight fork on major pieces. A beginner usually wins because the other beginner blundered.
A novice (the next level above beginner) soon learns that he cannot beat a stronger player just by exploiting blunders and hoping that free pieces will be left hanging to grab. Instead, he discovers how to make and carry out a threat. The novice is also more open-minded in recognizing candidate moves. He soon learns that the best move in any position may not involve his favorite piece or a favorite square. But he is still focused on the possibilities of his own pieces. A novice might see a pawn or knight fork, but not a second threat of moving a piece to a square that gets attacked again, with no safe square to retreat to. Instead, the novice spends a lot of time focused on his own candidate moves, and rarely considers the consequences of his moves.
Improving amateurs (the next level above novice) avoid the mistakes of their past. They learn not to hang pieces and leave them unguarded, and they recognize most enemy threats. They can recognize a candidate as being "obvious." They will usually look for a second candidate move, even if the first one seems to be good. But the improving amateur doesn't just pick a few candidate moves. He now tries to analyze and evaluate the consequences of his candidate move. He will say to himself, "If I go there, what happens if he goes there?" An improving amateur can calculate simple forcing sequences, such as back-rank mates. He can also evaluate simple positions with some accuracy.
The improving amateur's weakness is that his analysis is badly flawed in non-forcing situations. He guesses at the move his opponent will play, rather than find the move that would be the most damaging to him. The amateur still has sloppy optimism and does not think about alternative moves by his opponent.
The experienced tournament players (the upper 10 percent of players) have mastered many of the basic techniques of move selection. They can spot a candidate move that violates general principles but just seems right for the position. They are acquiring some intuition about their moves. They know that in some positions, they can safely stop their calculation after looking only two moves in the future. In other positions, they may have to look further to be reasonably sure of a candidate move's soundness. Their ability to evaluate a position goes far beyond that of lower-rated players. They will rarely conclude that a position is winning or losing, when it really is equal. He knows if a move is a serious threat or not. The experienced player still does not have the intuitive feel for the game as a master does.
Masters (rated 2200 and above), the upper two percent of tournament players, employ so many shortcuts in their thinking and choosing a good move that they can play good moves almost instantly, as they do in simultaneous exhibitions and blitz play. Masters rely much more than other players on an intuitive sense of what the right move looks like and they are able to recognized the important elements in a position, such as when doubling a pawn matters and when it doesn't. Masters are able to detect when they need to calculate several moves ahead, and when they can and should avoid it. They trust their level of expectation to tell them when they should look for a superior, second candidate move, or a third candidate move. They know how to balance subjective factors, such as the degree of risk in deciding what move to make, such as some sacrifice.
Weaker players often prefer to force their opponents into making a specific move. But masters like giving their opponents many choices, as that increases the likelihood of a mistake and not finding the best candidate move. Masters also know when to steer the game into an endgame and know when to exchange queens. If the endgame may give a slight advantage to the opponent, then the master will avoid exchanging queens and play for complications.
As soon as his opponent's hand releases the piece that he was moving, the experienced player will already have in mind a particular reply. If the game is annotated by the experienced player, he will write that it was the "obvious" move, or the "natural" move, or the "standard" move. An experienced player learns to recognize a move that is so evidently good, that it becomes "obvious."
Soltis says there are chief or basic cues that helps an experienced player find the "obvious" good move. These cues include tactics, general principles, positional desirability, consistency, and problem pieces. These cues can provide you with most of the candidate moves you need to make good move choices. Good cues can also inspire you to find highly unusual moves, the "hidden" candidate moves.
The first candidate moves that come to mind are those that answer the simplest of questions. What captures can you make? Is there a check you can give? Is there a winning pin or fork?
Grandmaster Grigory Levenfish wrote that the foundation of chess was the process of vision. He defined vision as the ability to spot "where everything under attack, yours and your opponent's, is located." Then comes "double attacks (the most powerful tactics in chess), and finally the harmonious interaction of pieces, yours and enemy ones, that lead to combinations."
As soon as it is your turn to move, look for forcing moves. These are the moves that threaten enemy pieces. Threats provide the tactical energy that advances your agenda and may be overlooked by your opponent. Grandmaster Larry Christiansen says that he begins move selection by conducting what he calls a "cheapo-scan." You scan the board looking for all the one-move and two-move tactics of your position. Always look for the big threat first. Sometimes you can just simply choose moves that make threats to win the game. Sometimes you can overlook your opponent's threat (winning a piece) if you have a bigger threat (checkmate).
Looking for a way to attack enemy pieces should come at the start for choosing the right candidate moves. This is because tactical vision carries with it the law of diminishing returns: The more you study the position, the less you will see tactically.
One-move and two-move tricks often jump to your attention in the first several minutes you spend on a position. But if you don't see them during that time, it is unlikely that you will see them after 10 more minutes of thought on the position. So it is a waste of time to look for tactics that are not there. As Soltis says, for some reason we cannot explain, the mind tends to block out relatively simple tactics that stare us in the face. Computers see them right away.
Almost everyone can train themselves to look for threatening candidate moves. Some players develop this skill more quickly than others. Levenfish said that tactical vision was a "gift of nature" that might take two to three months to fully develop after learning how the pieces move. But in some cases, it could take years. The gifts help explain how your teenagers become grandmasters so quickly (and with the help of chess engines).
Another cue in finding a good candidate move is to attack what is undefended and try to exploit your opponent's last move. The benefits of attacking and hitting targets repeatedly include: (1) you don't allow your opponent respite to make threats of his own, (2) you create the potential for a double attack, and (3) you place a psychological burden on your opponent.
Grandmasters often justify their move decisions by citing fundamental chess values and general principles — pawns should capture toward the center, passed pawns must be pushed, pieces should protect one another, castle early and protect the king, knight on the rim is dim, develop a piece on its most aggressive square, avoid doubled pawns, put a rook on an open file, rooks belong on the seventh rank, don't bring the queen out early, etc.
You can often play a "general principle move" without much thought. Whether it also has a tactical point may not even occur to you. General principles are another of the many time-saving guides that players employ. They enable the player to avoid lengthy analysis to verify that a candidate move is a positionally sound move.
Novices are always told to learn general principles, but soon discover that one principle can conflict with another one. Often you will see a GM make a move based on some general principle, yet his opponent never considered the move because it violated another principle. A pawn move may be strong because it keeps the kingside close, but it may be a surprising move as it violates a general principle that the pawn in vulnerable. Surprising moves are bound to happen, even at the highest level, because players depend so much on principles that came into conflict with one another. Sometimes there are exceptions to the general principles.
General principles are the second most important candidate cue, next to specific tactics. However, there is always the possibility of a conflict between two principles, and general principles can have an abstract nature (more general than specific).
In some positions, a positionally desirable move will stand out. Often it changes the pawn structure or begins a piece maneuver. You should analyze it, even if there seems to be a simple tactics refutation of it. Look at every move you would like to make, including impossible ones. For example, I want my knight to some square but cannot get there directly. So an alternative path must be found.
Aron Nimzowitsch criticized players who automatically look for tactical lines. He wrote that when there is a choice between roughly equal alternatives, pick the positionally desirable move. Often such a move requires a sacrifice that can be made with little calculation.
When you don't have a tactical idea to work with, or a candidate move that conforms to general principles, or some standard of positional value, you can still feel that a particular candidate move is "right" because of how well it fits in with your previous moves. These are known as the consistent candidate moves.
It sounds simple to be consistent, but it isn't. Only after the game when you are going over all the moves, you may discover that move 25 was not consistent and did not fit in with moves 24 and 26. During the game, you have to play one move at a time, and each move is a separate action.
One benefit of having a plan, even a short-term one, is that it enables you to find the next few moves quickly. The drawback is that a bad plan can lead to a quick loss. You want to have a sound plan and a more superior plan than your opponent. Again, a good plan means that you can make the next few moves with virtually no calculation or evaluation. A plan of any length tends to be better than just following general principles because it is more specific to a position.
Another method of finding candidate moves consists of dealing with problem pieces, both your pieces and your opponent's pieces. When there is a significant change in the position, such as a trade of queens or an alteration in the pawn structure, one or more pieces may likely be misplaced. The best candidate move may be a move that exchanges if off for a well-placed enemy piece, or trade off your worst piece. It might not be detectable for several moves, but a player may significantly improve his chances when he can exchange pieces to get rid of a well-placed enemy piece, such as an enemy rook on the seventh rank, or a well-placed enemy knight in the middle of the board. It is the enemy pieces that matters most in such trades.
Piece trades rise towards the top of a player's priorities where there are few or no open lines. When you can't trade off your worst piece, you may be able to reposition it on a better square. In semi-closed positions, players often grab an open file for the rook as a general principal. But improving the position of a minor piece, such as putting a knight on a better square or putting a bishop on an open diagonal frequently takes precedence. You want to avoid cramped minor pieces with little or no mobility. Completing your development is one of the most basic of general principles. An undeveloped piece is usually a badly-place piece.
One of the problems a chess player suffers from is considering too few candidate moves. When you finish a tournament game, go over it with your opponent or a higher-rated player or coach (or strong chess engine) to find improvements in your play. See how many of the better moves were candidate moves that you never considered. If the percentage is high, it means you are making decisions on the basis of too few candidate moves.
If you are having a problem with selecting too few candidate moves to think about, get in the habit of trying to find at least one other candidate move that you had not considered. In the long run, this will improve your candidate spotting skills and improve your thinking technique.
Your opponent's last move often acts like a trigger, provoking a specific reply. The experienced player tries to figure out his opponent's last move. Does it have a specific purpose, or was it a general move? Does it protect something or attack something? Is it part of a plan — and if so, how long will it take to complete? The answers help determine your best move. Put your opponent's last move under a microscope and determine its strengths as well as its weaknesses.
When a good player makes a move that has no obvious point to you, an alarm bell should go off. Don't play so quickly. Try to understand your opponent's move to figure out its subtle point. Once you see the main point, you can do something about it and not play the obvious response, which is what your opponent wants you to do. Try to understand the real reason for your opponent's move. You may be able to change whatever general strategy you had in mind, which, in turn, may induce your opponent to alter his plans.
Chess Corner, The Calculation of Variations
Ez-net.com, Choosing Candidate Moves
Kotov, Think Like a Grandmaster, 1971
Kurtgodden, Review: How to Chose a Chess Move (reviewed at chess.com)
Moes, Waldemar, 6 Tips on How to Find Candidate Moves in Chess, 2008
Neounplugged, How to Find the Best Moves
Scimia, Candidate Moves: How to Narrow Your Choices
Soltis, How to Choose a Chess Move, 2005
WikiHow, How to Choose a Chess Move
Wikipedia, Candidate Move
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