Why Chess Masters make moves they do?

Every body of knowledge has its rules and principles. Learning the basic rules and getting acquainted and mastering the fundamental principles in any domain enable us to make decisions, solve problems and be successful. Moreover, the principles and rules of any domain are the necessary prerequisite for being able to go beyond the basics and into the realm of creativity.

In a previous post we saw how strategists and leaders over at least 2,500 years have been in pursuit of the principles of warfare. Laying down and applying the principles has had the aim of helping military commanders successfully guide the conduct of battles and maximize their victories. And don’t forget, chess is a war-like game of strategy.

Chess is war – it is all about testosterone-driven primal screams, — Garry Kasparov

Before we try to establish the connection between warfare and chess, how about we first take a look at the current state of affairs as far as central chess principles are concerned. Do we have a common agreement as to what the most important principles are?

Warriors in a chess temple

Mystery of chess: What underlying principles bring life to chess pieces?

Because our language is so imprecise let us try to find a definition of principle. Language is supposed to help, but too often it is making matters even more confusing (for better results you may want to try thinking visually).

Chess principles vs. rules

A principle is an elementary assumption, concept, or widely-accepted statement or fact generally held to be fundamental or true for a body of knowledge, conduct or a system of reasoning. Principles, or laws, are generalizations which arise from induction. They serve as a basis for prediction and action.

The difference between a principle and a rule is that rules are based upon principles.

Rules and guidelines exist only as rough approximations of their underlying principles. They are not intended to provide an exact or complete definition of the principles in all circumstances. They must be understood in context, using some sense.

Rules tell us how to act in most situations, but they simply won’t get us beyond beginning stages of learning in any domain. To become a better chess player we need to set out on a journey beyond traditional rules and how-to tactical tools offered in most books.

The real question is not how, but “What do we consider in any particular situation before determining what to do.”

We need to delve deeper into the inner workings of the game and it is principles and concepts that may guide us there, not rules. Rules are less important than understanding and using the underlying concepts. In fact, reinforcement of these abstract fundamental truths and principles (leaning toward strategic approach to things) is integral to our success.

Chess art by Germaine Richier, Chessboard, 1959

Chess Warriors: What makes them tick? Germaine Richier (1902-1959), painted plaster, 1959

Principle can also be regarded as a cause. We may say that the principle of any effect is the cause that produces it. Everything that begins to exist must have a cause. So if our position is beginning to disintegrate, the chances are we violated some important chess principle.

Next time we will see what some of chess minds here in the States think the chess principles actually constitute. We will see how these definitions are loose and sometimes really not very helpful for playing well.

Yet, according to J. D. Bransford in How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, National Academy Press, Washington DC, 2001, the nature of expertise is this:

  • experts’ knowledge is hierarchically organized around major principles and concepts
  • experts “construct”  solutions from major principles

If only we could understand what principles guide the Masters and why they make the moves they do (unfortunately, the true nature of expertise is automatic and instinctive, so they may well be totally unaware of it).

If only we could come up with a set of more transparent principles of chess, it would help us tremendously improve our grasping of the game, how we should play, analyze and teach it better.


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