Chess knowledge vs. mental discipline

Chess is not all about knowledge of forks, pins, minority attacks, opening lines and so on. It appears there is a vast area for improvement of focusing on other “non-theoretical” elements of conflict. We may have talent and knowledge, but then we do things that harm ourselves in many ways. Most of us seem not to play as well as we know how to play. It looks we are really not aware of various psychological factors, our thought processes and habits and how they affect the way we behave and act at the board.

art by Peter Blake, Playing Chess with Tracey

Peter Blake, Playing Chess with Tracey

You saw last time how we keep beating ourselves by neglecting to pay due attention to the opponent’s plans and intents. That way we are missing a great deal of important information that we could otherwise use for making better decisions at the board.

We really need to learn how to become less vulnerable to these destructive effects of not observing carefully during the game. To accomplish that goal we would have to change some of our habits. The vital skill is to shift our focus on and be oriented toward the opponent. We need to learn what his moves signal and may indicate, what they mean and how to use them in devising our plan of action.

Today I’d like to show you how the same necessity governs players in other games and sports to stay alert, observant and disciplined all the time.

Let’s talk poker and a fundamental law of the game that has first articulated by David Sklansky, an American professional poker player and author [1]. It expresses the essential nature of poker as a game of decision-making. One of the key skills good poker players have is the ability to read their opponents at the table – that’s what separates the great players from the rest. Some players make reads on their opponents that might have us wondering if they were indeed psychic. If we can accurately read our opponent, we’ll make the right decisions against them more often and win more money.

In poker as in chess, once we get used to observe and constantly evaluate our opponent’s options and intentions we will better be able to minimize our mistakes and make more optimal decisions.

Fundamental Theorem of Poker

Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents’ cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose.David Sklansky

The theorem states that the best way for players to play is the way they would play if they knew their opponents’ cards; and you try to make your opponents play as far as away from this Utopian level as possible.

The first goal is accomplished mainly by reading hands and players accurately, because the closer you can come to figuring out someone else’s hand, the fewer Fundamental Theorem mistakes you will make.

Every time a player sees an opponent’s cards when the hand is over and says, “Oh, if I’d known that’s what he had, I would have played differently,” that player has cost himself money and made money for his opponents.

The second goal is accomplished by playing deceptively.

Poker and chess

The same goes true in chess, every time we haven’t read our opponent we won’t be able to find the best plan and overall strategy against them. It’s a major problem, that’s how we make mistakes: we overestimate ourselves and we underestimate, misunderstand or even ignore the opposition. And that is exactly what happened in Bogoljubov-Romanovsky game. Had White seen the possibilities opening up for his opponent after 13…d5, it might haven’t cost him the game.



1. David Sklansky, The Theory of Poker, Two Plus Two Publishing, 2007

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