Knowledge? Intuition? Risk?

Today we follow up on elements of chess playing style discussed last time.

As we all well know, every chess player should be equipped with two weapons in his arsenal; he must (a) calculate variations, and (b) evaluate positions. Combinations in chess are result of calculation, strategic plan relies on intuitive sense of the position.

Alexei Yezhov, Igra

Calculation or intuition? which one weighs more in chess? art Alexei Yezhov

Chess players must calculate. However, as they are unable to work all variations out till a conclusive end in 99 percent of positions, intuitive evaluation comes before calculation in making decisions and seems to be more important overall.

It looks Masters calculate moves only to verify their intuition. As Carlsen put it, “I usually know what I am going to do after 10 seconds; the rest is double checking. if I study a position for an hour then I am usually going in loops and I’m probably not going to come up with something useful.”

Here is what the great chess artist and fighter, David Bronstein has to say on this, “The charm of the intellectual duel between two chess players can be seen from the fact that despite knowing the plans of both sides, despite a reasonable understanding of what is going to happen next and even when it is your move next, you must put your trust in intuition, in the way you like to play, in what feels harmonious and in the rhythm of the game and pay less attention to the specific analysis of the moves (my highlights).”

“Because the opponent also has at his disposal several possible replies which are practically speaking if equal value and at the same time conceal a plethora of information, calculation is impossible. This has always been recognized by the best players in the world since the way back…”

And now the eighth world champion Misha Tal, in a most instructive article on our topic, titled Knowledge? Intuition? Risk?  from the Russian chess magazine 64, No. 34, 1969.1

Components of success

All happy families are similar to each other, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own particular way, –Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina.

Whenever I am in form, I feel happy. Everything works for me. Thus it seems to me that the above quotation sums up very well my ideas about the components of success.

It is clear that there cannot be an ideal interrelationship between all sides — whatever that may be. Obviously, every great chess player has a dominant side, quite independently of his class. This can be determined by temporary factors (state of play in a competition, how well he is feeling) as well as by permanent factors such as character, way of thinking and what appears the most important to me personally, his own conception of chess.

For those masters who adopt a strictly scientific approach to chess, knowledge is an important component of practical play. “I think — therefore I am.”

I emphasize knowledge, but I do not mean the sort of knowledge which can be deduced from the sum of various specific facts. It is more a question of “I know!”

Jiří Šindler

art Jiří Šindler

Chess, however, is not the monopoly of those who have an analytical way of thinking. Among the outstanding Grandmasters in the world there have been and there still are just as many “poets.” They, for example, take joy in the fact that Alekhine could not stand mathematics.

For such players the most important things in chess are inspiration and improvisation. In their case, they put much value on a characteristic such as fantasy. Concerning this, one of their favorite sayings is, “Although this constitutes an inaccuracy, the idea behind it is mastery.”

In brief, we are dealing here with people who consider chess to be an art, which they would often define as a rich medium for the expression of emotions. This view point often reveals itself in their games in which from time to time the voice of reason can only be heard faintly in their choice of moves. They simply do not want to admit this, but very frequently the decisive argument in favor of one continuation rather than another is, “That is good. I can just feel it.”

If decisions of this sort are made frequently then we speak of a chess player who has an intuitive style.

However, this mysterious intuition expresses itself in different ways. One player has a strongly developed ability to exploit the initiative, another may not perhaps always find the quickest way  to mount an attack but in return sees astonishingly far into the future and reliably recognizes the smallest, hardly visible symptoms of future dangers, whereas a third one can intuitively sense in advance just how and where his pieces and pawns are best posted.

In Pt. 2 next time, Tal speaks on risk…

Now the question is, how to exercise the unconscious mind, that is intuition to improve our game? How can we best do that?


Tal’s original article in Russian from “64” can be found in Valentin Kirillov’s Speaks and Instructs Tal, Riga 2006, p.298.

To the best of my knowledge, the article was first translated into English in full by Alexander Spektrowski on The translation above is from The Magic Tactics of Mikhail Tal, Learn from the Legend, by Muller and Stolze, ©2012 New in Chess.

The Magic Tactics of Mikhail Tal gets my highest recommendation. If you love Tal, you’ll love this book. If you love solving puzzles, you’ll love this book. If you love chess history, you’ll love this book. If you love looking at full games (and puzzle solutions) with rich notes and comments, you’ll love this book. If you love interesting prose by Tal, Botvinnik, Spassky, and many others, you’ll love this book. The Magic Tactics of Mikhail Tal: Learn from the Legend is, in my opinion, an instant classic that’s suitable for players of all ratings (beginner to grandmaster).” IM Jeremy Silman.

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