Why is Good Chess Tactical Vision Sooo Uncommon?
Bad Teaching doesn’t Let Chess Board Vision Take Off
Board vision is quintessential for playing chess. It starts developing the moment we get into the game. According to the late Grandmaster Gregory Levenfish, “tactical vision is a ‘gift of nature’ that might take us two or three months to fully develop after learning how the pieces move – or it might take years.”
Chess board vision is the ability to make snap judgments, so chess players ‘know,’ without any conscious effort, what they should be looking at. A reliable inventory of visual patterns that provide meaningful ‘clues’ to the underlying reality of what is going on on the chessboard.
We all agree that this is the key chess skill. But we may not agree about what it is made of. Is it really a ‘gift of nature,’ or is it perhaps trainable? If it can be trained, how should we approach teaching it to an absolute beginner?
It is a common perception that education in math and chess is broken and needs fixing. Evidently, the ‘primary education’ in chess is failing to instill in the beginner good tactical, or board vision. Because of that, many, too many people too soon walk away from the game, discouraged and dissatisfied. Their motivation and curiosity simply wane due to lack of meaning in the learning process.
On the other hand, for those who do stay in chess, poor tactical vision sets limitations as to how far they can go. Usually, they reach a plateau and stop improving. For some it may be 800 rating, for others 1200. In the US there is only 30 in one million of all chess players who have reached the expert level. With proper teaching in the critical early period of learning the numbers should be much higher. Thus, many more people would enjoy pleasures of “the only game worth playing” (R.D. Blackmore, the British novelist) and be able to reap other benefits the from it (kid’s academic performance and problem solving skills improvement, character building, etc.).
Yet we won’t be able to move any further in our discussion without identifying what chess vision really is. So let’s try to define its basic elements. To understand chess board vision in a broader context, we must look at chess as a complex system. There follow three aspects that exist in any complex system:
(I) Members of System
In chess it is pieces with their attributes, power, movement and ability to capture enemy pieces.
(II) Relationships between Members
Piece relationships are spatial and functional. The members have jobs to do.
Now, one may ask how many functions chess pieces serve? Four, only four. The chessmen are able to:
(1) attack enemy pieces and control space by the power they possess,
(2) restrict fire power and movement of other pieces,
(3) block enemy attack on friends (=pin), and
(4) protect friendly pieces.
As you see, there are only four jobs chess pieces do. For example, Rook on d1 above is attacking the d5-pawn (d1-d5 segment); Black’s King on e7 is restricted of movement to d6 as Rd1 is firing along the d-file (e7-d6 segment). It is funny, all this big chess vision hoopla is in the end just about the concept of the line segment from our geometry class!
These four basic relationships constitute foundation for chess board vision. Any position on the chessboard is made up of them. The good news is, the visual skill to recognize them can be systematically trained, first individually, then combined. It is an easy concept to acquire by the learning brain. Video-game-like modules that require split-second decisions are a great way to develop a “good tactical eye.”
The bad news is, reading a position on the chessboard crowded with pieces may be a daunting task. It is another skill altogether. It can be trained too, but it takes time and experience to create a comprehensive brain catalog of visual patterns to instantly recognize the most important and relevant feature of a position (I wrote about this topic in a sequel of four installments on the Georgia Chess Association site) 
Anyhow, to read an Updike one day, one has to start with ABCs (or attack, restriction, protection and blocking in chess!).
Finally, every system has some purpose; in other words, the members have the goals they should work toward through their collective effort and interaction with the hostile army.
Of course, checkmate is our ultimate long-term aim in chess. In fact, we set short-term goals (usually sequences of just a few moves) to gain some sort of advantage, material or positional in nature.
Now, how do (II) piece contacts and (III) goals relate?
There are no well-taken goals without meaningful interpretation of power structure on the board using visual patterns of piece relationships. On the other hand, any good plan must visualize a new future piece build-up that adds value to our position.
Chess and Math as creative problem solving tools
The early education is failing because the math and chess basics are not set right. What are the basics exactly? In math it is not about calculation, nor is it about making moves in chess. Both math and chess are about much bigger subjects, creative problem solving and critical thinking. There is a four-step process as the actual basics of math and chess:
(1) We observe the real world, or chess board, to identify relevant problems we want to deal with (for that we need to pose right questions!).
(2) We turn the question into a math formulation, or set-up (using symbols in math, or four basic piece contacts in chess) to establish relationships between objects (operands) and action (operation) upon them.
(3) From this representation or set-up, we do calculation to come up with an answer.
(4) We take the answer back to the real world, verify it and use for the purpose stated.
Now it is perfectly clear what is going on when we teach moves first (“It is fundamentally wrong,” Nimtzowitsch). First, it is impossible for the beginner to extract any order from the “chaos on the board” without using, shall I remind you, four basic piece contacts, that board vision alphabet, to be able to read the position and understand the power structure on the board.
Without it, the beginner is clueless about what they should do. Without meaning and understanding it is just the beginning of the end in an unsuccessful attempt at chess that will bear no fruit.
To start teaching chess effectively we need a dramatic paradigm shift, from mere moves and wood pushing, which promotes visually impaired players, to vision-strong instinct for quick and intuitive reading of board piece relationships that will steer purposeful action.
After 1500+ years of traditional teaching, it is about time!
Otherwise, forget about any Chess to Masses idea…
Next time, how we should go about developing better chess vision from the very start.
1. As cited in GM Andrew Soltis’ How to choose a chess move, Batsford 2005.
2. Bad early teaching is everywhere. Think, for example, of the sorry state of the US tennis today. With inadequate coaching, the same barren landscape as in math, or chess. Here is what two well-respected men from tennis have to say. “If the game’s not taught well at the beginning levels, it just doesn’t matter,” Todd Martin. “You get 16-20 year olds trying to figure out how to play after eight years or so of bad habits.” Paul Annacone.
3. Although Center of Gravity is not an easy concept (by the way, it comes from the Prussian strategist von Klausewitz), it should be nonetheless introduced as soon as appropriate in the learning process; for example, IM Vladimir Vukovic (1898-1975), the author of the timeless classic The Art of Attack in Chess, introduces the CoG concept as the first topic in the Chapter Action in Positional Play in his Introduction to chess primer, Zagreb 1947 (you can find two CoG principles he formulated on the Georgia Chess Association site, for the first time in English).
4. According to Jose Raul Capablanca, this collective effort through the so called coordination of pieces is the “main chess principle throughout.” Of course, any team play is effective only if centered around a clear strategic aim.
5. The 4-step process is taken from Stephen Wolfram, the British computer scientist and physicist, CEO of Wolfram Research (here is the TED link).