Monday, May 23, 2016

Spiralling vultures

Hitherto I have found that the main problem with tactics lies in the inability to see a combination as a whole (level 3). There are a few temptations that distract you from seeing the big picture.

Temptation 1: trial and error
The first temptation is dubbed trial and error. This means that you see an interesting move, and want to see where it might lead to. Effectively, this is gambling. As in real life, gambling usually costs more than it yields. It depends completely of the position if the gamble pays off. In the metaphor of the missing keys which lie on your bed, if you are searching in the garage, you are wasting time. Your mind is gadding around at level 1 (moves).

Temptation 2: tactical motifs
When you see an interesting pin, you might try to exploit it. At the same time, you loose sight of the big picture. You can't know beforehand, if the pin is actually an element of the required combination. Effectively, it is a gamble, which might or might not pay off. You might be looking in the garden. Your mind is gadding around at level 2 (motifs).

Temptation 3: heavy duty logical reasoning
When you yoke up a logical reasoning, you can't know beforehand where it will lead you to. You dive in a tunnel, and while following the tunnel, you are not aware of what is outside the tunnel. Effectively, it is a time consuming gamble, which might or might not pay off. You might well end up in the limbo looking for ghost keys. Logical reasoning is quite error prone, so it takes a lot of time to check the results too.

Spiralling vultures
Initially, I wanted to develop a checklist to help me to guide my attention at level 3 (seeing the big picture of the combination). Due to the comments and the discussions with Robert Coble, I realized this might even be not necessary. What if I just persist in viewing at the board from a distance? Disciplining the mind to retract from any temptation that tries to distract?

This idea is consistent with an idea I had long ago about backwards thinking. I have been spiralling around this idea for long, and more and more it looks as if it is the best way to go. Ones you see the idea, finding the moves that execute the idea is usually no problem.

So now I'm spiralling above my enemy like a vulture, looking at the position from above, rejecting any temptations to go in for the kill too prematurely. Only when all important elements of the combination have revealed themselves, I dive to the ground to pick my opponents eyes out. There is another vulture in the air too, which is spiralling around my fortress in the hope for a surprise attack. I try to look from the perspective of the hostile vulture too, in order to prevent any devastating counter attacks. But usually that picture is somewhat out of focus.

Keeping the overview. As usual, the enemy vulture is out of focus
My first experiments with this way of surveying the position proofs that everything can be seen from a distance indeed. It only takes a lot of time to see it. But that shouldn't come as a surprise. That is what we found long ago: first do it right, then do it fast. The idea of seeing is consistent with what I would expect concerning the brain parts that are involved in acquiring chess skill. Experiment to be continued. . .


  1. An excellent explanation as usual, combined with a visual image that encapsulates the idea and burns it into memory.

    Once again, I return to Dr. Lasker's wonderful book, written for amateurs, looking at his advice through the prism of your insights (here, as well as in the previous post you referenced). The order of the quotes below are not in the same order as in the book.

    The motifs of a combination, in themselves simple, are often interwoven with each other. What is it that unites the multiplicity of motifs? We call it the "IDEA." Motifs as, for instance, a simultaneous attack against several pieces or the encircling of the hostile King, are tricks of the trade, technicalities. The idea which links the motifs is artistic, it creates something that had never before been there. Motifs can be taught, IDEAS MUST BE DISCOVERED BY ORIGINAL EFFORT. Ideas come from nowhere, they are sudden inspiration; the place of motifs is definite: the [long-term] memory.

    Even from these two instances [checkmating and simultaneous attacks] it is sufficiently manifest that THE CONDITIONS FOR A COMBINATION ARE CIRCUMSCRIBED. And it is these conditions which give rise to the ideas in the mind of the master. Only when the hostile King has little mobility and little protection does the master make the attempt to find a combination which aims at a forced mate, because he knows that only then can the position contain the IDEA of a mate. And so it is with other ideas.


    The combination is born in the brain of the chess player. Many thoughts see the light there—true and false, strong and weak, sound and unsound. They are born, jostle one another, and one of them, transformed into a move on the board, bears away the victory over its rivals.

    Does the Chess master really cogitate as just outlined? Presumably so, but with detours and repetitions. However, it matters not by what process he conceives an idea; the important point to understand is that an idea takes hold of the master and obsesses him.

    . . .the conditions for the existence of a combination are circumscribed. And it is these conditions which give rise to the ideas in the mind of the master.

    When we "see" the possibility of a motif (or a net of motifs), that alone should trigger the search for a combination based on that motif (or net of motifs). As a consequence, not only are move sequences suggested, but moves are eliminated from consideration. Only those moves and variations that further the exploitation of the motif (or net of motifs) should be considered. As the complexity of the position increases, so does the amount of time that it takes to combine everything into a coherent "solution" demanded by the specific position. It is in this "combining" of the various motifs into a coherent solution that I think the notion of "combination" resides. Botvinnik's definition of a combination as "a forced variation with a sacrifice" is far too technically sterile to capture this notion of "combining" various parts into a coherent whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.

    The level of the whole, the “vulture’s eye view”, is where the logical thinking must come into play. Everything below that level constitutes the “chunks” that we manipulate to realize the “idea” embodied in the position. The “seeing” must be discernment of the “idea” combining the “chunks,” and NOT focused on the “chunks” themselves. (In this discussion, I consider “chunks” to be anything below the level of the “idea” of the combination [auras, moves, devices/themes, maneuvers, etc.], not necessarily just patterns stored in LTM.) If we must use logical thinking to try to arrive at anything at a lower level than the combination, we have insufficient “chunks” available to us for “seeing” the “idea.”

  2. This idea of a vulture, soaring high above the scene, viewing everything and waiting for the opportune moment to swoop down upon the prey, is an excellent one. I also love the idea of the other vulture, hovering slightly out of focus, but having (perhaps) a slightly different viewpoint of the prey.

    I was just thinking about it in another context: a fight between two marital artists.

    The old masters have a saying about "it." The mysterious "it" supposedly governs the responses that must be made without any conscious thought, regardless of what the opponent is doing. "It" allows a master to easily defeat a much younger, stronger opponent who has much faster reflexes. We would automatically assume that the opposite would occur. I have watched videos of Akido Founder Morihei Ueshiba (at nearly 90 years of age) easily toss around his much younger attackers, seemingly without effort. I have had similar (though limited) experiences (although I am nowhere nearly as old as Master Ueshiba, and certainly not as skilled.)

    How can this be?

    It is often assumed (by those who have not developed their martial arts skills to a sufficient level) that it is simply a matter of conditioned reflexes. Perhaps there is some truth to that idea at a lower level, but my own experience tells me that conditioned reflexes are not all of "it," not by a long shot.

    There is a state of "flow" which is totally focused and yet, that state of flow does not quite capture what is happening. It's almost as if one is observing ("seeing") intently but not consciously "seeing" nor controlling either the "seeing" nor the appropriate responses. Time seems to slow down for the opponent but speed up for you. (Maybe this is any area to be investigated for a new theory of time relativity!) The opponent seems to be telegraphing his every move, and the appropriate response is provided by "it." Yet, there is no conscious thinking involved. Perhaps "it" is a state of hyper-awareness of all possibilities, and it takes into consideration each and every nuance of BOTH persons: the distance between antagonists, the balance of the body, the position of the feet, the angle of the body, slight shifts of the hands, etc. But while "it" is doing this, there is total focus on the overall fight, yet not on any of these lower level "chunks."

    I think "it" is what you are describing as the ability to "see" the contours of the required combination AS A WHOLE (the vulture's eye viewpoint, if you will) existing in the position. At some (subconscious) level, there is a recognition of the specific component "chunks." Skill consists of trusting "it" to gather all of that information and resolve the various clues into a coherent response which bubbles up to our conscious mind, without trying to force "it" in any particular direction. When we get that "AHA!" feeling, the position suddenly becomes simple because "it" has integrated all of the clues/motifs/themes into the "idea" of the combination. As Dr. Lasker said, "And for the Chess-player the success which crowns his work, the great dispeller of sorrows, is named "combination."

    Perhaps "it" is the mysterious "intuition" that appears at the higher levels of skill.

  3. Thank you Tempo and Robert for some very interesting and useful reading.

  4. @Bryan:

    Thank you for participating in the discussion! I'm glad there is value in what we have written. Temposchlucker provides the core ideas; I merely try to elaborate on and clarify my own thinking in response to his lead. Temposchlucker and AoxomoxoA (among many others) have investigated the subject of adult chess improvement for a long time and have freely published the results of their (ongoing) investigations. I can only look on in awe at the dedication and persistence with which they pursue the Holy Grail. I am sometimes overwhelmed with the vast amount of relevant and interesting information available on these blogs. I'm sure the corpus of these authors would fill many volumes of worthwhile books, if published.



  5. One last point, and I'm off to work.

    I was just re-reading the Introduction to Martin Weteschnik's Understanding Chess Tactics and I found something that I had overlooked in my rush to get to the "meat" of his book; that seems to happen often to me. I occasionally emphasize his points.

    Tactics can be broken down into basic elements and systematically analyzed. Therefore everybody should be able to understand tactics and use tactics successfully in his or her games. [We could only wish for THAT to be true for US!!]

    World Champion Steinitz once pointed out that combinations are not coincidences or strokes of genius but the result of concrete positions. He taught us [well, maybe some of us] HOW TO ANALYZE ANY GIVEN POSITION FOR ITS ELEMENTS. The same method used to analyze positions can be applied to combinations. They too can be broken down into their elements. Although tactics sometimes can be very complicated, there is good news: TACTICS CONSIST OF BASIC ELEMENTS THAT CAN BE LEARNED LIKE A LANGUAGE or mathematics.

    Some years ago I trained for about two years with the former trainer of Peter Leko, Tibor Karoli. With Tibor I mainly studied openings, middlegame strategy, and endgames. During this time I also solved a lot of combinations to sharpen my tactical skills. I had developed my own little routine. Whenever I thought I had discovered some mechanism or characteristic of a position, I started taking notes. The work on thousands of positions grew first into a collection of unsorted tactical insights, but finally resulted in a structured overview of tactics. Over time seemingly unconnected information turned into a coherent concept.

    We often approach problems (in chess as in many other things) through the mechanism of analysis - breaking complexity down into smaller and smaller conceptual "chunks" until we get to a sufficiently elementary level that we can comprehend. To me, the "missing link" is the SYNTHESIS of those disparate, apparently unconnected elements back up the conceptual ladder into generalizations, principles, "rules," etc., until we (FINALLY!) get to the “vulture’s eye view.” Perhaps this is the missing step in our training. We try to take what someone else has done as our own, without expending the effort that produced the result of the generalization. We uncritically adopt someone else's "rules" as a shortcut, not realizing that in order for us to burn it into our subconscious, WE HAVE TO DO THAT WORK OURSELVES.

    Temposchlucker nailed it with this comment on an earlier post:

    I have had a coach for some time. He reassured me that I was on the right track. At the same time it was disappointing to find out that I still had to do all the work myself ;)

  6. Just found in Yasser Seirawan: Winning Chess Combinations

    "The single best piece of advice that I can give any players wishing to improve their chess skills is to write your thoughts down! The acts of thinking and analyzing are not enough. Thoughts become reinforced memories when we write them on a piece of paper."