What sort of mental skills/gifts are basic to becoming a good/great chess player?

The only time you ever see “Mate in n” is in contrived chess puzzles, and sometimes with computer players. And even in those cases, n would never be as high as 15. Most chess games (at least, most non-draw chess games) end with one player conceding, but that’s not because they can see the specific sequence of moves that will lead to defeat, or precisely how many moves it will take.

Like, the first time I ever conceded to my nephew (whom I can usually beat), I’d been seeing for a while that my position wasn’t very good (I had a lot of pieces tied down defending against possible threats), and he wasn’t making the mistakes that I’d need to capitalize on to recover. So when he started also picking up a material advantage, I knew he’d eventually win. It might have taken him twenty moves or so to mop up, and if he made mistakes in there, it might have stretched that out even further, so I didn’t know exactly how it’d get to the end, but it was definitely going to happen.

Of course, against a more skilled player, I’d have conceded even earlier, since the only thing keeping hope afloat before then was the possibility of big mistakes (both of us are novice enough that those are pretty common).

I mentioned analysing ahead in chess. I should clarify that when I say ‘looking 2 moves ahead’, I mean 2 moves by each side.

So here is a game of mine in which I saw 15 moves ahead :nerd_face: i.e 15 moves by both White and Black.
It’s not as difficult as it sounds! :fearful:

Chess Diagram Editor - Apronus.com

Hope the diagram works…

White to play.

It’s true that chess problems in newspapers or magazines are almost always ‘White to play and mate in 2 moves’.
However chess problemists can create mates in more moves. I’ve seen one ‘task’ problem that was mate in 150 moves (with a lot of repeated maneuvers…)
If you like the idea of solving chess problems, here’s a good website:


Be warned that there are many variants in chess problem solving (such as both sides working together to mate Black; or White forcing Black to mate White :flushed: )

I’ll post the solution to my ‘win in 15 moves’ position shortly

Here’s the solution to my ‘win in 15 moves’ position:

1. Ke3 Kg7 2. Kd4 Kf6 3. Kc5 Kg5 4. Kb6 Kg4 5. Kxb7 Kxg3 6. a6 h4 7. a7 h3 8. a8=Q Kg2! 9. Kb6+ Kg1 10. Qg8+ Kf2 11. Qf7+ Kg2 12. Qg6+ Kf2 13. Qf5+ Kg2 14. Qg4+ Kh2 15. Kc5 1-0

Hehe. I guess that faux pas is the equivalent of drinking out of the finger bowl when dining at Buckingham Palace. :flushed:

I’ll be very interesting in hearing how you think the TV show compares to the book. Frankly, I’m having a hard time slogging through the show. I wish it was more about chess and less about the quirks and problems of the troubled main character.

WHOA! That does sound like a dream job for you. A match made in heaven. You used past tense-- are you retired now? Judging from your spelling, you are from across the pond.

I was just revisiting my old thread on the MacHack vs Shredder competition, and found this:

This is some more interesting background on MacHack, and it says that in its final incarnation it was rated at 1529. In Shredder, this is labeled the “experienced player” range, and is only one-third of the way up the scale. I’m convinced that Shredder greatly overestimates its skill at any specific setting

I have never been able to beat MacHack, so I’m convinced that Shredder’s assessment of my skill at more than 1500 Elo is much too high. I think I’m much worse than that. :slightly_frowning_face:

Senior year of High School, I managed to get over 1600 by a hair before the High School Nationals, it was enough to justify my playing 2nd board instead of 3rd giving us some advantages in the tournament. Our normal 2nd board who just didn’t have his rating up yet won every match and I held my own slightly better than .500. It worked well and we came in first.

That was as good as I ever got though. Once High School was over, I played a lot less chess.

If the 1529 rating for MacHack is accurate, over 1600 is incredibly impressive by my standards. MacHack is more than just “good” – it’s what I would regard as exceptionally aggressive. Unlike many chess programs that ultimately win by slow and plodding play and making no real mistakes, if you’re careless MacHack can have you boxed in to an impossible situation in just a few moves! It contains a good repertoire of book openings, and responds accordingly, but if you deviate from the expected opening with a stupid move, it analyzes the situation with its own logic and pounces like a cheetah to exploit the weakness!

Well I played competitively from grades 6-12. I was best at speed chess (and Siamese), so I exceled at the rare tournament where we had 30 moves in 30 minutes. Huge advantage for me. I actually won several games on times where I was clearly losing. We mostly played 40 moves / 60 minutes. But any actual good player mopped me up. I was undisciplined and not eager to study.

I was good at helping teammates get better than me at least and know how to deal with fast aggressive players. By senior year I was actually the 4th board effectively and all 3 ahead of me use to be behind me on the team. Our best player had rated out of our level of competition. He was only a 10th grade and over 1800 already. I think closer to 1900. So we won the championship without our best player technically.

It was that or be the worst team in the much smaller top tier competition.


This is all a little fuzzy to me, it was over 35 years ago.

There were some weird psyche out moves that actually work in High School competition. I remember playing a slow thoughtful younger player that was holding his own nicely against me but I was getting bored. I was moving very quick which seem to slow him down more. Then I pulled out my Pre-Calc homework and in 5 moves his game fell apart.

Just my style of aggressive trading of pieces and playing hard for forks threw off many players. But these were all players below 1800. We were good for High School kids but would have been a joke in a real competition.

My son made his High School Chess Team, kind of cool. I don’t think he got as good as I did, but still pretty cool.

So I thought maybe I’d post my thought process trying to solve Glee’s puzzle, so those who don’t play can see the way a real human, not a Hollywood scriptwriter’s creation, would approach this. Not sure if this is of interest, but if not…move along, I guess? :stuck_out_tongue:

I see there are two pairs of pawns, and they’re frozen. Any move of a pawn would result in a loss, by either side. If an h pawn falls, the defending king will have to do double duty and defend both wings, an impossible feat. That’s pretty basic, something a 1300 player could do.

So then I try to win the h pawn, so I can create that double-threat I need. That’s about 1500-level skill. I try to use the “three square rule,” which says if I can get parallel to the pawn on the 5th rank by three squares or fewer, I can win it. So I try Kf3 and Kf4 first. I know Black knows this plan, so he’ll defend those three squares with Kg7, Kf6. And this is the key to “seeing ahead.” I know what I’m trying to do, but I also know my opponent knows it, so I know that he’ll try to stop me in the only way possible. It’s not some sort of crazy ability to move pieces in my head, it’s knowledge of endgame patterns that lead me to what can - what MUST - be played to keep the game even. If Black plays anything else, he loses. Sure, he’s legally entitled to play “Kf3, Kg7, Kf4, b6” and lose immediately, but no human actually thinks way because that’s an instantly losing position and is trivial. When Glee says he calculated 15 moves ahead, I bet he didn’t even bother with b6 in his moves, nor did he count the 20 moves to an easy mate thereafter. b6 is such a bad, suicidal move, that Glee not only doesn’t bother to consider it, but doesn’t give himself credit for it either. That’s why when a Hollywood writer says “Mate in 15,” it’s meaningless. Nobody really thinks that way. Nobody bothers to count the number of moves of a trivial sideline that nobody would actually play!

So anyway, that doesn’t work because after Kf6, I’m blocked by King Opposition, a technique very junior players learn in their earliest lessons. So I try Outflanking instead. From the start, Kf3 Kg7, Ke4 and now Kf6 is answered by Kf4, winning the opposition and making Black cede control of the e5 or f5 or g5 square. But then I realize he can give me e5 and it won’t actually matter. It superficially looks like I’m winning, but no, he’s faster to my g pawn via g5-g4-g3 than I am to his h pawn.

So now I abandon the hope of winning the h pawn by force. I have to out-race him to the b pawn and give up my g pawn. I first try the same route I just took. I say in my head “Kf4 for white, Kf6 for black, white to play.” And I count. 5 moves til I walk to the b pawn, and I’m clear to queen with my pawn across the halfway mark (the 5th rank). 3 moves for Black, so his pawn can move up two more squares- that makes 5 moves for Black - and it’s still White to play. His pawn is on g3 and I’m on a5 with a king on b7.

So instantly I see Searching for Bobby Fischer in my head, the famous scene at the end where they queen on opposite sides of the board, but it’s a skewer on the long diagonal and Josh wins the championship. It’s a common motif. I count again. I queen in 3, he queens in 2 (from g3, recall), so Black wins the pawn race and I’m about to queen but there are stalemate tricks, so it’s a draw. This is something I think, if they could get this far, a 1500 player would know about. It’s just a memorized endgame situation, so I’d just threaten Ka8 stalemates until it’s an official draw.

So I see if I can win a tempo somewhere, speed up by one move. I do that because I just saw that I’m one move short. Can I get that b pawn faster? Yes I can. I just walk the diagonal to b6 and go in from the front. Ke3-d4-c5-b6-b7. 5 moves, but this time Black is farther from my pawn. Let’s count again. Black is on the 8th rank, my g pawn on the 3rd rank, 8-3 = 5. 5 moves away. I’m farther to the queenside, so there’s no way he can “shoulder” me off my diagonal path, that’s easy enough to check, so this plan is unstoppable.

And this is where I pause to point out, dear reader, I’ve reached the key word - unstoppable - that means this’ll likely be the main variation. Through all that calculation and visualization, with all that endgame knowledge and study, I’ve forced a continuation that MUST be followed exactly, or else one side wins easily. I know I can win the b pawn in 5 moves and Black’s only hope is to win my g pawn in turn. I’ve already ruled out winning the h pawn myself, so there’s no other try left for either side. Ergo, this plan MUST be the main continuation.

So then it’s 1. Ke3 Kg7 2. Kd4 Kf6 3. Kc5 Kg5 4. Kb6 Kg4 5. Kxb7 Kxg3 6. a6 h4 7. a7 h3 8. a8=Q. The fun thing is now I know from my endgame study that all I must do as white is control the h1 square for one move, park a queen there, and it’s game over. It’s mate in maybe 15, maybe 20…heck, maybe 30, but no chess player counts the moves. We just know “Queen on h1, Black resigns.” As my five-year old would say, “it’s a bong-gonk,” which is the sound effect on popular chess site lichess.org when your opponent resigns.

But Black is going to stop me, remember? I know the plan, so therefore so does Black, so he’ll try to prevent that. If 9. h2, Kc7! and two things happen: the h1 square is controlled by the queen AND the black king is cut off from the g2 square, where he could otherwise go to prevent the Qh1 idea!

This, dear reader, is what people mean when they say chess is beautiful. Look at the simple arrangement of pieces, how the queen is just perfectly situated, as are the black pieces, just to make this kind of “gotcha” moment possible. The white king is in just the right place to “discover” the queens attack onto two critical squares at the same time, at just the last second, to win the game. It’s gorgeous. It’s perfect. It’s art.

Alas! Black has another resource! And this is where chess skill really shines. The weaker player would see the above line, rush to push that h pawn, and say “Oh wow, beautiful win!” A stronger player tries harder for his opponent, refuses to take the loss, and figures out that Kg2! ruins that plan. Notice that Glee, like I do, gives it an “exclam[ation]”…a brilliant move. It truly is a brilliant defense, because it allows Black to cross the Rubicon and control that all-important h1 square w/ the king, right before the laser fence of the queen’s diagonal ray is put up.

How to defeat it? This is where I deviate from Glee. I just played. Kc7, knowing that if I can get my king within 2 tempi of g3, it’s a win. I won’t bore you with the details, just trust me that it’s yet another “I studied this idea” thing.

Kc7+ (Glee palyed Kb6, not sure it matters), K must control h1 so either h2 or g1, doesn’t matter. Either way, I’m checking along the ranks and/or threatening Qh1 on every move. I see the simple “wiggle pattern” Qa2, Qb1 (or Qb3), and I go along diagonals, checking the king, who must stay in contact with h1 or close by.

I’m not really thinking in terms of exact squares, just ranks. “Check second rank, check first rank, check second rank again,” while the queen moves diagonally closer. Finally, it’s on the e-file, and I can bring the coup de grace. Qe2+ eventually. Now no king position works. Kg1, Kg4+, forking king and pawn. Kh2 holds temporarily, but I “zugzwang him off” with any king move. I win. Kh1 Qf3, same thing next move. Kg3, which is what Stockfish played against me when I tried it out, and my favorite, Qg4! The very same idea as before, way back when the Queen was on a8! I control the long diagonal at a time when the king can’t scurry back to h1! Win, but this time in beautiful fashion!

And game. I don’t know if that was all clear or not, but my main point is this: I relied a lot on pre-trained knowledge. I reached a point where I could clearly see that if anything at all was winning, that THIS particular line was winning. I then just counted squares, and that’s an instant 8 moves of calculation. I found the Kg2 trick by deduction, which made the job harder than it first seemed, but again, prior training told me it must be winning, even if I didn’t know how yet.

Finally, I didn’t calculate exact moves after the first 8, I just calculated “a series of checks wiggles me to any square on the second rank I want. Hey, whaddayaknow, e2 works well. Even if it doesn’t, I can always reset and try something else.”

So it took me 8 moves to queen a pawn and 9 moves to get Qh1, winning. That’s 17 moves. While Glee calculated 15 moves, I calculated 17… but that’s not better, that’s worse! Glee’s solution is much better, much cleaner than mine, but as a former world champion used to say (Tartakower?), you can only win once per game, so in the end, the number of moves don’t even matter!

As a pitiful beginner I have to say that was an excellent explanation. I could see the ideas, even if I didn’t /don’t have a hope of having them myself. At least not without vastly more training than I’ll ever put into it.

The concepts shine through; both those of chess and of problem solving in general.


That is a superb post, Chessic_Sense! :sunglasses:

It shows the depth of thinking that can happen in chess, combining pattern recognition with analysis.

And yes, when analysing, I only consider good moves for my opponent.

With one minor correction, this is jolly useful in King and Pawn endings.
You are thinking of positions where there are two pawns blocking each other and if the attacking King can get to the same rank as the opponent’s pawn, then the King wins the pawn with repeated ‘zugzwangs’.
(Zugzwang translates approximately as ‘compulsion to move’ and means a defender has to abandon a solid position because they have to make a legal move.)

So with this position:

White: King d6 pawn g5
Black: King f7 pawn g6

White wins no matter whose move it is, e.g. 1. Kd7 Kf8 2. Ke6 Kg7 3. Ke7 Kg8 4. Kf6 Kh7 5. Kf7 Kh8 6. Kxg6 1-0

I am dazzled. :star_struck:

Please, keep this discussion going… even though at this point I don’t understand a word of it.

@wolfpup I got Shredder Chess for my kindle. Trying a couple of games has made it clear to me that I don’t even know how to approach the beginning of a game…

Yes, it was a dream job. :grin:
Teaching is a tough career, but having all volunteers for my subjects (chess, roleplaying and computer games) meant it was far easier to get my points across. Also the pupils used to turn up early :nerd_face: and spend the lesson intently focusing.

I was lucky enough to do that for 18 years (and we won three national titles :sunglasses:)
I’m been retired for a while … and yes my spelling shows I am English. :wink:


King and Pawn endings are the easiest to follow, since both piece moves slowly.
Set up either of the two positions mentioned above and play steadily through the moves - I promise you will understand what is going on.

In the first 6-10 moves, try to do three things:

  • bring out your pieces
  • control the centre of the board (especially d4, d5, e5, e4)
  • get castled

Obviously whilst doing that watch out for any threats your opponent makes. :wink:

Here’s two examples of reasonable opening play:

  1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Be7 4. OO d6 5. Nc3 Be6 6. Bxe6 fxe6

  2. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. Qc2 OO 5. a3 Bxc3+ 6. Qxc3 d6

This is helpful. Thanks. (Bolts on the training wheels…)

By “Kindle” I presume you mean the Kindle Fire tablet (now officially known as Amazon Fire). If so, then that’s the same Shredder Chess that I have.

This discussion inspired me to play a game, which I haven’t done for a while. It reminded me of what a good learning tool Shredder is. If you screw up, you can take back a move, or indeed take back any number of moves. You can tap on the “?” to get a move suggestion. And you get an ongoing assessment of which side is doing better. As for your comment about the beginning of a game, there are some general principles, as @glee just described – you want every move to develop your pieces so they have maximum control of the board, and ideally you want to get your pawns into the classic formation where they control mostly the center of the board and protect each other. Plus, you can get a bunch of standard openings out of a chess book. All chess programs use them, and they’re literally called “book moves”.

I managed to win the game I just played (in 30 moves) but it’s not something to brag about. First of all the program was set to an Elo of 1173 (not sure where that exact number came from, but I think it evolved from the initial games I played, and I’ve kept it there). According to this rating scale, “below 1200” is considered a novice level. Yet even so, it takes effort for me to win! If I set it to the kind of level where it beat MacHack, I’d be totally demolished every time!

One thing for sure, though – even without immersing oneself in studying strategies, merely playing a lot makes for quite an improvement in one’s skill. I don’t know how good I could get if I really applied myself, but it’s clear that I don’t have a natural talent for the game.

BTW, I always play in “portrait” mode, where the chessboard takes up most of the screen.

Oh yes. I bought the first one when it came out, and I’m on my 5th one now. I take it everywhere with me. I often visit the SDMB on it when I’m away from my computer. The phone screen is just too small, except for those emergencies when you’re out, and you have to know this thing right now!

This is very helpful to know.

Also good to know.