Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
How Chess Improves Decision-Making
This is the first stanza of Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken”. In chess, as in life, we frequently have to make decisions. Many times we’re faced with choices. Do I open or close the center? Exchange minor pieces or not? Castle kingside or queenside? These decisions can have long-standing effects on our game so it’s important to get them right.
Hence, we can safely say that chess is a game of decisions. It is not only about deciding which move to play but also to make plenty of practical decisions like good time management on the chess clock or when to calculate and when to use your intuition.
The importance of decision-making in chess is also underlined by the fact that one of the world’s best chess players, Boris Gelfand, wrote 2 great chess books on this aspect of the game – “Positional Decision Making in Chess” and “Dynamic Decision Making in Chess”.
That’s why in the following article, we want to discuss how and in which way chess improves decision-making.
We shall dive straight into an example and discuss the principles involved.
If you want to learn the maximum from this example, we suggest you to stop reading and try to solve this chess puzzle first. It is Black to move. What is his best move here?
First of all, we have to mention that Black is a piece down. Hence, he has to try to find a concrete solution. If he decides to play a calm move like 1…Rd7 (protecting the bishop on b7), he will be simply worse.
If you look into the position a bit deeper, you might find the tactical idea connected with a double rook sacrifice on h2 and h4 in order to give mate with the queen on h4.
However, even if you spotted this tactical idea, you still need to decide how to execute this tactical shot. At first glance, there seems to be no difference if Black plays 1…Rxh4+ 2.gxh4 Rh2+ 3.Kxh2 Qh4 mate or 1…Rh2+ 2.Kxh2 Rxh4 3.gxh4 Qh4 mate.
In fact, there is a big difference. If you start with 1…Rxh4 2.gxh4 Rh2+, White does not need to take the rook with his king, he has the additional option of taking the rook with his queen 3.Qxh2 (see the diagram on the left). In this case, White is simply winning. It is easy to miss this move by White because in the starting position White’s pawn was still on g3 blocking the b8-h2 diagonal.
This is the key point. If you’re solving this chess puzzle wrong during a chess training session, you might argue that you saw the right idea and were only too careless.
In a practical game, however, such a decision (1…Rxh4+ or 1…Rh2+) decides about the outcome of the game – in the first case, White wins; in the latter case, Black mates White in three moves.
Decision-Making and Blunders
No person in the world can claim that he is the best in decision making. Deciding something is a process which involves various difficulties like the own decision-making skills, a limit in time or the complexity of the decision.
Decision-making in chess is also a hard process which is influenced by various issues like your skills, the time limit and the position on the board. Frequently, chess players blunder, because of making the wrong decision!
A Study on Blunders
Ashton Anderson from Microsoft Research, Jon Kleinberg from Cornell University and Sendhil Mullainathan from Harvard University have made a study on decision-making by analyzing multiple chess games which have been played online by amateurs and grandmasters.
They considered that blundering, hence making wrong decisions, primarily depends on the skill level of the players. They examined games with the focus on time, complexity and skill level and varied one of these factors while the others stayed constant to find out which one has the biggest influence on correct decision-making in chess.
However, there was one result which was extremely surprising and completely unexpected. A case when skillful chess players were more likely to make a blunder than the weaker ones. The three investigators call such kind of positions the “skill anomalous positions”.
The reasons for this phenomenon aren’t that clear, but it’s obvious that such things happen in positions with high complexity. Thus, the most important factor is the complexity of a position!
This result casts another light on chess training. So that chess improves decision-making, it is important to analyze complex positions!
Write Down Your Solutions
Many chess players make one important mistake when they are training at home. They look at a position, think about the best move, make a decision and look for the result right after. If one of their ideas was a little related to the correct solution, they can consider having solved the puzzle correctly.
But hold a second – isn’t it lying to yourself? Sure, that you would have done exactly that move in your game? Usually not. Write down the solution of which you think that it is the absolutely correct one!
Playing chess is about effective decision-making. All your wonderful ideas don’t matter in the real game at the chess board. Only the move that you play matters and decides if you improve your position or worsen it. GM Jacob Aagaard got to the heart of it in his excellent book “Grandmaster Preparation – Calculation”:
“If you write down your solutions, you are accountable to yourself for the quality of your decision-making, especially whether you saw the most important details needed to make the right decision. Luck is not a factor to rely on and neither is its cousin guessing!”
Decision-Making and Opening Preparation
Opening preparation is one area where many players face difficulties in making the right decision. They often overestimate the opponent’s preparation and think for hours for the best way to be one step ahead.
Instead of losing hours and hours of desperately choosing the best opening to play – just get started! The skill to make a decision quickly is also extremely important in life. Many people hesitate so long until it’s just too late.
Should I play the Sicilian Defense Dragon Variation, the Pirc Defense or the French Defense? All these decisions are very important! But it’s also important to make them and not to hesitate endlessly.
Chess Improves Decision-Making in Daily Life
Making decision is a skill that we need every day – as a student at school, as an employer or employee at work, in your free time or in relationships to others. That’s why the ability to make decisions should be trained as early as possible. The perfect institution for that is the school!
Nowadays, it’s proven that chess at school has plenty of advantages. One of them is that improves the ability to make decisions in an unbent atmosphere. Children learn skills which are necessary in their daily life in an alternative way of lessons.
Hence, it is very meaningful to feature chess in the school system.
Learning by doing! Every move in the chess game is a decision that you make and for which you have to bear the consequences. Chess improves decision-making skills by such kind of training effectively. So go ahead and train some chess for life!