How to visualize a position

I'm a decent player and am pretty good at tactics and visualizing series of moves with a board in front of me. However I have an extremely difficult time visualizing positions and moves purely in my head. Are there any tricks that make mentally visualizing easier, or is it just something that comes with lots of practice?

• Do you mean visualising positions if you are working from a book with no board set up in front of you?
– user1108
Oct 26 '15 at 11:18
• @Bad_Bishop that's a great example, yes. I can often do better looking at the board and memorizing the moves in the book and applying them to the board that I'm looking at, as opposed to memorizing a starting position and then reading the following moves from the book, if that makes any sense :). Oct 26 '15 at 19:01
• @Bad_Bishop just thought of another example: when reading up on openings if the moves are listed in algebraic notation I have a tough time following without looking at a board and actually picturing the moves. Oct 26 '15 at 21:32

Improving board vision

• When studying on your own, use a book with many diagrams so that you can check your visualisation regularly, e.g. Logical Chess: Move by Move by Irving Chernev
• When studying with a partner, ask them to call out the moves of a variation then test your accuracy with questions like "what colour square is white's knight on?"

Notes on board vision

• I like to put a small (often 2 or 3 whole moves) variation into words as a mini-plan. E.g. "Moves 4-6: White gambits a pawn to develop the bishop". It doesn't have to be a deep analysis at all, just a narration to the moves to convert algebraic notation into English
• "Long variation, wrong variation" - attributed to Bent Larsen in The Wisest Things Ever Said About Chess, by Andrew Soltis. In other words, visualising a variation 20 moves deep is unlikely to be beneficial
• Don't get side tracked by sub variations
• To make the visualisations easier, study endgames (i.e. fewer pieces to visualise)
• "You can't see 64 squares at the same time" - attributed to Alfred Binet in The Wisest Things Ever Said About Chess, by Andrew Soltis. This is a natural limitation to human perception. Even looking at a board, you can only really see 12-16 squares at a time. Try to 'chunk' information together to reduce the strain. E.g. you can condense information into words like "White has a castled king behind a fianchetto"

Example with an opening that you want to learn using White

Suppose you want to visualise the opening 1. d4 d5 2. c4 dxc4 3. e4 e5 4. Nf3 Bb4+ 5. Bd2 Bxd2+ 6. Nbxd2 exd4 7. Bxc4 Nc6 8. O-O Qf6 9. e5 Qg6 10. Re1 Nge7 11. Nb3 O-O 12. Nfxd4

Let's visualise this step-by-step, checking your visualisation against the board in the spoiler tags below:

1. d4 d5 2. c4 dxc4 3. e4

How close was your visualisation? The way I remember this is in words to remember the mini-plan: White gambits a pawn to get an ideal centre

PS. I've used a screenshot of the position from Ubisoft's Chessmaster, as the replayer can't be hidden in a spoiler tag: How to hide chessboard in a spoiler tag?.

3... e5 4. Nf3

Black tries to demolish White's centre with the thematic ...e5 and White aims to protect the centre

4...Bb4+ 5. Bd2 Bxd2+ 6. Nbxd2

Black develops a piece with tempo. White offers a trade to develop another piece that will end up on b3 to regain the gambit pawn

6...exd4 7. Bxc4 Nc6

Black keeps hold of their extra pawn for the time being as White will have to spend a tempo to regain it

1. O-O Qf6 9. e5 Qg6 10. Re1

White castles to safety whereas Black posts the Queen to the Kingside

10...Nge7 11. Nb3 O-O 12. Nfxd4

Black castles away. White regains the pawn. Let the middlegame begin!

Source of variation and abridged analysis: Starting Out: Queen's Gambit Accepted by A. Raetsky and M. Chetverik

Example with an opening that you want to learn using Black

This is slightly harder as the board is now rotated both for practical play and in the spolier tags. Suppose you want to visualise the opening 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 dxc4 5. a4 Bf5 6. e3 e6 7. Bxc4 Bb4 8. O-O Nbd7 9. Qe2 Bg6 10. e4 O-O 11. Bd3 Bh5 12. e5 Nd5 13. Nxd5 cxd5 14. Qe3 Bg6

1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3

White's most popular try in the Slav is to develop both knights early

4...dxc4 5. a4 Bf5 6. e3 e6 7. Bxc4

Black develops the light square bishop and locks it outside the pawn chain

7...Bb4 8. O-O

Black develops a piece. White breaks the pin.

8...Nbd7 9. Qe2 Bg6 10. e4 O-O

White expands in the centre

1. Bd3 Bh5 12. e5 Nd5 13. Nxd5 cxd5

The centre is closed

1. Qe3 Bg6

Black offers to trade bad bishop for good. Let the middlegame begin!

Source of variation and abridged analysis: The Slav: Move by Move by Cyrus Lakdawala

• Brilliant response thank you so much for all the effort you put into it. Hadn't heard "You can't see 64 squares at the same time" before; the chunking tip is excellent I'll try to put that into practice. All the other tips are very helpful too I'll be referring back to this response often. Thanks again! Oct 31 '15 at 16:42