How do Grandmasters think in an unknown position and make the best move?

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    An interesting anecdote from when I was learning chess: they looked at how grandmasters and novices viewed the chess board by showing them a position for a brief moment and then asking them to re-create it. Obviously the GMs did better, but what was interesting was the kinds of mistakes. The novices might misplace a piece by one square, or miss a pawn. The GMs, when they made mistakes, often misplaced several pieces, forming a tactically similar position. When this test was done using randomized board positions, the GMs did no better than novices, and often worse).
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 9, 2019 at 19:05
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    While that's not really an answer to your question, I find it will likely provide insight to supplement the answers.
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 9, 2019 at 19:06
  • My understanding is that GMs do not encounter unknown positions. If there was a type of position that they didn't know then their opponents would know that and play it against them. I'm glad that there is little at stake in my games and so little incentive for my opponents to study my games for weaknesses. Jan 10, 2020 at 12:44

3 Answers 3


When a GM, or even lesser strong players reach a position that is totally unfamiliar, they have to break it down into components. They evaluate the following for BOTH sides. In general, a lot of this is done subconsciously by strong players.

  1. Material, and what pieces are better. Sometimes a well-placed knight can be better than a rook, for example.
  2. Can any of the pieces be shut out of play?
  3. King safety.
  4. Are there any direct threats?
  5. Pawn structure and any corresponding weaknesses. (like doubled pawns, but not all doubled pawns are weak or bad as sometimes they provide great protection...more in the endgame can they really be a big problem, but you have to judge this carefully.)
  6. How many pawn islands does each side have? (less is usually better)
  7. Where are the pawn majorities? (Usually a q-side pawn majority is easier to mobilize)
  8. Passed pawns.
  9. Who has more space?
  10. Who better controls the center?
  11. Are there open lines, and who can control them?
  12. Are there half-open files that you can put pressure down?
  13. Strong outposts like being able to put a knight on d6, or a bishop on h6. This can disrupt communication between the two sides of the board, and make defense moving from one side to the other very difficult.
  14. Any colored square weaknesses, like being weak on the light or dark squares.
  15. Any lead in development for either side.
  16. Which trades are good for me, and bad for him? (exchanges are one of the least written about subjects in chess, but they are one of the most important factors in chess as you get stronger. Too bad it has not been translated, but there is a book in Russian called "The Encyclopedia of Exchanges".)
  17. Related to number 16, and that is who has the better endgame if certain trades happen?

Finally, based on these factors, players weigh them based on experience and importance, and then they come up with a list of candidate moves, and they calculate likely continuations.

I might have missed a point, but that is a pretty complete list.

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    @PhishMaster - and how do those things relate to each other weight wise to help a GM pick a move? Are those what a program uses to analyse the possible moves? That tells us more WHAT they might think about rather than HOW they actually think.
    – yobamamama
    Dec 8, 2019 at 20:09
  • @yobamamama yes, to a large extent, chess engines/programs are written to evaluate a position using similar intuition to a human player, so there is great overlap with the items in this list. Dec 9, 2019 at 22:47
  • I edited my answer to include: "players weigh them based on experience and importance", which is how they use those factors. Dec 9, 2019 at 22:49
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    What does this question have to do with programming? Other than using engines, I could care less about programming, and how they do it. That is their problem and job...not mine. I am not a programmer. Dec 10, 2019 at 0:07
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    @yobamamama to answer your question - it very much depends on style of play; and the state of the game. There's no "this is the fixed order of importance"; it's a bit like asking a driver if they think looking out for pedestrians is more important than looking out for other cars. The answer is it depends if you're on a motorway or in a city. As for programming - if the OP cared about programming; then they should explicitly say so. Hoping that people can guess the intention is daft.
    – UKMonkey
    Dec 19, 2019 at 16:20

Depends a lot from player to player and also position to position I think.

The fundamental is that their intuition (built up from studying and playing and solving a lot) will suggest a few moves (or occasionally only one) and they will calculate those moves (candidate moves) and pick whichever they think is best based on calculation and evaluation.

They might find more candidate moves suggest themselves whilst they are calculating the first ones.


GMs think differently. Most players would use pattern recognition, intuition, and calculation of variations for candidate moves.

Some GMs will often think past the board and consider the opponent.

They also do other things that are beyond my pay grade. I read about GM thinking once and it convinced me to give up that goal. I just enjoyed playing as I could not think like they did in what. To me, it was somewhat contradictory and illogical in ways.

  • Have any links to articles describing the way of thinking you found unintuitive? Just curious. I thought they relied even more on pattern recognition than regular players. Dec 10, 2019 at 15:12
  • @JarrodChristman -- They do use pattern analysis a lot. They are so trained and experienced that such is intuitive without really thinking. I was referring to that book I read long long ago and the things it described GMs doing. I stopped reading when I realized that GM was not in my future. One thing I do remember was playing the person and other off the board factors they considered.
    – yobamamama
    Dec 10, 2019 at 15:26
  • It’s a long shot, but would your source happen to be “think like a grandmaster” by Alexander Kotov?
    – 11684
    Dec 10, 2019 at 21:58
  • Possibly. I read the book, or part of it anyway over 30 years ago. Maybe 40 or more. Has to be over 40 as I had given up on tournament chess and did not read any more chess books.
    – yobamamama
    Dec 10, 2019 at 23:46

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