tl;dr: How to visualize and assess if you can't?

I'm pining, no, not for the fjords, but for returning to the board after Corona. I still read a good amount of chess books, but maybe some specific training couldn't hurt in the meantime.

Not surprisingly, as a FM I exactly know my weaknesses:

  • 1 ageing (I'm 60 now)
  • 2 no knowledge of opening theory
  • 3 a certain shortcoming when dealing with pin tactics
  • 4 horizon effect

When dealing with that...

  • 1 I'm currently going for my diploma in computer science, so probably my brain's still flashing like it did when I was young (ha, Rolling Stones reference). Nothing specific I could do anyway except constant practice.
  • 2 Remembering and playing main variants would take the fun out of chess for me (and it's even doubtful if it increases my score - what good is it losing 25% less by opening desasters when drawing 50% more?).
  • 3 This could be easily trained specifically, e.g. with a Lichess pin themed training set.
  • 4 This is what I am asking for (but feel free to comment on the other points). It seems I always calculate (when I calculate at all, my intuition is extremely good, i.e. I quickly see the candidate move if there is only one) exactly one move too short. (And that is when the figures begin to blur before my mental eye. I'm a very lousy "blindfold" player by the way.) For example, if the problem involves trampling the poor king to death with Q and R, the calculation tree forks to kingdom come and I am unable to follow it.

Thus: How to decide when one can cut a variant with a definite result? And don't just answer "quiet"! A prime recent example (donated to me by a chess club colleague as a tactic problem for our club zine:

[fen ""]

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Bg4 4.dxe5 Bxf3 5.Qxf3 dxe5 6.Bc4 Nf6 7.Qb3 Qe7 8.f3 Nc6 9.O-O Qc5+ 10.Be3 Qe7 11.Nc3 Nd4 12.Qa4+ c6 13.Rad1 b5

Of course, I start calculating Nxb5 in a microsecond (no FM needed for that...). Hack, hack, hack, slice and dice, rook doubling, oh bother, Black can protect the mobbing victim on d7 sufficiently. Quiet. Cut. (Of course I'd play it anyway as the piece would be lost in any variant, but also of course I must already decide about that when playing Rad1.)

A check on Lichess with Stockfish shows Black is dead as a doornail: the position is quiet for one, two moves, but even if White could not play B-xa7-b6, Black would take ages to untie while White simply promotes one of the queenside pawns. Thus, again: how can I "see" that, even if I'm more or less unable to actually "see" the position before my wrong cut?

  • 1
    Your example lacks all credibility when you play 8. f3 instead of giving serious consideration to 8. Qxb7 which wins a pawn, threatens (wins on the next move) the a1 rook all while keeping an eye on b4 (possible queen check) and e4 (possible Nxe4) and prevents Ng4 (Qc8+). Yours sincerely, A 1700 patzer
    – Brian Towers
    Commented May 4, 2021 at 12:35
  • 1
    8 f3 looks weak but not that weak: the obvious 8 Qxb7 would force Qb4+ 9 Qxb4 Bxb4+ and White has sold the initiative for a pawn-up endgame. Then uber-famous game Morphy vs. Duke of Brunswick reached this position; Morphy spurned the free pawn to pile on with 8 Nc3, and after c6 9 Bg5 b5 10 Nxb5 gave checkmate in only 7 more moves. 8 f3? is a worse version of the same idea because Black could still have bailed out with Qb4+ to reach an endgame without even shedding a pawn. Commented May 4, 2021 at 22:25
  • @BrianTowers: I assume you tl;dr-ed, I don't hold that against you ;-) - but I explicitely mentioned somewhere in the overlong post that a colleague (1300-1500, he really boosted his rating in online times) played it. Even more, since Noam mentioned it: Another 1500 of my club, in a team match, took the pawn instead of doing a Morphy, lost the endgame and became banter victim. Maybe this buddy remembered the incident...I, of course, would take the pawn and win the endgame. Commented May 5, 2021 at 8:04
  • 1
    Actually, since we are discussing this game in general, 11. Qxb7 wins a piece I reckon, but if I miss that for whatever reason, I'd seriously consider 11. c3 instead of 11. Nc3 just to cut off black knight. There is still almost no useful move black can make without losing material
    – sleepy
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 8:47
  • @Sleepy: I must admit I only fleetingly looked at the prehistory of the position, but I think I also en passant wondered "Why not 11.Qxb7, it obviously wins a piece?" when setting it up. Ask my club buddy... Commented May 5, 2021 at 15:00

2 Answers 2


I'm not that old (yet), but I do know how it feels. I even showed a few of my games to GMs asking for feedback, and it turns out that very often I have seen the (good) move recommended by them, pondered about it, but could not calculate properly and played another move instead. Too bad.

The solution I came up with is largely based on Dvoretsky books (not the latest ones but those from maybe 80-s or 90-s): calculation is overrated. Calculating is for engines; for humans it is very inefficient in terms of energy consumption and error costs. Instead, you should avoid calculating as much as possible, and only do it when absolutely necessary. With your experience, you should trust your intuition and know which move is good and which not before starting to calculate lines. In your example, you already knew that Nxb5 was the move; there was no need to calculate it before you actually had the position after Qxb5+ Nd7. Dvoretsky actually has quite a few examples how to solve studies using this method.

This is not going to be a popular opinion due to the recent progress of engines chess; a lot of noobs will think that if computers play better than humans, they should try thinking just like engines do. I suppose if you're 15 this might indeed work for you.

  • Dvoretsky, yeah, can't go wrong with the guy. :-) But from a practical standpoint, your suggestion does not really help, as I already calculate only few things, and I won't get around assessing the correctness of Nxb5 - if I don't trust it, I wouldn't have dared Rad1 as my younger colleague did. Thus in a comparable situation, I either must calculate or trust my instinct (or think "Lets have some fun and bring a possible incorrect sacrifice" - I love that too...) Commented May 5, 2021 at 8:11
  • But I am sure you do know this sacrifice is correct - even if you don't calculate it till mate, based on all your experience, black should not survive with K on e8 and undeveloped half of their pieces. So it is a matter of choice: either trust yourself and play Rad1 quickly (actually, I'd argue it's 12. Qa4+ that is committing - after c6, b5 is coming, and if you don't sac on b5 your previous moves make little sense) or try to calculate and risk making a mistake in your calculations and spend a lot of time with no guarantee of success.
    – sleepy
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 8:44

I think there is a different type of calculation more grounded in a satisfying form of logic, rather than tactical fireworks.

The cut is when you recognize a positional lock. Granted, I'm 400 points lower than you and just aspirational here!

"Black is tied down with 3 defenders on the 3 attackers, including his King in the center. He cannot move anything."

"Black must castle to deploy his forces else he is playing 8 points down. Instead of pawn race counting, we can do Castle counting: g6, Bg7, O-O, (or Qe6, Be7, O-O) and when he does d7 falls anyway." So then, what kind of progress can you make with 3 or 4 unopposed tempi?

"Traditional calculation fails here. It's a rare case where the two sides are hardly interacting at all (desperate consolidation vs. pawn storm) so you can make moves however you want."

I always love when my coach gives me a positional-lock type of lesson!

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