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This is a broad question about intuition and chess.

I imagine that there is a limit to how far ahead even the best chess masters can see into the future, and how far they can stretch their memory. When this limit is reached during a chess match, how do expert chess players make their decisions? I guess that the answer must be "chess intuition", and I am hoping that the masters among the community can explain to me what chess intuition looks like (I'm imagining some innate feeling for what the right move to make is based on past experiences/general chess principles) and how it factors into the games of chess masters.

To make a comparison with another field-- intuition plays a huge role in doing mathematics. Having a feel for what the right strategy/approach at any given time and being able to update that feel after making mistakes are two crucial skills to have as a mathematician. The Fields medalist Charles Fefferman once famously compared math to playing chess with the devil: the devil is much better at chess than you, but the catch is that you get infinitely many take-backs. These take-backs are how you develop intuition for a problem beyond what you already know.

In chess, of course, there are no take-backs during a match. So, what does intuition look like during a chess match, and what is its role in chess matches?

EDIT: I am asking about a few things at once: the internal experience, when intuition is needed, how much intuition has to be relied upon. Towards this last question, how often (and when) will chess experts make moves essentially “on faith”, in that they don’t know where they will lead or exactly what good they will provide, but are primarily acting on feeling or gut sense? (thanks to @Michael West for the clarifying question)

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    "I'm imagining some innate feeling for what the right move to make is based on past experiences/general chess principles" This is exactly correct. People study chess so that during the game they can rely on their knowledge for and apply general principles to their current position. Mar 28 at 22:12
  • the player probably also would try to apply his own style of playing using "intuition"
    – DialFrost
    Mar 29 at 5:31
  • Are you asking what is the internal experience of using intuition, or what kinds of moves are made, or? not sure what is meant by "look like" Mar 29 at 14:54
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    @MichaelWest Yes, I am asking about a few things at once: the internal experience, when intuition is needed, how much intuition has to be relied upon. Towards this last question, how often (and when) will chess experts make moves essentially “on faith”, in that they don’t know where they will lead or exactly what good they will provide, but are primarily acting on feeling or gut sense? I’ll add this to the main post.
    – yhkiz
    Mar 29 at 23:30

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This is a very interesting question. I may be just marginally qualified to answer it. My highest-ever rating was about 2300. I am a successful research mathematician in an applied area. There are plenty of people around who are better than me in both respects. On an absolute scale my achievements are fairly modest, but not many of my betters post on SE.

I can offer a couple of significant quotations. One is, I think, from Tigran Petrosian, but someone may correct me. I believe he said that he always knew when he was in form because at those times he would always find himself playing the move that he first thought of. The other is from the BBC "Master Game" TV show of some years ago, when IM Bill Hartston was surprised by a move and exclaimed "Why didnt I see that?" and then, after realising that the move was not actually all that good, "Ah, so thats why I didn't see it!"

Both players expected their intuition to present only good moves to their consciousness for approval. In blitz or simultaneous displays, the time spent on approving and checking the move may be very little. In a serious game, the checking will take a long time, especially if there is some risk involved, but very often I find that the move that I want to play can actually be played, even when there seems to be a problem with it. If the checking does take you past your calculating limit, some players will still go with their intuition, and others will settle for a safer alternative. It depends on your character, how you feel that day, and the tournament standings.

It feels like a matter of direct perception. As a complete novice you see where the pieces stand and have to work out what moves and captures are possible. A bit later you just see them, and later still you "just see" pins and forks and weaknesses. You see an exposed King and are sure there is a mate there, but you dont yet see the exact sequence of checks. The more you play, the more you see.

The same thing happens to me in mathematics. A profound piece of advice applicable to mathematics at many levels is that if there is a problem you cannot solve, then probably there is a simpler, related, problem that you cannot solve either. You first task is to find it. A valuable intuition to have is that some problem can be solved and is worth solving and will lead somewhere. A line of attack also suggests itself. Again, I dont really know where that comes from, but an intense wish to solve the problem, and a frustration at not being able to solve it, are important factors. Intuition suggests, and the conscious mind does what it can.

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Intuition is integral to the game of chess. Indeed chess is as much a game of ideas and intuition as it is of moves and calculation.

Some examples of where intuition is used:

  • To devise and evaluate potential plans
  • To select candidate moves for analysis
  • To select moves to play in bullet/blitz/time trouble
  • To decide when to start or stop calculating variations
  • To weigh the relative importance of different factors in complex positions
  • To evaluate unclear or unbalanced positions

The better your intuition, the stronger you will play - and vice-versa. Don't think of calculation and intuition as two separate concepts - they're inextricably weaved together.

Speaking from personal experience, I became a significantly stronger player when I learned to trust my intuition more. And from observing my children playing chess, I think that good intuition is actually the first sign of chess talent.

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Most grandmasters, especially even lower rated players, memorise middlegame and endgame position, general principles and tactics e.g. rook and king endgame, queen and king endgames. Theres always general principles for these kind of positions, assuming the position is nearly even for white and black.

The position need not be exactly the same, so most take reference to a similar position.

However for complicated middlegame positions, especially in rapid where people do not have much time to think, the best they can do is use their general knowledge and principles e.g. take to the center not away from it, and look a few moves ahead.

This what i think intuition is broadly

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