Improve Your Thinking Process In Chess

Have you ever lost a game because of a terrible blunder? Do you regularly have oversights of some kind? Or do you give up hope in a slightly worse position and lose because you can't find a way out? It might all be due to your thinking process in chess.

This page will describe two different thinking processes in chess. I call them the technical and the psychological thinking process.

Let's start with the "technical thinking process".

Technical Thinking Process

Here you can discover a thinking process, which garantees a logical way to construct your plans and moves during the chess game.

I would advice you to break down the preparation of each move in several steps. If this sounds too difficult, try it anyway. I garantee it will prove much easier to play this way then to play while trying to find moves randomly.

It may not come as a surprise that you'll have to search for a move that will acomplish something positive for you. The question now is, how do you conduct such a search and what positive cause do you want to accomplish?

All of this starts after your opponent has made a move. While sitting at the board in an official game you first have to note the opponents move. After this, your thinking process starts.

Simple (Yet Powerful) Thinking Process in Chess

  1. What did the opponent's last move change about the position?
  2. Which Checks, Captures and Threats exist?
  3. What plan will I adopt?
  4. Which Candidate Move will help me the most (and can I falsify it)?

1. What did the opponent's last move change about the position?
This is the first thing to explore. Your opponents last move will have changed something. It may have several strenghtening effects to his position, but it may have weakening effects as well. You'll have to find out what effects the last move caused.

Evaluating the consequences improves your awareness of specific elements in the position (like the arising of a weak square, undefended piece, etc.). These elements may then be exploited immediately or maybe later during the game.

2. Which Checks, Captures and Threats exist?
Next you'll explore what your opponent is up to. This can be done starting with the most forcing plan (checks) down to the more insignificant ones (improving the position of a piece).

You'll have to find out if the threat is real.
Your opponent may be threatening to capture your bishop with his knight in a closed position. If this is not a threat, let him go ahead. You don't need to defend against it. The same may be true for captures (offers) or checks. If you can win big by letting your king be checked, go ahead!

Calculate until quiescence. This means calculating until no more forcing moves are left. You'll have to assess that final position in your minds eye.

3. What plan will I adopt?
You are playing your moves according to the plans you make. So you're likely to have had a plan before your opponent moved his piece. Taking the previous two steps into account, you now check if your plan is still valid. You also look for a new (and maybe better) plan.

3.a. Make your "to do" list.
When you've found a plan to implement, you add the steps (necessary to reach its goal) to your "to do" list. These are the steps you'll have to transform into concrete moves. These steps may include things like "get the king safe" and "open files and diagonals". They will also include things like "prevent the knight to intrude" and "keep the enemy pieces restricted".

Creating your "to do" list may enable you to find candidate moves much easier.

3.b. Find moves for a plan.
If you have found a possible plan, this is the time to find out if that plan is realistic. This is done by exploring the moves which could help bringing your best plan about. If you can't find a good move for a plan, you'll have to turn to another plan.

If you have found a plan and a good move to start going for it, you may (if time and position allow you to) take some time to find an even better plan.

4. Finalize Candidate Moves and try to falsify them.

Check the consequences of your next move, before playing it. You may have selected several candidate moves to think about. You thought of them in terms of what they accomplish. Now try to discard them in a scientific way. Is there any respons you can find, that will prove your candidate move wrong? If they're all proven wrong, you'll have to design another plan (step 3). Usually you'll try to prove wrong the whole variation you want to play. Because of the complexity of this step, it may cause you to overlook some consequences of individual moves.

Therefore you may also wish to include a simple blunder check.

4.a. Blunder Check
This may be obvious to most of you. But if you regularly lose because you blunder a piece (or pawn) away, this may be for you. If you've decided which move to play, check for obvious blunders.

Check if your piece is safe from direct capture and attack on its new square. You also have to take into account the function it had on the square it moved from. This function can no longer be performed. So, if the piece was defending another piece or square, this one may no longer be defended and therefore your move may not be the best.

Finally, choose the best candidate move and play it!.

This ends your technical thinking process for this move. You'll repeat it after your opponents next move.

Psychological Thinking Process

During your chess game you also have a psychological thinking process going on. This process can influence your results very much.

Most people focus a lot on the technical processes. I would recommend you to be aware of the psychological process as well.


I try to be physically fit. This helps improve my concentration during the game. I notice my positive results often happen to materialize during the last part of long games. Usually my opponent starts playing inaccurate moves during the last hour of the game. More often than not, the win is achieved in the last fifteen minutes, when concentration levels are lowest.

When I'm a little ill, or when I'm exhausted (by work or other things), the opposite is true. I'll try the best I can, but usually I only see half as much of the possibilities I normally discover. I'll be thinking of different distracting things during the game and probably fall victim to some oversight at some point.

I've recently played a game while I was a little sick (just because I like to play so much) again. All of the above happened. Now I've decided not to play any serious long game again if I'm not physically fit.

Irritated by your opponent.
Have you ever played an opponent who distracted you all the time? Like making annoying breathing noises or moving up and down his chair?

Even if you have good concentration, your opponent (or your surroundings or anything else) may disturb your concentration. This may happen accidentally (someone is having a cold and is sneezing all the time) or deliberately (your opponent tries to play the man instead of the board).

Either way, you are the one to deal with it.

You might want to ask the intruder to stop his annoing behavior, but usually this doesn't help (he's not doing it on purpose). You may also ask the appropriate official to judge the intruding behavior. If that doesn't solve the problem either, the last resort is to focus on the board and your game and ban all other stimuli. This may include things like covering your eyes with your hands, so you only see the chessboard (and don't notice the opponent). It even may involve taking earplugs with you to the game. If there's too much noise (caused by your opponent or others), you may be able to concentrate better using the earplugs.

Remember that only you are responsible for your concentration. Irritation will not help you, so try to find a solution to the problem.

Mental Attitude Towards The Game

With what attitude are you starting the game? Do you demand yourself to win (because your opponent has a lower rating)? Do you expect to play bad (because you've had a busy day)? Do you overestimate your opponents abilities (because he has a higher rating)?

The mental attitude you bring to the board will have its consequences. If you expect to lose, you probably will. And if you're committed to winning only, you may not take a possible draw and eventually lose.

I offer you the mental attitude that works best for me. It makes sure I'll be happy playing the next game too. And what's more important, a lost game has minimal negative impact.

It's founded on the awareness that I like the game of chess.

I try to be relaxed when starting a game. I'm confident in my own knowledge and abilities. I try to create a friendly climate. I'll do my best to find the right moves during the game. I'll allways credit my opponent for his good play.

And most of all, I will not let the result of the game define my mood. I'll think of the game as a possibility to learn. If I win, I may learn what works. If I lose, I may learn where I went wrong (and how to fix this).

But don't get me wrong. I don't like to lose. Actually I even hate losing. But if I lose, it doesn't help me if I beat myself up because I lost. The only thing to do to prevent myself from losing is to try the best I can.

Mental Attitude During The Game

Your mental attitude during the game of chess will have its influence on your opponent. It will also influence your own performance.

You may use the list below to find some areas of improvement. If you know yourself to fall victim to one of the described psychological problems, you might be able to overcome them as well.

The game isn't usually won within the first twenty moves. If you're impatient, you're probably attacking too soon. You're trying to force a solution, which isn't really there. You'll have to learn to create favourable circumstances first, and then make use of them. This includes winning a game where you're only one pawn up. This advantage may take a long time nurturing. If you're impatient, you're likely to try to rush the pawn to the queening square only to lose it in the process.

Playing unsound sacrifices.
Unsound sacrifices are often played in the hope the opponent will not find the right way through the complications. Are you someone who hopes the opponent won't find the best move? You may find yourself losing when he does find the refutation of your sacrifice. So, if you know your sacrifice to be unsound, don't play it.

Some unsound sacrifices may be worth considering though. If the sacrifice is promising, but so dfficult that the outcome is not clearly winning or losing and you feel you can cope with the difficulties down the road, it may be worth playing. Now the sacrifice may be proven unsound afterwards, but it isn't unsound for you, at the moment you're playing it.

Giving up hope.
If you're behind in material, you may feel your game is already lost. You see all kind of chances for the other party, and you're playing on hoping he will make a mistake somewhere. You might as well give up now, because you've given up hope.

I encourage you to never give up hope, unless your position is clearly hopeless (very, very much worse) and your opponent shows you he knows how to win this type of position. And even then, in timetrouble a stalemate may suddenly be achieved.

How to keep up hope? Count your blessings (the postive things in the position), try to create a threat or a drawing mechanism, knowing that in most games the superior side makes at least one mistake.

Playing the easy way (laziness).
If you have a winning advantage, don't think the game will win itself. You'll have to work to bring the fish in. Your opponent is looking for counterplay. He will use his knowledge of drawing mechanisms. He may even whip up a kingside attack.

If you play lazy, you may miss a lot of ideas. One of these can cost you the victory.

So, in winning positions you still have to find the best moves. You'll have to be aware of the plans of your opponent too. Prevent drawing mechanisms. Don't let the endgame of opposite colored bishops arise (unless it's clearly winning for you). Watch out for other drawing mechanisms like perpetual check too. Use all your knowledge to secure your win. When it's finally achieved (and this may take some hours) and only then,celebrate!

Thinking your opponent should surrender.
This one is closely related to the previous. You have a clearly winning advantage, but your opponent refuses to resign. He keeps on playing, while you expect him to give up. This might annoy you. After every move he plays you'll be more annoyed. You may get so upset, you finally make a mistake and eventually lose.

It may be a lazy attitude (why do I have to work hard while he should resign) or anything else that triggers your feelings. Try to find out why you get annoyed and deal with the feeling.

My suggestion is to focus on your own objectives. You have to play good chess to win the game. You have to checkmate your opponent. Only if he is mated you will have won. There's no chessrule stating that someone with a clear disadvantage should resign. So don't expect your opponent to resign. Focus on the things you can influence. You can play the right moves and checkmate him.

Seeing ghosts (and how to beat them).
Have you ever been afraid of playing a certain move because of the possible consequences? Only to find out (during analysis afterwards) these consequences were not very dangerous/real at all?

This is a case of not analyzing during the game. If you're afraid of some line, you can only be sure that it's really dangerous if you analyze it. This may not be easy. It will depend on your skillset how deep you can analyze variations during a game.

There is a way to beat the ghosts. Have faith in your abilities, analyze the best you can and then make a decision based on the real position you ended up with. If this doesn't help, the only way to improve is to work on your analyzing skills. The better they get, the less ghosts you'll have to deal with, because you can find them out by analyzing.

Losing concentration when winning.
As soon as you feel the hard work is done, you tend to relax a little. This relaxation causes your concentration to diminish. And this may cause problems during the rest of the game. You may not find the best moves anymore and therefore you cannot win the game (or maybe even lose it).

If you're aware of this mechanism, you can help yourself preventing it. You can remind yourself that, even if the hard work is done, you have to work hard until the game is over. You have to play your best chess to win the game. You only allow yourself to relax when the win is secured.

Putting pressure on yourself.
Due to your parents or to your own will to win, you may put pressure on your performance. You want to win and you're not content with anything less.

This type of pressure is not very helpful.

Even if you're the highest rated player in a tournament, this doesn't garantee the win. You'll have to work hard to achieve it and at the start you won't know if you'll succeed.

The best thing to do is let go of your expectations. Just play each move when it's your turn. If you keep finding the best moves, you'll win in the end.

Underestimating the opponent.
If the rating of your opponent is lower than yours, this doesn't necessarily mean he's a weak player. If you underestimate his strength you may find yourself losing to a "weaker" opponent. You'll have to remember that even weak players may have some special knowledge.

The same goes for an opponent who seems to play some (or a lot of) weak moves. Just because he played one or two weak moves, doesn't mean he'll play some more. If you're counting on his weak moves to win your game, you may be disappointed in the end.

So, what do you have to do when facing this type of opponent? The same as always. Play sound and good moves. Play with a plan. Play as if your opponent is as strong as you are. As if he'll notice everything you see. This way you'll rely on your own strength.

Panic may prevent you from clear thinking. Maybe you panic when you're in timetrouble. Or you panic when your opponent plays unexpected sacrifices. Whatever the cause of your panic, there's only one solution. Get yourself together, start the technical thinking process, concentrate and find the right move in the current position. In this process, analysis and concentration will cure your panic.

You may try to get your opponent to panic. Play some difficult sacrifices. Get him to panic and win the game.

Playing it safe.
You can play it safe from the start. Exchange pieces when possible, steer to a drawing endgame, prevent all the complicated lines from arising. If you play this way, you may feel very safe and collect a lot of draws. You won't play very exciting games though and this may be perfectly ok.

If you don't like adventure and don't like excitement, this may be the right way to play chess for you.

On the other hand, t his way of playing may arise from the fear to lose. If so, ask yourself what happens if you lose a game of chess. The world will still be turning. Probably you are the only one to feel hurt in some way. Find out where this hurt comes from and deal with it. If you're no longer afraid to lose a game of chess, you may find playing chess more exciting than ever before.

Playing it safe in winning positions may cost you the win. If you don't calculate long lines anymore and if you don't search for extraordinary moves, you may have a hard time winning.

Going for glory.
If this is your mindset, you may win beatiful games. But just as easy will you lose.

Ever played a speculative sacrifice? In the hope it would turn out to be a magnificent win? Only to see the sacrifice refuted and ending up with a lost game? Did you try to win a prize? Or did you try to win admiration of some sort?

The price of going for glory may be losing the game. So think twice before you do so.

Internal dialogues (about the game or anything else).
These are interfering with your concentration. At times, all of us have these dialogues.

An example could be wondering why your opponent wears a blue shirt. Thinking of blue reminds you of the sea which reminds you of your last holiday. This was some time ago. So it's time to organize a holiday again. Where will you go this time? Will you stay in the country or go abroad. Go camping?. etc. etc. If you fall victim to this kind of internal dialogue you'd better get some coffee. Your concentration has surely left you.

Another example could be asking yourself what Kasparov (or Anand or anyone else) would be doing in your position. After telling yourself what he would do, you play his move. It must be good if he would play it. And maybe it is, but probably it isn't. You haven't calculated or searched for alternatives. You convinced yourself to play something in a dubious way.

If you encounter internal dialogues in chess, you know your concentration is fading. Be aware of this and restore your concentration as soon as possible. If it's not your move, walk around and get some coffee or someting to eat. When it's your move again, focus on the position and its possibilities, make a plan and calculate your moves.

Time trouble.
You don't think time trouble is a problem? Do you play your best chess having time trouble? I've seen lots of people lose in time trouble. Not enough time to search for the best move. Not enough time to calculate long variations. Only reactive chess remains.

Playing good chess involves assigning time as well. If you can't find a good move in ten minutes, you're not likely to find it in twenty minutes either.

How to prevent time trouble from occurring in your game? U se less time than your opponent. This way your opponent will feel time pressure first.

Assign a certain amount of time to find a plan and your next move. Play the best move you've found when the assigned time has passed.

It's simple. But is it easy?

When my opponent is short on time, I try to prepare (at least) two moves in a row. The second move has to be good, but unexpected. This way, my opponent will use some extra time trying to cope with the consequences or play a very bad move instantly.

Draw offers.
When facing a draw offer, do you play on? If you want to win, you probably will. And you may want to justify not taking the draw. So you take a little too much risk... And lose.

This is a common scenario in over the board games.

You may use it to trick your opponent into the wrong state of mind. Make your opponent the one who takes too much risk. Offer a draw when your position is slightly worse (not clearly losing). Or offer a draw in an unclear position. Assuming your opponent will not take the draw, he'll have to cope with the psychological effects of declining the offer.

If a draw is offered to you, look at the board. Is the position really drawn? And is it easy to draw? Do you think your opponent knows how to secure the draw? If so, it doesn't matter if you accept the draw or play on. In both cases a draw will be the outcome.

But what to do if the draw isn't easy to achieve, or if you feel the position isn't a clear draw? You can chicken out of complications and take the draw or play on and try to win.

When playing on, be aware of your mental state. It may have changed. You may want to demonstrate the draw offer to be premature. As a result y ou may try too hard to win. This doesn't help you to play good chess.

So first, after declining a draw, get the right mindset again.

How To Lift Your Spirit

Trust your own judgement.

Fight yourself out of trouble.

Find reasons to be chearful.

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