Going through your reads

In football, on a passing play, the quarterback usually has a primary receiver. Ideally, that’s where the ball is going.

If that option is taken away – the DB knocked the receiver off his route, the safety is cheating over that way, etc – the quarterback has to look to his second option. And so on, maybe checking all the way down to a dump pass to a running back. Of course, there are several 300-lb men rushing to try to flatten the QB while he still has the ball.

So I’m quite impressed with the brain of the quarterback. They have to read the defense at the line of scrimmage, make and communicate a coded play adjustment if necessary, take the snap, drop back, and then go through this mental and physical progression of reads  – each one requiring a microsecond throw/don’t throw decision – while trying to sense and avoid the rush.

So in chess, what’s your progression? If your first plan doesn’t work, are you prepared to check down in an orderly manner?

Sometimes I get a position that I just don’t understand. Don’t know the themes, can’t figure out a plan, don’t know where the pieces belong, don’t know who’s better. I have a reputation for stewing endlessly over these positions – a 20-minute think is not that unusual for me, which in the context of our club time control (40 in 90) is que estupido. It’s roughly like a quarterback holding the ball for 10 seconds – an invitation to get flattened.

It would be smarter to give myself a time limit for any particular move (I think Howard G does this) and then check down to a simple question like “Which of my pieces is least active?” and attempt to improve it.

This approach undoubtedly applies at work and elsewhere too. What about you – do you have ‘checkdown’ strategies for dealing with complex situations?


9 thoughts on “Going through your reads

  1. This kind of endless dithering (15+ minutes) usually only happens to me in a highly tactical situation where I don’t trust my calculation and keep checking and rechecking lines because I’m convinced I’m about to win or lose the game RIGHT NOW. Not so good if it happens three moves in a row…

    If I really have no plan and after 5 minutes I don’t see one spontaneously coming into existence, one thing I try to do is super-briefly look at every legal move, just one or two seconds for each, no calculation involved. Since I already have a decent idea of the contours of the position, this sometimes jolts me into realizing something about it that I missed (e.g., “Hey, I can back up my queen and then get it over to the kingside”).

    If that doesn’t work, I generally do just try to improve my worst piece and hope that 1) I’m not making my position any worse and 2) sooner or later the position will coalesce into something that I can make sense of.

  2. To be honest, playing chess for me is more like a pick up game of football. At best, a few of the more competent guys might get “routes” to run if we’re trying to be somewhat serious, but it’s hardly organized.

    “Going through the reads” usually means “After 5 Mississippi, throw it to anyone except the slow, clumsy, fat guy; he’ll drop it.”


    In all seriousness, if I don’t know what’s going on, I figure there’s a good shot my opponent doesn’t either. So I just make a reasonable-looking move quickly, and save the clock for when a more critical moment of the game occurs. (Yes, “critical” occassionally means “already lost”.)

  3. Great comment by gfan. That’s an interesting idea, looking at every legal move in some positions. If one has the time, why not?

    Derek, originally this was Heisman’s idea, and I have not always succeeded in its application. But I’m getting better. Time management is vital.

    The good coaches say this: a positional judgment may be made relatively quickly, and most time should be taken in critical positions where tactics abound and the game hinges on one accurate move. It is a skill recognizing critical positions.

    Heisman has just come out with a new book that summarizes his teachings on thought process and time management. It’s called The Improving Chess Thinker, and it literally came out a few days ago. The bookseller should have it at the club next month. Heisman even goes so far, in the book, to quote talk-out-load protocols from his students, as they ponder de Groot’s test positions. The students range in rating from Class-F to Master, a-la Silman’s Endgame Course.

  4. At work, I usually have a plan B. In chess, if there are no clear features to lock on to (open file, backward pawn, bad bishop, etc.), I try to _force_ myself to figure out how to make my worst piece better. If I don’t succeed in _forcing_ myself to have the above discipline, I’m likely to throw a Hail Mary pass right into the opposing team, and cry as they score a touchdown…(boo hoo)…

  5. All great thoughts. Except for Matt’s.

    :) Kidding.

    Mikhael Tal said his thought process was to first look for sacrifices. If he couldn’t find a good sacrifice then he checked down and reluctantly made a sane move.

  6. Here’s a thought I just had that I’m going to try next game I play (if I remember): think of the “checkdown” move first, check that it’s tactically OK, THEN start going crazy with the thinking thing. After a certain amount of time, if nothing obviously tactically better comes around, dump the ball to the running back and go on to the next play.

    e.g. “If nothing else, Rad1 looks reasonable. No, it’s not en pris, none of my other pieces are en pris, there’s no mate in two, etc. Now… if I could get a knight on g5 and a rook on h1 and he moves his queen, I have mate in five! OK, can I make this happen… etc. etc. Check the clock… oh Sh*t! I’ve wasted my 10 minutes, play Rad1.”



  7. I look at pawn structures first in positions that are relatively balanced but unclear. I check my piece position and think of “fantasy” positions IF my pieces were in the right spot. If I can’t take advantage of a situation or if no situation is recognizable as an advantage, I do the “improve my worst pieces” thing.

    Ok.. in theory that’s what I think I am doing… but in reality I stare at the pieces and think ” Man, so-and so at work really hosed our schedule… we can still make deadline but now we either have to cut back on scope or add some resources…. SH*t! 10 minutes have just passed… my opponent’s awake… let’s see… I’ll move the horsey diagonally and see if I can get away with it”

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