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Under the sign of uncertainty by Willy Hendriks

 

Quick comment by Jacob:

Before engaging with this debate about critical moments, I contacted Willy Hendriks and asked if he would take offence, promising to disagree, but not be disagreeable. He would not, he said. I offered if he wanted to close off the debate with his personal view. As I did not want to invite him into a quagmire of never-ending arguments, I will not comment on his piece (which I have purposefully not read yet), although I am sure that I will disagree to some extent.

In the autumn I will publish Thinking Inside the Box, which will lay out my full view of chess and chess improvement. I will probably not refer directly to other books there, but state everything in the positive. But those wanting to find it, can find my view there and then (or earlier in this debate, most likely).

Next week I will return to focusing on chess improvement in the positive. Now to our guest writer:

 

Under the sign of uncertainty

Willy Hendriks

 

In last week’s post Jacob Aagaard discusses chapter 14 of my book Move First, Think Later about the usefulness of the notion of the critical moment. I gladly accept his invitation to delve a bit deeper into this subject.

Aagaard considers this notion to be “well established” but I’m not sure it has the same meaning for everyone. Anyway, those who have read my book know that ‘well established chess theory’ is not sacred for me.

There are two aspects of this notion I’m a bit skeptical about, though they are not always explicitly brought forward. The first is the idea that games (very often) consist of a few (one or two) moments of extraordinary importance or difficulty and a lot of moments of much lesser importance.

The second is the idea that these moments not only can be identified with hindsight but also can be detected when you’re actually playing a game. Which would make the notion a constructive part of our thinking process.

My main point in the chapter under discussion, which Aagaard doesn’t mention, is that I offer a different model for looking at the difficulty of the decisions we have to make during the game. It’s a model of gradual differences. If we could make a scale from zero to ten, expressing the difficulty of move selection, I don’t think the great majority of our games follows a pattern like one or two tens and the rest somewhere between zero and five. Speaking for myself: in most of my games I face quite some easy decisions but also a lot of difficult decisions, some very difficult decisions and some extremely difficult decisions. Using Aagaard’s definition of a critical moment as “a moment where the problems in front of you hold great complexity and failing to find a good move will a) lead to great suffering, or b) lose the advantage”, I can truly claim that this applies to, well, maybe not the majority, but for sure to quite some moves in most of my games. If I am allowed to have something like fifteen critical moments during one game, I’ll have no disagreement with Aagaard. (And if I would be allowed to think 50 minutes on all these moments I finally might play a decent game.)

Does this apply to players of all strengths? I find it difficult to judge on people playing stronger than me. The world’s elite players will have a better view on what is going on in a game but since they face tougher opposition, smaller mistakes will become more important. A few very small mistakes sometimes seem sufficient to lose an equal endgame against Magnus Carlsen. So for most levels, maybe for all levels, the idea of gradual differences seems more sensible to me than the idea of the mystical critical moment that only occurs once or twice every game.

The problem of our time management evidently is connected to the notion of the critical moment. For those who regularly find themselves under pressure of the clock, the notion of the critical moment might be a dangerous incentive to spend too much time on one move.

When the position is complicated, we often have the feeling that the present choice is of more than average importance. But the future is open and we cannot know how many more difficult decisions the game is going to present. Nor can we be certain about the decision at hand. Is the better alternative we hope to find available? Do the moves we are tossing between make a difference? We (most of us) are playing under the sign of uncertainty. This means you sometimes have to force yourself to move (on) and make a (hopefully educated) guess.

To quote myself: Playing chess is solving too difficult problems in too little time. This sounds a bit depressing but actually it is what makes our game so interesting. We would like to have a bit more control and the sensitivity to detect the critical moments in advance would come in very handy. But I’m afraid this is striving for a sort of predictability that cannot be attained. With hindsight it is easy to identify the turning points in a game. But when playing you are well aware you are constantly on a severe threat level.

To illustrate this I showed some positions where players went wrong in not so complicated positions. Just one more tragic example, from the Dutch Youth Championships now in progress. Black is to move, can he win this endgame?

Hendriks Example

Sadly no, after 1…Kb5? 2.Rxa5! he lost!

Aagaard thinks that comparing a position like this with his very difficult position against Ong is ridiculous. This is true but I’m not really comparing them. I only wanted to show that if we take all our good moves for granted and only concentrate on our mistakes or on a few moments of exceptional difficulty, we easily forget how much room we have, at almost every move again, to go fatally wrong.

In that game against Ong, Aagaard thinks for 50 minutes, finds a very strong move and brings the point home in the resulting time. In a different game, the less strong player thinks for 50 minutes about what turn out to be three equal alternatives and later goes down in heavy time pressure. To get from B to Aa, developing ‘a sensitivity for the critical moment’ I think is not the way to go. But raising your overall level might help. It’s not a matter of ‘thinking technique’ but of quality.

This touches upon a general theme of Move First, Think Later: the idea that improving in chess almost completely depends upon taking in good chess and that ‘methodical shortcuts’ are not available. In the latest issue of the New In Chess magazine I look at the reception of my book from this perspective of ‘move against method’. I think Aagaard has slightly more confidence in the methodical aspects than I have but judging by his work he might agree that taking in lots of good moves (quality chess) is the only way to improve.

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  1. Ray
    May 7th, 2013 at 17:40 | #1

    Very interesting food for thought. Willy, thanks for taking the time to write this blog! Your views sound sensible to me, but I’m also very much looking forward to Jacob’s book ‘Thinking inside the box’. When training myself I prefer to take in a mix of puzzles (moves) and method. I do think you need both, but one might have different opinions on the mix.

  2. The Lurker
    May 7th, 2013 at 20:11 | #2

    This whole debate reminds me of crossing a river. You need a boat to get across the river, but once you are on the other shore, you don’t have to continue to carry the boat on your back. Eventually, you forget about the boat.

    It’s the same with “method” or “rules”. The rules (over)simplify things so that mere mortals can make some sense of them. Once you have learnt when to break the rules, you are a master. Once you forget the rules, you are a grandmaster. But if you are not a master yet, you still need the rules.

    In other words, you can’t dispose of the boat when you are still in the middle of the river.

  3. Andre
    May 8th, 2013 at 03:44 | #3

    Thanks for taking the time to write this blog entrym Willy.

    “Using Aagaard’s definition of a critical moment as “a moment where the problems in front of you hold great complexity and failing to find a good move will a) lead to great suffering, or b) lose the advantage”, I can truly claim that this applies to, well, maybe not the majority, but for sure to quite some moves in most of my games. If I am allowed to have something like fifteen critical moments during one game, I’ll have no disagreement with Aagaard. (And if I would be allowed to think 50 minutes on all these moments I finally might play a decent game.)”

    Well … that’s true for my play too. It could just be the manifestation of certain defects though, for example a lack of situation specific knowledge or a lack of self-confidence.

  4. brabo
    May 8th, 2013 at 13:55 | #4

    Surely I have to react after my many reactions on the previous article.

    First I find it really great to read Willy Hendriks reaction. It is very nice that he spends time to react. In fact I was toying with asking feedback on my own blogarticle but then realised if he needs to do that for the whole internet then likely WH won’t be able to sleep anymore.

    Maybe Jacob won’t agree but WH explains exactly how I commented but of course in a much clear way. In fact last Friday in the local clubchampionship I spent 30 minutes on a so called critical position in which a queen could be sacrificed and would lead to likely an advantage. I made the right decision at that so called critical moment but suffered the rest of the game as many other complications popped up. I wasn’t able to solve them properly in the remaining time so squandered the advantage and even was in danger of losing against a much lower rated player.

    If Jacob didn’t read the text on purpose then why already claiming in advance that he will surely disagree to some extend. It also contradicts that Jacob won’t make comments which in fact he just did. Sorry maybe something else is meant but it surely doesn’t sound correct to me.

  5. Jacob Aagaard
    May 8th, 2013 at 19:32 | #5

    @brabo
    Doomed if you do or doomed if you don’t. I respect fully that Hendriks do not want to be a part of a long debate, thus an introduction before I read the piece. Obviously I read it with great interest afterwards; but the point of giving someone a final word is to not comment on what he says after he says it.

    I honestly think you crossed the line from disagreeing to just being after me, which I do not think you wanted to do.

  6. Stigma
    May 8th, 2013 at 19:53 | #6

    I am late to this debate; I wanted to do the exercises in chapter 14 first. Now that I did, I’m surprised and a bit disappointed by how easy they were – I hope this level is not representative for the rest of the book, since the author himself writes “If you do the exercises, you will learn the most from this book”.

    About critical moments: I think both Aagaard and Hendriks are a bit right and a bit wrong. The positions that have been under discussion (in chapter 14 and in these two blog posts) represent many different kinds of decision:

    – Your opponent has just blundered, and it would be great if you noticed (Jens-Berg)

    – You are about to play a blunder, and if you don’t somehow manage to stop yourself, the game may be lost (Nybäck-Sammaluo, Jens-Berg, that Dutch junior championship game)

    – You are planning to resign or force/accept/offer a draw (Glek-Lazarev)

    – You feel you should be better (based on intuition or logic or the course of the game), but the lines you look at either don’t bear this out or are extremely complicated to calculate (Aagaard-Ong)

    – Your opponent surprises you with a prepared novelty in the opening (Anand-Gelfand)

    Agaard is right that to discuss this we really need to define how many of these decisions (and there are many other types that could be considered) really fall under the umbrella term “critical moment”. No doubt they’re all crucial, potentially game-changing decisions, but the traditional usage of the term “critical moment” has to do with the initiative and positions that would be difficult for most people, not with simple blunders.

    On the other hand, I think Hendriks is right that a a more fine-grained view, like his 1-10 scale of move criticality, is more true to the experience of most players. Heisman doses something similar with his concept of “criticality analysis”. This is a useful tool, but it’s unfortunate to mix it in with the “critical moment” concept, which already has a much narrower meaning in common usage and seems most relevant for really strong players who can play consistently good and safe moves even when short of time.

    Finally, I can’t help noting the irony that in three of the five positions Hendriks has discussed (the four from chapter 14 and the rook ending here), Blumenfeld’s rule would have saved the day: Before executing your move, imagine it already played, look at board as through the eyes of a patzer, and ask yourself some simple questions… This is the one “linguistic protocol” I want to hold on to, though in chapter 18 Hendriks seems skeptical of the value of even this basic blunder-check!

  7. Stigma
    May 8th, 2013 at 20:08 | #7

    To be clear, of the positions discussed Aagaard-Ong and Anand-Gelfand clearly fall under the term “critical moment”. Positions where we suddenly have a chance to punish an opponent’s blunder may or may not; I think the usage varies. But we can’t call any position where someone might (or, in retrospect, did) blunder a critical position.

  8. Jacob Aagaard
    May 8th, 2013 at 20:12 | #8

    @Stigma
    Simple point; without Bf5 White is seriously worse, with it, the position is equal.

  9. brabo
    May 8th, 2013 at 20:18 | #9

    @Jacob Aagaard
    I’ve been on the internet from practically the beginning (you and me variate only 3 years in age) and I have been engaged in many often long but fascinating debates. However I noticed very often people take such debate as something very personal while in the end we are complete strangers to each other.

  10. Ray
    May 8th, 2013 at 20:32 | #10

    @brabo
    At the risk of being drawn into an already (too) lengthy debate: quotes like “If Jacob didn’t read the text on purpose then why already claiming in advance that he will surely disagree to some extend. It also contradicts that Jacob won’t make comments which in fact he just did. Sorry maybe something else is meant but it surely doesn’t sound correct to me.” are making it kind of personal don’t they? Honestly, I think it’s time to move on to another topic and deal with the fact that a debate is not always something you can or even should try to ‘win’. I guess this is one of those topics where you can have different opinions and live happily ever after. And just in case your reply is “but Jacob also …”, I would suggest that two wrongs don’t nesessarily make a right :-).

  11. brabo
    May 8th, 2013 at 20:33 | #11

    @Stigma
    Well Willy Hendriks isn’t really clear about what you can learn about doing the exercises. In fact in the next sentence he already gives a hint by stating “Some may say: you will learn at least something” which is clearly ironic. So my impression is that you have the wrong expectactions from the book as the exercises are there to learn more about the thinking in chess and not to learn concrete rules to think more clever in chess which is a subtle but important nuance.

    I agree with you that we should first make a very clear definition of what is a critical moment before we can discuss it more properly. Besides that we should find a way how in an actual game we can recognize such critical moment and how we should deal with it. What is a reasonable amount of time to spend on a critical moment? If all these questions are answered then we can start to really see for which players the concept of the critical moment is worth to teach.

  12. Stigma
    May 8th, 2013 at 20:44 | #12

    @Jacob Aagaard
    Allright, I mischaracterized the situation. But what you’ve got there is the neat conclusion after lengthy calculation. At the board it must have been more a case of looking hard at a the position and realizing in most lines you are seriously worse; thus it’s a critical moment where a lot of thinking time is justified. Right?

  13. Stigma
    May 8th, 2013 at 20:55 | #13

    @brabo
    Obviously I didn’t expect to learn “concrete rules to think more clever in chess”; thclub playerat’s exactly what Hendriks speaks out against for the entire book. The idea is that we learn by being exposed to good and preferably challenging chess content. And these four exercises in chapter 14 were not at all challenging for me; I would estimate their level as maybe 1400 to 1800.

    Given that “most of them are aimed at the stronger club player and above…” I hope this was just unlucky and I will find some more challenging exercises in the other chapters. (Yes, I’ve done exactly the opposite of what Hendriks preaches – read most of the text before looking at the actual chess!)

  14. brabo
    May 8th, 2013 at 20:57 | #14

    @Ray
    “are making it kind of personal don’t they?” No I only want to indicate that one should not have prejudices about something which one didn’t read yet. This has nothing to do with the topic as I would say exactly the same on some other site if it would be a subject that I am interested in.
    In fact a similar remark I made under the previous article. Writers whom behave not properly to other writers should be disregarded. I teach my own children the same that respect is always what one should show. So I would never recommend a writer who doesn’t show at all times respect even if 100% of his book is brilliantly written. This has nothing to do with the topic but how I look to values and ethics.

  15. Stigma
    May 8th, 2013 at 21:00 | #15

    (sorry for the bizarre typo above, “thclub playerat’s” should be “that’s”. My text marker jumped around a bit; the dangers of having a touchpad…)

  16. brabo
    May 8th, 2013 at 21:05 | #16

    @Stigma
    I read many reviews and some of them were from go-players (another boardgame) whom found the book very useful. Obviously they didn’t look at all to the exercises as most of them weren’t able to play chess so the strength of the book is clearly in the text. The exercises clarify/ illustrate a lot the text (well to some as the blogposts here are more showing the opposite). The exercises don’t have as prime function to solve so if you believe that you will learn the same amount of things like in other tactical books then you will be very disappointed at the end of the book.

  17. Stigma
    May 8th, 2013 at 21:29 | #17

    From the introduction, I get a clear impression that the exercises will both illustrate the text AND be useful in their own right. I don’t see why those two functions can’t be combined. But if they aren’t, I’ll make sure not to spend too much time on them…

    Anyway, I have plenty of other books with challenging exercises, even a couple by a certain Danish-Scottish GM and publisher 🙂

  18. Jacob Aagaard
    May 8th, 2013 at 21:39 | #18

    @Stigma
    Obviously understanding that this is a moment where I have to find something more than I was expecting in order to get out of the position what I assume is there is an organic thing. You often need to look a bit to understand that the situation is critical.

  19. brabo
    May 9th, 2013 at 06:17 | #19

    @Stigma
    In chapter 20, positions are shown which even very strong players weren’t able to solve as the keymove is completely unnatural. The only reason why the positions are shown is to make a statement that some moves are beyond the capacity of most if not all humans. The solution of those problems lays in the fact that they are unsolvable.
    In chapter 28 random puzzling, WH shows completely random positions from games. In some positions you simply have to recapture a piece , in another you have a bad position so no real good moves available anymore, …. The solution of the positions is again not the main task but the reader should try to understand why those positions are selected and shown.

    The whole book is built like that. The positions are very well chosen to clarify/illustrate a certain idea (often related to psychology). However this doesn’t mean that no challenging exercices can’t be found at all in the book.

  20. garryk
    May 9th, 2013 at 11:49 | #20

    The correct definition of “critical moment” is the moment in which I outplay my opponent. Have you ever asked youself why a 2650/2700 player loose to a 2800 player? What a 2700 player doesn’t see that a 2800 player does? One day I’ll have to make a book out of this.

    Hint: the difference between a 2650 and a 2800 player is NOT the opening preparation. Indeed sometimes the lower rated player is the better prepared!

  21. Just-Blitzing
    May 9th, 2013 at 17:35 | #21

    Are you the real GK ? @garryk

  22. Jacob Aagaard
    May 10th, 2013 at 10:23 | #22

    I Should probably let this go, but I just cannot recover fully from the fact that I am unethical for being critical of Hendriks critique of my portraying of critical moments (or was it when I disliked that he called Carsten Hansen’s writing for “pedantic”, “meaningless” and “hard to digest”?
    Therefore children should not read my books. And then this beauty :-).

    brabo :
    @Jacob Aagaard
    I’ve been on the internet from practically the beginning (you and me variate only 3 years in age) and I have been engaged in many often long but fascinating debates. However I noticed very often people take such debate as something very personal while in the end we are complete strangers to each other.

    But as much fun as this has been, I will indeed let it go now. Next week we will go back to main stream stuff.

  23. brabo
    May 11th, 2013 at 07:05 | #23

    @Jacob Aagaard
    There is nothing unethical in being critical or disliking certain things. My post 14 should be sufficient to understand what I meant but if not then please contact me via mail as indeed this went on too long on the public forum.

  24. Ray
    May 11th, 2013 at 09:02 | #24

    @brabo
    Congrutalations for having the last word (again).

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