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On Chess: The potency of the present

Grandmaster Peter Svidler contemplates a move.
Lennart Ootes | Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis

“Playing chess is hard.” All players — from novice to grandmaster — have uttered this phrase. As competitive activities go, chess is one of the least forgiving.

If I hit a double fault while playing tennis, something I’m quite familiar with doing, it’s not the greatest feeling; however, in the end, it only costs one point. I go up to the line to serve again as if nothing has happened. You get to start fresh. Granted, some points have far greater importance than others, but ultimately you always get to start anew.

Chess does not work this way. 

You can obtain an opening advantage with precise play, diligently build your advantage into a winning one, and then with one mistake see all your hard work dissipate like a puff of smoke. But there is a flip side to this coin.

You can be down a pawn, have half your pieces stuck on the back rank, and own more weak pawns than healthy ones. Yet, there is always hope. One blunder can turn things around and give you chances for survival or even victory. Resignation should only occur when all chances are exhausted, all tricks snuffed out, and nothing short of a heart attack can change the course of the game.

So how is a person to cope? Putting such enormous weight on every choice can cause crippling indecision in even the most confident chess player. It is easy to understand why poor time mismanagement is a rampant flaw at even the highest of levels.

Of course, it is impossible to offer an easy solution, but I have found there is a way to lighten the load. Let’s ask ourselves what our job is in a chess position — in any position. The answer is actually quite simple: Make our best available decision.

I’m not denying the importance of calculation, often a necessary step toward making the best move. Planning has its time and place, and it’s an important skill to develop as a player matures. Still, your task is to make one move, and only one.

If your opponent captures your queen with his or hers, you don’t sit there pondering life and worrying about what might happen 10 moves down the road. At least I hope not. You take her right back! This is an extremely obvious example, but I believe this type of thinking is underappreciated and can be used effectively in many situations that are less clear cut.

The following example is complex as it gets, but I think it illustrates the point just as well.

Grandmaster Peter Svidler, playing with the white pieces, executed this 17th move
Credit Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis
Grandmaster Peter Svidler, playing with the white pieces, executed this 17th move against World Champion Magnus Carlsen, playing black.

This position was reached in round 6 of the Tata Steel super tournament going in the Netherlands. Grandmaster Peter Svidler, playing with the white pieces, was thinking about his 17th move against world champion Magnus Carlsen, playing black. The position is an extremely complicated one, and, for us mortals, finding the right move would be quite a challenge.

As an elite player, however, Svidler knew what he should play. His plan heading into this moment was to play 17 Ng3 and aim for the initiative. Intuitively he knew this was the way to play, and had calculated the variations to his satisfaction. He played the move, and while the game ended in a draw, the decision he made was surely a good one.

So what’s the problem? In the post mortem, which was quite an entertaining one to watch I might add, Svidler mentioned that he spotted 17 Nf4 as a possibility. While he thought it had to be nothing for White, he spent nearly 45 minutes calculating it, on move 17 against the world champion. To me, even in such a complex position, spending that much time is almost an outright blunder. While Nf4 was hardly a poor move, he knew it wasn’t better than Ng3, and he also knew that Ng3 was what he was going to play. This was as good a time as any to live in the present and simply make the move.

Let’s sum it up: If you know the move you are going to play in a given position, don’t second guess yourself. Save your time and energy for future choices, which might require 10, 15, 20 minutes of thought. Maybe the result of Svidler’s game wouldn’t have changed. Maybe yours won’t either. But you can strive to make the right decision in each moment that comes along, and make it in as timely a manner as possible. That, more than anything else, sums up what a chess game is all about.

Grandmaster Josh Friedel began playing chess at age 3 and entered his first tournament at 6 years old. He received the international master title at 18 and proceeded to earn the grandmaster title at 22. He is a three-time New Hampshire state champion, as well as a two-time California state champion. Friedel has played in six U.S. championships and won the U.S. Open Championship is 2013. The St .Louis Chess Club welcomes Friedel as a regular grandmaster in residence.