How To Improve Your Chess Calculation

Calculations in chess are intrigued for novice players. We all wonder what thought processes are going in the mind of a chess Grandmaster as he or she stares at the wooden pieces on a 64 square board. It seems almost like a gift that sets apart strong players from weak ones. We, as chess lovers, we cannot help but admire this trait for it enables a player:

  1. To pluck complex variations and obtuse combinations out of thin air and execute with breathtaking beauty to enrapture the audience,
  2. To save an inferior position to escape with a respectable draw.

When we say, Jane is a stronger chess player than John. We are indirectly referring to Jane’s superior ability to calculate at the board. But in a game where the possible number of moves branch out exponentially and that requires the use of chess engines – how can a human player identify a strong move after pondering over a position for a few minutes?

Here is an algorithm that I follow that helped me significantly improve my calculating ability and score more wins in just five steps.

STEP 1: Describe the position to yourself

Clearly state the function of each piece and pawn on the board. Is a piece located at its optimum square? Is a piece hindered by its own pawn chain? Is there space available to freely maneuver pieces?

This is the first step in improving chess calculation. The better your ability to describe the position – the better is your understanding and lesser chance of a blunder due to ‘missing a piece or a pawn’ or miscalculation. This simple yet effective exercise will allow you to access seemingly “locked” resources on the board and foster better decision-making- which in return allows you to win more games.

STEP 2: Count the material on the board

Count the number of pawns and pieces on the board (your own army and the opponent’s army). Of course, this exercise is not required at the start of the game and maybe skipped to the middle game where a few pieces and pawns have exchanged off.

STEP 3: Evaluate king safety

King is the weakest yet most important piece in the game. It is a good habit to evaluate King’s safety (your own and opponent’s) after every 10 moves. A king castled to a corner of the board and surrounded by friendly pawns and pieces is much safer. Usually, a king in the center of the board is vulnerable. If a king has an enemy piece (especially a knight) in its vicinity, it could become a target of tactics (knight fork or piece sacrifice). this is true in the opening and middlegame phase of the game but in the endgame, when there are fewer pieces and the queens are off the board. the king should be contributing to the game.

STEP 4: Evaluate pawn structure

Pawn structure is an extremely complex topic. However, you should avoid any kind of weak pons on your side and try to provoke this for your opponent.
for a layman- weak pawns are:

double pawns (a friendly pawn in front of another pawn) is a weakness (because such pawns cannot protect each other and it is very difficult to push them to the queening square).
Isolated pawn
backward pawn
hanging pawns

Avoid these weak pawns. they are generally a long-term weakness and very difficult to get rid of.

STEP 5: Watch out for checks, captures, and threats

Checks: an available move that puts your own king or opponent’s king under check,
Captures: an opportunity to exchange off pieces and pawns. Sometimes a pawn or piece may be unguarded and so there may be an opportunity to capture it for “free”,
Threats: can the pawn be pushed that will force my knight to vacate its current square? Can the rook be pressed to chase away my Queen?

Checks, captures, and threats are powerful forcing moves (that would compel us or the opponent to act) and we should always watch out for those.

To understand how this algorithm is applied in a practical situation, let us analyze a few positions below:

Position 1:

White to move

Step 1: Describe the position to yourself.

Here I have shared my internal monologue on this position.

There are many pieces and pawns on the board. Many moves are possible. The position is extremely rich because of its complications and possibilities. In general, White pieces are more active (knights occupy central e4, e5 squares- which also puts them in striking distance to put enemy King under check or to pose tactical threats of a nasty knight fork, while the dark square bishop eyes soft square (d8) near to Black King
Black poses no immediate threat to White King. Due to the passivity of its pieces and exposed King- Black is forced to stay on the defensive.

Step 2: Do a material count

White: 5 pawns + 2 bishops + 2 knights + Queen +Rook

Black: 5 pawns + 2 bishops + 2 knights + Queen + 2 Rook

(Black has an extra rook)

Step 3: Evaluate king safety

White King is castled. There are no adversary pieces around it. It enjoys the protection of a Rook and Queen, with a pair of Knights close by: this King is very safe

Black King is uncastled. It is cramped as its neighboring squares: d7, d8, and f7 are under attack by White pieces. Even though there are Black pieces in the vicinity- it may be possible for White to launch an attack. This King is vulnerable

The vulnerability of King in any phase and position of the game should draw our attention and we should take a pause to investigate any viable matting attack.

Step 4: Pawn structure

There are no doubled pawns in the position. Pawn structure is irrelevant in this position as we are more interested in possibilities to launch an immediate mating attack of the Black King.

Step 5: Checks, captures, and threats

Since the Black King looks vulnerable, let us explore all the avenues to attack.

Qh5+ is a check but it can be blocked by Ng6. If Nxg6, hxg6, then Qxh8 (White is up a Rook)

Alternatively, Qh5+ and if blocked by g6 then, Nxf6# (mate, but we should not decide our move hoping for a blunder from the opponent. Always consider the strongest possible reply from the opponent when calculating a variation). I also calculated but quickly discarded the following variation g6, Ng6 but this doesn’t work after Nxf6 and we lose the Knight.

But Qh5+, g6, Nxf6# was the clue that I should keep searching for other moves, better moves as the Black King could be mated. After a few seconds, I stumbled upon the solution:

Aha, then I saw Nd6# Checkmate!

Thus, calculation in a way is a ‘process of elimination’ to find the best available continuation in a given position. This may entail finding a checkmate or a tactic to win material or it could even be a defensive maneuver to save a lost position.

The whole process took me about 30 seconds. A stronger player may arrive at it instantly as they can run the entire process in their mind at a faster speed.

This is a skill that can be improved on with time and practice, either by using a Puzzle book or doing puzzles on Chess.com and looking for the strongest move while considering your opponent’s best response.

Position 2:

Once you have practiced the algorithm to calculate a sufficient number of times- the process becomes internalized and you seamlessly move from one step to another. Here is an example of my thoughts in a position.

My internal monologue

At first glance, the position of Black King looks precarious. White knight on f7 is a very strong piece and exerts a python-like grip on the position. Other White pieces- Knight on g3, Rook on e4, and Queen on d2 appear menacing.

There is no way for Black pieces to launch an attack on the White King. White King is extremely safe on h1 square- enjoying the protection of pawns on h3, f2, the knight on g3, and rook on c1.

The only solution appears to parry the threat to the Black King but how?

If it was White’s move- it would have been a swift checkmate with 1. Rh4+ Qh6 2. Rxh6+ Bxh6 3. Qxh6+

Since it is Black to move:

Pawn on f5 attacks White Rook on e4. Let us capture it, fxe4 to remove 1 attacker

Voila, there are no more mating attacks left.

At best, White can force a draw by perpetual check- 1. Ng5+, Kh8 2. Nf7+, Kh7 3. Ng5+ Kh8 4. Nf7+, Kh7

Position 3:

Let us now look at positions arrived at few of my online games:

I play as Black. It is Black to move

The game is still in the opening phase. White has neglected piece development and King safety.

Black has successfully castled and now is free to pursue an attack on the potentially vulnerable White King.

My internal monologues (in italics)

D4 square is weak as there is no pawn on adjacent files (c or e). Knight on c3 can be pinned against the rook on h1. Pawn on e4 is vulnerable and may fall.

This was my intuition. However, it is always wise (if the time on the clock permits) to verify your intuition by calculation to avoid a blunder.

Variation 1: Black to move

1…Bd4 2. Bb2 Bxc3 3. Bxc3 Nxe4 (wins a pawn)

Variation 2: 1…Bd4 2. Qe2

Qe2 will help White hold on to the pawn, but I can then gain the control of central squares with c6, d5 pawn push. If White plays Nf3 then I can exchange the dark square bishop for the knight on c3.

Variation 3: ‘A fist fight’ variation. I never shy away from a brawl on the 64 squares!!

 1…Bd4 2. Nf3 Nxe4 3. Nxd4 exd4 4. Nxd4 e5 (forking Knight and Bishop to recover the piece)

And after 5. Bb3 dxe4 (Black is a pawn up and has a lead in development and two strong pawns in the center of the board)

White player should preserve the light square bishop due to its greater utility in challenging the control of central squares.

In the actual game, my opponent played, Bd3 (which still gives an advantage to Black)

Such occurrences are not uncommon. But a good chess player should always be prepared for the unexpected.

Now you already know the algorithm of calculation and how to apply it to a position in an actual game. As a practice, I am sharing the final position. Go ahead and try to use the algorithm of calculation to find the best possible move(s).

Black to move

Author: Arjun Verma
Email: boringchessplayer@gmail.com
Instagram: @boringchessplayer

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