Once you start to know chess a little bit better, you realize that looking ahead or calculating variations is essential to play chess well.
And it’s common knowledge and grandmasters can see many moves ahead, as many as 15 to 20 moves ahead if given enough time and entirely accurate as well. But are solid chess players seeing that many moves ahead all the time?
The answer is no because it isn’t every time that they need to see that many moves ahead away. Take the opening, for example. A particular move has already defined many openings, and certain variations have been well known for many years.
There isn’t a need to calculate any variations if the player memorizes the lines and plays it out quickly instead.
Sure, not everything in the opening has been discovered, but that doesn’t mean you have to calculate every tiny little detail meticulously. It just wouldn’t be practical. And besides, we’re all human.
How does a Grandmaster Think?
One of the most critically appraised chess books of the 20th century, Think Like a Grandmaster by GM Alexander Kotov, showed how any chess player could reach a new high in their chess-playing abilities.
In the book, GM Kotov, a self-professed self-taught grandmaster, showed how he calculated variations and assessed different positions with virtually the same technique for each one using what he called “The Tree of Analysis”.
To him, the candidate moves were that the roots of the tree and the variations were like branches of a tree, and you would need to assess how good the position was for each variation you chose. You would also need to “prune” out bad variations. It was an excellent way to think about chess positions at that time (and it is still good today).
However, this style is very mechanical, reasonably slow, requires intense concentration, and is not very practical. The way that GM Kotov describes “thinking like a grandmaster” is very similar to how chess computers think – by calculating many variations and as deeply as possible.
Another problem with the Tree of Analysis is that the deeper the variation you have to calculate, the more moves you must consider.
So it turns out that calculating a 2 move variation may only have 10 or 20 possible variations, whereas a 3 move variation may well over 100 possible variations (and a 4 move variation may be over 500!).
The number of moves you need to consider to play out a variation exponentially increases accurately, and it will become challenging for you to consider all possibilities.
But the way grandmasters think is like computers, very intense, long, and accurate thinking. Grandmasters can see many moves ahead, but usually, the variations themselves are semi-forced lines.
When you watch a post-mortem or a press conference of grandmasters explaining their games, it’s clear that they only calculate a few moves ahead, like 3 to 7 moves. Although relatively short variations, they consider a wide range of possibilities.
So to be a great chess player, you have to be able to calculate long variations accurately, but you also need to consider many options.