Once you start to know chess a little bit better, you realize that looking ahead or calculating variations is essential to be able 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 quite accurate as well. But are very strong chess players seeing that many moves ahead all the time?
The answer is no because it isn’t every time that they’re going to need to see that many moves ahead away. Take the opening for example. Many openings have already been defined by a certain move and certain variations have been well known for many years.
There isn’t a need to have to calculate any variations if the player simply 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 meticulously calculate every tiny little detail. 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 it was possible for any chess player to reach a new high in their chess-playing abilities.
In the book, GM Kotov, a self-professed self-taught grandmaster, showed the way 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 that you chose. You would also need to “prune” out bad variations. This was a good way to think about chess positions at that time (and it is still good today).
However, this style is very mechanical, fairly 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 in the variation you have to calculate, the more moves you have to 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 that you need to consider to accurately play out a variation exponentially increases and it will become very difficult for you to consider all possibilities.
But the way grandmasters think is sort of 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 in order to be a great chess player, you have to be able to calculate long variations accurately but you also need to consider many options.