Critical Objectivity: part I

There is one very important ability needed by every chess player wanting to improve their game. Of course, chess has many different aspects to it, but without this certain ability, they all fade in to the background, and many may not even develop. The ability in question, is that of being able to be critically objective about one’s play.

It is very important to emphasise the word ‘critically’ here — taking a definition from the dictionary, “inclined to find fault or to judge with severity, often too readily.” For our purpose, let’s shorten it, thus:

“Find fault. Judge with severity. Readily.”

The chess player who strives to improve, should implement this after each game they play. After all, how can we get better without knowing our flaws? In truth, all areas of our chess are flawed in some way, (there is yet to be a player who has perfected the game), the challenge is pinpointing specifics so that we can work on them. This is done, of course, by carrying out post-game analysis. And this, dear reader, is the subject for my next two blogs.

It still startles me that many chess players do not analyse their games. This really is a great pity because they deprive themselves of great learning opportunities. However, perhaps there is a logical reason for this, as among the plethora of chess books on the market, there are not many (if any) covering the analysis of ones games. This is probably quite a commercial decision, considering that many strong players (and many not so strong players for that matter) make money carrying out the service.

Anyway, I am going to try to regress the balance, and offer what I can on the subject. It goes without saying, that there is no winning formula for analysis, no set rules or technique. Each person is different, as is each game, and what works in the case of one may not work in the case of the other. However, I do believe that it is possible to give sensible guidance on the subject, based upon experience, and what seems to work for me. The more that one analyses, a unique style develops and the framework will become like second nature.

My blogs this week and next week, will be of use to players who have either not yet embarked upon analysis of their games, or who feel that they are perhaps not getting what they should be from it. The reason that I have decided to split the blog in to two parts, is that in my opinion, there are two aspects to post-game analysis:

1). The so-called ‘Post-Mortem’ (immediately afterwards with the opponent).
2). Personal home analysis.

The Post Mortem

In my experience, it is very easy to tell a serious chess player, from a casual woodpusher, and even at tournaments there are examples of both. Serious players will find a quiet corner after they have finished playing, and embark upon a post-mortem of it with their opponent. Casual players might do this with good games, as an opportunity for glory, and their losses will get crushed up and disposed of.

The importance of the post-mortem can not be over-stated, it is one’s opportunity to gain the insight of the opponent — how was he/she feeling at certain points? Why did he/she play 18…Qb6, the move that caused great bemusement? Because chess is a battle of minds, this is a very crucial part of development. To approach chess solely with the self in mind is very often counter-productive — it certainly is in a game, after all. During the post-mortem, a player may already be startled at just how much they had missed in the game, and just how wrong he/she had been in evaluating the position, and the opponent’s options at certain stages, not to mention their own. This can be immensely deflating, especially when thinking that one has played a fabulous game, but it is a necessary pain that we must all go through in order to pursue that fabulous game.

Of course, the main objective is to discover what your opponent was looking for with their moves, what did they think they had, what did they think the moves achieved? What did they see that you didn’t and vice versa? Seek perspective, evaluations and opinion. Whether you won, lost or drew the game, you can learn from all of this. For your moves, you want to know their reactions, good or bad. Where did they feel you got it right? Where did they feel you got it wrong? What were they expecting — and was that better or worse than what you played? You might be startled at how often your opponent seems to have had a better plan for you than you did — and vice versa.

What did your opponent feel were crucial points in the game? Spend some time on what are seen to be crucial positions, this will give you some work already for stage 2, home analysis. How was your opponent feeling at various stages of the game? This will give you important feedback regarding how you are reading not only the situation on the board, but also the body-language across it. Did you think your opponent was worried when you played that check on move 21, prompting him to hunch over the board? Only to find out that he was encouraged, thinking it was wasteful or over-ambitious on your part and that it signalled to him that you felt you had nothing better? Indeed, was he right? This would show a tendency to bluff, or to show some wishful thinking or denial … and it’s really going to bite one on the behind if it doesn’t get sorted out.

Very often, a post-mortem might only last a few minutes, but those minutes will often have you bursting with things to look at and use to improve your game. I started taking a notepad with me because post-mortems gave me so much feedback. One more thing: I always try ‘dig’ and discover if my opponent knows the opening he/she played well? The mere comment “I’ve never seen this before” or “interesting line” can prompt many to volunteer lines in order to show off their theoretical knowledge. This can give you some things to look at if you found yourself surprised or if the game has highlighted a particular gap you have in a certain line. Just as you don’t want to miss a trick in the game, try not to miss any after it either.

Above all else, if you have never taken part in post-game analysis with an opponent before, then you really should give it a go. It can be a very rewarding exercise. Perhaps the next time you play, write down your moves and go over the game afterwards with your opponent. See what you can discover about their thought process and feelings during the game. If the opponent is stronger than you, if you have felt out-done somewhere, see it as open season to pick their brain.

You will very often find, during the exercise, that you will have much cause to … “Find fault. Judge with severity. Readily.” If you don’t, no matter how great the game in question, then it is more likely to be the fact that you are yet to master the art of being critically objective, than it is that you have mastered the art of chess.

And if you think that’s fun, just wait until part 2 …

John Lee Shaw