Intuition and Second Guessing

On countless occasions, I’ve seen chess students start to make a good move, only to second guess themselves, making an inferior move that costs them the game. For many beginners serious about improving their chess skills, the idea of using intuition to guide them runs against the grain of logical thinking. After all, the learning process is scientific in nature with little room for following one’s gut, or is it? Intuition is not simply a case of following your gut feeling, but rather a case of digging down into your brain’s vast storehouse of subconscious knowledge for an answer or solution. This answer or solution to a problem isn’t a guess or case of grasping at the proverbial straw. Its very foundation is formed by your experience as a chess player and your subsequent study of the game. Second guessing, on the other hand, is the opposite. It’s the undermining of an often sound decision which can make for problems rather than solutions. Here are some thoughts I’ve shared with students regarding embracing intuition and avoiding second guessing.

Intuition needs to be based on properly honed skills, which comes from a thorough understanding of the games underlying mechanics and principles. Thus, the absolute beginner should always be wary of making intuitive decisions until they have a good grasp of the game’s mechanics. Absolute beginners must master the principles before all else. Only when the beginner has gained more experience, should they explore intuitive thinking. However, second guessing should be avoided at all levels. To understand the difference between intuition and second guessing, we have to consider the basic thought process employed when a player makes a move.

When an experienced chess player makes a move, they follow a logical path of thinking that allows them to arrive at their destination, making a good move. The beginner can employ this same way of thinking if he or she follows a few basic guidelines. Following these guidelines helps the beginner to fortify their intuitive thinking. The key to this process is proceeding, thought-wise, in a logical order. Too often, the beginner is overwhelmed because they’re taking in everything at once when considering a move. They look at the entire picture rather than focusing on key elements of that picture. For example, cleaning your entire house can seem overwhelming. However, if you approach it one room at a time, the task becomes less daunting!

The first thing to consider before making your move is your opponent’s last move. Beginners tend to miss the intention of their opponent’s last move because they’re more concerned with the move they want to make. Beginners often have a plan to win that doesn’t take into consideration their opponent’s plan. Don’t consider making a move until you’ve carefully examined the opposition’s last move. Does that move contain an immediate or potential future threat? Carefully examining your opponent’s move first will help guide you towards making a good decision regarding your own move. While experienced chess players will do this automatically, beginners tend to focus on their own pieces and plans.

Once the beginner gets in the habit of examining their opponent’s move before considering their own, they have to decide on the appropriate response. Here the games principles should be employed. When deciding on a move, the appropriate principles should serve as a guide. If launching an attack during the middle game, use the principle of counting attackers versus defenders. If the number of attackers exceeds the number of defenders, the attack will most likely succeed (of course, there are exceptions). If deciding between the development of a minor piece or your Queen during the opening, refer to the principle that tells you to develop minor pieces before major pieces (such as the Queen).

What happens when we apply the principles and have a choice of three possible moves, each qualifying as a good move? When determining the best move out of our three candidate moves, we have to examine each in greater detail, again using the game’s principles to guide us. We do this to determine if one move is stronger than the others. With a bit of close scrutiny, we often see that one move is slightly better than the others (based on game principles). What happens if all three moves are equal in strength? This is where intuition can play a key role. This is a situation in which all of your previous logical chess thinking comes into play. If you’ve applied the game’s principles to every decision you make during your games, those principles become deeply embedded in your thought process. This means they’ve become etched into the part of your brain that is called on when intuition comes into play. You examine the three candidate moves a final time and suddenly have a feeling that one of those moves stands out a bit more than the others. An alarm goes off in your head but you can’t quite quantify your reasoning in an absolute way. You have entered the realm of intuition. You can’t help but feel a bit unsure because you can’t fully articulate you reason for choosing that move above the others. Before second guessing yourself, remember that your intuition is based on sound principles of play. You’ve used a logical method of thinking to work through the three moves. What’s probably causing you to have doubts is the fact that your conscious mind is meeting your subconscious mind. Intuition can make for brilliant chess but you have to nurture intuition via serious study. It is at this point in one’s thought process is often where second guessing rears its ugly head!

Seconding guess comes about when a player hasn’t fully thought a move through. By this, I mean considering your opponent’s move and using the game’s principles as a guide. If you have logically worked through a position in your game, come up with a few candidate moves and found one that stands out above the others, then you have come up with the move you should probably make. If you start second guessing, changing your mind at the last moment, that move probably wasn’t the best one to consider. Reconsider the original move before making another. If it follows the principles then it shouldn’t be abandoned. Think of it this way. You just spent a fair amount of time considering a move using the game’s principles to guide you. Do you want to ignore the principles and make a sudden move with no thought involved? I wouldn’t. Intuition takes time to develop and you have to be patient. However, if you use good judgment and logical thinking, you’ll develop this ability and play better chess. As for second guessing, beware that beast because it will raise its monstrous head every chance it has. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson


Author: Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).