Logic and Reasoning Skills

One of the thought processing skills that chess helps develop is logic and reasoning. It’s the understanding and employment of logic and reasoning that allows a chess player to determine the best course of action within a given position. The problem that many novice players face when examining a position on the board is not so much finding the solution but determining the the correct questions to be asked that lead to that solution. After all, if you ask the wrong questions, you’ll identify the wrong problem and you won’t be able to determine the correct solution because you’re not seeing the real issue at hand. To solve any problem, you must first ask the correct questions, using logic and reasoning as your guide. This is why I teach my students problem solving skills they can use away from the chessboard first, only then applying them to the game of chess, once they’ve be mastered.

To teach logic and reasoning, I give my students some geographical problems to solve. The first of which has to do with travel. I tell them I’m taking a trip. I’m leaving from San Francisco to a destination that is roughly 3,000 miles away. Their job is to ask the appropriate questions in order to determine the right answer. Our overall goal is to ask the fewest possible questions to achieve the correct answer, which takes practice. From San Francisco, you can go roughly 3,000 miles in any direction and arrive at some destination. Therefore, the first question you might consider is which direction am I traveling? North, South, East or West? Let’s say I’m traveling East. You might then ask, how wide is the United States? It’s roughly 3,000 miles wide. Just two questions have now brought you close to the answer. Because there are many large metropolitan areas within 3,000 miles of San Francisco, you might ask what State am I traveling to and I’d answer New York. Here, many students jump the gun so to speak and say “you’re going to Manhattan, the Big Apple.” I’d say sorry, wrong answer but you’re on the right track. You might ask, is it close to Manhattan? I’d say “yes, just a subway ride away and there’s a bridge named after it.” If you said Brooklyn, you’d be correct. These questions follow a logical sequence rather than a random sequence, forming a pattern leading towards the answer.

Next we gear up the challenge. I tell my students my new destination is roughly 5,500 miles away. The parameters have now changed. With greater distance comes a greater number of possible destinations. Students know from the first problem that direction of travel is a key question to be asked. North, South, East or West? I tell them East. They know from the first problem that the United States is roughly 3,000 miles wide. This means that the first 3,000 miles leads them to the Eastern side of the United States. However, they now have to consider the remaining 2,500 miles. My more astute students will ask for a world atlas with the idea of determining the width of the Atlantic Ocean. I allow them to use an atlas, which I keep with me when we do these exercises. Once they determine that the Atlantic Ocean is close to 2,500 miles wide, it’s time to hone in on my destination a bit further. Because there are two large bodies of land, Europe and Africa, those could be destination points, so their next logical question is which of the two continents is it? Europe, I reply. Here things can get a bit tricky because there are a number of destinations near the Atlantic Coast of Europe that could be my target. Older students who have worked through these problems before, might narrow it down by asking for rough coordinates or longitude and latitude. They might also ask if my destination is on an Island, narrowing the field down quite a bit. The point here is that my students are logically narrowing down my destination sequentially through their questions. I’ll either give them my target’s rough longitude and latitude or perhaps tell them it’s an island. Working through the exercise, employing the right questions, they conclude my destination is England. Where in England? Here I tell them to narrow it by considering my destination to be a metropolitan center for chess in the UK. Many students don’t at first realize that London is the target. However, by asking further questions such as, does this metropolitan center also serve as the country’s Governmental center? Does it have a famous Bridge? It my target address 44 Baker Street? (Yes, a shameless plug for the London Chess Center) Eventually they deduce the correct answer!

You might ask, what does a geography challenge have to do with chess? The answer is simple: As I said early, beginning players often have trouble with positional problems on the chessboard because they’re not fully identifying the actual problem. They might identify “a problem” but is it the correct problem. If you identify the wrong problem, even a good answer to that identified problem does you no good if it’s not the answer to the real or underlying problem. The exercises we employ help students with their chess playing because they learn how to ask the right questions which will ultimately lead them to discovering and addressing the real problem being faced. It’s an introduction to logical thinking and the application of reasoning to problem solving. If you ask the right questions, you’re more likely to discover the real problem. Here’s how this might work when a beginner is trying to identify a positional problem on the chessboard (note, this is a very broad example):

Often beginners apply the opening principles correctly and find themselves going into the middle game with a decent developmental position. So far so good. Then, their opponent makes a few moves that create noticeable problems for our novice player. The problem with multiple problems within a given position is identifying those problems and then deciding which problem needs to be addressed first. If one problem’s solution avoids material loss and the other avoids checkmate, avoiding being mated takes precedence.

Beginners have great trouble identifying a single positional problem let alone multiple problems. The key again is asking the right questions. One reason I use geographical problems in my student’s training is because chess positions are geometrical in nature. Geography is geometrical in nature! In a middle game position, for example, my students use a mental checklist to identify positional problems. They follow a logical sequence of questioning learned via my geography exercises. Imagine trying to determine a problem using random questions. With enough random questions asked, you might eventually identify the real problem. However, if you’re on the clock, your time might run out long before you identified the real issue at hand! Therefore, your questions should be sequential in nature. My students will look at the position and start narrowing things down using the right questions, starting with the most obvious ones. Are any opposition pieces attacking my pieces? If so, are those attacking pieces of greater or lesser value than the pieces being attacked? If the attacking piece is a Knight and the attacked piece a Rook, we might consider moving that Rook. However, before moving the Rook, we should ask if doing so weakens our position? Will moving the Rook cause a ripple effect, weakening our position so much that its moving (the Rook) would create a greater number of problems? Can we launch a counter attack of an opposition piece of equal or greater value? While this is a very generalized example, it serves to show how one can employ basic logic and reasoning skills to determine a problem and its solution. In our example, we would continue to work through our questioning. If we move our Rook out of harms way can we move it to a square that allows us to maintain our positional strength? If so, what square should we move it to? The idea here is to use logical questioning to discover the true nature of the problem and only then trying to solve it.

Once we look at the opposition’s pieces we look at ours. We might ask, if I make this move, what’s my opponent’s best response (move)? The key is always to ask questions that illuminate the biggest problem at hand, starting with an examination of our opponent’s pawns and pieces in relationship to our pawns and pieces. We examine each of our opponent’s pawns and pieces and question its relationship to our pawns and pieces which often reveals the problem. Logically, we’d start by examining the opposition pawns and pieces closest to our own material and work our way outward, using logical questions to guide us.

Again, if you don’t ask the right questions, you won’t get the right answer. With practice my student’s questions become very precise, with each question bringing them closer to the correct answer. I have my students keep a small notebook to write down questions they should ask and the order in which they should be asked. Every time a good question is asked, one that brings my students closer to the answer, they write that question down in their notebook. They refer to their questions when analyzing a position, eventually committing those questions to memory. Try some geography problems to sharpen your logic and reasoning skills and you’ll be rewarded when faced with a tricky positional problem. This is an extremely shortened version of how the process works (I could fully describe it in about twenty pages) but it will give you an idea of how to get started. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About 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).