Thinking for Yourself in Chess and Life

Thinking for Yourself

I was on Lichess watching the Magnus Carlsen v. Hikaru Nakamura match of the Magnus Chess Tour Finals when an interesting example of thinking for yourself, and the benefits therein, presented itself. It is often suggested thinking for yourself is better; but if someone else does the thinking for you, and always gives you good answers, why not just do what she or he says? I’ll tell you why.

Many of those watching the games rely on the computer analysis to tell them who is winning at any particular moment and what is the best move to make for either player. Others of us watch without the computer engine analysis and discuss what might be the better move and which player seems to have the advantage at any given moment.

It is clear those using the engine to tell them the best move and who is winning are clearly correct far more often than those of us simply watching the game and relying on our own calculations. Therefore, they are better off, right? Wrong.

Thinking for yourself is not only a great deal more fun, it not only makes you a better chess player, but it also actually gives you greater insight into the game being played at that moment. Here is what happened twice during the match I watched yesterday. Warning, if you’re not a chess fan this might get a little dull.

Basically, during a game there are moments when you can sacrifice a piece in order to gain initiative through tactics. When you are thinking for yourself, you are looking for such tactics. When you are relying on the computer to tell you the best move you largely are not watching for such moments.

In two games there was a potential tactic available for several moves which covered perhaps ten minutes of time allowing time for analysis. Those of us in chat not using the computer mentioned the sacrifice possibility multiple times and eventually, in both cases it was made.

This leads me to the purpose of this entire blog. When the sacrifices were actually viable, the computer engine immediately suggested them as the best move and those relying on the engine began to speculate if the player might see it. These fans thought it was almost impossible to see such a move. When the player made the sacrifice, they were stunned by the astounding ability of the player.

Of course, those of us not relying on the computer had long been speculating on the move and didn’t see it as all that impossible at all.

I guess the point is, yes, if you rely on almost perfect machines and aren’t thinking for yourself, you will win every chess game but once those engines are off, you have no idea how to play at all. You get no enjoyment from predicting the move a Grand Master makes. No thrill of seeing a brilliant sacrifice on your own. Your life is both diminished in enjoyment and your ability to make good decisions without help is irreparably damaged.

Turn off the engine, stop listening to other people, think it through yourself. It’s harder, yes, but more rewarding.

Tom Liberman

Wesley So and the Question of Pragmatism over Glory

Wesley So

Today was an interesting day in the chess world when Wesley So decided on a pragmatic course of action when he had an opportunity for glorious victory. It was a complicated decision with a number of factors but I thought it was the correct choice; I am interested in what other people think. Let me explain.

There is a chess event called the Grand Chess Tour in which the top players in the world compete in a series of individual tournaments. The top four point getters in all the tournaments advance to a big money final. Each of the tournaments themselves have significant prizes for finishing in the top spots. Wesley So was invited to participate even though he had a relatively subpar chess season the previous year. He is considered one of the weakest players in the event. Weak being relative, he is a fantastic chess player by any standard.

In the first stop of the tour he did reasonably well, fourth out of ten players, and is having an excellent tournament in the second stop, this is where he made his pragmatic decision.

The current stop on the Grand Chess Tour, Croatia, has more points available to get into the finals than other events because of the format. It also has a somewhat different structure than other tournaments in that the players play eleven games in twelve days with only a single rest day after the sixth game.

Wesley So is doing exceptionally well. Going into the penultimate round he was in clear second place behind only World Champion Magnus Carlsen who is playing some of the best chess of his career. He was also a full point ahead of several players who were tied for third place. In a chess game you get half a point for a draw, 1 point for a win, and 0 points for a loss.

This situation means if he drew the game against Carlsen it almost certainly guaranteed Wesley So would finish the tournament in second place. This finish would gain him significantly more money and points than finishing tied for third or worse, a distinct possibility if he lost the game against Carlsen.

Wesley So was playing with the white pieces which is considered an advantage and generally speaking the player with white is the aggressor and the player with black is trying to draw the game, although this is certainly not absolute.

I know I’ve spent considerable time setting up the question but I think it’s important that we weigh all the factors, overall Grand Chess Tour position, individual event position, general fatigue, the state of Carlsen’s play, etc.

In any case, Wesley So played a relatively passive game and quickly settled for a draw with Carlsen. This almost guaranteed him second place in the tournament and also allowed him to rest up for the final round of a tournament in which fatigue certainly plays a role.

Many people are being critical of this decision, they think he had a chance to win the tournament and he should have gone all out, even though doing so against an in-form Carlsen was extremely dangerous. Wesley So weighed the benefits of drawing against the negative potential of losing and decided the former was the wiser course of action. I happen to agree with him but I can see the other point of view.

So, what do you think?

Should Wesley So have gone for Glory or was a Pragmatic Draw the right decision?

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Tom Liberman