Calculation is the chess term for figuring out what’s going to happen next. It’s the process of thinking to yourself: “If I go here, he goes there, then I can capture and he can capture back, but then I can check with my queen…” and so on.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about at all, then you need a serious lesson in calculating! This is one of the key skills in chess; like passing and ball control in soccer, or skating and stick handling in hockey. If you can’t calculate, you’re not really playing chess.
THE GOOD NEWS
The good news is: calculation is a learned skill! Nobody was born knowing how to calculate chess moves! Everybody who has gotten good at calculating has done so through practice and effort. Those are two things any student is capable of.
I have even better news about calculation… you can forget the myth that really good players, like masters, look ahead 15 moves in every position and that’s why they’re so good, and there’s no way you’ll ever be able to do that, so what’s the point?
In most cases, all it takes is 1½ to 2 moves of “look ahead” to know what’s coming and to be able to either deal with it because something bad is about to happen and you have to side-step it; or ignore it because the best your opponent can do isn’t going to help them prevent you from achieving your goal on your current move.
The position above is a particular type of chess problem called a “Mate in Two.” I recommend that as soon as you understand what checkmate is and how to perform a few basic checkmates, you start studying Mate in Two puzzles every day.
There is no better way to learn the basics of calculation than to practice Mate in Two!
It is important, however, to practice correctly. You cannot move the men around on the board while you try to solve the puzzle! The key to building your calculation muscles is to visualize the moves you’re trying out completely in your mind.
YOU MUST LEARN TO VISUALIZE!
Picture the chessmen moving around to the new squares and focus on the new relationships between the pieces and pawns that are formed when you do. It won’t be easy at first! That’s okay! Expect to struggle for a little while.
It’s important to understand that when you play a game with someone else, you’re not allowed to just move a whole bunch of stuff all around the board, trying out all these different ideas you have for what you could do!
It’s all got to take place in your mind’s eye.
There are really two parts to calculation:
- Visualizing the moves being played during the sequence, and
- Visualizing the end position and evaluating it to see who comes out better.
Of the two, the second step is much more difficult, and that’s another reason why I recommend beginning your calculation journey by solving Mate in Two puzzles.
A CLEAR GOAL
Mate in Two is a clear and definite goal. You know what you’re shooting for, so when you visualize a checkmate, you know you come out better! Solving for mate puts you on a clear path and you shouldn’t stop calculating until you’ve found the winning solution.
As you gain more chess knowledge and experience, you’ll begin to learn how to evaluate a position you’re visualizing when it doesn’t lead to checkmate. You’ll learn how to judge who is winning, by how much and why.
But until then, solving Mate in Two will give you great practice to help you grow your calculation muscles in your brain, so that you can make better moves when you play.
DO IT, AND DO IT, AND DO IT AGAIN
Calculation is something that must be done on every move of every game! If you aren’t calculating what your opponent will do on their next move, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes you don’t need to make, and you’re going to lose a lot of games you don’t need to lose!
One final word about calculation: some players, particularly younger players, think they are calculating when they visualize their opponent making a drastic mistake of some sort on the next move that allows them to win the queen, or even checkmate their opponent!
Here, many developing players will think something like Bg5 is a good move because it gets the bishop into the game and also threatens Black’s queen.
While it’s true that Bg5 threatens the queen, look at Black’s choices… either the pawn on h6 or the queen herself can capture that bishop for free, putting an end to the threat and gaining an advantage of a full piece, which can easily be decisive.
Yet I see young players (in particular) play moves like this all the time! When I ask about it, I’m usually told, “I’m attacking their queen and if the other player doesn’t see it, then I can capture their queen on my next move!”
The flaw here is with that whole, “if the other player doesn’t see it…” part. I’ve given a simple example here to make my point, but in any position, whenever you are calculating, you can never pretend your opponent is going to play the moves that make everything great for you!
Do you play moves when it is your turn that are good for your opponent instead of moves that are good for you and your position?
Of course not! So don’t figure your opponent is going to either.
You must always figure that the other player is going to make the best move they can make when it is their turn. You’re spending 100% of your time and energy trying to figure out ways to gain an advantage of some kind — why wouldn’t you expect your opponent to spend 100% of their time and energy trying to stop you while creating an advantage for themselves?
You’ll get into a lot of trouble in your games by playing moves and then hoping the other player doesn’t see a simple threat, or worse still, that they can just capture your pieces and pawns for free! So please, don’t do it! Always figure the other player is going to play the best move they can possibly play.
In another post, I’ll talk about doing a mental safety check, which is the last thing you should do in your move selection process. You need to make sure the move you intend to make is safe!
Until then, practice your calculation, both when you play and using Mate in Two puzzles, and I’ll check in with you again down the road.
Email me at: email@example.com anytime!
Don’t read any further unless you want to know the answer to the Mate in Two puzzle appearing in this post:
1.Nf3+ Kh5, 2.Rxh3#