Intuition and Pressure

(This article originally appeared in the Master Skill Newsletter for May 30, 2023.)

Hi, it’s Aiden.

I’ll remember this last weekend for quite a while.

For what was, what wasn’t, and – my word – for what could have been.

I participated in my first Chess simul exhibition!

30 players in a big circle. 3 Chess masters in the middle, playing 10 boards each.

It was so much fun. And so exciting.

I get there, sign up, find my seat, and soak up the energy in the room.

I’ll never tire of seeing the power Chess has to bring people of all ages and cultures together. It’s such a beautiful force in the world.

Jody, the master for my section of the room, begins with d4. And I respond, as I tend to do, with the Dutch.

(Say what you want about the Dutch, I love it!).

The games rage on. I see several players quickly lose or resign, and several others putting up a great fight.

20 moves deep into my game, I realize something shocking- I am winning!

I’ve White in such a tricky position. I have the full initiative, and the threats keep coming.

I can’t quite believe it.

I watch Jody’s frown become more pronounced each time she returns.

Her eyes go wide a couple times while she calculates various options.

One short, loud exhale like a sigh.

It’s true- I am beating a titled player in a simul!

A few more moves pass and I’m up a clean knight. All the momentum in my favor.

You can guess what come next.

My brain overloads. I blunder. I throw my advantage away.

Here’s the sequence of events:

Jody plays her move and goes on to the next board, leaving me to consider mine.

One candidate move jumps out at me. It’s a chance to improve the position of my Queen and add a little extra pressure in the process.

I calculate the Queen move and realize it won’t work.

So, instead, I start looking at a Bishop move. It’s a powerful option, setting up a serious threat. It seems perhaps a little slow, but I don’t see what Jody can do to make use of the extra time.

I decide on the Bishop move.

Now, to assist the masters, we aren’t allowed to play our move until the master is back at our board.

So I had decided on the Bishop move, but couldn’t physically play it yet.

It’s at this point, the MC announces the simul will be wrapping up shortly. It has gone over time and they need to reset the room for the next part of the event.

We’re playing without clocks, so this is the first sense of time pressure to contend with. You can feel it in the room.

I notice Jody hurrying as she moves from board to board, trying to get through the games before the simul ends.

As she’s approaching my board again, I prepare to play the Bishop move but notice something.

I’d calculated the Queen move wrong.

When I calculated it, I’d found a key reason it wouldn’t work. But I was wrong. It’s not a problem at all!

Jody gets to my board, and I play the Queen move.

I see Jody relax. I know immediately it’s a horrible blunder.

Can you guess what the best move in the position was?

Correct, the Bishop move. The one I was going to play.

It practically won by force.

But the Queen move I played instead started a sequence of events that allowed Jody to win her piece back and freeze the whole position.

We agreed to a draw.

So what happened?

If you read back the little sequence of events above, you’ll notice a key omission:

I didn’t recalculate the Queen move!

The first time I saw the Queen move, I found one key issue with it and stopped calculating at that point.

When I realized I was wrong about that reason, I didn’t recalculate. I just played the move.

There are a couple reasons why we do things like this in Chess, and they’re rooted in our psychology.

Specifically, in the combination of intuition and pressure.

When we see a Chess position, our intuition will tend to kick in. A candidate move jumps out at us.

Often our intuitive sense is correct. But it is regularly very wrong as well.

Whether it’s right or wrong, it presents itself with confidence. And it holds a stronger place in our mind than any other move we consider.

Even when we’ve calculated it and shown it to be bad, we can’t shake the intuitive move from our mind entirely.

Here’s a comparison to help you see what I mean.

Which of these two horizontal lines is longer?

Our intuition tells us the answer- it’s the top one!

If you’ve seen this popular illusion before, you already know the real answer.

The lines are actually the same length.

When you look at them again, you know they’re the same length. But you still see the top one as longer. Your intuition holds sway.

A very similar thing happens in our Chess.

Our intuitive impression of a position is hard to shake. Even after we’ve realized it’s wrong.

Perceived pressure accentuates this issue.

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman discusses how pressure does two things to our intuitive impressions.

First, it makes them simpler. The more pressure we feel, the less information we take in before we jump to an intuitive conclusion.

Second, it makes them stronger. Perceived pressure drives us to rely more and more on these intuitive judgements.

Under pressure, our intuition becomes both more simplistic and more difficult to ignore. That’s a tricky combination for Chess.

So, when the pressure ramped up in the simul on the weekend, my intuitive judgement overrode my reason.

I moved the Queen and not the Bishop.

My first opportunity to beat a titled player crumbled into a draw.

In each moment of our Chess, especially under pressure, we must remain vigilant. We need to learn when to trust and distrust our intuitive judgements.

It can start with simply noticing the problem. When you feel your intuition take over your reason in a game, make a note of it. Analyze the move it happened.

Try to understand what went on in your head.

And don’t critique yourself too harshly. It was certainly tempting to beat myself up when I realized what I’d done.

But these issues have nothing to do with our intelligence or Chess prowess. It’s all psychology.

We’re using millions-of-years-old mental software to navigate the modern world. It’s going to throw errors here and there.

When it inevitably does, we can work on it. Train our software to perform a little better in those situations.

Upgrade ourselves.

All in all, I’m content with the draw. It’s still the best result I’ve had against a titled player.

And it highlights what’s perhaps my favorite thing about Chess.

This brutal, frustrating, wonderful game lays bare any biases, weaknesses, or issues in my mindset or cognition. It forces me to grapple with them.

It’s a training ground for my psychology.

As I improve my Chess, I improve my thinking.

And that’s pretty cool.

Here’s to the journey,





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