Your Chess Hometown (Mad Libs, Part 2)

Know your terrain better than your opponent.

I have a horrible sense of direction.

It’s legendary among my friends and family.

When I go back to my hometown and drive around, I still navigate the way I always have – by landmarks.

“I know the way from where I am to my Grandmother’s house,” I would think, “then I know the way from my Grandmother’s house to my Dad’s place.

“So I’ll go via my Grandmother’s house.”

Generally there is a faster way to get between my origin and destination. But I don’t know it.

People riding in the car with me are treated to sights of the various parts of town that I use as landmarks.

I have created mental chunks of the layout of my hometown. And I have key lines of transition between those chunks.

I know that Edward Street leads me from the golf course chunk to the Southgate chunk. From the Southgate chunk, I can turn left to transition to the High School chunk. Going past that, I get to the roundabout chunk. And so on.

There are some areas in my hometown, mainly in the North, where I have no chunks at all.

But I rarely go there. There’s nothing up there that grabs my attention. I simply choose not to make the turns that take me up there.

If I do find myself up there, I can generally get around anyway.

Because I understand the general layout of my town. How the streets are put together.

And if get totally lost, I can stop, check the GPS, and get my bearings.

Some of the chunks of my hometown I know so well that they’ve come together and formed a template in my mind.

I see the entirety of the CBD as one chunk, like a template, despite it having many streets in it. I know them all. It takes no effort to recall them and how they’re put together.

It only takes one slot in my short term memory to navigate that template.

If a main road is closed, I know another way around. The template accepts and adapts to this new information. And I know where to go without thinking.

I have a map of what’s possible when travelling in my hometown.

Different areas of my map have different levels of clarity. But it’s a map nonetheless.

I haven’t memorized the exact fastest way to get from any point A to any point B. But I don’t need to.

To learn that would take hours of studying maps, or driving down every street to see what it connects to.

Most of that information I’d never use. It’s boring. It’s a waste of time.

Unless I’m trying to be the best taxi driver in my hometown, that’s a pointless exercise.

Even without that, I know WAY more about navigating my hometown than the vast majority of the world.

Even people that have visited the place, or lived there for a couple years.

I am way more comfortable navigating my hometown than any of them are.

It is my domain.

In Chess, we need to decide where our hometown is. And we need to build our mental map of it.

Grandmasters have tens of thousands of Chess chunks saved in their long term memory.

Grandmasters have learned how to get from any point A to any point B anywhere on the planet.

Most of what they’ve learned, they never actually see in a game. But it all aids them to be the masters of navigation, regardless of origin or destination.

We don’t need to do that.

We only need to be the masters of our Chess hometown, the way I am of my real hometown.

We need to guide Chess games towards our Chess hometown. Because we know it better than our opponent does.

We’re comfortable there. Our opponent is not.

This process drastically lowers the amount of chunks we need to learn to see rapid improvement.

I can’t navigate the Sicilian as Black to save my life. No idea. I get destroyed if I attempt that.

But the Dutch… my map of that is very strong. If you play 1. d4 against me, you enter my hometown.

Welcome, and good luck.

Do I have deep memorized variations that I follow? No. I have maps, ideas, and landmarks.

I know the way Dutch games play out. I know what my opponent wants and what I want.

And, more often than not, I get what I want. Because the Dutch is my hometown.

And, as Tal said about the deep, dark forest, the way out of my hometown “only has room for one”.

This is the power and purpose of openings.

It’s not to memorize long variations.

It’s to limit the possibility space of the game to the sorts of positions you know better than your opponent does.

After 4 moves of Chess, there are 71,852 possible positions.

If we know what we will play against our opponent’s first four moves, that giant number means nothing to us.

Because we have a map. We have detailed chunks of knowledge here. And we can visualize the way between those chunks.

We can adapt when roads are closed.

This is our hometown.

When picking your openings, don’t spend ages learning variations.

Instead, do the following:

1. Pick openings for White and Black.

Your first move should always be the same as White. As Black, your response to White’s main first moves should be the same each time you face that move.

Sometimes your opponent will play “weird” stuff early. In those situations, play solid.

Put two pawns in the center. Develop your pieces. Use your visualization skills to recognize and prevent threats.

And wait for your opponent to implode. They always implode.

2. Identify the main branches of your chosen openings.

As an example, the Caro-Kann has the Classical, the Exchange, the Advanced, the Panov, and the Fantasy.

You don’t need to learn their names but you do need to pick what you’ll do in response to each of them.

Again, this is all about limiting possibilities.

3. For each of those branches, find the “ideal” set up and the plans within.

What does your opening setup look like if your opponent gives you everything you want?

What are the plans in that set up? Why is it “ideal”?

You’ll find that most of your plans stay the same between the main branches, with only small tweaks.

This step is the most important.

This ideal set up will show you what the plans of your opening are. Then you can use those plans in the less ideal situations as well.

Study these positions. Get comfortable with them. Use your visualization skills to explore them.

A good openings book or course can help you identify weapons to use here.

Focus on teachers or authors that show the “why” behind the moves. Avoid anything that focuses on memorizing long lines.

4. Learn the main traps in your opening. Both ones you can use, and ones that can be used against you.

Focus on what the traps are, why they work, when they occur, and how to diffuse them.

Players at low level will often go for the not-very-good-but-trappy lines. If you’ve looked them up beforehand and know how to stop them, you’ll probably win the game.

Traps can show you where weaknesses are in your set up or your opponents’. This is valuable to know.

Important note: don’t rely on traps to get your wins. Use them sparingly. Traps will get you wins at lower levels, but you’ll be punished for them later.

Learn these traps to understand them and prevent them being used against you. Only use them yourself when the right opportunities arise.

5. Whenever you run into a move you haven’t seen before, look it up with an engine or in your opening course.

This is the bit where you check the GPS. Every now and then you’ll run into something you haven’t seen before. After the game, you should add that move to your mental map.

Check the move with an engine or in your course and decide what you will do next time you’re faced with that move and why. That’s generally enough.

Only go deeper if you start seeing that tricky move often enough to be worth the time for deeper investigation.

And that’s it. Congratulations!

If you’ve sat down and done that, you know your openings better than the vast majority of Chess players in the world.

You’ve started to build the map of your hometown. Good luck to anyone entering it to challenge you.

You’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

Here’s to the journey.

About the author

Aiden Rayner writes about how to make the adult brain better at Chess. Using science-backed insights, he works to change the narratives around adult improvement, and help adults discover the power of their Chess brains.

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