Space to Think (Seven Slots, Part 4)

Why we Freeze, Forget, and Freewheel in Chess games, and what we can do about it.

Let’s say you have a small kitchen in your home and you’d like to make a large meal for some guests.

You’ve laid out all the ingredients on the bench. You’ve set up all the tools you’ll need on the bench. You’ve got the recipe book open and ready to go… also on the bench.

You grab a knife and an onion and discover a problem: you’re out of bench space!

There’s nowhere left to chop the onion!

This is basically what happens in our mind all the time during a Chess game. Our working memory is so full of information, that we sometimes run out of space to do anything with it.

Working memory isn’t just used to keep track of information like piece locations, threats, and dynamics. It’s also used to think. To plan, to calculate, to strategize.

We need bench space to chop an onion. We need slots to think.

When we find ourselves in a situation where we need to think and don’t have the slots, one of three things occurs.

We either Freeze, Forget, or Freewheel.

I’m certain you’ve experienced them all. As I explain each one, take a moment and recall a time where it happened to you. It could be in your Chess or in your general life, it doesn’t matter.

(Connecting these ideas to your experience will help them stick. Then next time one of them happens to you, you’re more likely to remember why it happens. And maybe you won’t be so hard on yourself.)

When we freeze, our brains can’t find any space for thought and we become effectively paralyzed.

We end up just standing there in the middle of the kitchen, holding the knife and the onion, unable to do any of the thinking that would fix our problem.

Even if the solution is simple, it doesn’t occur to us. We’re stuck.

In a Chess game, we find ourselves staring blankly at the position. No thoughts come, or if they do they’re unhelpful, and our time ticks away.

(Now take a second and think of a time this happened to you.)

When we forget, our brain opens up slots for thinking by deleting the content from other slots.

Sometimes those other slots used to hold critical information. We’re able to think now, but we’re no longer conscious of the whole situation or position.

If you’ve ever hung a piece in one move to a long distance bishop you forgot existed, that’s what I’m talking about. Forgetting is often experienced as tunnel vision.

You forgot something critical in order to clear some slots for thinking. In the kitchen analogy, it’s as if you threw the steaks in the trash to make some benchspace for chopping the onions. Sure, you can chop onions now – but you’re going to have some disappointed dinner guests.

(When has this happened to you?)

When we freewheel, our brain gives up on deeper thinking and relies instead on raw intuition.

Reasoned thought requires slots and effort. Raw intuition takes up much less space.

The results is that sometimes we find ourselves on autopilot, just playing the first move that comes to our mind.

This is actually very useful in the right circumstances. In time trouble, for example, we don’t have the luxury of deep thought. We just need to play something. Fast.

Our intuition is always active, offering ideas and possible solutions. Some are great. Some are awful. Our deeper thinking systems regularly assess and challenge the suggestions of our intuition. Together, intuition and deeper thinking are a great team.

When we have no slots for deeper thinking, we have no way of challenging our intuition. It will just suggest whatever it wants, and we’re helpless to resist.

So we go for the Queen sacrifice that obviously doesn’t work. Or we move the one piece that was stopping our opponent from mating us. We don’t consider anything, we just move.

(How often do you find yourself freewheeling?)

There are things we can do to prevent or limit the effects of Freezing, Forgetting, and Freewheeling.

Here’s one key idea for each.

Freezing is the easiest to resolve because we know when we’ve frozen.

When you sense you’ve frozen, the first step is to look away from the board. Take a few breaths. Let some of the mental overload clear.

Then look back again with fresh eyes and ask yourself one question: “What’s actually important here?”

Even the most complex positions will have only a handful of immediately important details. Turn your attention to those, letting the other, less important details drop away to the background.

With the extra space you’ve created, chop your onions.

To resolve issues of forgetting, we need training and habits.

The tricky part about forgetting is we don’t know what we’ve forgotten. Or even when we’ve forgotten it. So the best way to resolve issues of forgetting is to not put ourselves in that position in the first place.

In games, we must stay focused. Examine every move that’s played, give each the attention it deserves. The more attention we give each move, the better the details will link together and stay in our minds.

We can also build a habit of doing a final check for blunders before we commit to a move. Before you touch the piece, just cast your eyes across the board and check you’re not doing anything silly.

It’s a band-aid fix that addresses a symptom and not the cause, but if it prevents us hanging a piece here and there, it’s worthwhile. Think of it as a final line of defence against issues of forgetting.

To stop ourselves freewheeling, we need to slow down.

Obviously, if you’re in time pressure, or playing bullet, embrace freewheeling. It’s an asset in those circumstances. Outside of them, we need to slow ourselves down when there’s lots going on.

Be skeptical of the answers that come too easily. Try to prove your ideas wrong, not right. Humans are primed to notice things that support our hypotheses. If you look for ways your idea is right, you’ll find them even if you’re wrong. So look for ways you’re wrong, and if you can’t find any… well, then you might be on to something.

The struggle of our intuition vs our deeper thinking is baked into the human condition. It shows up in Chess just as it shows up in every other part of life. All we can do is understand it and try to minimize it. (I go deeper into it here.)

Overall, the best way to resolve freezing, forgetting, or freewheeling is not to be in the situation in the first place.

Keep working on your conceptualization, your mental Chess muscles. Build the efficiency of your seven slots.

When you’ve trained your brain to handle Chess information efficiently, it will have an easier time doing the actual thinking.

There’ll always be a little bench space to chop the onions.

We’ve looked at how our seven slots work, how information is held in them, and how we need space in them to think.

Next, we’ll look at the role of the slots in managing our emotions, why tilt is so damaging to the quality of our play, and what we can do about it.

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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