What is Conceptualization?

The power of Conceptualization, and why I'm abandoning the word "visualization"

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - 'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.

Listen instead?

There’s a word that has forever been paired with Chess. It’s been used since the earliest writings about Chess, and can be heard from the mouth of pretty much every Chess instructor since.

That word is visualization.

It’s the word most people use to describe how they interact with their mental board, how they calculate, how they remember and recall positions. And it’s the wrong word.

There are two primary reasons for this:

  1. “Visualization” doesn’t have to be in any way “visual”. Plenty of people who never saw pictures in their minds managed to do it just fine.
  2. “Visualization” has traditionally been associated with seeing moves ahead, but that’s only a small fraction of the value of the skill.

The term visualization is incorrect because it’s too limited. It doesn’t reflect what happens in our minds. The way it’s generally used misses the point. It’s regularly misunderstood, and as such ignored in most Chess content.

Most Chess players don’t bother training it because they don’t understand why it’s so important. Then they find their improvement halts unendingly, because they never address the myriad of problems created by weak skills in this area.

Stop road sign against blue sky background. It's a beautiful day out, but you're stuck here.
Most of us can see the beautiful world of Chess improvement in the distance- we just can't reach it.

I started Don’t Move Until You See It with a big focus on visualization as well. But the more I learned about it, researched it, and understood the science, the more the term grated on me. The more I felt it hindered us as players.

It was time for a shake up. So in February 2023, I proposed a new word. One that better reflects what we know about modern psychology and what history tells us about Chess in particular.

Introducing Conceptualization


I define it as so:

Conceptualization is the interaction of our working memory with Chess information.

It does not require people to have any visuals in their mind (a point I’ll talk more about here). And it’s far more interested in ensuring your brain has clarity in the current position than it is in hypothetically “seeing” moves ahead.

To understand why conceptualization is so important, we need to understand something core to how our minds work with regard to Chess (and anything else, really).

The idea is simple enough: what we observe and what we perceive are two different things.

Here’s the process we experience when we choose a move in a game of Chess:

  1. we observe at the position on the board with our eyes
  2. based on our observation, particular candidate moves jump out at us
  3. we select the move that looks the best based on what our eyes see on the board and our mental calculations
  4. we play that move

But that’s not actually what happens. The real process, the one our brains undergo, looks more like this:

  1. we observe the position on the board
  2. our subconscious brain scans all the information it picks up from our eyes, and downloads it into working memory.
  3. there is too much information in a normal chess position board to download it all, so our brain automatically prioritizes information that it deems the most important and lets the rest drop away. If it’s under pressure, it downloads even less information.
  4. we only perceive the details that managed to fit in our working memory.
  5. we select the move that looks the best based not on what we observed but on what we perceived.
  6. we play that move.

We don’t actually make decisions based on what we see. We make decisions based on what our working memory contains!

Man with blindfold over his eyes, with the word "See" across the front.
We make decisions based on what we remember, not what we see.

The limits of our working memory

In 1956, a researcher by the name of George Miller identified that our working memory has a hard limit to its capacity. He discovered that we have around 7 “slots” for information. Some of us get 5, others 9, but it averages out at 7.

When we push up against that limit, we face overwhelm and fuzziness.

So our brains can hold 7 pieces of information at once. There are 32 pieces on a Chessboard. As I like to say, one of those numbers is bigger than the other.

To compensate, our brains try to create meaningful “chunks” of information that are easier to encode in a single slot.

(As an example, you’ll probably find it easier to remember the sequence 1, 7, 7, 6, 2, 0, 2, 3 if you break it into meaningful chunks like the years 1776 and 2023.)

So we observe a Chess position, and our brains try to shove all the information we observe into those 7 slots of working memory. And it’s hard- really hard.

There’s 32 pieces, 64 squares, numerous sightlines and vectors, numerous options for moves, numerous possibilities. It’s too much for most of us.

But our brains do the best they can. They automatically select the pieces of information they think are the most important and “forget” the rest.

We make our decisions based not on what we observe, but on what we’ve managed to hold in our working memory. Basically, we’re making decisions based on incomplete information.

The reason for “stupid” blunders


Have you ever sensed the opportunity for a big attack against your opponent’s kingside, calculated a few moves, thought through their defenses and how you’d break them…

Then moved your queen and immediately lost it to a bishop on the other side of the board?

How about those times you moved the only piece that was stopping you from getting mated? Even worse when, only a few moves earlier, you’d put the piece there specifically to stop the mate in the first place!

These are our “stupid” mistakes. The ones we can’t believe we made. The ones we beat ourselves up for. The ones that keep us in our never-ending plateaus.

We tell ourselves we must be total idiots to have played that move.

But you’re not an idiot. You just have weak conceptualization skills. You’ve found a training issue, not an intelligence issue. And it can be resolved.

Here’s what really happened in that “big attack” example:

  1. you observed the position on the board.
  2. your brain downloaded the position into your working memory, but it hit the 7-slot limit before it was finished.
  3. you sensed an attack possibility on the kingside, so your brain prioritized the chunks of information over on the kingside. To make space, it “forgot” the parts of the board not obviously involved in the attack- including that long distance bishop. As far as your brain is concerned, those parts of the board are invisible. Your eyes can see them, but your brain can’t.
  4. with this space freed up in your working memory, you were able to calculate with clarity and accuracy the various things that could happen on the kingside. But you have no sense at all of the queenside. It may as well not exist.
  5. you decide on the Queen move based on your perception and your calculations.
  6. the “invisible” bishop on the other side of the board captures your Queen.
  7. you resign, embarrassed.

It doesn’t matter if our eyes can see it if our brains aren’t downloading it. And if our decisions are based on incomplete information, they’re probably bad decisions.

When we train our Conceptualization skills, we’re increasing the effiency of our working memory. We’re training our brains to hold more in each slot, to create bigger and bigger chunks. To “forget” less.

The thing most of us train least is the thing we need most


Our working memory is the centerpiece of how our brains interact with the Chessboard. And most players never train it. No wonder Chess players run into the most ridiculous learning plateaus I’ve seen in any skill.

Without this skill, we’re at a severe disadvantage.

It's difficult to play Poker with blank cards. It's difficult to play Chess with poor Conceptualization.

It’s like playing Texas Hold ‘Em Poker but half the cards on the table are blank for you (and only for you). Or like playing Tennis, but the lights are busted and a part of your side of the court is in pitch darkness.

It doesn’t matter how much you train your forehand and footwork if you can’t see the ball half the time.

It’s the same with Chess. All the tactics, openings, and endgames training in the world is worthless if our brains keep forgetting that pesky long distance bishop exists.

To learn more about what Conceptualization is and how you can train it, I recommend my free 5-day “Conceptualizing Chess Series”. That will give you all you need to get started.

Here’s to the journey.

Picture of Aiden


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.

Thanks for reading.

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