Intuition vs. logic in chess: Do you hold chess to be a game of logic only?

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Well, there are lots of people, including this humble writer, who think that intuition also has considerable role especially in complex situations. Why so?

Let us understand what intuition is. My Pocket Oxford Dictionary defines intution vey succinctly as “the ability to understand something immediately without conscious reasoning”.

Does it apply to chess? Purists will argue that in chess, there is nothing hidden like in card games (except of course the thoughts in your opponent’s head!). You can see all the pieces, you know all the moves each piece can make in given situation, so it is a matter of cold reasoning and calculation to find the best sequence of moves.

But question arises about how deep you can calculate. I have said elsewhere that in complex positions in the middle game, the sheer numbers of possibilities will make it impossible to go beyond next 4-5 moves. Let us assume that each move by a player can result in only two viable options for the opponent. So your first move has to consider 2 responses from the opponent, then you get 4 options for your second move and going this way, you have to calculate 16 for 3rd
move, 64 for 4th move…!! Well, even accepting that many of the options on later moves may really not be possible, but considering that you may have more than one option to start with (which is true
in most cases), there will still be a lot to take into account for your 4th or 5th move!

So what if something looks good up to 4 or 5 moves by your calculations, but proves to be a disaster after, say, the eighth move? In this instance, how much help did you get from your calculating ability?

Intuition is something else. In the aforesaid dictionary definition, the last four are the key words. There may be some calculations going on behind your ideas, but you are unaware of it. You appear to be jumping to conclusion. All you do is take in the situation, get that big “hunch” and play something that later gets you a brilliancy prize!

Calculation is the king?
Computers can do many more calculations in much less time compared to a human brain, so they should always win against the poor, dumb humans – but do they really? Nowadays computers have become much more powerful, but even then Deep Blue (with ability to make 200 million calculations per second) could win against Kasparov (2-1 with 3 drawn) only with some unfair help from IBM who did not venture for return match with Kasparov. Otherwise, you’ll not find many instances of computer defeating a GM or IM. In earlier days when computer chess programs were less advanced but still capable of defeating amateurs by virtue of their speed of calculation, I won some games by the trick of playing a completely unexpected silly move at some other part of the board! The computer would go into a huddle to logically analyze an illogical move and end up making an equally silly move allowing me to win! An amateur player would readily recognize the move as silly and punish me for it by just looking at it (intuition?) without the need of calculation.

I’ve mentioned that your brain may be making unconscious calculations that prompted your “gut feeling”. I can believe that such must be the reality. How many times have you seen a fresher to play by intuition? That subconscious thinking comes out of your database of knowledge from games played or seen by you, ideas you’ve read about (including those at this site!), chess puzzles you have solved and so on. All these experiences have registered somewhere in your brain. You are like an actor on the stage delivering crisp dialogs that comes to you from the prompter in the wings who is reading from a script, so no mistakes!

Frank Marshall (1877 – 1944), US Chess Champion from 1909-1936 and one of the great masters, is famous for many sacrificial plays (one line now known as Marshall Gambit). Some of these were spectacular successes, some were failures. It makes me think that Marshall’s intuitions had a major say in his making such moves!

It will be interesting to know what you all think about the role of intuition and how it comes about. Start a discussion on this blog.


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