Chess Intuition

By Bill Wall


What is intuition?  It is the ability to assess a situation, and without reasoning or logical analysis, immediately take the correct decision.  An intuitive decision can arise either as the result of a long though about the answer to the question, or without it.  Chess players notice dozens of positional patterns, subconsciously compare them, and call it intuition.  For chess, there are three types of intuitive decisions one can make: combinative, positional, or psychological.

In chess, intuition manifests itself first and foremost in the ability, in a somewhat unconscious way, and with a high degree of accuracy (emphasis mine), to choose between different lines of play. (source: Bein, The Enigma of Chess Intuition, 2012)

Chess is a game of ideas and intuition, not of moves.  A person observing a game of chess for the first time is likely to feel a sense of awe.  It looks so complicated and unless urged on by strong motivation such as a child’s curiosity, the common reaction is to avoid such a complicated game.  Indeed, the human brain seems ill-suited for the game of chess.  The apparent need for long, precise calculation and the consequent demands on limited short-term memory in a finite amount of time ought to be so overwhelming that good play would be impossible.  Yet, the chess player overcomes these limitations and is able to play well beyond the human capacity to calculate with practice.  The expert player draws on his intuitive experience to discover meaning in a chess position to find the best move. 

Intuition is central to all chess decision-making, and an understanding of its role is vital in improving one’s game.  In chess, at the highest level, intuition usually comes first in deciding a move, then calculation.  According to former world champion Garry Kasparov, first intuition gives the player a candidate move, then the calculations are used to verify the soundness of the intuition.  The intuitions themselves come with experience.  Intuition is the result and response to an instructive form of learned strategic calculation.  The rational brain further analyzes those results to look for flaws.  An intuitive move is one made not because of calculation, but because the player recognized that it will produce a position of a type in which a familiar strategy almost always worked in the past.

The conscious calculation is usually something like this: “If I move here, he will go there; if he goes there, I will go here.”  The subconscious mind does not calculate like this.  Nor is it likely that the mind goes through each and every possible move to evaluate it.  Instead, the mind most likely uses pattern recognition and “chunking” to remember past positions and uses that experience to formulate a plan or candidate move.  Chunking is the collection of elementary items having strong associations or links with one another in a meaningful way and is perceived as one unit.   Once a chunk has acquired meaning, it can serve as a symbol that can cue specific ideas and plans when recognized.  It can also be used as a building block for more advanced positions and more abstract symbols.

A chess player does not see the entire board as a unit, but rather as a collection of familiar groupings.  Intuition exploits an ability to recognize these significant configurations of pieces that stand out against the background of the board situation, such as a castle position or particular pawn structure.  Even a beginner will view a doubled or tripled pawn not as two or three separate pawns, but a single entity, and will be able to see the potential weaknesses of doubled or tripled pawns.

From many experimental studies on masters and amateurs, the masters expend less energy in their brains when analyzing a position than amateurs.  This is because expert chess players consider fewer alternatives than novices do.  They calculate less and use their intuition more.  Intuitions are learned and we develop them through experience.  It is clear that intuition plays an essential role in reducing a chess game to a digestible number of features which we can cope.  The chess master simply knows what is important and what isn’t.

Chess played by humans is still a game of ideas.  Unlike computers (and beginner players) chess players filter bad moves automatically with their intuition.  This intuition is built from experience and pattern recognition.  Such experience is lacking for new and improving players.  Pattern recognition in chess is effective, but you cannot experience meaningful growth with respect to intuition in chess without working hard to improve the deep positional understanding and tactical possibilities of chess.  Developing your intuition in chess will improve your game as it will open your eyes to new ideas and patterns that you would not previously have considered.

Chess masters builds up a knowledge bank of how he feels making certain moves based largely on all the mistakes he has made in the past.  All the lost positions and games, and the bad feelings they have caused, have become translated into accurate intuitions about what moves to make, without being able to explain it all.  Players who try to calculate everything to a finish will lose out to those who user their logical and intuitive abilities in harmony with one another.

Mistakes in chess weigh more than successes.  You learn more from your losses than from your wins.  We learn much more from feeling bad from something we did than when we breeze through a successful game due to some blunder by the opponent.  Successes may shape our intuitions, but mistakes shape them more powerfully.

Do chess players today have more intuition than chess players of the past before chess computers and engines?  Chess grandmasters are certainly getting younger or becoming GMs faster than the old days.  Perhaps chess players play more games (and make more mistakes) because of computer programs.  Perhaps playing chess on the computer improves intuition at least as much, if not more, than playing chess over-the-board.  Today’s top super grandmasters such as Carlsen, Nakamura, Caruana, Wesley So, and Karjakin, are all products of the chess computer and chess engine age where chess engines are stronger than any of the top players in the world.  Grandmasters like Fischer and Spassky had no luxury of playing and learning from chess engines.  They relied on their own experiences and intuition from hundreds of blitz games and tournament play.

When world champion Magnus Carlsen plays chess and explains a move, he says, “Sometimes a move just feels right.”  This indicates the operation of intuition.  According to Kasparov, intuition is the key to Carlsen’s success.  It is his ability to ‘feel’ what moves have potential and give him the edge over the long term – and which moves to avoid.  Carlsen has a knack for sensing the potential energy in each move, even if its ultimate effect is too far away for anyone to calculate.   In interviews with Kasparov, he gleefully mentions that he relied on intuition by playing moves without calculating lines.  He relied on his chess intuition to filter out the irrelevant features of the position and draw attention to the relevant ones.  Former world champion Vishy Anand once expressed his opinion on the subject by saying “Intuition is the first move I think of.”  This comes from his knowledge of chess and previous experience.

Master play is rich in spectacular examples of intuitive moves, such as Bobby Fischer’s queen sacrifice in his “Game of the Century” with Donald Byrne.  Fischer was also known for his dazzling displays of intuitive power.  In 1970, in the strongest blitz tournament of all time at Herceg Novi, Yugoslavia, he effortlessly outdistanced his opponents in a double round-robin grandmaster tournament.  He used half is allotted time in 5-minute chess an scored 19 out of 22 against some of the strongest players in the world, including three past world champions Petrosian, Tal, and Smyslov.  After the tournament, he rattled off the move of all 22 games he played without a mistake.  His play and recall was based on his intuition as each game followed a coherent sequence of ideas and that he could “chunk” and remember all the moves.  To the experienced player, chess is not a random bunch of moves, but is as meaningful as a literary work, like reciting a poem.  The logical sequence of moves links them together in memory as are verses by their cadence.

Without some sort of intuition, a beginner does not have the ability or experience to use chess knowledge and principles in actual play.  Beginners are surprised by getting checkmated when only a single move away from checkmating their opponent.  The principles of chess are helpful only in the simplest of situations.  The beginner finds blunders easy to recognize, but very hard to avoid.  He has not developed the intuition to avoid certain moves or go on the defensive.  When positions are so unfamiliar that experience and intuition suggests nothing, the amateur is reduced to simple blind fumbling of moves, examining one move after another to find one that seems best.

During practice, the chess beginner discovers exceptions of chess principles by probing the limits of these rules.  Refinements to the principles of chess become apparent, as do new exceptions.  As experience accumulates, a feeling or intuition develops for those cases in which the now highly specialized rules and principles can be applied.  By exploring a variety of situations and discovering relationships among the perceived features, the unusual become familiar and the beginner gains confidence.  With lots of practice, and making lots of mistakes, the amateur gains experience and gradually gets better.  Soon, he can “feel” the position, find a candidate move by intuition, then calculate to determine if that is the best move.  He can now suddenly make his moves automatically without too much thought and able to play at a faster rate of play.  He is able to play blitz chess.  The perceptual process has changed from “I know that” to the intuitive “I know how.”

Expert ability included not only intuitive recognition of the familiar, but also a sense of the limits of one’s expertise – a feeling for what is not known.  The master is able to apportion his time and effort to knowing what position requires attention and what cannot be dealt with.  He has to decide if there are tactics in the position or if he must play quiet, positional chess.

Chess intuition is taught by tutorial example.  Chess books (especially annotated master games) are full of example positions to illustrate a concept, such as openings, middlegames, tactics, sacrifices, and endgame play.  A strong chess player seldom recalls the tedious study and hard work required to learn some important principle, such as understanding where to attack pawn chains or where to place a rook, which now looks so obvious.  It is easy to forget that the ability to notice positional weaknesses such as doubled or isolated pawns, is not innate, but the result of a gradual transformation of perception that came through practice and study. 

Several years ago, the BBC had a television show called The Master Game.  Grandmasters would explain their thought process prior to a move.  It showed how they effortlessly (and unconsciously) dismissed moves.  Their assessment of the position came down to a very limited set of ideas, all backed up by deep intuitions about them.  They would say things like “This looks natural” or “This seems like the best move” or “There is nothing else I can do and I must play this.”  It was their intuition filter speaking.  There was little calculation involved in the limited time.  It was their unconscious experience telling them that a move worked or didn’t work. 

Former world champion Vladimir Kramnik says he relies on intuition when playing chess.  He said, “Intuition is the immediate awareness of the position, but this is difficult to explain logically.   Intuition in a sense depends on knowledge; the more you accumulate, the better your intuition becomes.  But on the whole, natural talent plays the biggest part.  Good intuition is the first sign of chess talent.  Simply speaking, you may like some positions, and dislike others.  Some positions you have faith in, whereas other you do not trust at all – this is what constitutes intuitive judgement.  In a favorable position, intuition plays a less significant role, whereas in blitz, it is the most important thing.  I myself am an intuitive player; my whole game is based on intuition.  I simply reject certain variations or do not calculate them to the end, because I sense that they are incorrect.” (source:  Beliavsky & Mikhalchishin, Secrets of Chess Intuition, 2001, p. 8)


If you play blitz chess, you must rely mostly on intuition.  Speed chess tends to be more intuitive in that you have to make decisions without being able to analyze exhaustively.  There just is no time for calculating all the possible moves.  After slight consideration in most blitz games, you have to go what feels right.  Blitz chess compels the players to be more focused.  You don’t have time to let your mind wander, and that forces you to work harder.  And with blitz, you get to play more games and positions.

In an interview with Magnus Carlsen, he said this about intuition.  ““Really, chess is mainly about intuition instincts. So when you play classical chess, at least for me, my intuition usually tells me something. It gives me an idea of what I want to play. Then I’ll have plenty of time to verify that and to calculate it in different variations, to see if I’m right. In blitz, we don’t have that luxury. So [you] have to go with what your intuition tells you, so that’s basically what’s going on. There’s not so much thinking. Of course, I’m calculating some variations, but usually I do what comes to my mind first. … I think you shouldn’t play only blitz, but playing some blitz is definitely pretty useful, especially when you’re developing as a young chess player. For me, it was very useful to develop my instinct, my tactical eye, and just plain training.” (source: venturebeat)