Master vs. Beginner

By Bill Wall


A few years ago, Dr. Hemut Pfleger, a grandmaster, wrote a book called Chess – The Mechanics of the Mind.  The book provides a set of guidelines for the average player to improve his basic chess thinking and performance.  He shows the differences in thought process of a master vs. a beginner.


The difference between an average chess player and a master is that the master has tuned his thinking to an ultra-fine degree, with daily practice and training doing the rest.  Chess mistakes by average players is not due to lack of chess understanding, but rather from basic flaws in the thought processes – flaws to which chess masters are equally prone. 


Experiments were done in reconstructing a typical chess position with 25 pieces on the  board.  After showing the position for 5 seconds, beginners were unable to set up no more than 5 pieces correctly.  An experienced player was able to set up about 20 pieces correctly.  Grandmasters not only set up the position correctly, but noted that White could checkmate in 5 moves.  The eye movements were also recorded.  The masters immediately directed their attention to the relevant sectors of the board where the action was, whereas the amateurs tended to gaze indiscriminately all over the board.  A final experiment was done where all the participants looked at an idiotic position, with pieces scatter at random, bearing no relation to any normal game set-up.  Neither the amateurs or masters could come close in reproducing the position. 


The chess master’s skill is due primarily to daily practice, systematic preparation, and regular tournament play against other strong masters.  For a master to find the right moves in a short amount of time, a given position must contain reference points and specific clues, already part of the chess master’s vast storage of knowledge.  It is not that a master calculates more, but that his great chess understanding directs him speedily to the relevant issues.  It is rare that a master examines more variations in a normal position that the average chess player dies, or to even go into much more detailed analysis of these variations.  However, the moves he examines are usually good ones.  The amateur loses a lot of time by checking out average or even weak moves.


It is estimated that a master has evaluated about 50,000 reference points or positions.  A master calculates variations more efficiently than a beginner, even in random positions.  A master does not spend a lot of time working out long variations, but is, on the contrary, economical in the use of his thinking time.


The knowledge of acquired patterns in chess constitutes the major part of a master’s superiority over a beginner.  A beginner, who has no ‘key’ of acquired knowledge, is completely baffled by a given position, whereas a master, by recognizing a trusty chess pattern, can rapidly unravel the position and find the best move.


How does a master think when faced with a normal chess position?  He first considers the immediate threats and tactical points before other factors can be examined.  Having found no concrete tactical chances in a given position, he now begins to evaluate the strategic elements.  He looks at open lines, weak and strong squares, comparison of the minor pieces, pawn structures arising from different openings, etc.  The master also has the advantage of delving more deeply into the position than his opponent can do in the equivalent time. 


The recommended method of thinking about any position is to first, look for any tactical possibilities that may be lurking in the position.  Next, assess the positional elements and form a plan based on these.  Finally, try to carry out this plan by the use of every tactical means at your disposal. 


Beginners tend to overrated moves which attack or threaten something.  Beginners usually react to threats without sufficiently examining the alternatives.  This usually leads to chess blindness that causes blunders.  For beginners, the surest way of winning from a better position is to gobble up as much of his opponent’s material as possible, whereas the opposite is often the case.  Masters evaluate material gain much better and are more likely to sacrifice material for quicker development or better position and more tactical threats.  They usually offer a poison pawn or know when a pawn is poison.