How does high level chess work? Do they really just think like 10 moves ahead?


How does a game of chess work between two top level players? Do they have to think like 25 moves ahead to find any sort of opening against the opponent?

In: 347

It depends on the position. Sometimes you can choose a move just on general principles, looking to make sure it doesn’t let your opponent immediately do something to you. At other times, in complicated positions with many threats on both sides, you need to calculate a lot of variations.

In general, there are two components of making good chess moves. *Strategy* is what you are trying to achieve: endanger the opponent’s king, weaken their pawn structure, control a portion of the board, etc. *Tactics* means making sure you can safely carry out that strategy (calculating to make sure you won’t be losing pieces, allowing dangerous counterattacks, etc.).

You might have to think ten moves ahead in an especially complex situation in the opening or middlegame. The only time you would typically have to calculate much further than that is in the endgame, when there are fewer pieces and so the calculations are simpler.

They often do, but it isn’t the only thing. Preparation plays a major part. You need to study most common sequences of opening moves, with all the variations you’re likely to get. You also need to study your opponent’s games to figure out which variations they prefer or not. Most top players have giant files on their computers, with complex decision trees (“If they do this, I’ll do that”), that they try to memorise.

Of course, there are way too many variations to remember. At some point in each game, both players find themselves “out of preparation” and having to figure out what to play on the spot. Generally, based on their prep, they’ll have a good idea of the pros and cons of the position at that point and the general strategic principles at play (“I have a strong centre, but need to watch out for an attack on the kingside”). Also, having played thousands of games over the years, they’ve developed strong pattern recognition that allows them to identify possible tactics.

Therefore, memory and pattern recognition helps them calculate multiple moves in advance. How far in advance depends on how much time they have. In classical games (~90 minutes for 40 moves, with some sort of extension for subsequent moves), it is common to see players thinking for up to half an hour on a critical move, as they explore all the likely variations. However, in rapid or blitz games, you just don’t have the time to do that (luckily, neither does your opponent) so you have to rely on memory, pattern recognition and instincts. The best chess players can think fast and deep, have extraordinary abilities to recall obscure games, and have spent literal decades doing little other than playing and studying chess.

It depends massively on the position. The more available “good” moves and “good responses” exponentially increases the amount of thinking required to think one more move ahead. So in very simple or very forcing(few responses that work) positions high lvl chess players can easily think 10+ moves ahead. But in more complex positions they maybe look 3-5 moves ahead, but spend more time evaluating how good each position is.

Not every move is planned that way. There are some general strategies, such as “control this section of the board”.

I once played a game against my brother, and I was thinking three moves ahead. I was mentally exhausted when it was over, and decided that I didn’t really want to play chess any more. If I’m going to play a game, I don’t want to work that hard at it.

At the top level it is a lot of pattern recognition. They study previous games, and somewhere in the match the players recognize the pattern, and move accordingly.