Chess is absurd. Philosophically it is the ultimate proof that strategic thinking is inherently, and morally flawed. Whatever you have been told about chess, you need to forget it very quickly because it is wrong. Most people think that the point of chess is to checkmate the opponent’s King, this is completely naive. The point of chess is to acquire advantage, and then destroy everything except what you have. This advantage becomes smaller and smaller the better at chess you become, until at high levels, the mere possession of a well placed pawn decides victory. The point of the Opening in chess is to establish a basic position and snatch an advantage, however small. The point of the Middle Game is to perform a series of equal exchanges so that you maintain your advantage. The point of the End Game is finish destroying whatever your opponent has left, then marching your pawn to the other side of the board and converting it into a Queen. At which point check mate is an epiphenomenon. Very few chess games get to this point. Normally the opponent simply resigns once it becomes obvious he cannot win.

The reality of chess is that check mate is a secondary consideration, it only occurs outside of the End Game when either party has made a serious error.

The method of chess has very little to do with anything approaching strategy. Chess is, or at least has in the last 100 years become, the art of memorization. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some basic strategic rules that you should follow, it simply means that they are few, and secondary to memorization. If you memorize the correct sequences of moves for all variations of merit from a specific opening, and your opponent hasn’t, all of his strategic plans will ultimately come to nothing.

This all seems counter-intuitive to early chess experience, because we get beaten badly and often, but these defeats are simply the impetus to learn more moves, more variations, more Opening Theory.

Of course, the term Opening Theory is just as absurd a collection of words as chess is a game of absurdities. There is no theory, there are only Lines. Lines are the arcane magic of the Grand Master, he memorizes them, he studies them, he runs them through Chess Engines (or he pays someone to do it for him). It is entirely possible that some Grand Masters are not quite aware of this, or some Masters of Chess. They actually may think that they have some natural intuitive strategic gift. Show me a Grand Master who has never memorized Games and Lines and I will show you a liar.

The Middle Game of chess is about the only place where cleverness, based on experience(read: how many games you have memorized or played through), can be of any assistance at all. At this point in the game you are to move your pieces around, and around, and around trying to create exchanges that 1) favor you or 2) don’t favor anyone (equal). Of course you are always on the lookout for acquiring a better position during all of this moving about. If your opponent makes an error (played the wrong move order as was said by Vishy Anand in one interview) then you might be able to grab another small or large advantage. At lower levels this error might be so big you can even grab an early check mate.

There is only one way to win chess: Know more than your opponent.

In some instances you may meet a person who has been playing chess for many years, who has never memorized a game, who doesn’t even know the names of the openings, and yet he beats you. Rerum omnium magister usus as the saying goes, experience is the master of all things. Everyone memorizes moves, sometimes over years of play and by a kind of subconscious (hey, this worked before) mechanism. You must study their method of play, what they like, and then work to acquire more information than them. In the end, you will lose all of about 40-50 games to them in the worst case. As you work to master the game (read: memorize lots and lots of games, variations and openings) you will eventually acquire more knowledge than them, and you will win.

In Review:

  1. Chess is a competition of memory (what worked in the past). There are two ways to acquire this, play lots of games, memorize/analyze lots of games. The second option is preferred.

  2. Forget about the god-damned King. Do not try to check mate the King. Do not make a plan to check mate the King. You can’t bury the King until you’ve built his Coffin.

  3. Pragmatism trumps Romanticism. You probably imagine chess as a struggle between mental giants. Actually it’s a struggle between human chess databases. How much you can fit in your head, and how quickly can you get it back out.

  4. You don’t have to be a genius to win at chess, you just have to either a) have a good memory, or b) be willing to work to gain a good memory. Barring some bizarre genetic defect or brain damage, anyone can have a good memory.