A short rant about puzzles

by admin on November 13, 2007

“What are those pictures for?”

One of the kids in my Aptos Library chess club was looking at the page I had opened to in Chess Tactics for Kids. Probably he had never looked at the inside of a chess book before. It’s the sort of question that kids sometimes ask — a question whose answer on the surface seems completely obvious, but then it makes you stop and think.

Okay, obviously, the pictures are there so that I can set up the positions on the demonstration board. But I think that Shane’s question was a little deeper than that. Why do we want to look at just those positions? Why don’t we look at the whole game? This question is related to the issues that Carina brought up in her very thoughtful comment on my most recent post. She talks about how she has been frustrated by puzzles, and by the implicit assumption that if you can’t solve this puzzle then you’re just no good, you have no talent, etc., etc.

I explained to Shane that we can’t look at the whole game because we don’t have enough time. The positions on this page have a specific theme, the theme of deflections. If we looked at the whole game, we would be distracted by a lot of things that are irrelevant to deflections. It’s as if we are putting a specific moment in the game under a microscope. (Okay, I didn’t explain it quite so cleverly.)

But there is something fundamentally unrealistic about all these puzzles, even if they come from real games. Especially if they come from real games. I think of a chess game as a living organism. Every move is connected to the next move, both chessically and psychologically. When you separate the cell from the organism, you inevitably distort it. In a real chess game, you never start looking at a position with a completely blank slate, as you do when you pluck it out of a textbook. You always have holdovers in your mind from previous moves — plans that are active, previous plans that you’ve abandoned, emotions from your past good moves or your past blunders, impressions about what your opponent is likely to play.

In the puzzle you don’t see any of this. You don’t see the moves that the master made preparing the sacrifice. Or you don’t see that the sac was a lucky opportunity that dropped into his lap. Or that the sac may have worked perfectly well the previous move, or may have worked even better with more preparation. Perhaps the most egregious distortion of reality is the problem-like brilliancy that didn’t actually occur in the game. Sometimes such a move had no chance of happening, because neither player ever suspected that anything like it was possible!

If a move has essentially zero chance of actually being played, how important is it for us or our students to learn about it? This is a question that was very relevant for my lesson on deflections. Right now, my students are struggling just to learn that they should protect their pieces. Perhaps I shouldn’t confuse them by pointing out that looks may be deceiving. (Their defender may not really be doing its job because it can be deflected away.) At their level of skill, perhaps I should just praise them for getting the idea of protection right. The move that might be a mistake for a class-A player may actually be a good move, and a sign of progress, for the beginner or class-E player.

Let’s talk a little bit also about the assumption that if you can’t find the “right” answer to the puzzle, you must be a bad player. I’d like to compare a chess game to a quilt. My wife is a professional quilter, but that doesn’t mean that every stitch she makes is perfect. Nor does it have to be. To make a very good quilt, it’s enough to make very good stitches most of the time. It’s also very important to have an overall vision for the quilt, and that’s something that you can never learn if you focus on one stitch at a time.

So what can we learn from chess puzzles, and what are their limitations?

  1. There are certain mechanical techniques in chess that you can learn by solving puzzles, or having the solution shown to you.
  2. However, a puzzle is always an artificial construct, even if it comes from a real game. In real life, you will never approach a position with a “blank slate,” as you do when you solve a puzzle from a book.
  3. Thus your performance on chess puzzles is only an imperfect indicator of how you will do during a game. Maybe the master who found the brilliant combination in the book only reached that position because he saw the combination coming. You, on the other hand, would have played differently five moves earlier, and maybe your idea would have worked just as well. So don’t get discouraged. Also, on the other side of the coin, don’t get too complacent if you solved the problem correctly. All right, but would you have solved it if you didn’t have an annotator tapping you on the shoulder and saying, “White to play and win”?
  4. A chess game is an organism. You can learn something about an organism by studying its cells, just as you can appreciate something about a quilt by looking at the individual stitches, but you will never understand the whole organism that way.
  5. Therefore you should not study only puzzles. You should study complete games as well (and your own games are the best ones to study).
  6. In spite of all this, puzzles are useful. Just make sure you study them with realistic expectations. If you can’t solve the puzzle, don’t beat yourself up over it. Or if you’re teaching and your students can’t solve it, don’t beat them up! It may not really matter all that much.
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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt Hayes November 13, 2007 at 11:21 am

I agree, at least to a certain extent, with your comments about puzzles. I think they are best when grouped together by theme so that there is a common thread running through them.

It is true that none of us are ever going to reach the positions shown in these puzzles but that isn’t really the point. The point is to illustrate ideas and tactical themes and CAN crop up in our own games.

One of the best puzzle books is, I believe, “Anthology of Chess Combinations” by Informant. However, it is what I would call a “hardcore” book in that it isn’t suitable for beginners. You also won’t find it sitting on the shelf in your local Barnes & Noble either. I believe that even Amazon doesn’t carry it, but the USCF website does and a few other places. I highly recommend this book for improving one’s tactics but my personal feeling is that it is best suited for class B and above (not that lower rated players can’t get something out of it but the puzzles get very hard, very quickly).

I agree with you Dana that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up over not being able to solve certain puzzles. I think sometimes it depends on how our brains are wired. Some people are better are solving certain types of puzzles than others. In the “Anthology…” book I mentioned above, I have been able to solve some of the trickier puzzles in a minute or two but haven’t been able to solve some of the easier ones at all. Then I’ve shown the puzzle to someone – even a player with a lower rating than me – and they have solved it almost immediately. It’s funny how that goes sometimes.

In general, I would much rather play through an entire game than just solve one puzzle/position from it. However, as you say, time constraints sometimes make that impractical.

I also agree that your own games are the most important ones to study, especially your defeats. You will learn far more from studying one of your losses than from studying five of your wins.


Carina J. November 14, 2007 at 6:20 am

This was some really good advise. Especially the quilt analogy, it’s the same with drawing. I know when I draw that I shouldn’t try to control each brushstroke to perfection, because if I do, I lose sight of the bigger picture, especially the composition. When I study other peoples drawings, I find it interesting to see large detail pictures where the individual brush strokes are visible, because it reveals alot about the working methods of the artist and also when I understand how surfaces and textures are made from scratch, I get a much deeper understanding of the image in generel, when I view it in its normal display-size.

I guess I could learn alot from myself if I only transferred those art lessons to chess, huh. 😀 It’s difficult to see the connections at first, though, but the deeper you reach into a subject, the more it seems to have in common with the core of other subjects, too.


admin November 15, 2007 at 10:28 am

Thanks for the comments! Matt, I will look up that anthology. I’ve noticed the same thing, by the way — sometimes the solution to a puzzle will appear obvious to me, other times I really struggle with them. I guess it’s a wonderful thing that all of us have brains that are put together in a slightly different way. Sometimes, when I’m playing a game, I’ll spend ten minutes agonizing over my opponent’s response, then play my move and he does something completely different! So sometimes I remind myself, when I think too long, “Remember, the opponent gets a vote, too.”

Carina, I’ve been thinking recently about this idea of trying to see the “big picture” during a chess game. So often I’m just lurching along, a move at a time, and I feel just like a two-year-old kid who has to concentrate on every step just so he doesn’t fall down. Meanwhile, a grandmaster will be saying, I have to run from point A to point B, and he just does it — he doesn’t think about every step along the way.

Jesse Kraai’s latest lecture seems relevant to this. He keeps pointing out how his opponent, Yanayt, was calculating away like a demon — but from Jesse’s point of view, he was just making his position worse and worse! That was definitely a case of big-picture chess versus microscope chess.


Howard Goldowsky November 25, 2007 at 6:18 pm


My quick take on this is that solving tactics puzzles is like practicing jump shots and free throws. No matter how beautiful the spin move or how graceful the offensive scheme, the shot must go in — the tactics must be executed. There’s a time for understanding the game as a whole, and there is a time for drilling deflections.

I’m glad I found your new blog, and I look forward to reading more interesting articles in the future. Anybody who references “Zen and the Art of Archery” is destined to write an interesting chess book some day (as you aspire). I also look forward to listening to your lectures, when I get a chance….

Howard Goldowsky


admin November 26, 2007 at 9:18 am

Hi Howard! Glad you found my blog. I’ve enjoyed reading your book, so let me take a moment here to give you a short promotional plug: hey everybody! If you haven’t done so yet, please check out Howard’s book, “Engaging Pieces.”

Yes, even though we all aspire to be chess artists, the reality is that you can’t be a very good artist if you’re forever messing up your canvas with bad strokes, or if you lack the technical ability to express your ideas. I’m not sure what painters do for practice (probably just paint a lot) but it’s nice that we chess players can take a short-cut by solving puzzles. However, one should recognize that it is a short-cut. “Painting a lot” is still a key part of any training plan.


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