Brilliancy Checking

by admin on March 6, 2019

Recently I watched a lecture by Elizabeth Spiegel online where she talked about the importance of blunder-checking, especially for scholastic players. It’s not a new idea. Before you make your move, she said, write it down, and then look back at the board and ask, “Can my opponent take this piece?” After you’re sure that she cannot take the piece you’re planning to move, then you can go ahead and play the move, and put a check mark by it. The check mark indicates that you’ve performed the blunder check.

“This technique will not work without the check mark,” she stressed. Otherwise the student will forget to blunder-check, or she will say that she did when she really didn’t. But the act of having to make the check mark, and thinking about what it means, will force her out of whatever thought pattern she was in before.

I’m mentioning this in my blog, firstly because some of my readers might want to try it. Secondly, I wonder whether there is a possible extension of this technique (perhaps suitable for more advanced players). It’s called the brilliancy check.

White to play and win.

FEN: 3r1rk1/pb4p1/4p1QR/q3Pp2/1pP5/1n2B3/PP4PP/R5K1 w – – 0 28

Here is a prototypical example, from a game I played against the computer (Shredder engine, set at a strength of 2288). When I got to this position I thought that I was just going to play 28. Qh7+ Kf7 29. Qg6+ Kg8 and repeat the position. But then a funny thing happened. I accidentally noticed that the machine was evaluating this position at +17.30 pawns for me. (Usually I try my best to avoid looking at the machine’s evaluation, because I think it’s a form of cheating.)

If the machine says it’s +17.30, that means it’s a dead certainty that White has some tactical shot. And sure enough, it didn’t take me long to spot it: 28. Qh7+ Kf7 29. Rf6+! This forces the king away from the g-pawn, and he is left with no shelter. After 29. … Ke8 30. Qxg7! (much better than 30. Qg6+) White threatens mate on f8. Black is forced to play 30. … Rxf6 31. ef. Now mate is threatened on e7, and there is no real way to stop it. (The move 31. … Rd7 allows the pretty 32. Qg8 mate.) So Black resigned.

But what if I hadn’t seen the evaluation, which was the equivalent of the computer telling me, “White to play and win”? How could I have slowed myself down and forced myself to look for something better than a draw by repetition?

Okay, first, let me say that if it were a tournament game and I had plenty of time on my clock, I think I would have eventually hit upon the idea of 30. Rf6+. Probably. Nine times out of ten. But weird things do happen sometimes, and I’m sure that I have missed some equally simple wins in my life.

In order to spot something like this, I would like to propose a new technique called “brilliancy checking.” You decide on what you’re going to play, write it down (if you like that technique), and then you ask,

If someone told me that this position was White to play and win, would I still play this move?

Most of the time, your conclusion will be that the person who said that was nuts. But now and then, maybe one game in ten or one game in fifty, you might find that you have a winning move.

Of course, this is only a proposal. I haven’t tried it yet in an actual game. I just played the above game against the computer today. But if any of my readers want to try it, please tell me whether “brilliancy checking” works. And if so, send me an example!

P.S. There’s another psychologically interesting thing about this example — the way that the moves 28. Qh7+ Kf7 trade a vertical pin on the g-pawn for a horizontal pin. Somehow the horizontal pin was harder to spot, and this explains why I didn’t originally see the idea of 29. Rf6+. Perhaps subconsciously, when I moved my queen to h7, I thought, “I am releasing the pin on the g-pawn,” and then after 29. … Kf7 it didn’t occur to me that the pin was restored.

It’s always tricky to spot and explain faulty thought patterns. When you bring them out into the light they always turn to dust and blow away, because they are so obviously wrong. But that makes it even more important to try to understand the irrational belief or faulty thought pattern that caused you to make your mistake.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Roman Parparov March 6, 2019 at 5:23 pm

I don’t know how good this example is, since you planned to play Qh7+ anyways, and there might’ve taken another look at the position and noticed Rf6+.


admin March 9, 2019 at 9:21 am

It’s hard to be sure. I actually had played Qh7+ and Qg6+ already, and I was taking another look at the position to see if I had anything better than a threefold repetition. But before I could figure it out on my own, my eyes strayed to the forbidden zone on the screen, where the computer shows its evaluation, and I saw +17.30. I was mad with myself after the game for that moment of weakness. Although I did find the winning combination myself, I didn’t get the maximum learning benefit because I had a clue that there must be one.


Mike Splane March 6, 2019 at 9:36 pm

I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but you often overlook candidate moves. I wonder if any of your readers have had this problem and overcome it. Perhaps they can share what worked for them.

Personally I would have looked first at 28. Rh7 threatening mate in one.
If 28… Qc7 or 27 Rd7 then Qh5 mates.
If 28 … Rf7 29 Qh5 Kf8 30. Rh8+ Ke7 31. Bg5+ wins everything.

I like the idea of putting a check-mark on your score sheet but I wonder if this is disallowed under USCF rules as “illegal use of notes.” I’m fairly sure you can write down the time on the clock, instead of using a check mark, since that seems to be allowed.


Roman Parparov March 8, 2019 at 10:27 pm

28. Rh7 Qxe5


Mike Splane March 9, 2019 at 3:29 am

Lol! You’re right, of course.


weng nian March 27, 2019 at 6:21 pm

I think there is a rule of chess which disallows writing a move before playing. It is considered as an aid.
I would prefer not to teach this to children, even in training games, as it may encourage a bad habit.
of course in calculation training, you may have to write moves down in order to check with the answer or the engine after.


admin March 28, 2019 at 9:40 am

I don’t know about other countries, but in the U.S. writing the move down first is legal, and I see people doing it a lot. It was recommended (I believe) by Soviet grandmaster Alexander Kotov, and I don’t think he would have recommended it if it were not allowed under international rules.

Whether it’s a good idea is another question entirely, and one I’m not sure about. I tried it once myself and hated it, and never did it again.


weng nian March 28, 2019 at 3:51 pm

Fide Laws of Chess
Article 8: The recording of the moves
8.1 In the course of play each player is required to record his own moves and those of his opponent in the correct manner, move after move, as clearly and legibily as possible, in the algebraic notation (See Appendix C), on the scoresheet prescribed for the competition.
It is forbidden to write the moves in advance, unless the player is claiming a draw according to Article 9.2, or 9.3 or adjourning a game according to the Guidelines of Adjourned Games point 1.a.

I am surprised but then perhaps this is allowed in US under the local laws variant. I am no Chess Laws expert but i think perhaps Fide-rated tournaments must surely abide by Fide Laws of Chess, no?
Also this rule was a cause of the controversy in the US Champs in St Louis some time ago with Wesley So during his annus horribilis.

I am only writing this as I think it is a bad habit which can cause junior players grief when they travel overseas to play chess where very likely the rule is enforced.


admin March 28, 2019 at 3:59 pm

Wow! Thanks for the information. That kind of settles the question — as a teacher, I can’t encourage my students to do something that is considered illegal in FIDE tournaments.

Possibly the rules were different in 1970, when Kotov wrote his book.


weng nian March 28, 2019 at 4:05 pm

Just to be absolutely accurate )professional hazard), here is the link to the latest Laws of Chess (in effect from 2018): and Art 8.12 (which is still the same).
That Kotov comment was legal bak in his days. And due to the popularity of his book on thinking and candidate moves and decision-making trees, it has proved to be a stumble for many chess readers of the book.


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