How Do Chess Players Think Ahead?

It should be clear to every observer that chess is a game of intelligence and hard work. There is a lot of planning and careful execution in a great game of chess and everyone knows that chess players need to think ahead to excel. But how do they go about that and what exactly is it that they are thinking about? Is it enough to think about chess in general terms or is there a deeper strategy to it?

How do chess players think ahead? Chess players think ahead by visualizing the board, examine certain moves and weigh up different positions to evaluate their benefits. Often, grandmasters know instinctively what to do next but they think ahead to try and prove themselves wrong to see what they could be missing.

So, let’s take a look at how you think about chess and why being wrong can make you right.

How do chess players think ahead?
How do chess players think ahead?

Visualization Of Chess For Chess Thinking

Chess is a game that though it looks 3-dimensional (because we live in a 3-dimensional world) is, in fact, played in only two dimensions. Pieces move forward or they move sideways (or in the case of some pieces, they do both at once) they don’t move up or down and they don’t move forwards or backwards in time.

That means that chess is a game of relatively simple geometry and the key to thinking about chess is to be able to see the board and the pieces on it in your mind’s eye and then start to develop the game in your head before it develops on the board.

By clever acts of visualization, you can determine what is most likely to happen and then either make it happen or avoid it, if you think that road is to your disadvantage as a player. However, if you don’t have a great visual memory then the idea of such visualization can be very intimidating, indeed.

To get to thinking about chess effectively, you must learn to visualize and while everyone reaches their own unique way of doing this over time, there are some tips to get you started.

Play Correspondence Chess To Begin Your Chess Thinking

Correspondence chess is slow. Mercifully so for our purposes. You see, while it would be rude beyond measure to pull out another chess set (or set one up virtually on your computer or phone) during a chess match when facing an opponent. It’s absolutely par for the course in correspondence chess. A move can take a week or more if you want it to and you can simply blame the postal service for any unreasonable delays (harder to do if you play by e-mail, mind you).

Thus, before you begin to visualize, you can start the process of looking forward on the chess set itself. Set up a second board. Start to work through your preferred moves, what is your opponent likely to do in response? What opportunities does that bring? What threats are they likely to reveal?

Thinking ahead like this is vital in correspondence chess because your opponent has as much time to think as you do. They too can spend weeks over a move and that’s perfectly OK.

It may help to try and visually memorize the planning as you go, though, we suspect that might be a bit much to begin with. It’s best to use the time spent playing correspondence games to do some actual forward thinking and map out that thinking on an actual (or virtual) chessboard.

Getting Started With Visualization In Chess Thinking

Your first job is simply to memorize the board. In fact, if you can do this then you’ll find that learning how the pieces interact in space becomes much easier. Cecil Purdy, a great chess teacher, offered a fairly simple methodology by which any chess player can learn the chessboard.

Now, we admit this method isn’t much fun, in fact, it’s rather akin to learning your times tables at school in that it’s rote learning but as your times tables open up the world of mathematics and make it endlessly accessible, learning the chess squares opens up the beauty of the game.

Calling Out The Squares On The Chess Board

So, what you do, is ask someone else to call out the name of each square (e.g. A5, B4, G7, etc.) and as fast as you can, you want to be able to name the color of the square that’s being called.

This isn’t a fast process and we warn you it’s not a huge amount of fun but if you spent just 20 minutes a day on this for a month or so – you will find that you soon know, instinctively the color of every square on the board. There are only 64 squares (as opposed to 144 sums in your 12 x 12 times tables) and there are only 2 possible results “white” or “black”.

You can even carry out this exercise mentally whenever you have a spare minute. Just make up a square and then work out what color it is.

Once you learn the squares then the rest becomes fairly easy. For example, you know that your black queen will start on d8 or the white on d1 and by virtue of this you should instantly know that c7 is a black square (it’s on the same diagonal) or c2 is a white square (for the same reasons).

Ramping Up Your Chess Thinking

Then if you want to take this to the next level, once you know the board. You start to visualize a single piece on any random square and then think about where that piece may move to, in terms of squares.

Once you have that in the bag, it’s time to start setting up simple chess positions on the board. Work through all the possibilities for play. Then remove all the pieces from the board. Repeat the exercise in your head.

Keep building up in complexity until you can fully visualize the board and the game and the future moves.

It’s worth noting that the best players can play chess blindfolded and often against more than one opponent at the same time! There’s no limit to how much visualization you can do when you get good at it!

The Key To Chess Thinking

So, what makes a grandmaster different from an ordinary player when it comes to chess thinking? This was a question that researchers from the Cognitive Science Society examined, and the results were disclosed in the journal, Nature.

Grandmasters visualize to prove themselves wrong! What happens is that a novice is quite aware that there are moves available that are “bad” for them but becomes increasingly convinced that their clever tactic will fool their opponent into ignoring these moves and making something more beneficial to themselves.

A grandmaster, on the other hand, is under no such illusion. They want to know where the traps are, so that they can avoid them, they assume that their opponents will always make the optimal move and they try to ensure that the opponent has as few strong options in front of them as possible.

Falsification In Chess Thinking

This is a process they call “falsification” and it was discovered by Karl Popper, a philosopher, and it underpins the scientific method too. Scientists come up with ideas that can never be proven to be true but if you can prove they are wrong, just once, then the idea is wrong and needs revision or replacing.

The challenge is that most of us find falsifying ourselves very difficult. We don’t like to admit that we’re wrong and we shy away from even self-criticism. This is true of scientists as well and many first-time scientists are often shocked that journals refuse to print their counterarguments and experiments because it will prove their peer review process to be flawed.

However, those that take this process on board and treat themselves with honesty, will find that they become much better chess players (and/or scientists) for it.


How do chess players think ahead? They begin by learning to visualize the board, this is an important skill as no chess player will be allowed to set up another board to work through possible permutations of the game that they are playing while they are playing. However, many begin this process by starting with correspondence chess where they can set up boards and work through the combinations at their leisure.

Then it’s a question of learning to push yourself and the best chess masters are capable of thinking around 8 moves ahead, maybe, sometimes, just a little bit more. However, the most important thing about thinking ahead is learning to falsify your ideas. Bad chess players spend most of their game time trying to prove themselves right, grandmasters, on the other hand, want to work out what’s wrong and then improve on their ideas.

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