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Benefits of Chess: Executive Functions Part II

A critical ability of any good chess player is being flexible when considering moves and plans. This often shows up in two main ways during play and it is a crucial part of my approach when instructing my students with the hopes that it will help them develop as a chess player and a person. The first way that a player can hinder themselves is by not being flexible during a game is when they become too focused on a specific goal that they either overlook a better alternative or do not consider their opponent’s counter-play. The second very common error made is when a player continues playing for a specific result when the situation on the board has changed, but they do not realize it in time. Of course the primary goal of an attack on a king is to achieve a checkmate, however, sometimes the best option is to accept a long term advantage in the form of material or superior position. The search for a mate often blinds players to these options. Though ultimately it worked out for him in the end, when faced with the option to either continue an attempted mating attack or accepting a lasting advantage, Wesley So made the incorrect decision to attempt the former in the following game:

Over-focusing on one’s own ideas and plans can lead to trouble as well if a player does not do a good job of considering their opponent’s counter-play. The famous trainer Mark Dvoretsky wrote an entire book dedicated to this important topic titled Recognizing Your Opponent’s Resources. In the below example, the legendary Mikhail Tal made the incorrect decision to attempt a decisive blow when he should have settled for a drawing variation. Optically the position on the board screams for the White player to attack, but with concrete calculation the winning tries fail:

Switching your mindset during a game is another extremely difficult thing to do and players must be flexible and willing to accept when an advantage no longer exists. If a player tries too hard to create chances in a position where there are none they will often take too many risks. The following example is of my own where both sides make numerous strategic mistakes:

I was fortunate that, despite reaching two lost positions, I was able to twice fight back to draw. My attempts to win a drawn position should have led to a loss.

The lessons that players learn from these types of positions can easily be applied to many everyday situations when it comes to understanding other people's points of view and intentions, and adjusting to new or unexpected situations.

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