Chess Perception

  1. How situations, once perceived, suggest actions and direct attention.
  2. How that directed attention can cause us to perceive other situations, thus forming a virtuous cycle.
  3. How we discover different situations, refine these, and recognize them in novel positions.


At any point during a chess game, a lot is going on. Maybe the enemy rook has put us in check. Our rook is under threat. The center is closed. We can force a trade of our bad bishop for a knight. A pawn is marching toward queenhood. Enemy pieces are gathering for a decisive attack. The list goes on. The question “what is it that is going on” is ill-posed since it demands a single simple answer.

Perceived Situations and the Umwelt

What matters is the perception of situations. In any given position, the grandmaster perceives situations that the novice is blissfully unaware of. Even grandmasters aren’t aware of all the infinitely many situations. Indeed, today’s club players are aware of situations that the strongest players in the world were unaware of two centuries ago. For example, the notion of controlling the center (as opposed to occupying it with pawns) is taught to beginning players but is a mere century old. Some aspects that beginners in the 24th century will notice may be beyond Magnus Carlsen today.

Perceived Situations Direct Attention

Donald Norman, the first person with the word “User Experience” in their job title, was a “User Experience Architect” at Apple Computer, and wrote the book “The Design of Everyday Things”. In this, he talks of the “action possibilities” readily perceived by an actor. In designing things, it is important that it be clear to a user what actions can be taken: for instance, in web design, a blue link suggests that it can be clicked, a slider suggests that we may be able to drag it to change some value, and so forth. To talk about action possibilities, Norman appropriated the term “affordance” from ecological psychologist James Gibson. In this terminology, blue underlined text affords clicking. Such underlining does not force you to click, but suggests clicking as a possible action. I use an analogous notion here, expanding that idea beyond visual perceptions to cover the cognitive perception of situations. Certain situations afford particular actions.

White to move
White to move
White to move
White to move

A Situation Bestiary

A vast array of perceived situations either suggests moves or nudge our attention. Here I list a few, along with some micro-plans or subproblems they suggest. These range from easy to perceive to more subtle, range from those with immediate, actionable micro-plans to those with long term, general direction to attend.

  1. An unsupported enemy piece asks, “Can we capture it?”
  2. An overworked piece is one that is doing double duty, supporting two pieces, a job it cannot do simultaneously. This leads to a question “Can we overwhelm it by attacking one of those it supports?”
  3. The situation “We have a Bishop pair and the opponent doesn’t” suggests “Can I open up the center so that this pair is a bigger advantage?
  4. The situation “I have castled king-side, but the opponent has castled queen-side” suggests “could I orchestrate a queen-side pawn-storm?”
  5. The situation “Weak square” asks “Can I get my knight there?”
  6. Pawn structure. Pawns have been called the soul of chess, and specific structures suggest specific plans. The Caro formation, for example, often suggests planning for a white d4-d5 move.
The Caro pawn formation

Directed Attention Leads to Perceiving Additional Situations

We will look at three examples here of how seeing a situation directs attention that then leads to perceiving other situations. Remember that many situations co-exist, and here we will see how awareness of one situation can direct attention leading to awareness of another situation.

Black to play. What is the best move?

Discovery and Refinement of Situations

The goal of this section is to look at how actions may get attached to situations and how our repertoire of situations grows.

Black to play

Puzzle 1. White to play.

White to play

Puzzle 2. Black to play.

Black to play

Puzzle 3: White to play

White to play

Next Post and a Request

The next post will deal with how situational categories and directing attention play a part in language comprehension. If you have a few moments to spare, I’d like to collect a few additional data points for my analysis of what I call the “Wandering Mind Experiment”.

The Request

I present three sentences below. Watch yourselves as you read and understand these — what questions you asked yourself, what puzzled you, what thoughts passed through your mind — and email these to me at Thanks!

  1. They got married on Feb 29, 1870.
  2. Pen raised her eyebrows in dismay.
  3. BEAUTIFUL convent-educated girl, 24/25 for a handsome, W.B. Kayastha (Basu), B. Com. (H.), C.A. Inter, Senior Accounts Officer, M.N.C., 30/5'7", flat / car in Kolkata, only son



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Abhijit Mahabal

Abhijit Mahabal

I do unsupervised concept discovery at Pinterest (and previously at Google). Twitter: @amahabal