Mastering Chess Calculation - Unpacking the Power of Chunks

Mastering Chess Calculation - Unpacking the Power of Chunks


Introduction - Chunks and Context:

Happy Halloween chess enthusiast!

Recently, I was asked after a training session with my friend Andy, “How did you predict mate in 9? Is this pattern or calculation or both?” This question inspired me to write this week something about theory, but not without a chess game and some best practice. Let’s find the answer and get into the context.

Chess is often described as a battle of wits, where each move is a strategic step in a relentless pursuit of victory. At the heart of this lies a critical skill – calculation. Chess calculation is analyzing and evaluating positions to make informed decisions.

The term “chunks” in chess refers to the critical building blocks of this mental process. Let’s explore the concept of chunks in chess calculation and offer insights into how to enhance this crucial aspect of your game.

What Are Chunks in Chess?

In his Nobel prize-winning lecture, Daniel Kahnman claims that decision-making arises from two interacting systems.

  • System 1 is fast, automatic, and effortless; this is our intuition.
  • System 2, is slow, controlled, and effortful, which is our deliberative thinking.

There’s a consensus that professionals rely heavily on System 2 while playing chess.

The chunking theory, developed by Chase and Simon (1973), is a concept in cognitive psychology. It suggests that individuals process information more efficiently by grouping small individual pieces of a set of information into more significant, meaningful wholes, or “chunks.” This process is meant to improve short-term retention of the material, thus bypassing the limited capacity of working memory and allowing the working memory to be more efficient.

A good example is a number such as 345678234. In chunks, it is, e.g., 345-678-234. Speaking for myself, that is what I have done my entire life with numbers. If I’m out of that rhythm, I’m lost. Phone numbers, banking accounts, you name it, I cut them in chunks to memorize. It’s the same as playing guitar. Chunking guitar tunes helped me to memorize and play a song. Two types exist pattern chunking (the phone number) or category chunking, probably your shopping list.

You probably do this in your daily life, too. Simple example:

And as a Chemist I also like the example of organic chemistry, where functional groups are specific arrangements of atoms within molecules that impart distinct chemical properties. Recognizing common functional groups like hydroxyl (-OH) or carbonyl (C=O) is a key skill, and these can be thought of as chunks.

As I’m not an expert, I leave it there. There is a lot of information about the theories. However, your intuition and learning style led you through your life probably to use so-called “chunks.”

In chess, a “chunk” refers to a cluster of pieces, squares, or patterns a player can instantly recognize and process as a single unit. Chunks are essential for efficient calculation as they enable players to quickly evaluate positions, plan tactics, and make accurate decisions without expending excessive mental effort. For instance, a chess master can look at a position and immediately recognize the potential threats and opportunities, thanks to their ability to perceive chunks.

The Power of Chunks in Chess Calculation

  1. Pattern Recognition: Chunks are essentially patterns that a player has encountered and internalized through study and practice. These patterns could be opening variations, tactical motifs, or endgame configurations. The more patterns a player can recognize, the faster and more accurately they can calculate positions.

  2. Reduced Mental Load: One of the primary advantages of working with chunks is that it reduces the cognitive load on a player’s mind. Instead of examining each piece and square individually, players can process information more efficiently, enabling them to calculate deeper into variations without mental exhaustion.

  3. Intuitive Decision-Making: Chunks allow for intuitive decision-making. Experienced players can rely on their accumulated knowledge to quickly assess a position. This intuitive approach is particularly valuable in time-constrained situations, such as blitz or rapid games.

    please check my blog: The Virtues of Slow Play

How to Develop and Utilize Chunks in Chess Calculation

As a club player or a senior chess improver trying to improve, there are five crucial steps to achieve your goal of improving your game.

  1. Study Key Openings: Begin by mastering a few key openings. And I mean a few! Choose two max and stick to the main lines!! Understanding the typical pawn structures, piece placements, and plans associated with these openings will provide a solid foundation for recognizing chunks in the early game. The simple repeating like chessable tool is NOT good enough (yes, I’m old school).

  2. Tactical Training: Regular tactical training is vital for developing pattern recognition. Solve tactical puzzles, study classic combinations, and practice tactical motifs such as pins, forks, and skewers. This will help you recognize and exploit tactical chunks.

  3. Endgame Mastery: Invest time learning and practicing common endgame scenarios. Understanding essential endgame chunks, such as king and pawn versus king endings, will help you confidently navigate the final stages of a game.

  4. Analyze Your Games: After each game, take the time to review your moves. Identify moments when you could have applied your knowledge of chunks to improve your position or seize an opportunity. This self-analysis will reinforce your understanding of these patterns. I repeat this: ANALYZE YOUR GAMES!

  5. Regular Practice: Consistency is key. Regularly exposing yourself to different chess positions, either through games or study, will help you expand your repertoire of chunks. Over time, you’ll accumulate a vast mental database of patterns.

Exercises and Resources

Let’s make it interactive. This game is from USCF 21EN09 - 2021 Electronic Knights Schroeer, Egbert vs Lomnicki, Slawo You can continue from this position and play against Fritz. What is your next move? Hint: Torre, London, and Colle System. I had this position very often, so I don’t even need to think. It’s just pattern recognition or picture of a position I want to have. If you press Hint, Fritz lifts the curtain a bit. You don’t need to have a ChessBase account. You can adjust the level and then make your move!

The next one is Kings Indian Sämisch. Same here. This is part of my Black opening portfolio and one of the sidelines. To improve, just build your repertoire. For details, see my blog posts Leveraging Chessbase with Mega Database and UltraCorr23 for Correspondence Chess Excellence among others.

You should train some tactics. Repeating what I said, tactics training is the cornerstone sharpening your ability to spot opportunities, execute winning combinations, and outmaneuver your opponents with precision, well, with “chunks”.

Here you go!

Alternatively, you train and studying key positions from games, the electronic version is like using strategic flashcards. Below is an example.

Best Practice Resources

The following I have used - among others -by myself. Of course, there are other possibilities, but for me those worked out.

1. Learning via video:

As said in another blog, I highly recommend ChessBase Svitlana’s Smart Moves series on YouTube. This is golden! The “student” Arne Kaehler is getting challenged by WIM Svitlana Demchenko. For me this is one of the best, if not the best, video series to improve your chess as a club player.

2. Books:

The holy bible of chess for me is Jeremy Silman (R.I.P.)’s How to Reassess your chess. Be aware this is MASSIVE, and you need to spend a lot of time to go through this. But it’s probably the best book to improve with the methods mentioned in this blog.

3. Interactive Fritz Trainer:

Solve 66 exercises with multiple questions. These exercises are presented in an interactive format, which makes them accessible for players of different strengths as we will go through the thought process step by step and explain why alternatives are not as good.

I like the simplicity of this Fritz Trainer. One of the first lessons we are taught at the beginning of our chess journey is how much every piece on the board is “worth.” However the “true” value of pieces can differ from their theoretical value. That’s also how Silman’s chess bible can educate you.


The concept of chunks in chess calculation is a powerful tool that can elevate your game to new heights. By developing a solid foundation of patterns, you can streamline your thought process, reduce the cognitive load, and make more intuitive and accurate decisions. Incorporate these techniques into your chess training, and you’ll find yourself calculating with greater ease and precision, ultimately leading to improved performance on the board. So, embrace the power of chunks and watch your chess skills grow.

Amici Sumus

I’d love to hear your thoughts on today’s post. Feel free to share your favorite chess strategy or ask any questions you may have.

Please subscribe