Thursday, March 13, 2008

The CoffeeHouse Style Of Play

I love coffee.

You open a new pack of coffee beans, fill the grinder with coffee beans, grind it, then prepare it with your coffee machine and the thick aroma of freshly grounded coffee beans fills the air. You take a sip of the coffee and the bitter taste is just terrific as the caffeine enters your blood stream.

I usually have at least 4 shots of self-made cappuccino a day. Forget coffeehouses, the best way to make coffee is in the comfort of your own home.

So what has this got to do with chess, you might ask?

Well, the irrepressible Viktor Korchnoi once infamously called Viktor Bologan a "coffeehouse" player. Just what is a coffeehouse player? For one, it's definitely not referring to Bob Dylan (picture on the left) playing chess in a coffee house.

In a game of chess, different chess players are inclined to think differently. Some chess players look for wild complications, some look for positional advantage, some look for strategic advantage.

But one of the deadliest sins in a player's chess development is "impulsive thinking".

Alexei Suetin in his book is highly critical of this flaw:

"Impulsive thinking is characterised by the absence of a single strategic line, by playing 'from move to move'. At times, this affects highly talented players, who do not, however, have a proper positional training.

The course of their thinking is roughly as follows:

Some outwardly striking move or variation appeals to them, and the immediate reaction follows. Then they are attracted by something else, markedly different in content and direction, which leads to a similar impulse. The result is normally that, without investigating the true possibilities of the position (in this way, one can calculate fairly correctly, although not deeply, the immediate variations), the player takes a premature decision.

Such a 'coffeehouse' style of play, as it was called in olden times, is quite unpromising. Such a 'bustle' through the variations in search of an easy chance (to) success is in principle doomed to failure.

It would be incorrect to think that only weak, inexperienced players are susceptible to impulsive play; it is widespread even among masters. Practice has shown that at times the vice of impulsive thinking is highly 'corrosive' even with highly experienced players.

We are not thinking of play in time trouble, where such thinking is inevitable for even the strongest masters, but first and foremost of an organic defect of thinking under normal conditions. There are a number of specific causes of such 'misfires'.

Thus, for example, impulsive fits can result from nervousness, inevitably arising during the course of a game, especially if the play is of a highly tactical nature.....But most often the causes of impulsive play are a superficial evaluation of the position and carelessness in calculation, an inability or unwillingness to investigate deeply into the essence of the position."

It should be duly noted that Suetin is not talking about adapting to new changes in the board position or being flexible but is talking of the need to develop the ability to perform proper evaluation of the position and to analyse concretely, objectively.

I know this feeling personally because it applies to me and in OTB play, I still suffer from it from time to time, albeit with much reduced frequency than a year ago.

So the next time you play chess, ask yourself, are you playing a coffeehouse style? If you are, then do put a stop it as early as possible because once you've acquired that habit, it's hard to eradicate it from your chess play later on.


  1. This description well fits the pattern I am trying to discard. Your explanation and illustrations are very accurate and clear. This is why IM Khmelnitsky is having me focus on the study of strategy and planning. I am less likely to just "make a move" when I discipline myself to develop a plan. Excellent post!

  2. hello greg,

    indeed. it's very hard not to make an impulsive reaction especially when you want to play the first good (albeit superficial) move that comes to mind.

    thanks for the kind words. :)