FM Alisa Melekhina is one of the top female players in the US, and won a gold medal representing the U.S. in the 2009 World Team Championships. In 2014, She wrote a Best of US Chess ranking article, Legal Moves on juggling high level chess with her law career. Now, she has published a book “Reality Check: What the Ancient Game of chess Can Teach You About Success in Modern Competitive Settings.” US Chess got a first look below.
Accessing perfect information is desirable, but it’s ultimately more of a theoretical truth than a practical reality of chess games. The full realm of possible chess moves is theoretically available, but it is still subject to cognitive limitations on perception depth. Not to mention the limitations of the allotted time for each game.
The solution to the problem of playing as if one has perfect information when it is humanly impossible, is to perfect the method of taking calculated risks. While the level of pure betting in chess is minimal, each move can be construed as a bet that it is the best move given the operative conditions. The presence of certain conditions leads to certain scenarios carrying greater risk. A forced recapture of a piece, for example, is virtually risk-free. As are the first five moves of a tried-and-true, memorized opening sequence.
The risk-factor increases in a situation where multiple moves lead to a seemingly —often deceptively —similar outcome. On the high end of the risk spectrum are piece sacrifices that relinquish an irrevocable amount of material for an intangible advantage such as a mating attack when there is no immediate, forced checkmating sequence. (More on this in the subsection on Trading Material Advantages for Intangible Assets).
In practice, thus, strong players rely on a combination of intuition and stored pattern recognition to navigate the chess minefields. A player may have never seen the exact position before, but could have played many games with analogous positions that inform decision-making in the present game.
Take the personal tournament game below as an example. I played my favorite opening line – known as the c3-Sicillian or Alapin —against a talented young 15-year-old player who secured the grandmaster title two years later. The critical position arises on move 20 when black finally decided to exchange my menacing bishop, which had comfortably been positioned in an outpost on f6 for several moves.
My capture of the g6 pawn created a threat of checkmate that would be executed on the next move if not immediately addressed. The concern over the myriad of unprotected pieces was suspended until black neutralized this threat. He was forced to recapture my sacrificed bishop —even this one-move forced sequence helped expedite my thinking process in verifying this complicated variation. The certainty of this one move served as a stepping stone to the further, more complicated lines where the continuations were not as clear-cut.
The g6 capture was accompanied not just by a mating threat, but it exposed the unprotected black rook on d7. When Black recaptured the g6 bishop, I was thus faced with another choice: do I recapture the lingering g6 bishop, or instead take the rook on d7, which is worth objectively more than the bishop? The natural reply would be to take the rook. This juncture is another example of how calculating ahead is only part of the equation. I could see the options of capturing both the rook and bishop, but which would lead to the optimal outcome? In this case, the g6 sacrifice was premised on generating an even more powerful mating net that involved a recapture of the f6 bishop to position my pawn on the dangerous f6 square, closer to the enemy king.
Back when making the g6 counter-sacrifice on move 21, I had to double-check that this tactical sequence would worke. I noticed that the 23.Ng5 jump in the above diagram was the key to this position. This created a renewed mating threat. This time, the only way black could defend against it was by giving up his queen, which is more valuable than the combined value of the material I sacrificed in the meantime. Now that black was without his most valuable piece, I was able to secure the victory just a few moves later.
The 21. Bxg6 sacrifice represents a variety of risks that had to be accounted for in deciding to proceed with the move. The more concrete risk here was losing a fatal amount of material. If not recouped, I could be down as much as two pieces. The ability to calculate the correct variations far enough to see the tactical crux of Ng5 neutralized this risk.
Another risk factor worth mentioning is that I would be marring an already advantageous position by going into the complicated lines. It is psychologically easier to go into “desperation” mode and start sacrificing left and right when risking everything is the only hope for saving the game. However, when the position is already pleasant and comfortable enough, as it was here, it truly is a risk to go into a line where your opponent may end up turning the tables.
In assessing the risk, I had to focus on the most likely outcomes and “ignore” inconsequential moves. For example, why didn’t I focus on any of the moves of the pieces that were not directly involved, such as the latent pawn on a2? This point is a reminder that in any given chess position, there are a multitude of possible moves. A computer may be able to brute force through all of them (see ch. 7, Playing Like a Machine), but if a human were to spend all of her time calculating until the end of every possible line, she would simply run out of time. She would also be diverted from channeling her mental resources towards the more critical lines.
A key attribute of a strong player is knowing which lines to focus on. It’s easier said than done. The previous example had a variety of possible moves, including a more natural recapture that some players might have made purely out of habit. How would a player know to focus on the 21.Bxg6 counter-sacrifice in the first place?
Alisa Melekhina is one of the top female chess players in America. She won a gold medal representing the U.S. in the World Team Championships held in Ningbo, China in 2009. She has scored a number of victories over grandmasters while competing in the “open” mixed-gender tournament circuit. She finished third in the U.S. Women’s Championships in 2009 and fifth in 2014, the same year she graduated with a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law
School at age 22. Alisa is currently a corporate attorney in New York City, practicing in the fields of intellectual property and commercial litigation. Alisa has also been trained in classical ballet since age six and continues to dance.
Alisa’s accomplishments have been profiled in mainstream media such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times. Most recently, she appeared as a guest commentator on CNN.