Enigma Of Chess Intuition, The

Valeri Beim

Reviewer: John Donaldson
New In Chess
268 pages

Grandmaster Valeri Beim has earned a reputation as a first-rate author dealing with difficult topics and his latest effort, THE ENIGMA OF CHESS INTUITION, doesn’t disappoint.

Intuition in chess is something everyone acknowledges exists and recognize when they see it, but how exactly can it be defined? Beim offers two complementary definitions:

“Intuition is the ability to assess a situation, and without reasoning or logical analysis, immediately make the correct decision. An intuitive decision can arise either as the result of long thought about the answer to the question, or without it.”

“In chess, intuition manifests itself first and foremost in the ability, in a somewhat unconscious way, and with a high degree of accuracy, to choose between different lines of play.”

The Enigma of Chess Intuition is arranged around three chapters: First Explorations, Successful Use of Intuition and The Elements of Chess Intuition. The first two thirds of the book will be of interest to both armchair warriors and practical players as it features a wealth of well chosen and thoroughly annotated examples that are both instructive and entertaining. Tournament competitors will especially appreciate the final part of The Elements of Chess Intuition in which the author discusses ways to train one’s ability in this important facet of the game.

One example from The Enigma of Chess Intuition that attracted this reviewer’s eye was the following classic in which the Patriarch of the Soviet School of Chess gave a lesson in the finer points of chess strategy to his opponent. This game has often been given as an example of positional understanding trumping the brute force style of calculating play so popular today. One gains the impression reading Botvinnik’s notes that he did little calculating at the board, that the major deciders in the game were his decisions to trade certain pieces and keep others on the board – things that would have been very difficult to figure out by calculation.

Beim quotes Botvinnik’s most instructive comments and agrees with his evaluations of the key positions, but this reviewer has often wondered if the game was actually a little more complicated than presented. That Botvinnik outplayed Donner and had an advantage is without question but a small edge and winning are two different things.

Michael Stean, in his classic little book Positional Chess, hinted that things might not be so simple and that at move 20 Black had a substantial way to improve his play. Stean ends his impressive, pre-computer analysis, with the conclusion that White can maintain his initiative with precise play. This might be true but converting this into something more substantial is not easy and in fact might not be possible.

None of this takes anything away from this game or Beim’s instructive notes (his suggestion to study Botvinnik’s annotations to his games might strike some as old-fashioned but they would be wrong. The comments he makes are gold and the fact that Botvinnik was much stronger than most of his opponents enabled him to realize his plans in a clear fashion that is seldom seen these days at the top level).

Notes by Beim are without quotation marks.

Mikhail Botvinnik – Jan Hein Donner, Amsterdam 1963
Notes by Botvinnik, Beim, Stean and Houdini 4
1.c4 Nf6 2.Nf3 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Be7 5.0–0 0–0 6.b3 b6 7.Bb2 Bb7 8.cxd5 Nxd5 9.d4 c5 10.dxc5 Bxc5 11.Nbd2 Nd7 12.a3 N5f6 13.b4 Be7

The further course of this game involves looking at a relatively small number of simple variations. The main difficulty in the search for the right continuation is understanding the characteristics of the position and its requirements. In other words, here we are dealing with a situation in which judgment factors will for some time be more important than the calculation of variations. One of the strongest aspects of the sixth world champion, Mikhail Moiseevich Botvinnik, was his colossal depth of positional understanding, which he willingly shared with others, through his annotations of his games. I will make full use of these, quoting his notes (in inverted commas) to those moments of the game that are most important for us.


The exchange of light-squared bishops… turns out in White’s favor, since the square c6 is weakened and will be more easily seized.

14…Bxg2 15.Kxg2 Qc7 16.Qb3!

An important maneuver In reply to …Qc7-b7+, White will have the reply Qb3-f3, and the endgame is in his favor.

Even so, the course of the game leads one to think that Black should have gone into this ending, since there, Black would have significant defensive chances.

16…Rfc8 17.Rfc1 Qb7+ 18.Qf3 Nd5

In the event of the queen exchange Botvinnik gives the variation 18…Qxf3+ 19.N2xf3 Kf8 20.Nc6 Rc7 21.Rc2 Rac8 22.Rac1 with strong pressure.

However, it was wrong to avoid the exchange of queens. The middlegame turns out to be lost, principally because of the highly unfortunate position of the black queen.

Micheal Stean in his outstanding little book Simple Chess gives 18…Nd5 an exclamation mark followed by the comment: “A clever defensive maneuver designed to defend the …c6 square by blocking the long diagonal.”

19.e4 N5f6 20.b5!

White gives his opponent the c5-square, in order to seize the square c6, assessing this as a more important factor, and in the following he will be proved correct.

Stean writes: “The struggle is reaching a critical point. Botvinnik has completed his preparations for Nc6, so the question arises: Can Black engineer enough exchanges to nullify the smothering effect of Nc6?

Let us look at some tries:

(1) 20…Rxc1 21.Rxc1 Rc8 22.Nc6 Bc5 or (22…Bf8 is precisely the kind of thing Black is trying to avoid. White can follow up with 23.Nc4 and 24.Rd1, the advanced knight rendering Black helpless against the build-up on the d-file.

(2) 20…Ne5! 21.Qe2 Rxc1 22.Rxc1 Rc8 23.Rxc8+ Qxc8 24.f4 Ned7 25.Nc6 Bf8, when grabbing a pawn with 26.Nxa7 would be reckless on account of 26…Qc2!

Instead 26.Nc4 maintains White’s initiative, but the total exchange of rooks has eased the defense a little. In the game Donner tries a different approach which involves exchanging all the rooks on the a-file, but is surprised by White’s 25th move.”

This begs the question how much is White’s initiative worth after 26.Nc4? Analyzing with Houdini 4 the answer is not much. For example 26…a6 (getting rid of a potential target on a7) 27.a4 Qc7 (stopping the space gaining g3-g4-g5) and its not readily apparent what White has. The immediate 26.g4 can be met by 26…Nb8 27.g5 Nfd7 and White’s knight on c6 is forced out while Black is looking to make use of the c5 square.

Maybe there is a way to keep a small edge for White but Black has no easy targets and the many exchanges of pieces and pawns have diminished White’s space advantage. Maybe Donner didn’t play so badly up to move twenty?

20…a6 21.Nc6 Bf8 22.a4 axb5 23.axb5 Rxa1 24.Rxa1 Ra8 25.Rd1!

The decisive move of the game. The lone rook on the a-file is not dangerous, whilst on the d-file, the white rook, in contact with his other pieces, will play the main role. Here I want to make a small digression, and advise all those who wish to improve their positional play to work more with Botvinnik’s games, with his own notes. The small extract just quoted excellently illustrates the correctness of this advice. In two short sentences, the whole essence of the position is summarized. True, just one reading of his comments is not enough. One must read very attentively, sometimes several times, and think very deeply about it. But the benefits of such work can be enormous.

25…Ne8 26.Nc4 Nc5 27.e5 Rc8

27…Nc7? loses at once: 28.Rd7 Nxd7 29.Ne7+; 27…h6 28.Ba3 Kh8 (28…Qc7 29.Ne7+) 29.Bxc5 Bxc5 30.Nd6 Bxd6 31.exd6 Qd7 32.Ne5.

28.Ra1! Rc7

Black is killed by the opposition of the queens: 28…Ra8 29.Rxa8 Qxa8 30.Ne7+. 28…Ra8 29.Rxa8 Qxa8 30.Ne7+.

29.Ra7 Qxa7

Also hopeless is 29…Qc8 30.Nxb6.

30.Nxa7 Rxa7 31.Nxb6, 1-0.

There is no hope.

The Enigma of Chess Intuition can be warmly recommended to players rated from 2000 on up.