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     A Checklist in Chess?    

A checklist for chess is a very interesting concept. 
(I know of
NO other master who teaches this!!!!!)

I am not sure when I first had the idea, but I was probably very young. For example, when I was approximate eight or nine years old, (1966?); and I took a flight to New York to visit some relatives. In those kinder and gentler days before 9/11, (2001); I asked the stewardess if I could go to the cockpit and watch the take-off. The pilot and co-pilot said "yes" and had the flight attendant bring me to the front of the plane. 

I watch the proceedings with great interest. I remember when they whipped out the checklist and began going through the pre-flight list of procedures. I asked them why it was necessary, didn't they know their job? Why did it have to be written down? They responded with a reply something like: "Flying a modern jet is an extremely complicated task, its not like your Daddy driving the family car. Everything MUST be done ... correctly and in the proper order!! Leave out one detail, and ..." (At this point the Pilot took his hand and made a whistling noise. I understood - right away - that this was supposed to be the plane. And then he goes, "uh-oh, there's a problem." Then he makes some noises and his hand goes crashing down ... and sharply smacks the floor of the cockpit. Of course he did not have to explain to me the fact that this was a representation of an airliner crashing.) 

They, (the flight crew); were very good to me, they entertained me for some time. (Thanks guys!)


Later, I returned to my seat, and I thought ...

My only real problem was that I hardly knew enough about chess to even begin to make the idea really workable!  I thought about it a lot more, I even asked my Daddy about the idea when I got home. He dismissed the idea as foolish, and "complete and utter nonsense." And I accepted this, at least at that time; mainly because I adored and idolized my Father. (As I am sure that many little boys do, especially at that age.) 


But I was not through with the idea ... I was to come back to it many times later! 

Later, when I was 13 or 14, I made about a 20-point checklist. But all the guys at the club made fun of me. Worse yet, no one would play me anymore - I was taking too much time. So - again - I abandoned the idea. 

When I was around 16 or 17, (1974 or 1975?); I had easily become one of the strongest players in the city. There were one or two guys who might be stronger, (J. Scott Pfeiffer?); but I was easily one of the better players in the area. My rating had already broken the 1800 barrier, at least one time. But at that time - I was stuck in the 1700's. (For an eternity, or so it seemed. There was a definite plateau thing going on there! And many of my students have reported a similar experience ... and in the same 1600-2000 rating range!!)  

Anyway - without being excessively wordy here - I had problems. I seemed to be stuck at a certain level of development. Worse yet, I would play entire {tournament} games in just a few minutes ... and I was prone to oversights and BLUNDERS!  I decided that something had to be done! Drastic measures were called for!!  

  • Once more - I came back to the idea of a checklist.

I developed a checklist that was a series of logical steps and progressions. It was also a series of questions. As I recall, I wrote it down ... all 79 steps!!!  (And some of the questions had sections. Like, "The last move, move ... what is attacked? Check: a.) The King;  b.) The Queen;  c.) Both Bishops, etc.) Then I set about memorizing this monster. I tested myself on it, I also enlisted the help of my brothers and sisters to test me. When I had it all down cold, I began using it in tournaments. (But I mostly kept it a secret from my chess friends, my earlier failures had taught me not to be as open about this. Plus if it failed again, I wanted the ability to abandon it. I think now - looking back - it was almost as if I expected failure ... at least, in the long-term.)  

I used my checklist in a tournament. The very first tournament that I used it, I was ASTOUNDED at what I saw. I thought about - and deeply considered - things I had never even touched upon before. I even lost a game on time!! (My friends could see an obvious difference, some even noted that I seemed to be talking to myself during the game. Of course I was going through the checklist, repeating it over and over again.) 


I discovered, for perhaps the very first time, the pure joys of analysis!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  
I fell deep into thought ... and saw lines and variations and all kinds of stuff. And I never lost the ability to see deeply into a position, especially if I really applied myself. (In fact, the thrill of all the pieces dancing around became a VERY addictive process. I would feel an almost certain sense of sadness when it was time to cut this process off and I was forced - by the time restraints of the game, of course - to end this fun and actually make a move on the chess board!) I could go on and on and one here ... but I trust you get the idea. 


Of course this was all great fun. (The breakthroughs, NOT the bad results!!) But my results actually seemed to go backwards for a while. At the end of a tournament, I was literally both physically and mentally exhausted. I was losing games on time on an almost regular basis. The ultimate goal of the checklist had been to try and QUICKLY become a Master! I was probably getting a little burned out - the long list had become dreary and I felt that it was completely suffocating all of my wonderful creativity. 

After somewhere around two years of struggling with this idea of a checklist, I abandoned it. (Well not entirely, a good friend - R.M. Powers - suggested that I take a good long last look around before every move. Basically he called it, "The last pit-stop for blunder-checks!") 

But sadly - very, very, very sadly - I had made a terrible mistake. 

  • I had thrown the baby out with the bath-water ... so to speak. 

Fast-forward {quite} a few years. (1980's?) I am now a solid Expert. In fact my rating had shot up to the high 2100's several times... only to come crashing back down. Once more, it seems that no matter how hard I study, I cannot break into the coveted realm of a Master's rating. 

I look around at the other Masters that I know and have played in the local area ... and I am NOT too terribly impressed. (Against many of these players, I have a solid plus score!!!)

  • Yet, to be completely honest, I do many deep comparisons. Some players, I look up their ratings and write them down for the last 10-15 years. (I even do some graphs.) I also watch the masters in other tournaments. They are resourceful, and mentally tough. But more importantly, they do not have these wild rating swings that I have. Finally - after weeks, or even months of thought - I realize that it is ... FUNDAMENTALLY A QUESTION OF OSCILLATION!!! Translated into simple speech, the Master's {games} might not be so brilliant, but their results are much more 'even' and mathematically predictable. How do I acquire these traits?  How do I eliminate 90% (or better!) of my mistakes?  

  • One GM that I spoke to at a chess tournament impressed me a great deal, we even analyzed a little together. He would say stuff like:  "If you go there, I go here  ...  that is always the correct idea - for these types of positions!!"  It seemed as if he had a "mental checklist," especially for certain critical positions. I knew he was the product of the much vaunted "Soviet School of Chess." I knew that I could not capture all of his thoughts, or ever equal the training that he had received in the former U.S.S.R. But I thought:  "Why can't I at least come up with a procedure to imitate - or more accurately - SIMULATE  ...  his type of thinking?"   

  • Once more ---> I RETURN TO THE IDEA OF A CHECK-LIST!!   


  1. But I have learned from my earlier reversals, this time I will make it simpler!! 

  2. After weeks of work, I come up with an 11-point check-list.   

  3. I institute the checklist, and I use it religiously!   


I couple this with maniacal study. And the effects are that I begin to achieve the desired results. 

I begin to gain the reputation of a "chess machine," I am a merciless and efficient chess destroyer. 
(Within about a year, I break the master plane ... and I keep on going.)  

Later - as I have described on an earlier page - I went on a trip and gave a chess lecture. 
(This group also asked me about a chess checklist.)  

Many of my friends and students can confirm that I have suggested the idea of a checklist many times. I have talked about the idea quite a bit. (Some would say I have been pretty dogmatic about this particular subject.) 

Some Masters - if they could remember - would tell you that this is a topic that I have come back to many times. 

I - eventually, and after much wrangling with a few of my more stubborn students - whittled my personal checklist of eleven items down to just seven items. (There was some repetition in the earlier checklist.) 

   Without further ado, I present my ...  CHESS CHECKLIST   


  1. Material - Always check the material balance before commencing analysis! (The strategical implications here are very clear. If the material is even, you can pretty much do what you want. If you are behind in material, you must play for tactics, traps, and avoid exchanges. If you are ahead in material, then you must avoid excessive complications and try to exchange.)  

  2. Pawn Structure - This is an extremely important step, and has long-term consequences! Where are the open files? (Your Rooks go on these.) Etc. You need to think about things like Knight out-posts, strong points, etc. Where are your key pawn breaks and levers? (Are you getting the idea?) 

  3. ISOLATE  The  Primary Tactical Threat  -  Without this step, all of your efforts are doomed to failure. You really cannot make any concrete plans - of any kind - until you have assessed what your opponent's plans, ideas, and THREATS are!!!  (I define the primary tactical threat as: "The move that your opponent would most likely play if you gave him - or her - an extra move, and the move that hurts you the most.") This has to be seriously considered when calculating your next move. Make sure that all the replies that you are considering take the threat into account. ("Kotov's - Candidate Moves.")  

  4. CHECK all CHECKS  ...  Check all captures! - You should take about 30 seconds and look at every possible check and capture every single move. With practice, this should only take a couple of minutes. (This step has saved my bacon - and helped me spot my opponent's threats - more times than I care to count!!) Do NOT leave this step out ... or think you can do without it! (One student deleted this step, he thought it was too much repetition. As a result he missed a key check or capture in key losses in several straight tournaments!) This is VERY key step in helping you see the board. (During this phase - I often "map" the board. I mentally highlight every square that my opponent controls, I usually do this piece-by-piece.) 

  5. Determine the KING SAFETY (Both Kings.) - Another critical step. Look for a simple mate in one or two for either player. Look for things like weak squares near the King or back-rank problems. (It is good to know the basic mating patterns here. Please consult the excellent book: "Practical Middlegame Techniques," by IM Danny Kopec.) I tell all my students ... NEVER miss a simple mate in a serious {chess} tournament!! You may NEVER get a second chance at it!  (It is also good to memorize the basic mates!) 

  6. Strategy ... Make a PLAN and stick to it!!  -  Here is one of the most important steps ... something that will make you a BETTER player. (A good example of a plan is: "I am playing a Yugoslav Dragon variation. I have completed my development. I cannot recall the lines, but I will simply push my RP to h5, sacrificing it if necessary. Then I will attack my opponent's King!!")  DO NOT constantly change (flip-flop) your plan! Change your plan - - - ONLY if you see it is failing miserably!! 

  7. REVIEW - If you have a time, {after you have completed your tactical analysis of the specific, concrete moves}; do a quick review of all of the above steps. Do like a mental quick check ... mainly looking for blunders. (Are you placing the piece on a square where it can simply be captured?) Another important point is - stop look around. Lasker said you NEVER play the first serious move you look at. MAYBE YOU FOUND A GOOD MOVE, NOW CAN YOU FIND A BETTER ONE??? 

One student calls my check-list  ...  THE BLUNDER ARRESTOR.   (I.e., this checklist is used to catch possible mistakes and find - and correct - faulty ideas ...  BEFORE  they are played on the chess board!) 

On May 08, 2006; one of my Internet students wrote: 

<< To the handouts: They are outstanding, and have given my a track to run on. I have committed to learn the information and put into practice. Your system and reference guide are excellent, as is your use of color, and the mating patterns raised up in me that I am not consciously looking for patterns that may work against the enemy king. Now I have that before me as well. >> 

To which, (after thanking him for the note); I wrote the following: 

<< I have read some blistering criticisms of my techniques lately, one IM wrote that "using a checklist during a chess game is a lot like having to think about finger placement during a concert piano performance." 

All I can say is that its not a good analogy. ALSO - the whole idea of this "checklist" is to provide the basic player "a framework for good chess thinking," something that many players lack. Perhaps the most important benefit of this checklist???  

  • I have been using it for years, and so have a few of my students. Various steps, like "Check all checks and check all captures," ... HAVE SAVED MY BACON IN TOURNAMENTS ... more times than I care to count!

  • THE RUSSIAN SCHOOL OF CHESS OBVIOUSLY HAVE SOME SECRETS THAT HAVE NOT BEEN FULLY DISCLOSED. Why do I say this? I think that many Russians learned the game at such an early age - that they may have forgotten exactly what (or how) they were taught.  {Maybe they learned how to analyze ... simply by having a great master teach them the basic steps, over and over again. However, unless you have a GM who is willing to give you a lot of lessons, how are you going to learn this method?}  They (the Soviet or Russian players) obviously have a very rigorous and systematic way of thinking ... my system and checklist is simply an attempt to copy their methods, in the hope that I  {AND my students}  can emulate their success. 

  • Perhaps the third - and most important benefit of the checklist??? NOW THAT I HAVE BEEN USING A CHECKLIST - OF SOME TYPE - FOR OVER 15 YEARS, MANY OF THESE "THINKING TECHNIQUES" ARE BECOMING SECOND NATURE!!! (I can think of no greater benefit. - And many of my students report similar results.) >>  

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  Copyright () A.J. Goldsby, 1995 - 2009.  
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This page was created in June, 2004. (I wrote a little bit on it, but I never finished it.) 

This page was first posted on the Internet:  Saturday; July 31st, 2004.   This page was last updated on 07/14/12 .