The Axiom System - Part 4: Justification in Chess

Principles, Justification and Evaluation — perhaps the most mistreated trio in all of chess.

In the previous article, I suggested that in unknown positions, the decision making process consists of solely two processes — seeing and evaluating.

In this article, my goal is to begin to explore the evaluation process in greater depth. However, unlike the last article, in this post I will consider the current general perspectives within modern chess culture on this matter. Through this lens, we'll expose underlying contradictions, guiding us toward a clear realization of our inherent evaluative limitations.

We will now re-enter the world of modern chess to analyze how the concept of evaluation in chess is generally treated. As we will soon see, evaluation is very closely tied to the ideas of rules, principles and justification in chess.

By the end of this article, you will understand why I believe that this trio — principles, justification and evaluation — are perhaps the most mistreated in all of modern chess.

Chess Rules and Principles

You are likely already familiar with several chess rules and principles. For example, avoid bringing out your queen too early in the opening, aim to get your rook to the seventh rank in the endgame, and be cautious about pushing too many pawns in front of your king after castling. There are countless such examples.

Meanwhile, justification in chess involves providing reasons for why certain moves are good or bad.

Rules, principles and justification often go hand-in-hand. The rules and principles serve as the basis for justifications. This concept might seem abstract, but it's a common occurrence. In fact, whenever you’re reading a chess book, watching a chess personality complete a speedrun, or being coached, you're frequently engaging with this process.

Examples include statements like: "Move X is good/bad because [insert rule or principle]." For instance, "h4 is bad here because it weakens the king's position," or "Nxd5 is good because it opens up the position before the opponent has castled."

This reasoning also applies to evaluating positions, such as declaring, "This position favours White because of reasons a, b, c." This method is typically how evaluations are derived in chess.

This highlights an important aspect of how the chess community perceives different chess sub-skills. For example, tactical skill is generally seen as a raw ability; it's about either spotting the tactics or not, with little else involved. Conversely, evaluation is treated as a more rational process. It is something that can be explicitly understood and articulated.

For instance, during post-game press conferences with top players, we typically wouldn't ask, "Why did you see that tactic?" However, we might ask, "Why did you think this position was good for White?"

Consider a scenario where you and your coach are analyzing a game you played. At a certain point, you make a move that changes the pawn structure. You anticipate your opponent's response but mistakenly judge the resulting position as favourable for you. In this situation, it's common to ask, "Why is it bad?" and your coach would explain the reasons why your evaluation of the position was incorrect.

These examples show that the chess world places significant emphasis on understanding the rationale behind evaluations in contrast to purely vision-based skills like tactics.

Our Obsession With ‘Why?’

But then the question arises - why are we interested in asking ‘why’?

The clear implication is that by understanding the 'why' behind chess moves, we can acquire knowledge to improve our own play. For example, if we learn that playing g6 often weakens the dark squares in front of our king, we're less likely to make that move ourselves in similar situations in future games. This process is believed to deepen our understanding of chess, according to common wisdom.

After all, the GM in the press conference, or the chess coach, or the chess speed runner are all strong players because they understand and can explain the ‘why’, right?

I believe the answer is no. I will now present my argument against the type of justification commonly used in chess, as discussed earlier. Afterwards, I will explore the factors and biases that might lead us, as chess players, to place such a significant emphasis on understanding the 'why'.

A Critique of Justification

As previously mentioned, the key purported advantage of employing rules and principles in evaluation is that they assist in assessing the quality of a position or specific moves. These rules and principles provide the justification needed to explain why a position is evaluated in a particular way. Let’s examine this concept with an example. In the following position it’s white to play.

In this position white can play b4! There are several reasons why this is a good move. Firstly, black — with their pawn on a5, Nc6 and Rb8 — is thinking about playing b4 in the near future. By playing b4 ourselves, we have forever removed this possibility from black, preventing any counterplay on the queenside and not allowing black’s rook to become active on the b-file. Secondly, not only do we prevent b4 and the opening of black’s rook, but we cement the weakness on b5 which is pressured by our f1 bishop. From now on, black’s b8 rook will have to babysit that pawn. Also, if black exchanges on b4, then we will happily play axb4 and open up our a1 rook. By understanding the principles of prophylaxis, limiting counterplay, fixing weaknesses and so on, we are able to seemingly justify and deduce white’s powerful b4 move in this position.

Using the knowledge and understanding I've gained as an experienced chess player, I've deduced that b4 is the best move, right? Moreover, now you, the reader, have deepened your understanding of positional chess and can apply these principles in future games to improve your play, right?

Well I must confess that I’ve lied to you.

According to my engine, b4 isn’t even in the top 4 moves. The best move in the position is actually a4! There are several reasons why this is a good move. Firstly, notice the lack of light-square control from black. Black’s pawns on a5, d6 and e5, along with black’s knight on c6 and queen on d8 are controlling dark squares. This means that we should be ready to exploit black’s weak light squares. The seemingly only remaining defender of the light-square complex on the queenside is the b5 pawn; therefore, it makes perfect sense to undermine this point to complete our light-square assault. Additionally, note that black has no c-pawn, and the black a-pawn has moved to a5. That means that the b5 square is permanently weak, and can be used by the white pieces. For example, if black meets a4 with b4, then we can potentially already capitalize on this weak square with Bb5. In chess, whenever two pawns move two squares past a common adjacent file (in this case, c5 and a5), we must be ready to exploit the middle, weak square left behind (b5 in this example)....and on and on.

I’m sure you get the point now. If you like I could also generate some reasons why a4 is a bad move if it indeed turned out to be so. For example, white only has two pieces developed, whereas black has around five, depending on your count. Therefore, white should refrain from ‘creating contact between the pieces’ and opening up the position (as my former coach L.Ftacnik liked to say — he was a big fan of rules). If white creates contact between the pieces, opens up the position, and ultimately ‘goes to war’ before they have caught up on development, then of course black’s better developed army will overwhelm white.

The idea here is that one can seemingly draw from a myriad of principles, rules, and guidelines to justify or critique any given move or idea. There are endless principles and rules that one can reference to justify any idea. However, this abundance of options raises a crucial question: if multiple principles are applicable in a given position, how do we determine which ones are more important?

Take the previous position as an example: how can we decide whether the principles of exploiting the opponent’s weak colour complex and exploiting weak squares are more crucial than those of fixing your opponent’s weaknesses, and so forth? If we're uncertain about which set of rules to prioritize, then how can we rely on them when evaluating positions? If we choose to focus on the colour complex, we might play a4, but if we focus on fixing weaknesses, we might opt for b4.

With the above example and these comments, you can sense the groundwork being laid for a critique. I will now attempt to distill the essence of these observations to formulate a more structured argument against the utility of rules and principles in evaluating positions and deciding on moves.

  • Premise 1: If chess principles are useful when selecting between a set of candidate moves, then they must influence the decision-making process. For example, if one feels that m1 is the best move, but due to consideration of certain principles one now feels that m2 is the best move, then the rules have been beneficial.

I believe everyone can agree that for chess rules and principles to be useful in decision-making, they must influence us to play moves we wouldn't have chosen without consulting them.

  • Premise 2: In any given position there are a number of applicable principles, P1, P2, P3 etc... that result in moves m1, m2, m3 etc...

As I noted earlier, there are seemingly endless — yet reasonable — rules, principles and guidelines that you will encounter in the world of chess. Furthermore, in any given position, there will be at least two of these principles in conflict with each other. In other words, in any given position there will be at least two principles that, when applied, result in justifying at least two different moves. For example, think back to our a4 vs b4 position. The principles of fixing weakness, among others, resulted in b4 while the principle of exploiting the opponent’s weak colour complex, among others, resulted in a4.

  • Premise 3: There is no set of meta-rules describing the relative stringencies of P1, P2, P3 etc... for any given position.

This premise captures the idea I was mentioning earlier as how we are to decide between preferring fixing weakness vs preferring exploiting weak light squares in our example position. There is no ‘extra’ set of rules that say “In these types of positions, you should always prefer fixing weaknesses, but in these types of positions, you should prefer exploiting weak colour complexes” for example.

This absence is crucial, as it underscores the dilemma of choosing between conflicting principles. Reflecting on the diversity of positions in chess and the multitude of existing rules and principles, it becomes clear that it is impossible to establish a set of meta-rules that consistently ranks the relative importance of standard chess principles across all situations.

A set of meta-rules is required to organize and prioritize the first-order principles, determining their relative importance and guiding us in choosing the recommended move. However, such meta-rules cannot exist.

This leads us to:

  • Conclusion 1: No conclusion can be made as to which of P1, P2, P3 etc... takes precedence.


  • Conclusion 2: We cannot use P1, P2, P3 etc... when determining which of m1, m2, m3 etc... should be preferred.

Since we have no way to determine which rules, principles or considerations to prioritize in a given position, we therefore cannot, in line with premise 2, determine which move to play. In other words, we cannot use the principles to deduce which move to play.

  • Conclusion 3: P1, P2, P3 etc... do not influence the decision-making procedure.

Then, in line with premise 1, we now have:

  • Conclusion 4: Chess principles are not useful when selecting between a set of candidate moves.

If consideration of certain principles cannot influence what move we intend to select, and hence have no role in the decision making process when selecting among a set of candidate moves, then they are not useful in such contexts.

Note here that I specified ‘when selecting among a set of candidate moves’, as I believe some principles can be helpful when discovering new candidate moves, and we will cover this idea more when I talk about ‘vision tools’ in a later article.

Noting a Quick Exception

There is however a case where I believe chess principles can be quite useful when deciding what moves to play. That is in the case of very early beginner players, particularly in the opening. These players, new to chess, lack sufficient exposure to develop any evaluative intuition at all. Given that the game always starts from the same position, the openings tend to have less variability, making general guidelines particularly effective. Such principles might include developing pieces, controlling the center, and castling early.

While our main argument about the limitations of principles could still apply to this particular case (e.g. - in this position, should you listen to the principle of central play, or the principle of king safety?), choosing any basic principle generally leads to better decisions than complete beginners might make on their own.

However, as players move beyond the complete beginner stage and develop a more nuanced, position-specific approach — where the goal extends beyond just avoiding terrible moves — principles no longer serve a purpose as we have seen.

Addressing Some Potential Responses

Chess Principles Seem to Help Me

You may have followed the argument above and agree with the premises and the argumentative flow; however, you might still have reservations about the conclusion. Perhaps you've experienced sitting at a chess board, unsure of your next move, then thinking about chess principles and gaining clarity on what to play. It might seem that considering these principles helped you decide.

Our previous argument showed exactly why this couldn't have happened. Despite the commonality of such experiences, they don't necessarily confirm the direct influence of principles on decision-making. However, instead of ending our discussion here, let's now explore why this might happen.

In the described scenario, it's likely that chess principles weren't actually the determining factor in your decision. Consider this: as you sat there, several variations — though not fully formed — might have flashed through your mind as you pondered different principles. This is natural for chess players who instinctively and automatically analyze variations and explore positions upon viewing them. It's similar to how a native English speaker automatically reads an English sentence placed in front of them, even if they try not to.

Perhaps while considering a potential attacking move, you vaguely calculated a variation where the attack fizzles out and results in material loss. Concurrently, you might remember a relevant chess principle. In this context, you could then use the principle to rationalize why the attack is unfavourable, linking your diminishing confidence in your attack with the principle, even though the principle itself wasn't the direct cause.

This brings us to another reason chess principles sometimes appear useful: they often serve as tools to eliminate doubt or boost confidence.

In our last article, we discussed how decision-making in unknown positions involves both seeing and evaluating. If you spend a minute at the board and neither identify new moves nor reassess any positions, that minute has been wasted. This often occurs when players feel uncertain or doubtful about what they've seen or evaluated. In such situations, referencing a sound, independent principle can help players trust their instincts and make a move (e.g. - yes, I should play d5, as after all, opening up the position here is the right idea when the opponent’s king is still not castled).

Some might argue that, in this unconventional way, chess principles are useful. However, I would contend that they are unnecessary in this context too. The most effective approach would be to acknowledge that you are not making progress in vision or evaluation, realize that principles won’t aid in this context, and decide either to calculate further or to commit to a move.

Premise Two is False

You might disagree with Premise Two, which states that in any given position, there are several applicable principles (P1, P2, P3, etc.) that result in different moves (m1, m2, m3, etc.). You might think I've cherry-picked a position where principles conflict, whereas, in reality, most positions are straightforward without such conflicts.

I disagree with this. Our example position is not cherry-picked; this process can be applied to arguably any position. As a somewhat experienced chess coach, I must have conducted this process of looking at a move, and pulling from my toolbox of principles to either justify or critique it, thousands, if not tens of thousands of times. Once you develop fluency with your own set of typical or ‘go-to’ principles, applying them to any position becomes easy. I discuss this meta-skill of generating justifications later in the article.

Another issue for those denying Premise Two is determining which principles are relevant and what qualifies as a principle. This leads to a separate criticism of principles in chess, which I won't explore deeply here, as I believe my main argument is strong enough.

However, consider this: if you think only one principle applies in some positions, I could simply invent a principle that sounds reasonable and argue its applicability. There is no official list of accepted chess principles. I’ve encountered principles that, while logical, are rarely mentioned. For example, when you have a single bishop remaining, you should place your queen on the opposite colour to balance control over both colour complexes (e.g., place your queen on a dark square when you have a light-squared bishop).

This is an interesting and logical principle that I first heard ages ago, yet I haven’t encountered it since. What's stopping me from creating other logical principles and applying them? There’s no definitive method to arbitrate what counts as a principle or if that principle is relevant, a point those disagreeing with Premise Two will have to address.

Chess Principles as a Temporary Tool

Some might argue that understanding chess principles and rules is more beneficial for amateur to club-level players. Over time, stronger players internalize these concepts, making them natural and intuitive. In other words, chess principles help players 'learn the ropes,' but eventually, the play guided by these principles becomes second nature to more advanced players. In this sense, principles, which might not directly help us decide which moves to play during a game (thus avoiding our previous argument), instead serve to catalyze the development of our intuition.

This is the type of statement often found in the chess world — asserted without much argumentation — making it difficult to challenge except by asking, 'Why?'

I don't see why principles should have any causal effect on developing a player's intuitive ability. Why couldn't players develop this intuition even without principles? To me, this line of thinking seems like an attempt to preserve the value of chess principles without solid reasons. A simpler theory, that we develop intuition through various raw chess experiences, seems more appealing. Speculating that a vague, unstructured, and often contradictory set of loose rules plays a crucial role in developing intuition is unconvincing. Therefore, the burden of proof lies with those who espouse the importance of principles to provide a compelling argument.

So, How Do We Evaluate?

Given all of this, the question arises: How do we actually evaluate a position? If someone examines our previous example and ultimately concludes that a4 is a better move than b4 — given that reliance on principles didn’t assist in this decision — what factors make them better evaluators?

Well my answer is quite simple and predictable: intuition, instinct, feeling — whatever you choose to call it. While many people may recognize that intuition has some role in evaluating chess positions, I argue that it is the only factor. Chess is such a variable game that there can be no explicit, external process — such as consulting a list of principles or rules — that can effectively guide position evaluation. This topic warrants a more detailed discussion, so we will explore the concept of 'evaluation by intuition' more thoroughly in the next article of this series.

The Ad Hoc Nature of Justifications in Chess

Therefore, it should now be clear that I view justifications in chess as fundamentally ad hoc. By "ad hoc," I mean that the principles and reasons are generated in response to the perceived correctness of a move.

For example, if I were told that b4 is the best move in our example position, I could easily come up with reasons why b4 is optimal. Conversely, if told a4 is the best move, I would similarly generate reasons supporting a4.

The principles do not allow us to find the best move. Rather, the principles follow the best move.

This leads to two distinct skills: determining what moves are good, and explaining why good moves are good. The second skill — that of generating justifications — can be thought of as a type of chess ‘meta-skill’ as it doesn’t directly relate to chess playing ability.

Generating Justifications — A Meta Chess Skill

Developing the ability to generate principles that justify an evaluative feeling in an ad hoc manner is a meta-skill that many players and coaches acquire over time. For instance, having received years of coaching in my youth and having coached others for over a decade, plus engaging with chess literature and media, and so on, I've developed this skill quite a bit.

When I observe a game and instantly recognize a move as good or bad (the rapidity of these judgments also suggests that specific principles are not being actively consulted), I can usually quickly articulate a chess principle that supports my assessment.

In general, those who excel in this are typically 1) articulate, 2) seasoned in the chess world, and 3) have extensive coaching experience, which has given them plenty of time to practice this skill.

On the other hand, I know players who are higher-rated than I will ever be, yet they are not as proficient — or even quite poor — at producing justifications for their moves. This observation aligns with our theory that the meta-skill of generating justifications is not closely related to actual chess-playing ability.

There is a direct relationship between this meta-skill and how positively a coach is perceived; better justificatory abilities often result in a coach being viewed more favorably, as they better satiate the appetite of rationally-driven adult learners. This leads us to our next section: understanding why we have this appetite.

Why is Justification in Chess So Popular?

We might now question why such justificatory tools, which are seemingly unhelpful in deciding moves, are so prevalent in the chess world.

My suspicion is that their popularity relates to the communicative needs within chess. Chess is often perceived as an intellectual game involving logic, deduction, reasoning, understanding and so on. Thus, it seems natural that rationally-based communication should serve to 'bridge the rating gap' between players of different skill levels.

For instance, consider losing a game to a higher-rated player. During the post-game analysis, asking them why they opted for a certain position often yields explanations like 'it exploits your weaknesses' or 'I’m aiming for this outpost.' These reasons are more digestible than hearing:

I've trained my brain through exposure to hundreds of thousands of chess positions and games to naturally and instinctively sense which positions are favourable.’

Or, in simpler terms, ‘because it felt right.’ Such an answer, while honest, wouldn’t be very instructive or palatable.

Imagine if Magnus Carlsen, during a post-game press conference, answered a question about his move preference with 'because it felt right.' every single time. This response would likely not satisfy us.

Another reason for the widespread use of chess principles is their appeal to adult learners, who are typically eager to understand the rationale behind actions. Adults tend to approach learning rationally, and when faced with a game celebrated for its intellectual and logical qualities, they naturally seek to understand the reasoning behind moves.

This is a common observation among chess coaches: adults generally demand a rational and explicit understanding so they can articulate why certain moves are good or bad. Meanwhile, children couldn’t care less about such explanations.

The focus on justifications among adult learners likely stems from their inclination towards rationality as explained. However, another significant reason is the chess community's insidious implication that higher-rated players excel because they have acquired a profound knowledge that informs their gameplay. Yet, as we have discussed, this is not necessarily the case. Instead, the collecting of knowledge and the development of skill occur on two correlated but causally unrelated and independent planes.

This is why I particularly dislike terms like 'knowledge' and 'understanding' in chess. I believe the words we choose, and their associated connotations, can subtly and subconsciously shape our thinking. When we describe chess skills as 'knowledge' or 'understanding,' it suggests that these abilities can be gained in the same way an academic might acquire knowledge in their field — through studying textbooks, memorizing definitions, and mastering theoretical concepts. This terminology obscures the fact that playing chess is almost entirely skill-based, and is barely reliant on explicit learning. Clearly, this leads aspiring chess improvers down the wrong track, causing them to waste time attempting to gain explicit knowledge under the false premise that it will help them make better decisions.

In Summary

To summarize, chess principles often conflict, and without clear meta-rules to prioritize them, their usefulness in evaluating positions and deciding the best moves remains unproven.

We argued that justifications in chess are fundamentally ad hoc. Chess principles are typically formulated after the fact, tailored to support a move already deemed strong based on a player's intuition or experience (or by an engine), rather than guiding the decision from the outset.

Justifications remain popular in the chess community because they appear to facilitate communication between players of different skill levels and cater to the intellectual curiosity of adult learners.

However, this focus on rational explanation often overshadows the intuitive and experiential elements of chess. Additionally, the emphasis on rational evaluation within chess culture can mislead those looking to improve by encouraging them to focus on developing justification skills, which are ultimately unnecessary for enhancing actual gameplay.

What’s Next?

Having largely dispensed with a strictly rational-driven approach to evaluation in favour of an intuition-based method, we must now explore this evaluative ability further. Rather than simply concluding that 'evaluation is intuition,' we should begin to address questions such as: 'Why do chess players develop such a skill?', 'What purpose does it serve?', and 'What are the properties of this skill — for instance, how quickly does this intuitive evaluative function operate? What factors can alter our evaluations?'

These are the kinds of questions we will be considering in the next article in this series. By deepening our understanding of how a chess player's intuitive evaluative ability functions, we aim to uncover insights that will allow us to tackle how we can improve our own evaluative abilities.

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