Notes on Puzzles

Published: 2023.07.11; Substack version


I mostly don’t play chess anymore — it’s too addictive, and tends to take over your brain in a way I don’t like — but one habit I’ve retained is solving puzzles. It’s a mental warm-up, a way of occupying my brain when I don’t want to mindlessly scroll.

Along the way, I came across a fantastic book called Think Like A Super-GM, by Michael Adams and Philip Hurtado. The authors take 100 or so chess puzzles, of varying difficulty, and then ask chess players of different skill levels (amateur to grandmaster) to solve them, while recording their thinking process out loud.

It turns out comparing the thought process of less skilled vs. more skilled players gives you many useful insights! (I’d love to see this concept used for books in other disciplines.)

The lesson I found the most striking is this: there’s a direct correlation between how skilled you are as a chess player, and how much time you spend falsifying your ideas. The authors find that grandmasters spend longer falsifying their idea for a move than they do coming up with the move in the first place, whereas amateur players tend to identify a solution and then play it shortly after without trying their hardest to falsify it first. (Often amateurs, find reasons for playing the move -- ‘hope chess’.)

Call this the ‘falsification ratio’: the ratio of time you spend trying to falsify your idea to the time you took coming up with it in the first place. For grandmasters, this is 4:1 — they’ll spend 1 minute finding the right move, and another 4 minutes trying to falsify it, whereas for amateurs this is something like 0.5:1 — 1 minute finding the move, 30 seconds making a cursory effort to falsify it.

This is a really interesting finding!

Let me explain with an example. (Obviously, you’ll need to understand the rules of chess, and chess notation, to follow all this; skip to section 2 if not.) Here is White to move: