How Many Moves Ahead Do Grandmasters Think?

Grandmasters are very talented individuals. They can visualize the entire chess board in their head and calculate moves deeper than the average chess player. In fact, many of them can play an entire chess game without even looking at the chess board itself.

So, are these people naturally gifted or do they have a rudimental system of thinking they use to find the right moves in the position? In this article, we will go over those answers and discuss how many moves ahead a grandmaster can actually think. Let’s dive in!

How Many Moves Ahead Do Grandmasters Think?

A grandmaster can think 12 to 14 moves ahead in a given position. However, the truth is grandmasters do not calculate that deep unless the position involves forcing moves. A large percent of their moves are positional play which do not require intense calculation. As a result, many of them only calculate 3 to 5 moves ahead. 

Take it from the World Champion Garry Kasparov himself : “Normally, I would calculate three to five moves,” he said. “You don’t need more…. But I can go much deeper if it is required.” For example, in a position involving forced moves, it’s possible to look ahead as many as 12 or 14 moves, he noted.

To be able to calculate 12 to 14 moves ahead requires great skill and talent. You can hone this skill by solving chess puzzles online, playing blindfold chess with other players, and more importantly developing the right system of thinking. Read on further to find out what this correct system of thinking is.

How Do Grandmasters Calculate So Deep?

The depth at which a grandmaster calculates depends on the number of forcing moves in the position. The grandmaster would not stop calculating until all the forcing moves are analyzed. When the dust have settled and the smokes have cleared, the grandmaster then evaluates the position based on 3 important factors: material count, piece activity, and king safety.

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If the evaluation favors the grandmaster, then he will play the move. If the evaluation yields a negative verdict, then the grandmaster will discard that move and analyze a different move.

A lot of players spend too much time on a move they have already calculated. This burns a lot of time on the clock. To calculate efficiently and deep in a short space of time, you need to apply the process of elimination. In other words, if you’ve already calculated a move that yields a negative verdict, then you should not return to that line. This helps to save more time on the clock.

When To Begin Calculating?

You should begin calculating when there is tension between the pieces. Tension in chess is when the pieces come in contact with each other or when there is a possibility of a capture.

In the position below, there is tension between the pieces. Black just played the move Bishop to b4 attacking the white queen and threatening to capture it on the next move. White’s bishop on g5 also creates tension because it can capture the knight on f6. Since there is tension on the board, white should start to calculate.

Grandmasters calculate moves when there is tension between the pieces


You’ll be surprised that the majority of players make the wrong move for white in this position. They play the move f3? but this is a blunder and gives away the advantage.

The best move in this position is Bxf6. You’ll find this move if you started your calculation by finding the most forcing moves in the position. There are 3 forcing moves for white in this position: Bxf7, Qxg4, and Bxf6. You should analyze all 3 forcing moves before playing anything else. For more information on calculating in chess, see article: How to calculate in chess?

After 6.Bxf6 Bxd1 7.Bxd8 Bxc2 8.Bh4, white is up a whole knight.

Evaluation: White is better (advantage in material)

How To Calculate Moves Ahead?

To calculate moves ahead in chess, you must look for all forcing moves in the position and calculate your opponent’s forcing moves in repsonse. If you don’t calculate your opponent’s forcing moves, then you could miss something and blunder the game.

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Forcing moves in chess are checks, captures and attacks. These are the first things you look for when calculating.

Check: The most forcing move is a check because the king must respond to the threat. A check can be dealt with by capturing the piece delivering the check, blocking the check with one of your pieces, or moving the king away from the check.

Capture: The second most forcing moves are captures. If the opposing side cannot recapture back the piece, then he’d likely be down material.

Attack: The 3rd most forcing move is attack because it threatens to win a piece on the next move.

When calculating, some players run into the problem of visualization. In other words, they have a difficult time holding the position in their minds. I know, it would be so much easier if you could just physically play out the moves over the chess board when calculating. Unfortunately, that is not possible as the touch move rule wouldn’t allow it.

However, not to worry, I will teach you a little trick that will help you improve your visualization so that you can calculate more deeply.

How To See The Chess Moves In Your Head?

You may have watched the Queen’s Gambit series on Netflix and saw how Beth Harmon was able to visualize the chess pieces on the ceiling. By her picturing the chess board in her head, she was able to calculate deeply and outplay her opponents. Don’t worry, I am not going to tell you to take any tranquilizers.

I’m just saying that being able to see a clear chess board in your head can really be beneficial to a person’s calculation ability.

In order to hold the position in your head when calculating, you have to perform the process of elimination. For example, If you looked at a forcing move in the position, do not go back to analyze that move again. Continue calculating until all the forcing moves have been reached. 

It will be more difficult to visualize the chess moves in your head if you keep going back to the moves you calculated before. Try playing the first 2 forcing moves in the position and then picture the resulting position as the starting point.

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Visualization Exercise


How Blindfold Chess Can Help With Visaulization And Calculation?

Blindfold chess is a form of chess play where players do not get to see the position of the pieces on the chess board. This forces players to maintain a mental picture of the game. Blindfold chess is a useful training exercise to develop our visualization skills over the board and to help you hold the position in your head when calculating 5, 10 moves ahead.

Using this training exercise, players tend to hang fewer pieces in their real games as they are able to see the entire board and the interaction between their pieces and those of their opponent.

How To Play Blindfold Chess?

The rules are same as regular chess. This can be done in 2 ways:

1. Blindfold chess with the pieces on the board: Set the pieces on the chess board but have both players turn their backs to the chess board (or have them both blindfolded). It can also be the case of just one person playing blindfolded.  A mediator or middleman is usually present to make the moves over the chess board for you and to speak the chess notations of the move that was played by your opponent.

2. Blindfold chess but there are no pieces on the board: This version allows you to see the actual board and squares. But there are no pieces present. Both players would write down their moves on a scoresheet and communicate orally on the move they choose to play. I recommend using this version for starters.

Final Verdict

One common trait I see among grandmasters is their ability to calculate without seeing the actual pieces on the chess board. This is a distinctive quality that I do not see even among Fide or International Masters. We could draw the conclusion that visualization is an important skill to have if we wish to calculate efficiently and think many moves ahead like a grandmaster.

Some people may argue that blindfold chess is a natural gift that you have to be born with, but I beg to differ. With the right training exercise, you can start to visualize the chess pieces in your head clearly which would allow you to think many moves ahead of your opponent.