Simple Chess, plus Incurable Optimism

by admin on December 9, 2013

The December version of Mike Splane’s chess party turned out to be a small affair. Usually we get 12 to 15 people at the parties, but this is a month when people have lots of other things to do. So only five people were there this time: Gjon Feinstein, Jim Bennett, Juande Perea, myself, and of course Mike.

Even with a small group, I thought it was a good, substantive study session. First we went over a very recent game of Jim that was interesting both in the opening and the endgame. In the opening, Jim played an accidental brilliancy — he gave up a piece unintentionally but it turned out his opponent couldn’t keep it, and could at best remain a pawn ahead with an absolutely dreadful position. Jim should have won easily but didn’t really press home his advantage very well, and they got to a fascinating same-color bishop endgame that we spent a long time analyzing. (Jim won, but it probably should have been a draw.)

After that we looked at the game I wrote about in my recent post “Anatomy of a Meltdown.” Mike especially wanted to make a list of questions that you should ask in order to help you come up with a plan, because I had written in my blog post about the difficulty I had formulating a plan in that position. This kind of thinking could be called “Schematic Thinking” to contrast it with analysis. Some of the schematic questions we (mostly Mike and Gjon) came up with were:

  • Where are the pawn breaks?
  • What are the best and worst-placed pieces for me and my opponent?
  • What are the targets?
  • What are the possible trades, and which ones are good for me?
  • Where are the best squares for my pieces?
  • Who would be winning the endgame?
  • Who has the safer king?
  • What side of the board should I play on?

This is a great list of questions, although it is not entirely clear to me how they would have helped in the specific position I talked about in my blog post. One reason I say that is that I had already answered most of these questions in my mind. The only real pawn break was g3-g4, and I fixated on that move to an unhealthy extent. I didn’t want a queen trade, or any trade really, because I was an exchange down and the endgames tended to be difficult or lost. It was clear that my play had to be on the kingside. Etc.

The one I missed, though, was “Where are the targets?” There were two big targets in Black’s position, the d6 and f5 pawns, and I completely focused on the second without paying as much attention to the first. This led me to miss a very easy plan. Basically I felt as if my only plan was to play the pawn break g3-g4. That break was difficult to carry out, though, and I squandered ten minutes of analysis time trying to make it work.

But that wasn’t the only plan! Pressure on the d-file, doubling the queen and rook, was a very easy and natural plan. As pointed out in my earlier post, it also assists the g3-g4 plan, because as soon as Black’s rook gets tied down to defending d6, it can’t defend f5. In my post I discussed the rather baroque idea of “retreating to attack,” putting the queen behind the rook with Qc3-c2-d1, as discovered by Rybka. But even the utterly straightforward doubling with the queen in front of the rook, by Qc3-d3, is hard for Black to meet.

So to me there were two lessons here. One is not to prematurely decide there is only one plan in the position. Going through the checklist of questions above may be a good way (although, I suspect, rather time-consuming) to arrive at a choice of plans. The second is Occam’s razor. If there are several plans, look at the simplest one first. The g3-g4 break was difficult and unclear. Doubling on the d-file is simple. I tend to gravitate too much toward complicated and creative solutions, thinking that this is “advanced” chess. But in reality, strong players play simple chess a large percentage of the time. It’s one of the most common phrases in Jesse Kraai’s ChessLectures. “Simple chess.”

Finally, there’s one other question on the checklist that I haven’t mentioned yet. It’s a very characteristic one for Mike. He often asks himself, “How am I going to win this game?”

“Mike,” I asked him, “Do you still ask that question if you are in a bad position, or if you are outright losing?”

“Yes,” he said. He did acknowledge that sometimes he might change the question to “How am I going to draw this game?” Nevertheless, I thought this almost incidental conversation highlighted a big difference in our chess games. When I am in a bad or losing position, I often go into a funk, squander a lot of time, and end up making my position worse. Meanwhile, Mike is still sitting there, the incurable optimist, asking, “How am I going to win this game?”

That, my friends, is how you win games that you shouldn’t win — games that leave other players shaking their heads and asking, “How did he pull that out?” And in the last game we looked at, a Kolty Chess Club game that Mike played just last week, he gave us a beautiful example. Against Jan de Jong, he kind of botched the early middle game and, just to survive, he had to give up two bishops for two knights.

Now, I happen to think that two knights against two bishops is a very interesting imbalance, and there are many times when it’s worth going for. In particular, if you have a choice of defending with N+B vs. 2B or defending with 2N vs. 2B, you should strongly consider the two knights, even though it seems “illogical.” The reason is that the two bishops often just end up dominating the N+B. But two knights are just so different from two bishops that you can do things with them that the bishops can’t defend. In essence, it gives you a chance to win.

In this particular game, though, the bishops were clearly better than the knights, and Mike’s position was hanging by a thread for an incredibly long time, like 30 moves or so. But he didn’t panic or go into a funk. He kept asking how he was going to win the game, and that meant centralizing his knights and activating his rook, the one other piece he had to assist them. And bit by bit, he turned the tide. Finally he won a pawn, and then he won another pawn, and then the game.

Maybe I’ll show some positions from this game in a later post, but even without going over any of the details, I think that it was a great lesson. Incurable optimism can be a powerful weapon. So you blundered? Forget it. Just ask yourself how you are going to win from here.

Also, there’s one more thing I want to say about this question, “How am I going to win this game?” I don’t think the point is that you should completely deny reality. It’s about goal-oriented thinking. Mike’s question takes you beyond the immediate, pressing issues of what to do on the next move or in the next 5 moves, and encourages you to see the big picture. Once you can move past the problem of immediate survival, you can start setting up those ingredients for victory. It may even look silly at first, but lots of times “annoying little threats” can snowball into big problems for your opponent.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ashish December 9, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Wonderful list of questions, and a great lesson overall – thanks. I printed this one out. (BTW, blitz players know that N>B.)


Dan Schmidt December 9, 2013 at 6:41 pm

David LeMoir has a good section about this kind of thing in his excellent. book How To Be Lucky In Chess in a chapter titled “Reasons To Be Cheerful”. He stresses always looking to try to find a few positive things about your position, even if there are also ten negative things.

I admit that my problem is sometimes the opposite; I’ll be in a bad position that, say, is 10-40-50 likely to be a win, draw or loss, and by maximizing my winning chances, turn it into a 15-0-85 position, which is actually worse than trying to steer for a draw.


Mike Splane December 10, 2013 at 6:04 pm

I thought Gjon’s question, “what are the targets” was the best one too. That’s one I have not been using but will be adding to my toolkit.

I think you posed the question, “who has the initiative? that didn’t make your list. And somebody also asked, What does my opponent want to do? I think these could be added to your list.

In terms of schematic thinking I often use a technique Silman recommends in his book “Reassess Your Chess.” He calls it fantasy positions. The idea is to mentally move one or more pieces to squares that they can’t reach directly (in one move) and then see if that piece setup is good for you. If it is you try to figure out how to get it there. This often leads me to the right idea.

“Schematic thinking” does take time, you’re right, and you’re can’t do it often. The trick is to make sure you do it at the critical turning points of the game. It’s not always clear when those occur. I would say when queens are exchanged and when you reach the end of your opening preparation would definitely be times to pause for thought. In my own experience it usually takes me in the range 0f five to eight minutes to think my way through the process. The time I lose is made up for by minimizing blunders due to not understanding the position, and eliminating analysis of candidate moves that don’t fit into my plan.

In my own chess experience I often mess up the early middle-game and have to fight from behind, so maybe I developed my optimism as a result of winning from many many bad positions.

I really enjoyed reading this post. Somehow you took a dry bullet-pointed list and made it interesting and fun to read about. That’s the sign of a great writer.


Mike Splane December 26, 2013 at 12:20 pm

My question “How am I going to win this game” has one other valuable component. Sometimes the answers have nothing to do with the position on the chess board. My answer is often based on my knowledge of the opponent.

For player A I know he can outplay me in rook and queen endings, so I avoid them.
For player B I know he is vulnerable in multiple piece endings with the queens exchanged so I head for that kind of position.
For player C I know he lacks confidence in playing endgames, so I can push him around by offering piece trades.
For player D I know he is not very creative so I try to get him out of his usual opening lines and into middle-games he may not understand.
For player E I know that he plays as if the value of the pieces are constant instead of changing due to the pieces activity, so I try to finds ways to unbalance the material with a pawn or exchange sacrifice to reach a position where the normal values do not apply.

The question can also be useful when thinking about the clock. When I am ahead on time by a substantial margin I like to avoid doing anything active or forcing, until my opponent runs short of time. Often my opponent will make a blunder when his time runs low. and I don’t have to do any work to win.


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