Here’s a position that I got to against the computer. What do you think about it? What is White’s plan? Should he attack on the kingside or the queenside or the center? Should he go fast or go slow?
FEN: r4rk1/2pqbpp1/p1n1p2p/1p1nP3/3PN3/2PQ1N2/PP1B2PP/3R1RK1 w – - 0 15
Shredder was playing Black, and I had it set to a rating of 2124. We reached this position from an Alekhine’s Defense as follows:
1. e4 Nf6 2. e5 Nd5 3. d4 d6 4. f4 Bf5 5. Bd3 Bxd3 6. Qxd3 Nc6
Shredder declines the gambit 6. … de 7. fe Nb4 8. Qe2! Qxd4 9. Nf3, which I have played with great success against it. (Also I’m 1-0 with it in tournament play, the win coming against a 2300+ player named Jake Kleiman.)
7. c3 de 8. fe e6 9. Nf3 Be7 10. O-O O-O 11. Nbd2 Qd7 12. Ne4 h6 13. Bd2 a6 14. Rad1 b5
Now we’ve arrived at the initial position. For these training games against the computer I always allow myself one time-out per game, and I thought this was a good time to use it, because White’s pieces are all deployed now and it’s time to decide how to use them.
The move I ended up playing in this position was initially my fourth choice. Here was how I arrived at it.
First, it should be clear that White envisions an attack on the kingside. The pawn chain b2-c3-d4-e5 points that way. White’s bishop and queen point that way, and there’s a “hook” on h6 for an eventual sacrifice. White’s rook on f1 could potentially crash through on f7, or lift to f3 and g3 or h3. The absence of Black’s knight from f6 is also a factor, though it must be said that the knight is posted pretty strongly on d5.
It’s too soon for an immediate sacrifice, but a couple of inaccurate moves by Black could let White’s attack become overwhelming. For example, on a line like 15. Ne1 Na5 16. b3 Kh8?! 17. Bxh6! seems to be nearly winning.
If you know me, you know that I was lusting for a quick brilliancy of this sort. The first line I looked at was 15. Ne1, but it seemed to me that the knight was going to the wrong square. This knight has the problem that everywhere it goes, it seems to get in the way of White’s other pieces. It’s in the way on f3, it’s in the way on e1, and if it ever gets to d3 it will be in the way there, too. White’s objective with Ne1 seems to be to bring a knight to c5, taking advantage of the weakness Black has created. And that’s not a bad idea, but I couldn’t help thinking that White is spending a lot of moves to play on the wrong side of the board.
So then I looked at the moves 15. h3 and 15. h4, which have the idea of relocating the knight to h2 and then g4. I liked this idea better, because the knight on g4 is not in the way of anything and it’s bearing down on the very important squares f6 and h6.
However, one thing stopped me from playing any of these moves. What if Black plays 15. … f5?
At first I thought this could not be a good move, because Black gets a weak-looking pawn on e6. But the more deeply I looked at it, the more I realized this was a superficial impression. For example, after 15. Ne1 f5! 16. ef Nxf6, how do you follow up? Do you exchange again with 17. Nxf6 Bxf6? All of a sudden I’m not liking this position so much for White any more. That “weak” pawn can move very easily to e5. My queen is in an awkward place, the bishop on d2 isn’t doing anything, my knight on e1 really wishes it were back on f3, and I don’t have any semblance of an attack any more.
After a while I became convinced that 15. … f5 was in fact Black’s main defensive idea and that I must prepare to face it. The knight redeployment to e1 or h2 is premature because we may still want that knight on f3.
So what should I play instead? Here one of Mike Splane’s recent ideas came to my mind. He often tells us to ask what our pieces are looking at. If your queens and rooks are all looking at the hind end of your pawns and knights and bishops, you’ve got a problem. And that’s exactly the situation here. My queen is looking at the back of my knight on e4. My king rook is looking at the back of my knight on f3. My queen rook is looking at the back of my bishop on d2. This is a sign that my pieces are not yet well enough coordinated.
Also, one thing I’ve written about before is Mike’s willingness to “do nothing” — to make small moves that slightly improve his position, or maybe that don’t do anything at all. His philosophy is this: if you’ve really got an advantage, then it won’t go away just because you spend a couple moves sweeping the floors and patching up the ceiling. This is exactly the opposite of my philosophy, which is always to battle for the initiative and to strike before the opponent is ready to defend himself. In reality, neither philosophy is “right” — there are times for one, and times for the other.
But this is a time for Mike’s approach. There are problems in White’s position that need fixing — the awkwardly placed queen, the pieces in each other’s way. Also, … f5 needs to be discouraged. While I am taking care of those things, my advantage won’t go away. Black has no reasonable way to generate counterplay.
So that’s why I came up with the move 15. Qe2! It gets my queen out of the possible pins on the d-file, and it starts getting pieces out of the way of White’s d-rook so that it can actually become an effective piece. The queen also eyes g4 and h5 — very good attacking squares. It’s a flexible move; White can still play Ne1-d3 if the situation prevents itself. And the queen stations itself on the e-file so that it is ready to put pressure on the e6-pawn if Black ever plays … f5. A sample line goes 15. … f5 16. ef Nxf6 17. Ne5 Nxe5 18. Nxf6+! (move order is important here; I don’t want to let Black take on e4) 18. … Bxf6 19. ef and White wins a pawn next move with 20. Bxh6.
The next few moves were also calm, unspectacular moves, getting my pieces out of each other’s way, and when my attack finally came I was surprised at how quickly Shredder’s position crumbled. The game continued:
15. Qe2! Rab8 16. Bc1 Na5 17. b3 Rb7
What?! This is a really bad “computer move.” But the thing is, Black doesn’t have any constructive plans. Computers sometimes play really embarrassing chess under those circumstances.
18. Ne1 …
Now, of course, I would love to sink a knight on c5.
18. … Qc6 19. Rf3 Rbb8
Back we go.
And now everything is ready.
20. … Kh8
FEN: 1r3r1k/2p1bpp1/p1q1p2p/np1nP3/3PN3/1PP3R1/P3Q1PP/2BRN1K1 w – - 0 21
Now, alas, I missed my chance to end the game brilliantly. Part of the trick of playing Mike Splane chess is that you’ve got to be able to figure out when to switch gears and start playing Dana Mackenzie chess. Do you see what I missed here?
21. Qg4? …
This is a “good-enough” move but it leaves Black some chances. 21. Bxh6! would have just about ended the game. 21. … gh 22. Qh5 Kh7 23. Rh3 and Black can’t defend the h6 pawn.
In my defense, I thought that the move I played was annihilating, so I didn’t look any further. I missed a defensive resource for Black on the next move.
21. … Rg8 22. Qh5 Rbf8?
Here Black had a chance to make a fight of it with 22. … Nf4! I saw this possibility now, but I had not seen it on move 21. If White plays in the “obvious” way with 23. Bxf4 Qxe4 24. Qxf7, then 24. … Qe2! is really inconvenient. Rybka says that Black is already equal here. Fortunately, White does have other options; the simplest according to Rybka is 22. … Nf4! 23. Qf3! Nd5 24. Qxf7 winning a pawn in a much safer way than the previous line. I don’t know if I would have figured that out.
As I’ve mentioned, Shredder’s strength was set to 2124, not its top strength of 2600, and this was evidently a position where the program catastrophically decided to play a less-than-best move. It played 22. … Rbf8? and now I got the sort of easy win that I could have had earlier with 23. Bxh6 g6 24. Qh3 Rg7 25. Bxg7+ Kxg7 26. Qg4. With Black’s king still under pressure and White an exchange up, I had no problem winning from here.
Moral: When in a better position, you don’t always have to look for the heroic attacking moves. Sometimes a little bit of calm preparation will set you up for a brilliancy later. In a dominating position, you can often afford to take your time. But just be aware that one risk of “taking your time” is that it can be habit-forming and you might miss your chance to do something decisive.