Weaknesses

by admin on November 5, 2019

Lately I have been going through a book called “It’s Your Move!” by Chris Ward with some of my chess club students. I like the concept of this book very much. It consists of 150 positions from grandmaster games, in which students are supposed to come up with the best plan. I like the way this differs from most training books, where there is usually one tactic that clearly wins or is clearly better than anything else. Ninety percent of a chess game is not that way; there are many ways to play and there is room for a lot of individual taste about how to proceed. I want to wean my students away from calculating variations and teach them how to think conceptually about those ambiguous positions.

Ward also has a really interesting, reader-friendly way of setting up these exercises. In each position he presents five possible solutions by five recurring characters: Ambitious Andy, Ballistic Bob, Cautious Carol, Devious Dave, and Steady Eddy. I think that the kids enjoy these fictional characters, although perhaps they like Ballistic Bob a little bit too much. In each case we talk through the five solutions and try to arrive at a consensus decision. I definitely try to weigh in during the analysis, but the final vote is up to them.

Today we had a position where I feel as if I led them pretty badly astray. This is Test One, question eight.

Position after 19. Rc3. Black to move.

FEN: 2r1r1k1/pb4bp/2p1ppp1/3q4/3P4/2R2NB1/PPQ2PPP/R5K1 b – – 0 19

“Black has the advantage of the two bishops, but how should he put this to use?” Ward writes. Three of the plans he suggests are clearly not optimal, so the choice comes down to Ballistic Bob and Steady Eddy. “Blasting the position open with the immediate 19. … e5 is the order of the day for Bob, who wants to see his bishops getting in on the act sooner rather than later,” Ward says. On the other hand, “Eddy sees his c-pawn as his main weakness and so suggests a plan involving trading it off. He likes 19. … Bf8 (intending … c6-c5) and is certainly prepared to capture on a2 if White attempts to halt his master plan with 20. Rc1.”

When we looked at 19. … e5 I thought it had a lot going for it. After 20. de fe the threat of 21. … e4 is very much in the air and I didn’t see a good rebuttal. I thought that 20. de was perhaps a little bit too cooperative, helping Black open up the a1-h8 diagonal for his bishop, so White should perhaps keep it closed with 20. Rc5. But then 20. … Qf7 21. Re1 ed! (suggested by Ryder) looked quite good for Black. Atlee and Ryder agreed with Ballistic Bob. Emmy was inclined at first to go with Steady Eddy, but eventually she came around to our choice.

The answer was pretty interesting. Of course, 19. … Bf8 was right. A good preparatory move for a sensible plan. Indeed, … c5 is the break that Black should aim for, because it not only eliminates a weakness (as pointed out by Ward) but also opens up the a8-h1 diagonal for the white squared bishop. This would have been a great point to make for my students: when you have the advantage of the two bishops, the unopposed bishop is especially the one you should activate; it is the ”monster.”

Ward’s comment on Ballistic Bob’s move, 19. … e5?, was positively scathing. “Note that Bob’s 19. … e5 is positionally feeble. At best it swaps off White’s isolated d-pawn and leaves Black with three isolated pawns!”

At first I thought that Ward was too harsh. I actually want my students to consider aggressive moves like 19. … e5. I think that they will win lots of games with moves like this. (Remember, they are playing at around an 800-1000 rating level.) However, on calm reflection after I came home, I realized that Ward  was right and 19. … e5 is even worse than he says. After 19. … e5? 20. de fe 21. Rd3! is already almost crushing, because on … Qe6 or … Qf7 White has the followup 22. Ng5! This chases Black’s queen off its good diagonal (both of them, in fact) and makes 23. Qb3+ a very serious threat. Not only that, even the variation we liked for Black, 19. … e5 20. Rc5 Qf7, makes no sense because 21. de just wins a pawn.

It’s interesting that Ward did not mention any of these tactical issues, though, and just zeroes in on the weaknesses that 19. … e5? creates. As a grandmaster, he just looks at those weaknesses and says, “This move cannot be right” – without wasting any clock time. The weaknesses don’t stop with the three isolated pawns. There’s also the a2-g8 diagonal that is opened up, placing black’s king in danger; the g5 square which becomes available for White’s knight; and the e4 square which becomes a nice outpost for that knight, should it become necessary for White to blockade the e-pawn.

This was a darn good lesson for me. It was instructive that I couldn’t accept that 19. … e5? was a mistake until I actually saw a concrete variation where White blows it up. I am still not thinking like a grandmaster.

For my students, I think I will do a quick recap next week and teach them about the importance of thinking about weaknesses. Obviously I have not emphasized this enough in my lessons, because I don’t emphasize it enough in my own games.

In case you’re wondering, IM John Emms played 19. … Bf8! 20. a3 c5 21. dc Rxc5 22. Rxc5 Qxc5 23. Qxc5 Bxc5, and just as Ward promised, Black’s bishops have found beautiful diagonals. Emms eventually won a very routine, grind-it-out endgame.

In conclusion, I still think that Ward’s book is a good one to teach from, but I think it requires a teacher who is on the ball. Ward’s explanations of the best plan are usually quite good (he shows the rest of the game following that move) but his explanations of the inferior plans, and why they are inferior, tend to be too cryptic. That’s what you need a good teacher for.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mike Splane November 6, 2019 at 4:03 am

It was clear to me that the bishop on b7 is worthless, and must somehow be activated by the removal of the c6 pawn, so achieving c6-c5 must be the right plan. The only question is how to prepare it.

You have to consider the immediate c6-c5 as a positional pawn sacrifice, Black can play on for quite awhile after multiple exchanges on c5, after the exchanges he follows up with e6-e5, effectively killing White’s bishop.

I also noted that the knight is serving two duties, guarding the d4 pawn and blocking the veiled mating attack of the queen and b7-bishop on the g2 square. So I considered playing g6-g5 to threaten to chase away the knight with g5-g4. I liked this plan at first, until I noted that White can stop both threats with Rc4-c5. In fact, that move is tremendously strong, crippling the b7 bishop, so Black’s first priority must be stopping it.

By process of elimination. Bg7-f8 is clearly the best move, It both prevents Rc4-c5 and effectively prepares c6-c5.

Sometimes, asking what your opponent would like to do is the best way to figure out what to do yourself when you have too many options.

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