Bad Action Plans

“Any plan of action is better than no plan. Maybe it’ll stir up something.”

–Robert A. Heinlein

I listen to books from while on my daily walk of three to five miles. This morning I was listening to an old science fiction novel from the beginning of the 1950s. The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein. Very far from his best book, in terms of writing. Lots of clichés. Thin characters. Etc.

One piece of dialogue from the book is relevant to chess players. “Any plan of action is better than no plan. Maybe it’ll stir up something.”

To quote another Heinlein book, “I grok it.” I’m not sure that I completely agree.

A bad plan is just that. A bad plan. It can quickly lead to disaster. An example might be a maneuver that overlooks a simple checkmate move by your opponent. Oops!

Won’t playing without a plan — in other words, just reacting to the position on the board — lead to disaster? Maybe. Eventually. Maybe not. It depends on what your opponent does and how you react.

I’m not arguing against playing with a plan and in favor of just reacting to your opponents moves. Quite the opposite. I believe that planning is critical to chess success. What I’m arguing against is the idea that playing with a bad plan is better than playing without a plan. That idea is often espoused by the same people who claim to be intuitive players and calculate little. It encourages laziness.

Instead of any old plan to stir things up and try to make things happen, we need to improve our ability to plan to improve in our chess. The better way to do that, is to strive to find the best plan for the position on the board.

Being Alert to Tactics

I played a familiar opponent. Our rating difference is approximately 350 points. I continue to accept his challenges, since he seems to want to play against stronger opponents and most are too obsessed over rating points to accept his challenges.

When we started, he asked me to help him to win. What I did was point out some differences in how we approach the game. What it came down to was three critical differences that I believe are common points of separation between weaker and stronger intermediate players.

    Premature attacks
    Insufficient attention to critical squares
    Less developed tactical vision

We’ve played roughly a dozen games, and every time he makes premature attacks. When these are repulsed, he’s left down material and with weak squares all over his portion of the board.

Common to his games is also a collection of weak squares as he advances pawns without a solid plan. Pawn advances are the one thing in chess that you cannot undo. When you advance a pawn, you need to ask yourself, what am I leaving undefended and does it matter? Every pawn moves (and every piece move, too) means something new is attacked and something previously protected is less protected. That something could be a piece or a pawn. It could be a square.

I warned my opponent to watch out for tactics when I played 23…Bxc5. Still, he played quickly and missed even my plan in sacrificing my bishop for a pawn. I wasn’t returning material after his careless loss of a knight several moves earlier. There was — to my tactical vision — a clear and obvious plan to win an exchange by posting my knight on c3.

My mistake was not to take the bishop with 26…Qxc3. I was so intent on my plan, I overlooked a stronger continuation. That’s something we improvers need to guard against, as well. I was going to win material advantage. To paraphrase NM Dan Heisman, when you see a strong move, look for a better move. In the end, it didn’t matter. My opponent resigned. Had he played on, I would still have a decisive advantage. But it would have been enhanced with QxB rather than winning the exchange of bishop for rook.

How a Master Eats an Expert

NM Dana Mackenzie has posted an entry on his own blog where he analyzes a game between a master and an expert. The expert makes reasonable moves as Black and still ends up in serious trouble, losing a miniature.

Click here to read “How a Master Eats an Expert” on Dana Blogs Chess.

It’s All About Seeing Things

FM Steve Giddens has contributed an interesting blog entry to The Chess Improver on the topic of calculation. He argues that many amateurs blame their losses on lack of opening knowledge. (No doubt, many do. It’s a common refrain in chess forums.) Steve argues, what distinguishes stronger players is their ability to calculate better, further, and faster than weaker players.

Click here to read “It’s All About Seeing Things” on GM Nigel Davies’ blog, The Chess Improver.

When Plans Go Awry

We have all experienced occasions where we initiate some sort of action on the chessboard and it quickly becomes obvious that we’ve made a mistake. Many improving players refuse to acknowledge their mistake, step backwards, and try to recover.

I’ve played the opponent in my game below on several occasions. He has a consistent tendency to make ill-considered and poorly-prepared attacks. Once he begins an attack, he ignores the condition on the board and bears on.

The move 18.Nh4 was a poor choice. White was determined to contest my preparation of a kingside attack by attacking my queen with 18.Nh4. This accomplished no practical result, since all I had to do was move my queen to f6. At this point, White should have reconsidered the placement of his knight and retreated it back to f3. While 19.Nf3 would have been an admission that 18.Nh4 was a mistake, the harm would have been much less than the disastrous move he made, 19.Qg4, which dropped the bishop on d2. With the bishop off on g4 instead of f3, its only defender was the queen.
My planned kingside attack was far from prepared. This was another reason why White did not need to react so precipitously. A queen on f6 and knight on e5 was insufficient force for a successful kingside attack in the position. White had sufficient forces to adequately defend his king.

The better plan for White would have been to fight in the center of the board. Since I was threatening a kingside attack, striking in the center would discourage my attack. Before you initiate an attack on the wing, you want to be confident that the center will remain closed.

When you embark on a plan and you see you’ve made a mistake, it’s best to take some extra time, reconsider your options, and look for an alternative that gives you the best chances to recover – even if it means retreating a piece.

Throwing Pawns Forward

I posted a blog entry this morning with the title, What Intermediate Players Miss. I included the same game fragment below, just minus the last couple of moves.

I’ve asked my opponent to slow down. I pointed out, his black squares are now weak across the board and he has no pieces developed. I also told him, he’s not going to blow me off the board with these pawn stabs, so he should instead play solid, positional chess.

I occasionally see this attempt to throw pawns forward among intermediate players. It’s more common, I believe, among novices. I guess, some intermediate players have had success with this against novices (or enough success with it against other intermediate players), that they believe it to be a successful strategy.

Which side would you rather play?! Me, I’ve very comfortable as White. ;) I’ve accrued lots of positional advantages. And . . . it’s only move 9.

What Intermediate Players Miss

GM Maurice Ashley has a series of ChessBase videos on the topic of what chess grandmasters miss. One area of chess that I find my fellow chess improvers often miss is the idea of weak squares. Especially complexes of weak squares. I’ve said this before, squares can be important targets in chess. Sometimes they can be more important targets than pawns or pieces.

The game fragment below is from early this AM. I accepted a turned-based Internet game from someone I’ve played several times.My opponent tends to play without much of a plan and without much calculation. After only seven moves, my opponent has weak black squares across the kingside and center of the board.

My opponent also made another common mistake among improvers. Rather than maintaining tension, he immediately resolved it by d5xc4.

This created an immediate hole on e4 for my knight. I could have won a pawn by playing Bxc4, but the plan of placing a knight on d6 was better. Since my opponent had already played e6 and c6, the hole on d6 was a perfect outpost for my knight. I instead played Ne4 with the intent of playing 8.Nd6+. I believe that knight will be more important than winning a pawn in the opening. Because the knight will move to d6 with check and Black is behind in development, Black will lose the opportunity to castle. If Black opts to play 7.Bf8 to prevent that, then the continuation after 8.Bxc4 or 8.Bg5 would be equally uncomfortable.

Dead Pawn Walking

I’ve always remembered a scene from “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” Josh is playing his toughest competitor. His opponent makes a move. Bruce Pandolfini exclaims, “That’s a mistake” and then repeats to himself over and over, “Don’t move until you see it.” Josh finally sees his opponent is lost and offers a draw. It’s rejected. A race to queen pawns ensues.

I’ve run into this numerous times with improving players. The game below is a turn-based Internet game that my opponent has not yet resigned. I’ve played his several times. I have about 350 points in rating advantage. By slow rating, he’s just above the median, so he’s not a novice.

What I have noticed about his play in our games is that he does not appear to calculate much. There are players who consider themselves to be “intuitive” and calculate little. Intuitive or not, there are times when you have to settle into your chair or get up for a different viewpoint and calculate.

My opponent was lost, even before he threw all caution away and sacrificed his knight for a doomed pawn race. I’ve already told him that he cannot win this pawn race. I control the a8/h1 diagonal with my queen. My king is protected with a nice fortress. The Black king is vulnerable. I’ll soon have two queens and a minor piece against a queen. Even a little calculation, and it should be obvious that the pawn race is lost for Black and with it, so is the game.

The other instructive feature of this game occurred on move 32, when Black sacrificed his knight for the doomed pawn race. I believe my opponent expected me to capture the knight immediately. Most novices and – I expect – many or most chess improvers would do just that. However, there was an in-between move available. The fancy chess term is zwischenzug. It’s a more advanced tactic that improvers need to learn to gain playing strength.

I intended to capture the knight in due time. Soon. On the very next move. Checking the black king first and forcing it to h7 was better. It made the f7 square vulnerable. It also put the black king on a square where I could potentially attack again along the b1/h7 diagonal and possibly force another concession.

Kasparov v Karpov, Game 20, 1990 World Championship

GM Daniel King analyzes one of his favorite Garry Kasparov games. It’s game 20 from the World Championship match between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. The opening was the Zaitsev variation of the Ruy Lopez and Karpov chose an aggressive continuation, pressing for a win. But it was Garry Kasparov, who won this classic duel. The PGN for the game follows.

Tactical Oversights

Angus James writes, “It is remarkable how small tactics can finish games quickly, even where Grandmasters are concerned.” To demonstrate his point, he has a couple of examples from SuperGM Alexei Shirov, where he quickly punishes small tactical mistakes at the Chebanenko Rapid Open.

Click here to read Angus James’ blog post at The Chess Improver.

Ripping Good Game in the Veresov

IM Andrew Martin has just returned to the UK from a week in Hamburg Germany, where he worked on two new ChessBase DVDs. One is on the Veresov opening, which is a Queen’s Pawn Game related to the Trompowsky Attack, Colle System, London System, and Torre Attack. The other is on first steps to pawn structures.

Both DVDs feature the same game: the Swedish GM Johnny Hector playing the Veresov. As IM Martin notes, the Veresov is an interesting and aggressive opening that fits Johnny Hector’s playing style. While some chess theoretician’s consider the Veresov dubious, Spassky, Tal, Smyslov, Larsen, and Bronstein all tried the Veresov Opening as an occasional surprise weapon. As well as Hector, GMs Lev Alburt, Tony Miles, and Alexander Morozevich also played it often.

Play Chess without a Plan

One of the most common problems I see among my fellow chess improvers is a tendency to play chess without a plan. They make hastily considered attacks that fizzle and feints that threaten little. Often, they lose the initiative and react to their opponents’ plans, sometimes from a cramped position.

In the game below, my opponent played aimlessly. Most of his game was one or two-move maneuvers. What became apparent to me was that my opponent was not considering the effect of his own moves more than one or maybe two moves ahead. White did the same with my moves, missing (for example) how my knight could obliterate his queenside pawns.

This game falls under the category of “confusion to your enemy.” I didn’t so much win, as my opponent lost the game by a series of unforced errors. For example, agrredy pawn grab, weakening kingside pawns unnecessarily, posting a knight where it could be immediately driven away with a pawn advance, etc.

To be fair to my opponent, there was a 200 point difference between us.

Ode to Bobby Fischer

GM Yasser Seirawan describes the influence Bobby Fischer had on him and analyzes a pair of games from the Fischer – Spassky match in the former Yugoslavia during 1992 for the Intermediate Class at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. We improvers can learn a lot from GM analysis of classic games from the world’s greatest players.

Fischer-Spassky, 1992

Spassky-Fischer, 1992

In for a Penny . . .

I’ve read that playing with a bad plan is better than playing chess without any plan at all. While I agree in general, like all clichés, there are plenty of exceptions.

I see many player who start with a plan, see almost immediately that the plan is not working (or will not work) and still they go right ahead with it. As the old cliché goes, “In for a penny, in for a pound.”

My plan in the game below was obvious. I was going to pile up pressure on the d7 square. Black made the mistake of allowing me to sink my queen on c7, rather than exchanging it and suffering with the bad consequences after the exchange. Instead, I kept adding more attackers. It appears that Black lost sight of the peril to his king and went chasing the e4 pawn and then after the c4 pawn (showing good judgment in declining the even greedier capture of my bishop on g4).

What Black overlooked was that I could allow doubled c-pawns and the ugly move Kf1, since Black’s king was uncastled and the move Re1 would eventually cost the exchange of rook for queen and mayhem along the seventh rank from my own queen.

Enough, Already!

I run into the attitude a lot among improving players: don’t accept draw offers, not even when the position is objectively drawn. Instead, they’ll waste the time of their opponent.

In a tournament, your options are limited. There can be money, a trophy, or ratings points on the line. So, you have to bear up with opponents wasting your time and your energy.

Online, in a turn-based game with a three day move limit, where people are using monikers, the simple option is to resign and let them have the tawdry points.

I offered my opponent a draw twice, spaced by several moves. Check the game with the engine of your choice, it will confirm my own assessment: equal position.

I’ve played this same opponent several times. Not again. I don’t appreciate having my time wasted. I pointed out, the position was equal. My opponent had an extra pawn, I had the bishop pair in an open position. Unless I made a blunder or my opponent blundered, the game was going to end in a draw. Playing on with the “hope” that one of us would blunder, that’s not how I prefer to play chess. Nope, the answer was, I always play games out. No draw. Well, then, my opponent could play it against their engine!

I made my move and resigned. I’ll no longer accept an invitation to play this opponent. I prefer to play opponents who respect my time and don’t play on with the “hope” that after 33 moves, I’ll blunder away a near certain draw.

Lecture with GM Yasser Seirawan: Polugaevsky v. Nezhmetdinov

GM Yasser Seirawan analyzes a very interesting game between world class player Lev Polugaevsky and the great tactician Rashid Nezhmetdinov from Sochi, 1958. This is a classic duel between a player who was a top player for two decades and an opponent who was famous for brilliant sacrifices. In this game, Nezhmetdinov sacrifices his queen to bring White’s king to the center of the board. This is a great game for improvers to study and enjoy.

This is yet another excellent training video from the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.

The PGN for the game appears after the video, for those who want to follow along or study it after. Because GM Seirawan uses his hands instead of arrows and you really cannot see his hands much of the time, I find it easier to watch the PGN alongside the video.

It Takes Just One Lapse

Among weaker players, chess games are often decided by who blunders last. As you play stronger players, you become aware that it takes just one lapse in judgment to lose a game of chess. Blunder badly, and you can be left with a ruined game.

In the game below, my opponent was close to my playing strength. I had roughly a 50 point advantage. Among masters and GMs, that’s significant. Among improvers, not really significant. My opponent made some small positional mistakes. I made a weak move, too, with 21.Nc4 instead of 21.Bb7. Black made a serious blunder with 23…Ra7?? and resigned two moves later. Black doubled rooks on the c-file, but I believe overlooked that I could advance my b-pawn rather than capturing and Black’s c-pawns would restrict the doubled rooks.

At the point where Black resigned, I was up two pawns and had strategic pluses, including the bishop pair and better pawn structure. It was difficult to see where Black was going to obtain significant counterplay.

Knights on the Rim . . .

There is an old chess cliché: knights on the rim are dim. The reason is quite simple. They have less influence on the board from the rim. Depending on the square along the edge, they control only 2-6 squares, compared to 8 squares when placed more towards the center.

There can be good strategic reasons to post a knight on the edge of the board, but before doing it, you need to ask yourself what you get in return for that reduced mobility. Another reason for placing a knight along the edge is a temporary landing spot on the way to a better square.

In the game below, my opponent was rated about 250 points lower. But s/he wasn’t a novice. By far. Yet my opponent placed their knight on a3 and left it there for nearly one-half of the game. From a3, the knight had direct influence on 4 squares, making it effectively just one-half a knight. White had multiple opportunities to redeploy it back to c2 or move it to a forward position on b5.

Establishing a Blockade on the Light Squares

As players advance from notices to intermediate, they begin to pay attention not just to pawns and pieces but also to squares. A square can be every bit as important as a target in a chess game as winning a pawn or a piece. Games are easily won by controlling critical squares and lost by creating weak squares.

Just individual squares can be critical, so can sets of related squares. An example which every chess player knows is moving the pawn directly in front of the castled king. For discussion, let’s assume the white king is castled kingside. Play g3 and you better hold on to your white square bishop to protect the white squares around your king. If you do give it up, you better get sufficient compensation for the weakness that remains.

Tryfon Gavriel, known to his many YouTube viewers as kingscrusher, explains how to create a blockade on the white squares with an example from the 12th round of the 2014 World Champion Candidates Match: the game between Veselin Topalov and Peter Svidler.