Introducing Positional Chess Understanding

Fri, 2015-02-06 10:26 -- IM Max Illingworth

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post on the 'Rudiments of Chess Understanding', defining chess understanding as 'how well one appreciates the value of pieces, pawns and squares in a given position'. This is true, but I now feel the definition can be made a lot more specific and helpful:

Positional chess understanding is the ability to evaluate conflicting advantages and ways to maximise our advantages/decrease the opponent's.

Tactical chess understanding is the ability to apply to create and exploit such advantages by dynamic (combinative) means.

In this post I will discuss positional chess understanding, and tactical chess understanding will be addressed next week.

Of course, it is rare in a chess game for one player to have all the advantages in a position; and even when this is the case, they must often be used before the opponent is able to reduce/eliminate them. Not all of you will be familiar with the different advantages one can have in a chess game, so I will copy Steinitz's list of advantages for you, so there can be no confusion:

1. Material Advantage (I've added this one myself)
2. Development
3. Mobility
4. The center
5. The positions of the kings
6. Weak and strong squares
7. Pawn structure
8. Queenside pawn majority
9. Open lines
10. Minor pieces

Now let's take an illustrative example to understand how a strong player would break down these advantages in a position and determine which ones are more important.

[Event "?"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "2015.02.05"]
[Round "?"]
[White "Positional Understanding"]
[Black "Introduction to KID Structure"]
[Result "*"]
[ECO "A41"]
[Annotator "Illingworth,Max"]
[PlyCount "14"]
[EventDate "2015.??.??"]

1. d4 g6 2. c4 d6 3. e4 {It may seem strange for Black to allow White to
occupy the centre like this, but Black will argue that it can be a target for
an attack.} e5 4. d5 {This is an obvious move, increasing White's space
advantage, but a player with a keen positional 'feel' will realise that this
is a good version of the typical closed 'King's Indian' structure as Black
will be able to exchange his worst-placed minor piece - can you pick out which
one it is?} a5 5. Nc3 Nd7 6. Bd3 {and now the best move is} Bh6 $1 {,
exchanging Black's bad bishop for White's good bishop with} 7. Bxh6 Nxh6 {. We
can discern this from the pawn structure - White's central pawns are fixed on
light squares, making his light-squared bishop very passive, while Black's
central pawns are fixed on dark squares, making the Black light-squared bishop
a very mobile piece, and furthermore this allows Black to control both colour
complexes effectively. From the very first move we can say that Black has
employed a 'dark-squared strategy'. We might also add that it will be a lot
easier for Black to achieve his key pawn break (...f5 to attack the base of
White's central pawn chain) than it will be for White to advance his (c5, to
attack Black's dark-squared centre).} * 
[Event "?"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "2015.02.05"]
[Round "?"]
[White "Positional Chess Structures"]
[Black "Changing a Bad Structure"]
[Result "*"]
[ECO "A41"]
[Annotator "Illingworth,Max"]
[PlyCount "27"]
[EventDate "2015.??.??"]

1. d4 g6 2. c4 d6 3. e4 e5 4. dxe5 $6 {Don't be fooled by your computer - this
move is a mistake! I'll explain why in the position after 5...Kxd8.} ({Keeping
the central tension with} 4. Nc3 {or}) (4. Nf3 {would be best.}) 4... dxe5 5.
Qxd8+ Kxd8 {Most players would prefer White here because he has slightly more
space and Black's king is stuck in the centre, but it is hard for White to
make use of his queenside space, Black's king will find a safe haven on c7
after ...c6 (and we may add that with the queens off the board, it is unlikely
to get mated in the centre). The key factor of this position is the hole on d4
- this is a weak square in White's camp as it can't be defended by one of his
pawns. This makes this advantage a permanent one in nature, so long as the
central pawn structure doesn't change. If Black could get a knight to this
square, he would control the entire board.} 6. Nc3 c6 $6 {Strictly speaking
this move isn't necessary, but I've played it to show an important theme.} (
6... Be6 {and ...Nd7 would be a bit more precise as it leaves Black better
prepared for the opening of the position - see White's next move.}) 7. f4 $1 {
This is correct, thrusting open the position. Of course, if Black takes on f4
it only develops White's bishop for free after the recapture, so Black should
wait for White to take with} Nd7 {- now if White takes first, Black's knight
will reach a more active square.} (7... exf4 $2 8. Bxf4) 8. Nf3 (8. fxe5 $6
Nxe5) 8... Bd6 9. fxe5 Nxe5 10. Be3 Kc7 11. O-O-O {and although Black has an
outpost on e5 for his knight, White has managed to change the pawn structure 
(an important thing to do when the existing one is bad for you!) and he has a
small initiative with the threat of c5, for example. Black is still quite
solid after} b6 12. Be2 Nxf3 (12... Be6 $2 {loses to the tactic} 13. Rxd6 Kxd6
14. Rd1+) 13. gxf3 Be6 {, but he had to trade on f3 to complete his
development, and that was a concession as now White can claim a space
advantage with} 14. f4 {. From this sequence you can get a feel for how
dynamic positional chess often is in practice - it is a constant struggle
between the players to make their advantages more pronounced and provoke
concessions from the opponent. This can only be done when you have control of
the position (technically known as the 'initiative').} * 
[Event "?"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "2015.02.05"]
[Round "?"]
[White "Positionally Instructive Game"]
[Black "Importance of an Outpost"]
[Result "*"]
[ECO "A41"]
[Annotator "Illingworth,Max"]
[PlyCount "34"]
[EventDate "2015.??.??"]

1. d4 g6 2. c4 d6 3. e4 e5 4. dxe5 $6 dxe5 5. Qxd8+ Kxd8 6. Nc3 c6 $6 7. Nf3 $2
{This move looks very natural, attacking the pawn with tempo, but it is a
mistake! Why? Because it deprives White of a pawn break to open the position 
(a prerequisite for attacking Black's king and using White's small lead in
development). If Black is able to complete his development, White will lose
all his dynamic advantages, but Black's d4 outpost will not run away.} f6 {
White's position looks nice, but you'll notice that once he has completed
development, it will be hard for him to do anything, whereas Black will have
numerous ways to build up his position due to his superior pawn structure.} 8.
Be3 Nd7 {Black prevents White playing c5, which would gain space and liberate
the f1-bishop which is currently very passive.} (8... Be6 {is the engine's
first move but it gives White the option of} 9. c5 $5 {to take queenside space.
}) 9. O-O-O Kc7 (9... Bh6 {may be a little more precise.}) 10. Be2 $6 {This
move is a bit too automatic and a player with a profound chess understanding
would probably go for} (10. g4 $1 {to prevent the exchange of dark-squared
bishops that occurs in the game; if} Bh6 $2 11. g5 $1 {and the bishop for
bishop trade is prevented.}) 10... Bh6 $1 {A very strong move, and again we
can understand why by looking at the pawn structure - the Black centre is
fixed on dark squares and White's is fixed on the light squares, so the good
bishops in the position are White's dark-squared bishop and Black's
light-squared bishop. So we exchange our worse bishop for White's better half.
This also brings us a step closer to dominating the d4 square with our pieces.}
11. Bxh6 $6 {A premature exchange in my view as the recapture helps Black
develop - the knight may look funny on h6 but there it is a move closer to the
d4 square (f7-d8-e6-d4).} (11. Ne1 $5 {looks silly, but after} Bxe3+ 12. fxe3 {
the d4-square would no longer be a hole, though White paid the price of
getting doubled pawns. I'd argue that's less of a disadvantage as here they
aren't so easy to attack.}) 11... Nxh6 12. Rd2 {White doubles on the open
d-file as we're all taught to do, but there's a problem...} Nf7 13. Rhd1 {...
there are no penetration points down the open file! This makes White's control
of the d-file useless as there's no way to dynamically apply it. What would be
required is a successful penetration of Black's position down that open file.
Otherwise the rooks can be ignored.} a5 $1 {A prophylactic move; Black would
like to play} (13... Nc5 $6 {to help his bishop develop and to bring his
knight to e6 (and potentially d4), but it runs into} 14. b4 Ne6 15. c5 {, when
White will equalise the position with Bc4 and Bxe6, exchanging his bad bishop
to prevent an equine infestation on d4.}) 14. Ne1 Ng5 {The knight wants to go
to e6, but this is a more active route than d8.} 15. Nc2 $6 {This move is a
bit too slow.} (15. Nd3 Ne6 {sees the knight ready to occupy the powerful
outpost on d4, with advantage.}) (15. Rd6 $5 {however was much better,
changing the position via. dynamic means.} Re8 (15... Rf8 16. h4 Nf7 17. Re6 $1
{makes use of the penetration of the rook with Bg4 and Re7 being the big idea.}
) 16. Bg4 Nc5 $1 17. Bxc8 Raxc8 18. Rxf6 Re7 {and although f3 would lose the
exchange to Nd7, White can hold the position after} 19. h3 Ncxe4 20. Nxe4 Nxe4
21. Rf3 $11 {pretty comfortably.}) 15... Nc5 16. f3 {This isn't a move White
would like to play as it places another pawn on a light square (incarcerating
his bishop).} h5 {Black could bring the knight to e6 immediately, but first he
gains some space on the kingside. The d4 square alone will not win the game as
White is controlling it with his pieces - Black needs to acquire more assets
like an accountant, so he may eventually cash them in for something sizeable.
Grabbing/increasing your space advantage is a typical technique when you have
total control of the position.} 17. Rd6 Nge6 {We'll stop here as it is fairly
clear that Black is a lot better - he has the far superior minor pieces and
structure, and he will complete development with ...Rh7 and ...Bd7. All White
can do is sit and wait, hoping that Black is unable to break through.
Positional Understanding-Introductory Game [Illingworth,Max]} * 

Although it’s true that you can’t really win a game without some sort of combination, in the following three games White’s eventual loss of material resulted more from constant positional pressure than immense tactical trickery:

[Event "Adelaide op"]
[Site "Adelaide"]
[Date "1990.??.??"]
[Round "1"]
[White "Grigorian, X."]
[Black "Miles, Anthony J"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "A41"]
[BlackElo "2595"]
[Annotator "Illingworth,Max"]
[PlyCount "78"]
[EventDate "1990.12.??"]
[EventRounds "11"]
[EventCountry "AUS"]
[Source "ChessBase"]
[SourceDate "1996.11.15"]

{This game is a great example of how to provoke weaknesses in White's camp on
the kingside.} 1. d4 d6 2. c4 e5 3. dxe5 dxe5 4. Qxd8+ Kxd8 5. e4 Bb4+ 6. Bd2
Bxd2+ 7. Nxd2 Be6 8. Ngf3 f6 9. Be2 Nd7 10. O-O a5 11. b3 Ne7 12. Rfd1 Nc6 13.
Nf1 Kc8 14. Ne3 Nc5 15. Nd2 Nd4 16. Bf1 c6 17. f3 Rd8 18. Nb1 b6 19. Nc3 Ra7
20. Kf2 Rad7 21. Ke1 h5 22. Ne2 h4 23. Kf2 Kc7 24. Rac1 Kb7 25. Nc3 Bf7 26. Be2
Bh5 27. Rb1 Nce6 28. g3 hxg3+ 29. hxg3 Ng5 30. g4 Bg6 31. Rh1 Nge6 32. Rbd1 Nf4
33. Bf1 Nde6 34. Rxd7+ Rxd7 35. Nb1 Rd8 36. Rh2 Kc7 37. Ke1 Ng5 38. Nd2 Rxd2
39. Kxd2 Nxf3+ 0-1 
[Event "Portoroz op"]
[Site "Portoroz"]
[Date "2005.04.26"]
[Round "2"]
[White "Adam, Miroslav"]
[Black "Solak, Dragan"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "A41"]
[WhiteElo "2158"]
[BlackElo "2582"]
[Annotator "Illingworth,Max"]
[PlyCount "70"]
[EventDate "2005.04.26"]
[EventRounds "7"]
[EventCountry "SLO"]
[Source "ChessBase"]
[SourceDate "2005.11.24"]

{On the other hand, all the damage to White's position happens on the
queenside in this one!} 1. d4 d6 2. c4 e5 3. dxe5 dxe5 4. Qxd8+ Kxd8 5. e4 Bb4+
6. Bd2 Bxd2+ 7. Kxd2 Nf6 8. f3 a5 9. Bd3 Na6 10. Ne2 Nc5 11. Rd1 Be6 12. Nbc3
c6 13. Rac1 Ke7 14. b3 h5 15. h4 Ne8 16. Bb1 b6 17. Ke3 Nd6 18. g3 g6 19. Rd2
a4 20. Bc2 axb3 21. axb3 Ra3 22. Rb1 Rc8 23. Kf2 Na6 24. Rbd1 Nb7 25. f4 Bg4
26. f5 Nbc5 27. Nb1 Ra2 28. Nbc3 Rb2 29. Rb1 Rxb1 30. Bxb1 Nxb3 31. Rb2 Nac5
32. Ke3 Rd8 33. fxg6 fxg6 34. Bc2 Nd2 35. Nd5+ Rxd5 0-1 
[Event "Irkutsk Region-ch sf3"]
[Site "Irkutsk"]
[Date "2014.08.04"]
[Round "1"]
[White "Pererva, Ekaterina"]
[Black "Obolenskikh, Dmitry"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "A41"]
[WhiteElo "1835"]
[BlackElo "2527"]
[Annotator "Illingworth,Max"]
[PlyCount "42"]
[EventDate "2014.08.04"]
[EventRounds "9"]
[EventCountry "RUS"]
[Source "Chessbase"]
[SourceDate "2014.12.01"]

{Finally, a game where it all falls apart in the centre! (and queenside)} 1. d4
d6 2. c4 e5 3. dxe5 dxe5 4. Qxd8+ Kxd8 5. e4 f6 6. Nf3 Be6 7. Nc3 Nd7 8. Be3
Ne7 9. Be2 Nc8 10. Nd2 c6 11. a3 a5 12. O-O a4 13. Rac1 Bc5 14. Nd1 Ncb6 15.
Rc3 Kc7 16. f3 Rhd8 17. Nb1 Bd4 18. Rc2 Nc5 19. Kh1 Nb3 20. Bg1 Bxg1 21. Kxg1
Nd4 0-1 

From this specific study of one structure, we can better understand why Philidor referred to pawns as ‘the soul of chess’ – the pawn structure determines where the pieces belong. A major theme that has come up in our study of these positions is that of piece exchanges – we can appreciate that an exchange that is equal from a ‘material’ perspective (e.g. bishop for bishop) will give one player certain positional advantages, and therefore we should treat the decision of whether/when to exchange material very critically.
I’ll conclude this post with a puzzle to demonstrate the concept of ‘crosspollination’ – namely that the ideas we learn from one type of position can often be successfully applied in other positions. In this next example, this is precisely your task – what would you play here as Black? I’ll offer as a hint that you should think about how to improve your worst-placed piece.

[Event "Candidates sf1"]
[Site "Denver"]
[Date "1971.07.13"]
[Round "4"]
[White "Larsen, Bent"]
[Black "Fischer, Robert James"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "E97"]
[WhiteElo "2660"]
[BlackElo "2760"]
[Annotator "Illingworth,Max"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "r2q1rk1/p2bn1bp/1p1p1np1/P1pPpp2/1PP1P3/Q1N5/3NBPPP/1RB2RK1 b - - 0 15"]
[PlyCount "0"]
[EventDate "1971.07.06"]
[EventRounds "6"]
[EventCountry "USA"]
[Source "ChessBase"]
[SourceDate "1999.07.01"]

{Puzzle: Black to play and find the best move. Don't bother looking for a
forced win because it doesn't exist!}  0-1 

Next week I’ll share the solution to the above puzzle (along with an analysis of the game it came from) and a demonstration of how to improve your tactical chess understanding!