The Rudiments of Chess Understanding

Mon, 2013-04-29 19:55 -- IM Max Illingworth

The Rudiments of Chess Understanding

Often you hear someone make a remark along the lines of ‘That player has a good understanding of chess’ or an excuse for losing like ‘My opponent has no understanding but I missed his cheap trick’. In chess, understanding refers to how well one appreciates the value of pieces, pawns and squares in a given position.

At the base of understanding is knowledge – not so much of positional concepts like open files, isolated pawns and outposts, but of specific positions where such concepts are applied. If you are familiar with the concept of an ‘opening repertoire’ (a set of moves you play against each of the opponent’s replies), then chess understanding is like an ‘ideas repertoire’, of the good moves you have seen, and how correctly you apply these ideas in your games. The game I’m going to analyse in this post – which dates back to Phillidor’s time – emphasises a number of ideas relating to play with the pawns, and if you’ve ever been unsure of how pawn majorities operate, then my notes should be enlightening.


[White "Philidor, Francois Andre Dani"]
[Annotator "Illingworth,Max"]

1. e4 {On an unrelated note, you sometimes see players refer to 1.e4 as
'tactical' and 1.d4 as 'positional'. But as this game shows, you can't
separate positional and tactical chess. As one of my friends likes to quote,
'Tactics flow from a good position'.} e5 2. Bc4 Bc5 {At this point a disciple
of the general chess principles may protest that the players have developed
their bishops before their knights. The reason for the general principle
'develop knights before bishops' is because in some openings it's very clear
where the knights should be developed, whereas the best diagonals for the
bishops depend on the setup the opponent plays. However we could just as
easily reverse this and say we should develop the bishops first, because we
don't know where our knights should be placed until the opponent makes some
more moves! That's why general principles are just that and not binding rules
- in every case we have to judge the position in front of us.} 3. c3 {While
not developing a piece, this move prepares to occupy the centre with d4 while
gaining a tempo on the Black bishop, so it's a good move indeed.} Nf6 {
Exercise: How do we stop the threat of 4...Nxe4?} 4. d4 {Answer: By making a
stronger threat of our own!} (4. d3 {, while playable, fails to put immediate
pressure on the opponent and gives Black a lot of leeway to develop as he
pleases.}) 4... exd4 5. cxd4 {Question: Doesn't 5...Bb4 and 6...Nxe4 win a
pawn?} Bb6 (5... Bb4+ {can be met by} 6. Bd2 {when Black can't take on e4
because his bishop would be hanging, and} Bxd2+ 7. Nxd2 {defends the e4-pawn.
However you're right that this is a better move, as Black can break up White's
centre with the counterattack} d5 {, a very common theme in the Open Games!
After} 8. exd5 O-O 9. Ne2 {(to block a ...Re8 check)} Nxd5 10. O-O Nc6 {Black
would have fluid development and potential to put pressure on White's isolated
queen's pawn.}) 6. Nc3 (6. e5 {would be a better move, leading a position like
in the game but without allowing a little trick.}) 6... O-O 7. Nge2 {Tactics
alert: How can Black improve his position?} c6 {This idea of preparing ...d5
proves to be too slow.} ({Players who know the 'Fork Trick' might have spotted
} 7... Nxe4 8. Nxe4 d5 {, which regains the piece (such a sacrifice is known
as a 'sham' or temporary sacrifice), but more importantly after} 9. Bd3 dxe4
10. Bxe4 Re8 {Black's position is greatly improved - he has managed to open
the position while ahead in development and put a lot of pressure on White's
IQP. How would you meet} 11. Bf3 {? The answer is that you can win a pawn with}
Qxd4 {because of the pin on the e-file! This variation illustrates my point
about tactical and positional elements working together - Black probably knew
that a position like the one after 10...Re8 would be good for him, but if you
don't see this tactic of ...Nxe4 and ...d5 you won't see how to reach this
position. So what type of mistake is 7.Nge2, is it a positional or a tactical
mistake? That depends on what White calculated in the game - if he didn't see
7...Nxe4 and 8...d5 then it is a tactical mistake, and if White overestimated
the resulting position from this line, it would be a positional mistake, more
precisely an error of judgement.}) 8. Bd3 d5 9. e5 Ne8 {Both sides have their
pawn majorities - White on the kingside and Black on the queenside. However
White's pawn majority is more mobile because he can easily play f4-f5, whereas
when Black plays ...c5, White will reply dxc5 and leave Black with an isolated
and weak d5-pawn.} 10. Be3 (10. O-O {was more accurate, as White knows he will
castle anyway and therefore it's more flexible to play it immediately. Also
after} f6 11. Na4 fxe5 12. Nxb6 axb6 13. dxe5 {White would achieve the same
promising structure as in the game, but with the extra advantage of the bishop
pair.}) 10... f6 {This is the only pawn break that ensures Black won't get
rolled over with f4-f5. As we'll notice on move 28 (spoiler alert), two pawns
standing right next to each other are very mobile and control a lot of squares.
} 11. Qd2 fxe5 12. dxe5 Be6 {This move is misguided as the bishop was already
well placed on c8.} (12... Bxe3 13. Qxe3 Qb6 14. Qxb6 axb6 {would actually be
okay for Black, as Black will be able to blockade White's pawn majority on the
light squares with ...g6 and if necessary ...Ng7. Meanwhile Black can think
about moves like ...b5-b4 and ... c5 to support the advance of his passed
d-pawn.}) 13. Nf4 {It was more accurate to play 13.Nd4 with the same idea, but
I want to focus more on the later part of the game.} Qe7 14. Bxb6 axb6 15. O-O
Nd7 (15... Qg5 {would be a cute trick to prevent Nxe6 (because the White queen
would then be hanging), and probably an improvement over the game.}) 16. Nxe6
Qxe6 17. f4 {White's plan for the next phase of the game will be to try and
advance his pawn majority while limiting the advance of his opponent's pawn
majority. The main advantage of a pawn majority is that it provides the
potential to create a passed pawn, which may eventually promote to a queen.
There's no guarantee, of course, but to stop the advance of a passed pawn you
need to use pieces (the passer already got past the first line of defence), so
basically a passed pawn, even when it's not likely to promote, can be useful
in tying up the opponent's pieces or acting as a decoy.} Nc7 ({Puzzle: Is it
positionally correct to advance the pawn majority with} 17... c5 {? No,
because it loses material to} 18. Nxd5 Qxd5 19. Bxh7+ Kxh7 20. Qxd5 {.
Material is quite an important positional factor!}) 18. Rae1 g6 {Question:
Black prevented the threatened f4-f5, so what would you play now?} 19. h3 {
This move is a bit slow, although the idea itself of preparing f5 with g4 has
merit.} ({Perhaps you let Black's last move bluff you out of} 19. f5 {, which
actually is the best move here as it breaks up Black's pawn cover around his
king (thus making his king a lot less safe). To play this move you have to see
that after} gxf5 20. Qf4 {White regains the sacrificed pawn immediately, and
with Bxf5, e6 and a rook lift like Re3-g3 or Rf3-g3 to come, White has a very
strong initiative. Chess isn't the sort of game where you come up with a
detailed plan early in the game then follow it through to the end to win the
game. Instead it's more effective to have a flexible approach and use a large
number of 'mini plans' based on how the opponent replies. In the old days it
was possible to see an entire plan played to the end because the opponent did
not understand the plan and therefore couldn't prevent it, but nowadays
players are a bit more aware.}) 19... d4 {The pawn on d5 was doing a good job
of restricting the c3-knight's mobility, but now the knight will have a
beautiful outpost on e4, and another amazing square on d6! True, Black can
grab a pawn on a2 or put his own knight on e3 via. d5, but it's not worth it.
Before we try to stop the opponent's idea we should see if it's really so
scary for us. The mini-plan of g4 and f5 indeed seems menacing, but it also
moves pawns in front of White's king, so it's possible that Black could use
this later on to try and attack White's king. Since there's a lot more moves
in this game I won't support these general considerations with specific
variations but you might want to play this position against a friend a few
times to get an idea of how the play could develop if Black is more patient.}
20. Ne4 h6 (20... Qxa2 21. Nd6 {sets up a lot of threats - not so much to take
the b7-pawn, but rather to win the black queen with Bc4 or start a mating
attack with f5, which opens up Qg5/Qh6 possibilities.}) 21. b3 {This move
doesn't spoil anything, but again} (21. Nd6 {was very strong, again with the
threats of Bc4 and f5. After} b5 22. f5 gxf5 23. Bxf5 {Black is forced to
cough up material as his queen is overloaded - she can't defend the d7-knight
and h6-pawn simultaneously. Again, we shouldn't become so absorbed with a
specific positional concept that we overlook the possibility of a checkmating
attack!}) 21... b5 22. g4 Nd5 23. Ng3 Ne3 {White has missed his chance to mate
Black's king and now Black has serious counterplay with the annoying knight on
e3. This is not good! It's much better if we can keep control over the
position and leave the opponent in a purely reactive situation, forced to
respond defensively to our threats and ideas.} 24. Rxe3 (24. Rf2 {would be
stronger, as the e3-knight can be exchanged with Nf1.}) 24... dxe3 25. Qxe3
Rxa2 {Now Black is up a clear exchange and White can't play a quick f5 because
the e5-pawn will then be hanging. That means White needs to go into 'swindle
mode' and try to mix up the position or he will gradually but surely lose.} 26.
Re1 Qxb3 {When you're up in material, you don't need more material - if you
consolidate your current gains and exchange the opponent's well placed pieces
without making major concessions, you should win comfortably. Also this move
leaves the Black king very exposed, which we should try to avoid regardless of
the material balance!} (26... Rb2 {prepares to take the b3-pawn while leaving
the black queen holding the fort on e6. Then if White tries} 27. f5 {, how
would you reply? Yes, the tactic} Qxe5 28. Qxe5 Nxe5 29. Rxe5 Rxb3 {wins for
Black, as moving the bishop allows ...Rxg3 and after} 30. Re3 Rd8 31. Bc4+ bxc4
{the b3-rook is now defended, and Black wins easily.}) 27. Qe4 Qe6 28. f5 (28.
Qxg6+ Qxg6 29. Bxg6 {is correct, exchanging the queens to stop the attack on
White's king and prepare the advance of White's passed e-pawn with e6-e7.})
28... gxf5 (28... Qb3 {would be very strong, because of the threat of ...Nc5
forking king and bishop, and if White prefers} 29. f6 {he runs into} Nxe5 30.
Qxe5 Qxd3 {when White's attack is out of steam and Black's extra exchange and
two pawns decide. Note that} 31. Qc7 {allows} Rxf6 {or 31...Qd4 followed by 32.
..Qxf6.}) 29. gxf5 Qd5 {This is a situation where the rule of thumb 'exchange
pieces when ahead in material' is not warranted as White's connected passed
pawns are more dangerous with the queens off the board and Black's own pawn
majority is completely ruined by the queen exchange.} (29... Qf7 {is messy,
but still very good for Black as White's king is at least as weak as Black's
and he still has his extra exchange and pawn.} 30. e6 Qg7 {threatening ...Qxg3
is the key tactical point.}) 30. Qxd5+ cxd5 31. Bxb5 Nb6 32. f6 {Now White is
very much okay as despite the exchange deficit, his passed pawns are very
dangerous and his pieces are well placed to support their advance (e.g. with
Nh5 and e6-e7). Black could have defended a lot better than he did but at
least we see White's plan executed without any interference.} Rb2 33. Bd3 Kf7 {
The king isn't the best blockader of a pawn, because it can't ignore a check!}
34. Bf5 (34. Nh5 {intending e6 is much better again; if} Re8 35. Bf5 {
shepherds the home run of the pawns.}) 34... Nc4 35. Nh5 Rg8+ 36. Bg4 Nd2 (
36... Rb6 37. e6+ Rxe6 38. Rxe6 Rxg4+ 39. hxg4 Kxe6 {is a cool tactic that
wins for Black, but if White can't play e6 then Black has real chances to hold
the position.}) 37. e6+ Kg6 38. f7 Rf8 39. Nf4+ Kg7 40. Bh5 {Now Black can't
do anything to prevent e7, so he gave up. While this game contained a lot of
errors, the positional and tactical ideas in the game are quite instructive
and I hope my notes have opened up some new chess insights for you. As a final
puzzle, how would you meet 40...Ra2 41.e7 Rxf7?} 1-0