Author Archives: Franklin Chen

About Franklin Chen

Franklin Chen is a United States Chess Federation National Master. Outside his work as a software developer, he also teaches chess and is a member of the Pittsburgh Chess Club in Pennsylvania, USA. He began playing in chess tournaments at age 10 when his father started playing in them himself but retired after five years, taking two decades off until returning to chess as an adult at age 35 in order to continue improving where he left off. He won his first adult chess tournaments including the 2006 PA State Game/29 and Action Chess Championships, and finally achieved the US National Master title at age 45. He is dedicated to the process of continual improvement, and is fascinated by the practical psychology and philosophy of human competition and personal self-mastery. Franklin has a blog about software development, The Conscientious Programmer and a personal blog where he writes about everything else, including his recent journey as an adult improver in playing music.

Your Pawn Is Threatened: Do You Defend, Advance, Or Trade?

In a chess game, both sides start out with a complete front line of Pawns, which means that to make progress, you have to break through that front line somehow. The only way to break through is to advance your own Pawns and bring out your pieces to attack your opponent’s front line. At some point, a head-to-head clash occurs in which one side’s Pawn is attacked by a Pawn from the other side. The question then is always:

  • Do I advance my Pawn past the attacking Pawn (if not otherwise blocked)?
  • Do I capture my opponent’s Pawn with mine (usually meaning a trade, unless it was a deflecting gambit)?
  • Do I defend my Pawn (or overprotected it, if it was already defended)?

This question pops up early in the opening in particularly interesting fashion in the King’s Indian Defense, in which Black challenges White’s d4 Pawn with a Pawn to e5 that “threatens” the d4 Pawn.

At club level, I see players respond in each of the different ways, and sometimes I get asked “what is best?” The truth is, despite the particular popularity of certain responses at elite level, all three are definitely valid reactions at club level; in fact, I see White winning many games playing each way. The important thing is to know the reason behind each valid choice.

Even if you don’t play the King’s Indian Defense for either color, the strategic ideas are extremely interesting and worth studying, and can pop up in many openings.

Here is a typical decision point (I have chosen the “old main line” rather than the modern main line because it illustrates the themes more clearly). I want to discuss the fundamental ideas, not go into detailed opening variations: for that, you can consult an appropriate opening manual.

Closing the center

At club level, it is very common to see White immediately close the center by advancing d5, avoiding a trade of the d4 Pawn. Why would you want to do that?

Pros

  • Forever avoid any threats against the d4 Pawn, especially in light of Black’s fianchettoed Bishop on g7.
  • Forever avoid having an e4 Pawn exposed on a half-open e-file (if Black chose to capture with …exd4).
  • Gain space on the Queen side.

Cons

  • Black’s Knight gets a great outpost at c5, which is now a hole no longer covered by White’s d4 Pawn.
  • Black can plan to maneuver to get in an …f5 Pawn break attacking White’s e4 Pawn and gaining space on the King side.

If you play this as White, you have committed to trying to win on the Queen side, by somehow advancing b4 to dislodge the Black Knight and somehow getting the c5 Pawn break in or taking control of the a-file or something. You are not going to win on the King side.

Exchanging Pawns

Also popular at club level is immediately exchanging Pawns.

Pros

  • As with closing the center, you no longer have to worry about the d4 Pawn.
    As with closing the center, your e4 Pawn is safe and Black’s fianchettoed Bishop is blocked in.

  • You retain a space advantage because of the c4 Pawn controlling d5 and possibly having plans to get to c5.

Cons

  • Giving up control of the c5 square.
  • The resulting Pawn structure leaves White with no immediate Pawn break but Black may have plans to maneuver to enable …f5.

If you play this as White, you have committed to trying to win on the Queen side, by somehow advancing b4, c5, b5, something like that. You are not going to win on the King side.

Holding the center

Finally, the most interesting option for White is to hold the center. I think it’s useful to gain experience with the first two approaches above in order to appreciate why it might be beneficial but also risky to hold the center.

Pros

  • White continues to develop.
  • Black is denied the c5 square.
  • Black remains cramped, because the Knight on d7 has no place to go.
  • White keeps the option of advancing or trading any time in the future as desired, if Black does not capture first. In the case of Be3, White has a possible plan of preparing d5 followed immediately by Nd2 to protect the e4 Pawn.

Cons

  • Black may capture on d4, freeing up c5 for the Knight, opening the dark diagonal, and half-opening the e-file.

Be3 is one of three common ways to continue developing while “waiting” for Black to do something, and the most subtle. It protects the d4 Pawn more, in anticipation of Black capturing it.

Now Black is the one with a choice: take up the challenge or put pressure on White’s e4 Pawn to force White to make a decision about advancing or trading. Many variations are possible, and I’m not discussing them here, but the point is that both sides are subtly fighting over what to do and what to encourage the other side to do. Note that if Black plays the waiting move …c6, White’s d5 suddenly has a lot more effect than when Black’s Pawn was on c7. Also, if Black plays …Re8, again, White can play d5 making Black’s Rook look funny on the closed e-file. Finally, after …Ng4, White can argue that this does nothing other than misplace the Knight.

Another way to hold the center

Qc2 is another way to hold the center, with a double purpose:

  • Overprotect the e4 Pawn.
  • Prepare to play Rd1 protecting the d4 Pawn and also threatening to capture on e5 with a discovered pin.

A third way to hold the center

Finally, Re1 is also another way to hold the center. It may look mysterious, but the point is to play Bf1 to “discover” overprotection of the e4 Pawn.

Franklin Chen

Accept The Sacrifice If The Alternative Is To Lose Anyway

When I was in my final year of high school, I played in the last tournament of my life before I returned to chess two decades later: I played in the 1987 Michigan High School Team Championship. I ended up winning the first board prize with a perfect score of 5 points, but I always felt funny about how I achieved that, because in one of my games I played a sacrifice that I felt guilty about for two decades. Also, that was the only tournament in my life that I ended up losing my score sheets for, so I do not even have the full score of that game. But I do remember vividly the moves leading up to the critical position, and my mindset.

Seeing the possibility of a Greek gift sacrifice

On move 10 out of the opening, I suddenly spent a huge amount of time deciding whether to play the “Greek gift” sacrifice against my opponent’s King, sacrificing my Bishop on h7 with check.

But in my attempt to calculate a win, I could not find a forced win. I saw defensive resources, so I was reluctant to play an unsound sacrifice. But the idea of playing the sacrifice really appealed to me. You have to understand that I had never played the Greek gift sacrifice before, only read about it in books, and also I knew this might be the last chess tournament of my life, as I was going off to college in the fall, and I had actually “retired” from chess in my sophomore year of high school, and came out to play in the Michigan High School State Championship only because I had started up a chess club in my high school in the fall in hope of boosting my college application (I brought four teammates who had never played in a tournament before). I outrated my opponent by over 500 USCF rating points, so there was no need for me to play recklessly to win, so my motivation was just to finish my chess-playing days in style.

I did see that I would get compensation for the sacrifice, and therefore should not lose if I played the sacrifice, but that was all I could see. Even after I went home to analyze the game, because I did not have access to good computational power in the 1980s, I did not believe I had the full truth of the position until the 2000s, on my return to chess, when chess engines by then had become very strong.

Sacrifice declined!

I was simultaneously ashamed and relieved when my opponent thought only briefly and declined the sacrifice, and therefore easily lost, being a Pawn down without compensation, and having a weakened King side also.

My opponent must have concluded that my deep thought meant I had figured everything out, but in fact, my deep thought came from not having figured it out! Granted, I was much higher-rated than my opponent, but higher-rated players can make terrible moves too, and sometimes even deliberately as a swindle, so you should think for yourself for a bit, and not always assume your higher-rated opponent has everything figured out. Granted, psychologically it was clearly a shocker to him that I thought mysteriously for such a long time moves before the sacrifice.

In club play, I often see fear of accepting sacrifices, and painful losses resulting from declining. The loss is usually painful because a sacrifice significantly disrupts a position, so if your position is disrupted anyway, and there is no visible immediate mate, maybe you might as well grab some material for your trouble; if the attack goes wrong, then you may have a good chance of consolidating and winning as a successful defender. Part of chess is choosing to defend.

So I’m saying, accept the sacrifice if you honestly do not see anything wrong with doing so. You might be making a mistake, but at least make the mistake and lose rather than choosing the path of sure loss, losing material against a much higher-rated player.

How sound was the sacrifice?

The fact that White is missing the dark-squared Bishop and only has a Queen and two Knights really restricts White from having a win in this position. The only possible things White can do are try to push h4, maybe castle Queen side, and use the two Rooks somehow. Meanwhile, Black can defend the King and develop. Note that if White tries to win back an exchange, the result is an unfavorable balance of material in which White gets a Rook and a Pawn or two for two minor pieces, so it is no use for White to regain material.

I’ve inserted some variations into my annotations below.

Irony: there could have been an alternative Greek gift sacrifice!

The irony is that if I had played Nc3 instead of Bd2, and “normal” development had continued, with Black “castling into it”, then the Greek gift sacrifice would have been obviously sound and winning. The huge difference is that with White’s dark-squared Bishop still on the board, and guarding the Knight on g5, White does not have to support the Knight with the Queen, but can calmly play h4, followed by Qg4, with a deadly barrage of discovered checks to follow: a check with the Queen or with the Bishop on c1 if the King goes to h6.

Note that it is important to play h4 first, to avoid Black’s tempo-gaining …f5 against the Queen on g4, because with the Pawn on h4 first, then h5+ can be played at any time, and optimally when Black’s King on g6 cannot escape to f5. Check it out with a computer engine if you want to verify that it’s a quick win for White.

Why did I play Bd2 anyway? I had some vague idea that getting rid of Black’s “good” Bishop for my “bad” one was advantageous. Also, note that I recaptured “wrong” with Nbxd2; I just recently wrote an article about why Qxd2 is usually best. But in 1987, my positional understanding was not so good.

Some resources on the Greek gift sacrifice

A well-written overview by GM Daniel Naroditsky.

A previous Chess Improver article by Ashvin Chauhan.

A 2012 game of mine in which I played a correct Greek gift sacrifice.

The game (up to the point of the sacrifice)

Franklin Chen

Don’t Be In A Hurry To Regain Sacrificed Material

I have been discussing gambits with a student of mine, to explore the concept of positional sacrifice, a sacrifice of material with long-term positional objectives rather than with a clear immediate tactical winning shot. A position came up that illustrates a dilemma that often comes up when playing a positional sacrifice: when do you “cash in” your advantage? Very often, the logical result of a positional sacrifice is boxing in your opponent in such a way that tactics become possible, such as regaining your lost material. It is very tempting, after having played a Pawn down for much of the game, to see a way to finally win the Pawn back and do so, and in fact, in many situations it is entirely appropriate to win back your sacrificed Pawn “with interest”, retaining a positional advantage. But often it is actually counterproductive to “cash in” too early, if that results in giving up much of the non-material advantage you have so carefully accumulated.

Here’s an example, in which White is down an h-Pawn but finally has a chance to win Black’s h-Pawn in return. Unfortunately, doing so is terrible and results in a dead equal position in which White has nothing to look forward to and even has to be careful. Instead, White can ignore the fact of being a Pawn down and continue to build up with deadly pressure. Let’s look at why.

Assessing the position

First, let’s look at the position with White to move.

White has more space, with a Pawn on e5, a powerful dark-squared Bishop on f6 restricting Black’s activity, a grip on c5, active Rooks doubled on the h-file, and a Queen attacking Black’s Rook on h7.

Black has a pitiful Rook on h7 that is completely immobile and under attack, a Queen on g8 that is tied to defending that Rook, a light-squared Bishop that has no possible moves, a Rook on d8 that can barely move, and a dark-square Bishop on c7 that is currently attacking nothing (there is no hope of getting at White’s e5 Pawn).

So for a mere Pawn, White has a tremendous-looking position. The question is, how to cash in eventually?

What taking back the h-Pawn accomplishes

Taking the Black Pawn on h6 throws away all of White’s advantage:

  • Black gets to trade off his worst piece on the board, the trapped Rook on h7.
  • Black gets to swoop down and activate the Queen by checking on White’s unprotected back rank.
  • Tactically, the threat to win White’s f2 Pawn forces White to retreat horribly with Nd1, self-pinning the Knight (which wants to go to e4) and making it do nothing other than defend the f2 Pawn.
  • Black can start putting pressure on White’s d4 Pawn, and think about swinging the Rook to the open g-file and coming down.
  • White no longer has any threats. The Bishop on f6 was once a powerful piece keeping Black’s Rook on h7 trapped against its own h-Pawn, but both of those are now gone. White’s Queen is now just guarding the d4 Pawn.

I’ve given a sample bad continuation by White to illustrate how quickly Black can actually end up winning, if White tries to continue an “attack”.

Continuing the pressure instead

The alternative to winning the Pawn back is to observe that Black has serious problems with the Rook trapped on h7. White can try to win the Rook eventually, by driving Black’s defensive Queen away from protecting it. Rh3 and Ne4 and Rg3 not only improve White’s pieces in general but also serve to restrict Black’s activity and aim to win Black’s Rook.

A defensive counter-sacrifice!

It turns out that the only real try for counterplay by Black to avoid losing the Rook is to open up the position and try to activate the light-squared Bishop. Sacrificing the c-Pawn with …c5 is the best chance for Black, to get the Bishop to …c6, where it exerts power over the light-squared diagonal to h1, and also can at least, if needed, trade itself for White’s powerful Knight on e4.

So it is ironic that White’s best plan is to ignore the Pawn on h6 and instead force Black to give up the c-Pawn instead as a defensive sacrifice. After White gains the c-Pawn, of course, White has a huge advantage still, but at least Black is still surviving and has some practical chances.

Franklin Chen

The Difference Between a Knight Developed at c3 and at d2

There is a well-known trap in the Bogo-Indian Defense that raises an interesting question whenever I show it to someone. The trap is as follows and involves a question of how White should recapture after a trade of Bishops by Black:

The question after this trap is always, “Well, why would White ever want to play Qxd2 anyway, exposing the Queen to an attack by …Ne4? Isn’t it obviously better to recapture with Nbxd2, simultaneously developing the Queen Knight?” This is an excellent question. It is best answered by examining some long-term issues in the middlegame arising from this opening.

Comparing Knight developed at c3 and Knight at d2

Knight at c3

First, we look at what can happen if Black mistakenly allows White to recapture the Bishop with Qxd2 instead of Nbxd2, by not taking White’s Bishop early enough for the “trap”.

Black’s plan in this variation of the Bogo-Indian is to play …d6 and …e5, attacking White’s Pawn on d4 and encouraging White to close the center with d5. After the center is closed, all attention must be directed toward Pawn breaks by either side.

White is acknowledged by theory to have some advantage in this opening, having more space and a lead in development, and can think about attacking either on the Queen side (with plans such as a3, b4, c5) or on the King side (with plans such as e4, Ne1, Nd3, f4). But Black has a solid position, and can aim for counterplay with …a5 with …Na6 or …Nbd7 aiming for …Nc5, and/or …c6, to prevent White from gaining too much ground on the Queen side, and perhaps preparing slowly for …f5 to further attack White’s e4 Pawn chain base.

Knight at d2

By contrast, let’s see what happens when Black correctly forces White to recapture the Bishop with Nbxd2.

below is a sample continuation, in which at move 13, probably White’s best move is the paradoxical undeveloping move Nb1! The Knight at d2 is not doing much, being blocked by White’s own c4 and e4 Pawns. More important, it is not controlling the important a4 square (that Black can possibly aim to occupy with …a4), and it is not controlling the b5 square that could also be important (in a later attack against Black’s c7 and d6).

But this retreat wastes two moves (the original Nbxd2 and the Nb1) before getting to c3. However, in the Qxd2 situation, White wasted a move with the Queen, which is not so well-placed on d2: White’s Queen is actually better placed on d1, where it controls a4, than on d2. But White’s Rooks are not connected, so White will eventually want to develop the Queen anyway, perhaps to c2. So overall, White has lost one move, net, and, and this does make some difference in White advantage, even in a closed position, because the extra White move in the Nc3 variation makes it that much harder for Black to catch up in development and begin counterplay.

Summary

The summary of the situation is that paradoxically, since White wants the Knight on c3 anyway eventually, “saving” time by recapturing with development by playing Nbxd2 actually ends up wasting a move because the Knight will have to spend two more moves to get back to c3. Knights are funny pieces because any time a Knight has a choice to go to one of two different squares, if it chooses to go to one of them, it will always require two more moves to get to the alternate square. This is something to think about when planning Knight maneuvers: it is efficient, when possible, to plan to get to a desired square with the smallest number of moves possible (given the tactical constraints).

The other point to remember is that “wasting” moves to get a Knight to a good square may be justified. “Backwards” Knight moves are very important in chess, because a Knight on a good square can be so powerful that it is worth spending the time to get the Knight there. Look at how White thematically “undevelops” the Knight on f3, where it is doing nothing, to e1 and then to d3, to control the c5 square and b4 square (in case of a Pawn advance to b4 in the future) and also regain pressure on Black’s e5 Pawn and help support an f4 advance.

Study of typical middlegame positions in the Bogo-Indian can pay off with better understanding of the roles of both of White’s Knights and both of Black’s Knights (Black’s King Knight was not discussed here, but it has plans too).

Franklin Chen

Fianchettoing Your King’s Bishop May Weaken Your c4-Pawn

I saw a curious position recently in which strangely, White was in a position to lose a c-Pawn placed on c4. I then remembered that it is actually not uncommon for this Pawn on c4 to be undefended when White has fianchettoed the Bishop to g2, because unlike classical development of the Bishop, where the Bishop is on e2 or d3 and therefore protects the Pawn on c4, the Bishop on g2 does nothing to protect the light squares from f1 to a6. Check out this position:

A standard theme for Black counterplay

Many middlegame plans by Black in these kinds of opening development setups in fact target White’s c4 Pawn and the light squares on the Queen side in general, while White tries to make something long-term out of increased central control of e5 and d5 (over classical development of the Bishop) and of course the long diagonal from h1 to a8. These positions can be very subtle for both sides to play. In this article I’m not discussing any of these subtleties, but simply pointing out a common theme for Black.

A variation of the King’s Indian Defense:

A variation of the English Opening:

And of course, the concept behind a popular approach to the Queen’s Indian Defense:

Franklin Chen

What Not To Do If You Have The Isolated Pawn

A typical introduction to positional principles in chess covers the advantages and disadvantages of having an isolated Pawn, a Pawn that has no Pawns on the files adjacent to it and therefore cannot be protected by another Pawn. (In particular, the most common isolated Pawn is the isolated d-Pawn.) Since it is easiest to understand why an isolated Pawn might be a long-term static disadvantage, many players reflexively go out of their way to avoid ending up with one. The situation is not helped by the use of illustrative games in which one side has an isolated Pawn and suffers quite a bit before losing the Pawn and the game.

But as a student of mine pointed out while studying such games, the situation is not actually that simple. Yes, it can be frustrating defending a position in which you have an isolated Pawn without any of the benefits (not discussed here) of having one, but that does not mean the position is actually lost. Whether your opponent can actually make any progress is another matter. It is instructive to know how to play for a draw in an unpleasant defensive position. Much chess instruction focuses on how to win, but ignores questions of how to avoid losing.

Here’s a classic isolated-Pawn game that ended poorly for the defender.

Korchnoi-Karpov, World Championship in Merano, 1981

Sliding from an advantage to equality

In the opening, Korchnoi as White accepted an isolated d-Pawn position. Karpov responded with a “Knight on the rim” move 11…Nh5 to trade off dark-squared Bishops. This wasn’t actually very good. It potentially gave White precious time to create a thematic good position: White could have played Re1, Ne5 with pressure against Black’s f7 and e6 Pawns, then begun a thematic attack on Black’s King side (especially with the h6 advance weakening the King side already), either through a Qd3/Bc2 lineup and/or a Rook lift with Re3/Rg3, something like that. (Full discussion of how to attack if you have an isolated d-Pawn is outside the scope of this article.)

White dawdled with 13 Bb3 and then 15 Qe2, which did nothing to create threats against Black’s position. And then White played 16 Ne4? which resulted in a simplification that left White fighting for a draw.

Simplifying trades are what you do if you are playing for a draw with an isolated Pawn, to reduce the other side’s attacking possibilities.

Refusing to accept that the goal should be to defend a draw

On move 19, White had the opportunity to trade Rooks and practically guarantee a draw. The fewer the pieces, especially powerful long-ranging major pieces, Rooks and Queens, the fewer opportunities for the opposing side to win the Pawn and still have a middlegame initiative to win the game. So White should have simplified here. The task of drawing would still have been slightly tricky, but doable, requiring keeping track of Black’s Queen, Rook, and Knight activity.

On move 22, White made another mistake and played the backward-moving 22 Qe1? It was best to simply wait around and do nothing, after having everything well-defended: White’s Queen was centralized at e4, protecting the d4 Pawn and exerting pressure on the d5 square.

Often, in a defensive position, the best thing to do is to wait for the draw to happen. Trying a funny plan when there is nothing really going for you can backfire badly. White has no winning chances in this position.

Unnecessary passivity

On move 23, White played 23 Rcd3? which just turned a fine Rook (on the open c-file) into a purely defensive piece. OK, the idea may have been to dissolve the isolated Pawn by playing d5, but this was easily parried by 23…Rd6.

Final simplification

On move 27, White traded the Bishop for the Knight on d5. Objectively this is OK, actually, if the goal is to draw. But the followup shows that was apparently not the goal. So the real problem is a mismatch between an idea and what is consistent with that idea.

Own pieces in disarray

28 Rb3? was a terrible move that took a defensive Rook and removed it from its defensive function, and also exposed the White Queen to a pin of the d-Pawn, in case Black ever got in …e5. 29 Qc3? compounded the problem by leaving the Rook on d1 completely undefended.

33 Qa3? removed the Queen from the action in the center and King side after White had already weakened his King’s position with the necessary 30 f4 earlier.

Now all that was needed for Black to win was to tactically take advantage of White’s uncoordinated pieces and unprotected King, and Karpov did that precisely.

An important note about how to draw

Sometimes the easiest way to draw is to just give up the weak isolated Pawn without a fight, in exchange for activity and simplification. Instead of risking King unsafety with 30 f4, White could have decided to just lose the d-Pawn but keep King safety intact and Rooks and Queen active, say with 30 Qf3. I will confess that I have been held to a draw a couple of times in games in which I expended effort to win an isolated Pawn but at the cost of massive simplification and could not win the ending.

Summary

To answer my student’s question about this game: yes, there were multiple turning points in the game at which White could have held still and played for a draw. Especially in the case of an isolated Pawn and much piece simplification, there is often no way to win the Pawn or force some other concession somewhere else, if one just puts pieces on good defensive squares and then just waits. The only way for the other side to win is to break through by distracting the defensive pieces and taking advantage of pins and the single possible Pawn break (…e5 here) to create threats elsewhere on the board (such as on an exposed King). Note that the game was not lost because of losing the isolated Pawn: the game was lost by trying too hard to hang on to it.

The complete annotated game

Franklin Chen

For the Love of Doubled Pawns

Having doubled Pawns in a chess game is rightfully taught as being potentially disadvantageous, and a vital step toward improvement in chess understanding comes from learning how to play against them as a static positional weakness in one’s opponent’s position that has ramifications in the middlegame as well as in the endgame. However, to dive into deeper into the subtlety of chess, it is important to also know of the potential dynamic strengths of owning the doubled Pawns.

For example:

  • If you get doubled Pawns from recapturing toward the center, that may increase central control, which could be very important in the middlegame.
  • If you have doubled Pawns, you have an at least half-open file that you can potentially use for attack by putting Rooks on the file.
  • The front Pawn of the doubled Pawn pair can be used for attack, while the back Pawn of the pair can be used to defend the squares that were otherwise abandoned when the front Pawn moved forward.

Examples of the power of doubled Pawns

Bent Larsen was a great chess player who was famous for playing in unusual styles. One thing that he seemed to do often was invite having doubled Pawns and then making use of them effectively. Here are two games showing off how to make doubled Pawns effective. Notice that the doubled Pawns enabled setting up a “wall” behind which gradual positional maneuvering and improvement of pieces was possible while waiting for the opponent to go astray. Playing with doubled Pawns often takes patient regrouping.

Franklin Chen

Beware of Trying to Win Poisoned Pawns

An important and advanced theme in chess openings is that of the “poisoned” Pawn belonging to one’s opponent, a Pawn that is unprotected and may be attacked with hope of winning it. I like to call “poisoned” the specific Pawn on one of four squares, directly diagonal to the opponent’s Rook in the initial position, that is often tempting to try to win using one’s Queen when the protecting Bishop is away:

  • White’s Pawn on b2 (which Black can try to win with a move like …Qb6)
  • Black’s Pawn on b7 (which White can try to win with a move like Qb3)
  • White’s Pawn on g2 (which Black can try to win with a move like …Qg5)
  • Black’s Pawn on g7 (which White can try to win with a move like Qg4)

A paradox in pedagogy

An important part of one’s chess education is understanding the value of material, of trying to keep one’s Pawns and pieces protected and finding opportunities to win material by capturing the opponent’s Pawns and pieces, either for free or for an advantageous trade according to a heuristic formula of worth (such as taking a Rook, worth 5 points, in return for giving up one’s Knight, worth 3 points).

The paradox is that once one has absorbed this lesson, at some point one must learn to balance the hard-earned attention to material with more nuanced attention to other factors in a game. On general principles, as the next step after internalizing the value of material, I advise against club players trying to play opening variations involving winning a poisoned Pawn, because the effort to win it usually requires wasting three moves:

  1. Moving the Queen to attack the Pawn.
  2. Capturing the Pawn.
  3. Retreating the Queen to avoid getting captured or trapped.

Three moves is quite a lot of time to lose for the sake of winning a Pawn in the opening, when development and one’s own King safety are critical and can be compromised. Granted, there are some very popular opening variations that involve taking the risk and winning such a Pawn, but they require absolute precision to even be able to defend a draw against a fierce attack coming from falling so behind in development.

At some point after one’s tactical and defensive strength has improved enough, it may be worth trying these risky ideas, but I have seen too many instances of a club player moving a Queen out early in the game to win material and then failing to consolidate well. This is a habit that, although it sometimes works against weak competition, results in postponing one’s development as a more principled middle game player.

Some concrete examples of disaster

Quick one

Here is a brutal example of punishing an early Queen excursion.

More subtle one

The following is a more subtle win in which Black, a world-class defender, won 2 Pawns at the expense of a whopping 9 Queen moves in the opening and middle game, and finally lost after hardly developing any pieces.

Franklin Chen

When Weaknesses Didn’t Matter (And When They Did)

When one first begins learning about “positional chess”, one quickly learns concepts such as “weaknesses”, such as

  • weak square in your territory (a square you don’t have much control over, especially if you cannot protect it with one of your own Pawns)
  • backward Pawn (a Pawn that is behind its neighbor Pawn(s) and therefore cannot be protected by another Pawn)
  • weakness on a half-open file (such that the opponent can multiply attack your Pawns and pieces by means of a battery of Rooks and a Queen)

These are very important concepts, and one is taught to recognize these patterns and avoid weaknesses. One is often also shown instructive games in which one side had these weaknesses and eventually lost. This is all well and good, and an important step in chess improvement is to understand these structural weaknesses and to try to avoid them for one’s own setup as well as try to induce them and exploit them in one’s opponent’s setup.

However, time and again, when I work with chess players to help them improve, I get asked some very good questions:

  • “The position looks bad, but is it really that bad?”
  • “What do I do if I end up in one of these positions with weaknesses?”

In other words, many chess books geared at improvement present a biased view of the game, showing “how to plan an attack” and “how to punish weaknesses”, rather than “how to defend” and “how to deal with having weaknesses”. They present exciting games where somebody wins. Well, today I present a “boring” game where nobody wins, despite Black having all three of the example weaknesses I mentioned at the beginning of this article! And in fact, nobody was really ever in danger of losing. I think boring, “correct” games have much to teach as well as the exciting, flawed ones.

Summary of the game Baramidze-Leko, Dortmund 2014

I saw this game while following the Dortmund 2014 tournament earlier. Nobody annotated it, because it was so boring. But I thought it would be a great illustration of when “weaknesses” don’t matter, and why.

At move 12 in an Open Catalan, a characteristic Pawn structure arose, in which Black can be considered to have certain weaknesses: the backward c-Pawn on c7 cannot advance to c5, because of White’s bind with the Pawns on b4 and d4 controlling c5, and White has the half-open c-file. Also, White has the extra center Pawn (d-Pawn) vs. Black’s c-Pawn. So it could be considered that Black might be in trouble.

But a “weakness” is a problem only if it can be exploited. In this kind of position, White usually tries some combination of these ideas (see the game Kramnik-Carlsen, Dortmund 2007 at the end of this article, for example):

  • plant a Knight on c5 or a5
  • plant a piece on c6 to constrict Black
  • double Rooks on the half-open c-file
  • win Black’s c-Pawn
  • advance e4 to get the big Pawn center

However, Black in this game basically thwarted all of these ideas:

  • Move 13: maneuvered the Queen to a8, controlling not only c6 but the long diagonal and prevented e4
  • Move 15: advanced with c6 after the light-squared Bishops were traded off, so even though the c-Pawn is still backward, it is defensible; also, this prepared for a5 counterplay
  • Move 16: White, under danger of a5 counterplay against the b-Pawn, decided to trade Knights to allow the dark-squared Bishop to protect b4.
  • Move 17: maneuvered a Knight to b6, noting that White’s attempt to bind the c5 square had the side effect of creating a White weak square at c4
  • Move 19: a5 created counterplay against White’s b-Pawn and ensured that White would end up with an isolated Queen side Pawn
  • Move 20: Nc4 put the Knight on a great outpost in White’s weak c4 square
  • Move 23: White could not bear to leave Black’s Knight on c4 and forced a trade

After the final simplification on move 23, the game could have been called a draw already. Each side had a Queen, two Rooks, and a dark-squared Bishop.

White still had a bind on c5, but so what? In the rest of the game, he tried putting a Bishop there, then a Queen, then a Rook, but to no avail. That “outpost” did not help with any further penetration. If White had a Knight to put on c5, the story could have been very different, but note how in the game, Black virtually forced two Knight trades. Every trade brought Black closer to a comfortable position, because Knights are the best pieces to use against weaknesses, since if they can reach a good outpost, they can attack effectively from there.

All of Black’s most important Pawns (b5, c6, e6) were on light squares, which meant they were immune from attack by White’s only remaining minor piece, the dark-squared Bishop. Meanwhile, White had an isolated a-Pawn on a dark square to attend to on a3. Given this situation, and no Pawn breaks on the King side, the inevitable conclusion to the game was a draw, and it was agreed so after almost thirty more moves of shuffling around.

What conclusions can we draw from this game? One is that it is quite feasible to attempt to defend a position with weaknesses, if you play actively and force simplification in your favor so that your weaknesses do not matter. Another conclusion, unfortunately, might be that this main line opening variation of the Catalan, in which Black willingly plays dxc4 and then goes for counterplay with b5, allowing White to create a bind on c5, is drawish for both sides when each plays correctly.

However, there was once a time when this plan by White was very powerful, in the hands of Vladimir Kramnik, against those who did not adopt the right defensive plan as Black. In fact, 7 years ago at Dortmund 2007, Kramnik beat Magnus Carlsen with the Catalan. I have attached this game below so that you can see what it looks like when White’s idea works perfectly! Make note of every mistake that Carlsen made as Black, allowing White to execute his plan cleanly.

The complete game Baramidze-Leko, Dortmund 2014

Kramnik-Carlsen, Dortmund 2007

Franklin Chen

An Instructive Ending With Bishop Up For A Pawn

My student Eric (currently rated USCF 15xx) showed me a recent tournament game of his in which a rather fascinating ending came up. As Black, he had a Bishop and four Pawns versus White’s five Pawns. At first it seemed obvious that this ending should clearly be a win, but actually, it is not so obvious, because the semi-blocked nature of the position meant that it was not completely trivial for Black to break through White’s wall of Pawns. It turned out that he did come up with a very clever idea that is part of a good winning plan, but he did not manage to follow up on it, and seeing no way to make progress, accepted a draw with his opponent.

Winning an ending given a material advantage is very important, because at some point during one’s chess development, one plays well enough in the middlegame to get a material advantage, but if one is not able to convert in the endgame, it is a shame. In particular, when up more than two Pawns, there is usually a way to win, by taking advantage of imbalances on the board appropriately.

Looking at the game position carefully, we worked out a winning plan for Black. I think it is instructive because it brings together many important principles in endgame play. There are not any forced variations until the key transformative positions are reached. There may be other ways to win than the method I explain below; I would welcome feedback on other ways to win!

Initial position

First, let’s look at the initial position. The fundamental material imbalance:

  • Black has an extra light-squared Bishop.
  • White has an extra King-side Pawn, a g-Pawn that therefore could potentially be converted to a passed Pawn. However, Black is not in any danger of losing, because Black’s Bishop can easily sacrifice itself if necessary to prevent successful Queening.

Other interesting features:

  • White is lucky to have most Pawns on dark squares, out of attack from Black’s light-squared Bishop.
  • Black’s Pawns are currently all blocked up and therefore Black can win only by using an active King somehow to penetrate White’s position and either win some more Pawns or transform the position in order to create a passed Pawn.
  • But while activating the King, Black has to be careful about not letting White’s g-Pawn Queen. However, note that Black’s Bishop control’s the g8 Queening square.

An active King

The single most important lesson in endings is that an active King is critical. Where can Black’s King go? I think Eric was led astray because he was looking for a way to use the Black King to get through on White’s King side, but that is where White is actually strongest and has an extra Pawn. But if we look at the whole board, we see that Black can try to reach c4 or a4 in White’s position, to attack the d-Pawn or the b-Pawn with the King. Granted, White’s King could move over to the Queen side to defend the Pawns, and at least prevent Black from getting to c4. Black could get to a4, but then White can protect the b-Pawn with a3 and protected the a3-Pawn with a King shuffling between a2 and b2. These static considerations make it look like Black’s King cannot make progress.

Eric was also worried about how to get the Bishop involved in case of going over to the Queen side, because what if the Bishop got too far and White played g6 and then g7? We’ll see later how to address this concern.

Notice a Pawn asymmetry

However, Black has another imbalance to use: the Pawn situation on the Queen side is not symmetric. This is important. White has a b-Pawn while Black has an a-Pawn. This means that if Black can prepare the Pawn break …a5, if White ever trades the b-Pawn for Black’s a-Pawn, then White ends up with a passed a-Pawn but Black can then use the second Pawn break …c5 to create either a passed c-Pawn or passed d-Pawn. In an even-material ending, the “outside” passed Pawn (White’s a-Pawn in this situation) is advantageous, but with Black having an extra Bishop, there is no advantage to having the outside passed Pawn, because Black’s Bishop can cover it while Black’s King is free to press on with its own “inside” passed Pawn.

If White protects the b4-Pawn with a3, then Black can just trade Pawns, leaving White with a weak b4-Pawn. In that case, the ending is easy to win for Black, because Black can simply gain the opposition (using waiting moves with the Bishop) to break through and win either the b-Pawn or the d-Pawn.

Therefore, our conclusion is that if Black can safely manage to get the King to b6 or b5 in order to prepare a5, the game is a win. Note that no calculation of sequences of moves is necessary to come to this conclusion: all that is needed is

  • Fundamental understanding of Pawn breaks and passed Pawns
  • Understanding how to win by “taking the opposition” (in a King and Pawn setting)

The final question then is, how to perform this King manoeuvre while preventing White from trying to Queen the g-Pawn?

A clever Bishop manoeuvre

Eric hit upon a clever Bishop manoeuvre that, if followed up, would have worked great.

First, he played …f5 to force White to play g5. Then he moved his Bishop to d3, a6, c8, e6, and finally f7, in order to protect the g6 and h5 squares from White’s King invasion. This was a fine creative plan.

Unfortunately, he agreed to a draw shortly after this manoeuvre, not being able to find the winning plan that involved activating the King and using two Pawn breaks. He saw that after getting the King around, if he ever tried to bring the Bishop around, that would risk White’s g-Pawn advancing. This is in fact a valid concern, but the missing part of the picture was the importance of the …a5 Pawn break and the subsequent follow up. It turns out that there is something very subtle for Black black needs to do to time that Pawn break just properly, to avoid a draw.

Triangulation

The concept of triangulation is very important in endings. The main idea is to “waste time” in order to force the weaker side to reach a position on the move from a position in which the stronger side is on the move (but does not want to be on the move). In the analysis below, a critical position arises in which Black needs to prevent White’s King from becoming too active after a planned Pawn break. By triangulation, Black forces White’s King to the rim at a3 before playing the Pawn break …c5.

Control of the Queening square

It is also important to note that Black can wander just far enough with the Bishop to win White’s a4-Pawn, because of the control of White’s Queening square g8. Black’s Bishop has enough time to make it back to d5 after White plays g6 and g7, to stop White from Queening on g8. Whew!

Conclusion

I thought this was an instructive ending to work out, because of the many themes necessary to understand and integrate in order to create a winning plan.

Full analysis

Franklin Chen