Category Archives: Articles

Is it OK to Play a Losing Move in Order to Win?

Over two months ago, I wrote an article here, “9 lessons to learn from Bill Gates’ 9-move loss to Magnus Carlsen”, which generated a lot of discussion among my friends. I was also notified of something I hadn’t known when I wrote the article, which was that Magnus Carlsen only had 30 seconds for the entire game, so this was a severe constraint, and that he had explained that he does not usually play for “cheap tricks”. Unfortunately, the media sources that all my friends had sent me had not mentioned these important details. With 1 minute or 2 minutes, he could have played in a “normal” way, but 30 seconds is much less time.

I had been surprised that so many of my non-chess-playing friends thought (without the extra information about the constraints) that somehow, in general, it was OK to play for cheap tricks that could backfire: playing an objectively losing move in order to win a game against someone, hoping that the opponent would not see how to counter that bad move. I promised them that I would eventually write about why I thought that in general, I don’t consider it appropriate to play for cheap tricks that could backfire.

Ironically, recently I played a game in which I uncharacteristically used exactly a cheap trick in order to win a game. I will confess that I felt ashamed afterwards, and did not celebrate my victory. In fact, after the game ended, I slumped away back home feeling just as psychologically drained as after losing a game. At the same time, I would not have done what I did if I had not felt justified in what I did, even if it was not fully satisfactory. So I’ll use this experience as a way to discuss the issues surrounding playing a losing move in order to win.

Objectivity vs. subjectivity in chess: science vs. sport

The argument for playing “objectively” good moves is clear, I think. If the goal is improve one’s long-term playing understanding and performance, it is simply not good to play moves that you know are bad. You might succeed sometimes, against weak opponents, but against stronger opponents who can see just as well as you can, they will see your trick and punish you for the trick. I see a lot of chess play at lower levels in which trickery is attempted and often succeeds and often fails. Imagine playing tennis, and deliberately hitting a weak serve or return in hope of an unforced error. If your goal is not to just win a single game against a single opponent at a certain point in time, but to improve as an overall tennis player, I would say that it is better to try to do the “right” things.

The argument for playing “subjectively” good moves is also clear, however. In any single situation, you may have extra information that you can exploit. You might know that your tennis opponent has a poor backhand, in which you might place an objectively weak shot to your opponent’s weak side. As a matter of sport, in fact, it would be stupid not to use this information about the situation. And chess too is a sport: you may notice that your opponent lacks stamina and loses focus at the end of a long game, or has trouble playing quickly when time is running low on the clock, and use this information to your advantage. Psychology is a huge and valid element of the sport of chess, and goes well beyond these coarse examples, to the point of such subtleties as knowing whether your opponent likes to use Bishops in a certain way to control certain squares. Today, top professional chess players actually try to figure out their opponents’ psychology by performing data mining and statistical analyses on databases of the entire history of their opponents’ previously played games! In fact, arguably, Carlsen became the new World Champion recently by avoiding Anand’s preferred opening setups and types of positions, even at the expense of his own positions: in many games, he conceded objectively superior positions to Anand, as long as they were not what Anand expected to have.

So I would say that depending on whether you are treating chess as a serious discipline to continue improving at, or whether you have already practically maxed out in technical ability and/or are in a sporting situation where you evaluate the tradeoffs of taking a risk, it is justifiable to make different decisions.

But here at The Chess Improver, I try to focus on elements of chess that are objective in nature, because although psychology is always important, improving at objective fundamentals will always be most important until you reach a certain level.

The case of my game won by a cheap trick

Now it’s time for me to explain my cheap trick that won a game that was otherwise unwinnable.

Out of a superior opening as White, I went astray and blundered a Rook away for a Bishop on move 15. I have no excuse; I simply got my move order confused and got skewered. At this point, I had to start thinking about how to draw the game. I had some chances, having the Bishop pair against a Rook and Knight, and a passed Pawn on c5.

But my opponent played strongly, sacrificing the exchange back immediately in order to reach a position in which he was going to win a Pawn. On move 22, about to lose a Pawn and face a very difficult fight for a draw, I had to start thinking about swindling ideas in order to try to make the draw more within my reach. The trick is always to give the opponent more choices: good ones and bad ones. Often, playing a “good” move that has only one plausible reply, which happens to also be good, is just continuing the game along a path that you don’t want, and it is worth taking on some risk by playing a worse (but not yet losing) move that offers hope.

Step 1: fighting back to a drawn position

By move 27, I had swindled my opponent, through back rank threats, into a position in which I was still down a Pawn but had secured a drawn position. If I threatened to Queen my passed Pawn by pushing it to c6, then my opponent would have had no choice but to perpetual check my King, accepting a draw. So I had to think: now that I have secured the draw, can I still try to swindle a win out of a position in which I was still a Pawn down?

Step 2: attempting to get winning chances

Here’s when the time situation on the clock became quite relevant: my opponent was running very low on time, and was visibly anxious; he had 2 minutes left on his clock, while I had over 30 left on mine!! (It needs to be noted, however, that we were playing with a 5-second delay, which means that there is potentially enough time to play obviously moves in a simplified endgame position.) Meanwhile, my position was active enough that I didn’t have to accept the perpetual check right away: I was clearly no longer losing. Most important, however, was my tournament situation: I had lost my game in the previous round, and therefore I had to win this 5th round game in order to have any chance of catching the leaders by also winning the 6th round game. So I felt justified in beginning to play for a win. My only chance to win was to somehow prevent perpetual check and prepare a later advance of my passed Pawn on c5 to try to Queen it. It was a very long shot, but I had to try.

Step 3: playing the losing move in order to win

In order to take maximal advantage of the time situation, I had to play quickly myself, which I did, and unfortunately playing not so good moves. I actually ended up in a dangerous position by move 33. Here I had to pause and think. My opponent was down to less than a minute. Objectively the best thing for me to do was to acknowledge that I was now the one who had to defend and force a draw by perpetual check. I almost did this. It was the “correct” thing to do.

However, I embarked on a rare gamble. If I played a clearly losing move that lost my Bishop by force, it would cause my opponent to have to make “long” moves, reaching across the board and completely changing the nature of the position, and possibly disorient him. Then I could push my Pawn forward to c6 and try to get it c7 and then even to Queen. It was somewhat absurd to hope that this could happen, and I will confess that if not for the tournament situation, I would not even have considered this option. But given the tournament situation, and given that my opponent’s hand was trembling, it seemed that there really was some chance this swindle would work.

The swindle worked. My opponent ended up spending precious seconds, repeatedly, on a couple of moves, and then made the final blunder, which allowed me to trade Queens, resulting in a miraculous position in which his Knight and King were too far away to prevent my Pawn from Queening. In a lost position, with a few seconds left on the clock, my opponent allowed his flag to fall, and I won the game by time forfeit.

I marked my win on the posted paper sheet, quietly packed up, and went home.

Chess is a sport. I did not play well today, but I won. But sometimes, the reverse happens, and I play well, but lose.

The annotated game

Franklin Chen


The Joy of Solid Openings

Players often start out their careers by playing really sharp openings but switch to more solid lines over time. There are good reasons for this, not least of which is the improved positional understanding borne of experience. Once that’s in place the need for memory diminishes.

A lot of players give the sharp Gruenfeld Defence (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5) up, almost certainly because of the level of maintenance required. And I noticed the other day that Lubomir Ftacnik seems to be among them, turning to the ultra solid Queen’s Gambit Declined.

This is actually a very good choice as understanding is far more important than a knowledge of variations. And in the following game he comprehensively outplays Gennady Timocenko.

Nigel Davies


England’s Retired GMs

After a recent burst of tournament activity it looks like I’m going to be back on the bench again, at least until my son gets used to long play tournaments and will be OK waiting around should he finish well before me. I haven’t retired and have no plans to ever do so, it’s just difficult to get to play.

This got me thinking about English GMs who have most definitely seem to have packed in playing; John Nunn, Michael Stean, Raymond Keene, Julian Hodgson, William Watson, James Howell and Darshan Kumaran. That’s quite a lot when you consider that there’s only 36 in total.

One of the first to leave was Michael Stean who quit chess at 29 years of age and went on to pursue a successful career in accountancy. Here’s his brilliant victory over Walter Browne that won the Turover prize for being the best game of the 1974 Olympiad:

Nigel Davies


Knowing Classic Endgames

The last Bundesliga weekend saw Mickey Adams win a superb bishop ending against Rainer Buhmann (below). To the inexpert eye, the bishop ending reached after 36 moves may look drawn, but the threat of a white king penetration via h4 in fact leaves Black in serious trouble, if not actually lost.

I was struck by the similarity of this ending to that in the game Larsen-Polugayevsky, Le Havre 1966, which I analysed in detail in my book, “The Greatest Ever Chess Endgames”. A player like Adams is of course capable of winning such a position, even without knowing of the predecessor, but lesser mortals such as ourselves are far more likely to assess and play such an ending well, if we are familiar with a previous master example. The study of great endgames from master play should therefore be an indispensable and regular part of every serious player’s ongoing chess study.

Steve Giddins


Games People Play

Growing up, as I did, in the 1950s and 1960s, playing board games and card games was something most families enjoyed. There were only two television channels, and of course no computers, video games or DVDs.

At home we played board games such as Ludo, Chinese Checkers and probably draughts, as well as games such as Monopoly with more complex rules. We played card games too. We’d start off with Snap, then move onto Strip Jack Naked and, with a different deck of cards, Happy Families. We then moved onto various forms of rummy and whist, later being introduced to Canasta, which my parents would play with friends once a week. We also played a wide variety of word games. When we visited my great-aunts, which we did most weekends, we’d play other games. First we’d play roulette, gambling with buttons rather than money, then the cards would come out and we’d play Pontoon and Newmarket.

My parents were not chess players, but when they saw that I enjoyed strategy games they decided, when I was 10 years old, to buy me a chess set. My father taught me the moves, which was all he knew, but after that I was on my own. Several years later I decided to learn Bridge: again I had to teach myself.

I guess my family was, in that respect, fairly typical for its time. My parents both left school at 14 so did not have the benefit of the sort of education I was to have, and there were not a lot of books in the house. Playing games, board games, card games or whatever, was what families did. You started with simple games before moving onto games with more complex rules, more choices and which involved more skill.

Now, times are very different. Some families do still play a lot of games at home. Most, at least in more affluent areas like Richmond, will play some games at home. Many children in less affluent areas will probably not play games at home at all.

As chess players, we’ll all agree that there are many benefits from playing games of this nature. There have been studies demonstrating that computer games are good for you, which, in some ways, they no doubt are, but they tend to promote what Daniel Kahneman refers to as ‘fast thinking’ rather than ‘slow thinking’.

All children enjoy playing games, and encouraging children to play strategy games is an excellent way of helping them develop a wide range of ‘slow thinking’ skills. Wearing my chess hat I’d certainly want to encourage all children to play chess. But if I take off my chess hat and put on my educator hat instead I’d be asking other questions. Would children, especially younger children, and those who do not play strategy games at home, be better off playing games with simpler rules, with fewer options, which finish more quickly?

Quite possibly, yes, which is why one approach to teaching chess to young children involves teaching them a variety of mini-games with a subset of pieces and rules. If you’re teaching chess in a classroom you can do this, but in a chess club, where there’s a room full of children playing complete games of chess, it’s difficult. Young beginners don’t want to play with just their pawns when they see other children, even if they’re older or more experienced, playing complete games.

We’re living in very different times from fifty years ago, and perhaps we need to think in a different way about how to approach chess for young children.

Richard James


The Art of Chess

Beginners learn how to apply certain principles, such as the opening principles, to guide the movement of pawns and pieces during the early phase of the game. These guiding principles have stood the test of time and are proven to help the beginner master specific strategic and tactical ideas. However, there is a big difference between a rule and a principle. A rule is a rule, such as having to deal with a checked King. When your King is in check you must get out of the check (unless it is checkmate) before doing anything else. A principle however is different in that it can be broken. Often beginners treat principles as rules written in stone which can lead to mechanical thinking. Mechanical thinking can lead to lost games. To break beginners of this bad habitual way of thinking, I have them approach their examination of chess in a different way.

When faced with a problem in life, we sometimes find there are multiple solutions to resolve our dilemma. How we view the problem also plays heavily into how we solve our problem. It is in the way we view our problems that I have found a method to reduce mechanical thinking. Rather than simply look at a game of chess as a series of problems to be solved using a scientific approach, I have my students look at a game of chess as a blank canvas upon which a masterpiece can be painted.

In an art form like painting, the budding artist must first learn the craft’s underlying principles, such as composition and color theory. Our novice painter learns the principles of laying out a composition and studies the effects colors have on one another. Note I use the world principle not rule. In art, there are many principles but very few rules. In chess there are a finite set of rules regarding pawn or piece movement, check and checkmate, starting positions, etc, but everything else is left to the player, including the decision to employ or not employ principles. Of course, the use of these principles goes a long way towards achieving one’s goal, winning the game, but the end result of victory in many games has been achieved by bending or breaking specific principles. The trick is to know when to use these principles and when not to.

I want my beginning students to take calculated chances and play aggressively but only after learning the game’s principles and understanding why they’re so important. Once the beginner has a good grasp of the principles, it’s time to play less mechanically and think outside the box. To think outside of the box and breakaway from purely mechanical thinking, we must look at the game in a different light, as a blank canvas upon which both players have a chance to paint a personal masterpiece. I say personal masterpiece because I have yet to meet a beginner who will create a great masterpiece as found in the games of Bobby Fischer or Gary Kasparov. However, my students have the chance to create a bit of chess art all the same.

We approach the game with a discussion of artists and what made them so successful. The end result of the discussion is that the greatest artists took chances, choosing to wade into the waters of the unknown. Of course, taking ridiculous chances during a game of chess more often than not leads to loss. So why should the beginner take such a path along their journey to chess mastery? To achieve a better balance between mechanical (in the box) and non mechanical (outside the box) thinking comes to mind. A good way to introduce this idea is through the introduction of gambits.

While gambits follow principles, they allow players to be able to try something not so mechanical in nature. In the simplest terms, a gambit is the sacrifice of a pawn early in the opening in exchange for a better position. Gambits can be either accepted, in which case the offered pawn is captured by the opposition, or declined, in which case the opposition says “no thank you” and turns down your offer. Because you don’t know whether or not your offered pawn will be accepted or declined, you’re wading into slightly unknown waters or a non-mechanical situation.

Beginners are taught three basic opening principles: Putting a pawn on a central square, developing the minor pieces early (Knights and Bishops – positioned towards the board’s center) and the castling of the King. While this makes for good opening play, employing these techniques too mechanically can have dire consequences. Take the old chess adage “Knights before Bishops.” The idea behind this adage is that it is easier to get the Knight out early because it’s the only piece that can jump over pawns and pieces. Because of this, it is easier to get a Knight into game right away. However, there are occasions when it might be better to bring a Bishop out. If the beginner treats our old adage as a rule rather than a principle, he or she will ignore a better move involving a Bishop to adhere to the principles of opening play. An artist might have learned that laying lighter colors down before darker colors makes the technical process of painting easier but knows that a more interesting effect might be acquired by doing the opposite.

Gambits help beginners who know the basic principles of opening play to expand upon those principles, adding a more attacking quality to their game. In the King’s gambit, 1.e4…e5, 2.f4, White is offering Black his or her f pawn. Of course, if Black accepts the gambit and takes the f pawn (2.exf4), White will have a two to one pawn majority on the central files (a foundation for a better position). This gambit produces a different looking opening that say 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6. The idea behind my introduction of gambits to my students is to get them to think outside of the box in a non mechanical (at least for beginners) way.

I tell my students that with each new game they play, they are given the chance to create a masterpiece of chess art. When the game starts do they want to simply create a mere illustration of a scene or do they want to create something new and exciting? Of course, being beginners, they’re not likely to produce “the game of the century.” They might create a position that leads to a loss for them. However, they’ll learn a great deal in doing so. If they create an attack that backfires, they’ll have to be equally creative in finding a solution. They’ll stop automatically assuming that all principles should be followed as the letter of the law. I had a young student who never placed a piece on the rim or edge of the board even if it meant losing that piece. I asked him why and he said his father told him to never put a piece on the board’s rim (Knights on the rim are dim). I carefully explained that while pieces were not as powerful on the board’s rim, they could certainly be there if there was a good reason. Needless to say, he started doing much better after our conversation.

So you have the ability to create art on the chessboard but you have to be willing to accept the consequences of taking a chance. It could go your way or your game could fall apart. However, you’re going to learn more if you’re will to take a chance. I’m not suggesting huge chances, just small ones such as trying a gambit or considering a Bishop move before a Knight move. Like they say, if you want to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Using Computer Software For Analysis In Correspondence Chess

I know that some players have recently been dismayed to learn that their opponents had been using computer analysis in their correspondence chess (CC) games and at least one player has given up playing CC altogether. Well, I am sorry to shock you, but this has actually been the case for a number of years, especially since free chess programs have been available for download on the internet and fast computers have got cheaper! Nowadays, I actually expect my opponents to be using some form of computer program.

I can see why many over-the-board (OTB) players are against this as they consider it to be a form of cheating. I am not condoning this, but is it really so much of a problem? If you only use computer analysis for your own moves you will never make a good CC player at the top level and will only be fooling yourself. In my opinion computers still suffer from the horizon effect and their endgames are far from perfect. They are not very good at closed positions nor positions with too many pieces on the board. They are very good at open positions and tactics and rarely make blunders as they never get tired. In other words, it is up to YOU alone to make the right choice of move at all stages of the game.

In a top level OTB game, the advantage can go back and forth between players until the player who makes the final mistake loses. In a typical top level CC game, the player who makes the first mistake usually loses. I believe that CC is much more precise and mistakes made in the opening or middle game can often dictate the final outcome. What I am trying to say is that in CC you sometimes need to look dozens of moves ahead (over the horizon level of a computer) before deciding on a move, which you could not do in an OTB game.

I started playing correspondence chess in 1979, before personal computers were commonplace, mainly because I had moved away from my club and had started working long hours in London. I enjoyed playing humans rather than my Chess Challenger or Sargon 2.5 chess computers. On the subject of cheating, how many OTB and CC players have ever used printed opening books, opening databases or DVDs? How many CC players consult endgame databases? From 2014 you can claim a win or draw in an ICCF server game if the position is shown in a 6 piece endgame database! Several years ago I had an opponent who kindly informed me that my position was actually lost and referred me to an endgame database. There now exists a 7 piece endgame database which runs on the Lomonosov supercomputer based in the Moscow State University as it is too large for a personal computer. Where will this end? How many of the world’s best players use computer analysis for their own future games?

I do believe that computers will eventually solve chess, but not, perhaps, in our lifetime. If this happens then all forms of chess will be extinct. Meanwhile, enjoyment and satisfaction from CC games is what you yourself put into them.

John Rhodes


Ten Reasons My Winning Game Turned into a Loss

Recently I had one of the most embarrassing losses in my chess life. Granted, I’ve had many losses, and many of them have been quite painful, but this one was particularly bad, because of many regrets about factors that I could have controlled but didn’t. I did not fully understand this earlier in life, but more and more I have learned that my performance in a serious chess game hinges on factors completely independent of what one might think of as the core of chess play (theoretical knowledge, tactical calculation ability). The circumstances surrounding this game have much to teach about how not to go into a game. When we talk about chess improvement, we must talk about the whole context of playing chess, not just the pieces and positions on the board.

Ten faulty thoughts and actions

  1. My first mistake was that, seeing that it was finally nice outside, after work, when I was supposed to just rest, and prepare to eat dinner after my wife came home, I instead went out for my first run in several days. I returned a bit tired. I’m not stupid: I know that it is foolhardy to waste one’s glucose stores shortly before a competitive chess game, because the brain needs a lot of glucose to think clearly, especially in a four-hour time-control game ending near midnight.
  2. Abby was confused when she saw me finally come home from my run, because the timing messed with our dinner plan, because she hadn’t known when to start cooking dinner. Having an unexpected change in routine caused unnecessary stress for everyone.
  3. We decided we had to eat leftovers from the refrigerator, but suddenly the power in our neighborhood went out. This caused a dispute in which I (starving after my run) wanted to get stuff out of the refrigerator, but she didn’t want to open it. Don’t have draining arguments before a chess game.
  4. By the time the power came back and I had to go off to my chess game, I had packed dinner to take with me but still not eaten. Do not play chess hungry.
  5. I arrived at the chess club and ate much of my dinner in the couple of minutes before the round began, but this is not optimal timing. Do not eat a lot of food right before a game. You need to be thinking, not digesting.
  6. I trash-talked before the game, saying, “We’re going to see a sacrifice in this game”, because in fact, I had prepared some Black gambits for the occasion. This was possibly the single worst mistake I made that evening. Do not trash-talk and trap yourself into some ego-driven mindset or pre-commitment.
  7. As White, my opponent surprised me on move 2, playing an opening that I don’t fear but which I have never faced as Black and did not expect. I ended up playing slightly more passively than I normally would have. Do not get “surprised” by coming to a game with too many expectations about how a familiar opponent will play. Be ready for anything.
  8. In a good position, I moved quickly and recklessly with intention of attack, even though in my last three tournament games, I played deliberately and solidly. Do not play a certain way just to back up your pre-game trash-talking. Play the position as it is.
  9. I saw an opportunity for a sacrifice and instead of calculating it all out, just immediately played it. It was unsound, but my opponent did not find the refutation, and I suddenly had an easily winning position. But then I went crazy, unsoundly aiming for a quick win. He erred again, and I had a win in sight. But then, as I concluded that in a couple of moves I might Queen my a2-Pawn, I got up and walked to the corner of the chess club to open another chess set and return with a Black Queen in hand. Do not get up and distract yourself at a critical moment in a game. Do not engage in nonverbal trash-talking by getting a Queen before it is your move and you have actually decided to playing the Pawn promotion.
  10. In a winning position with beautiful checkmates in forced variations, I completely stopped thinking and played one bad move after another, my attack was stopped, and one piece down for nothing, I lost the game. Continue careful calculation, even in a position that looks great, especially if you have sacrificed something and need to make it count.

There are certain things I did wrong that I confessed here that I plan to never do again. I have learned a truly expensive lesson. It is possible that none of you have done as many immature, stupid things as I just did, but if any of what I have confessed rings true to you and causes you to reconsider your similar behavior, I hope my loss has not been in vain.

The annotated game

Franklin Chen


Chess And War

For the last few days I have been reading about classical war strategies after reading the sections ‘Practical Chess Strategy’ and ‘The Art of War’ from Rashid Ziatdinov’s book, GM Ram. I have summarised a few points for myself which could be useful in improving my chess game and thought I’d share them with you.

1. In order to win, you must have a more powerful army compared to your enemy: This is the most basic principle for winning a war. In chess too, if you’re attacking with few pieces where your opponent has more pieces to defend it is quite obvious that you can’t win. Unfortunately in chess you can’t have more pieces than your opponent in the beginning of the game, so you must create some sort of virtual majority of the forces on the side where you are planning to attack.

2.Resources (yours and your opponent’s) must be evaluated before launching an attack: You can’t have success with a Greek gift sacrifice when your opponent has obvious or hidden resources for defending the h7 square.

3.Whoever comes first in battle field has better chances to win the battle: This is 100% true as if you’re first you will get more time to establish your resources at key positions. In chess we can relate this to the rapid development of our forces.

4.If you prevent your enemy from getting help, you have better chances to win. The simplest way to understand this is in rook endings, if you successfully cut off the opponent’s king you will have better chances to win if you have a material superiority and defend successfully (for example in the Philidor position) with a worse position.

When you try to see chess as war, rather than merely a game, you will see the board and pieces in a new light.

Ashvin Chauhan


O’Kelly Crusher

This week I’m sharing a smashing game by a teammate of mine, Chris Briscoe, played in the UK’s Four Nations Chess League (4NCL) in March. I manage Surbiton, a team in Division 3, which this year has over 60 teams competing for just three Division 2 promotion spots. Chris is our regular Board 1 player and we are fortunate to have him – he previously played for Wood Green, which is usually near the top of Division 1.

Angus James