He Who Hesitates

“He who hesitates is lost”, according to the old proverb, dating from long before the days of gender-neutral language.

In chess this is often true, but more often, at least in my games, those who hesitate are drawn. At my level this happens over and over again. You have a good position. You know what you ‘should’ play, but you get nervous, you start thinking ‘what if it doesn’t work’, the clock’s ticking away and you have to make a decision. You chicken out and play something which looks vaguely safe instead. I’m sure there are many of us who would get better results if only we had the courage of our convictions.

Witness the following game, in which I had the black pieces against an opponent of similar strength to myself, who I knew from previous encounters was an uncompromising player who would guarantee me an interesting game. He insisted, as was his right, on the ‘slow’ option: we had to play 35 moves in 75 minutes, with time called after 2½ hours. The league rules stipulate that, if the game is unfinished, the player whose turn it is to move can adjourn and continue at the opposing team’s venue or propose an adjudication. The other player can then agree to an adjudication or insist on an adjournment, travelling to his or her opponent’s club. (You may well think it extraordinary that here in 2016 we’re still playing chess in this way with such Byzantine rules, but that’s the Thames Valley League for you.)

1. d4 Nf6
2. Nf3

This gives me a problem as I prefer to fianchetto my king’s bishop in systems when White refrains from c4. The problem is that I have rarely played the King’s Indian Defence with black, and, although I used to play the Grünfeld regularly, gave it up more than 40 years ago. I rather suspect theory has moved on since then.

2… g6

Hoping he won’t play 3. c4, but…

3. c4 Bg7
4. Nc3

So I have to decide: King’s Indian, Grünfeld or perhaps c5 with some sort of Benoni. Mentally tossing a coin, I choose the first option.

4… O-O
5. e4 d6
6. Be2 e5
7. O-O

He goes for the main line. I’m not up to date with current theory after Nc6 so I select a less common variation which, to the best of my knowledge, is playable, and hope he doesn’t know any more about it than I do.

7… exd4
8. Nxd4 Re8
9. f3 c6

Nc6 is also popular here. Now White’s usual choice is Kh1, to move off the open diagonal.

10. Nc2 Be6

A natural developing move but Na6 is more often played and scores better.

11. Be3 d5

Going for the thematic pawn break, but I suspect White stands better in the resulting position.

12. cxd5 cxd5
13. e5 Nfd7
14. f4 Nb6

This position has occurred several times in practice. Black could also play Nc6 here, as 15. Nxd5 is hit by Ndxe5 when Black stands better.

15. Nd4 Nc6
16. Ncb5

Still fine for White, although Black won both games reaching this position on my database.

16… Bf8
17. b3

The first hesitation, perhaps, although it’s natural to prevent the black knight landing on c4. The engines all prefer Nxe6 followed by Rc1. It looks rather unnatural to me to trade off a strong knight for a bad bishop, but I’m not going to argue with them.

17… Nxd4
18. Nxd4 Rc8
19. Qd2

Another hesitation. White plays a natural ‘improving’ move rather than going for the pawn break with f5, which would have given him a strong position.

19… Nd7
20. Kh1

And again. He might have preferred 20. Bd3, taking control of the e4 square and preparing to meet 20… Nc5 with 21. f5.

20… Nc5
21. Bf3 Qd7
22. h3

Yet, again White hesitates and has now lost his advantage. Here the engines want to play Nxe6 followed by either Rac1 or g4. White must play actively to prevent Black putting a knight on e4.

22… h5

Now it’s my turn to hesitate. I wanted to prevent g4 and was worried, without any good reason, about the e-pawn being weak after a trade on e4. Instead 22… Ne4 23. Bxe4 dxe4 is equal, with a possible perpetual after Bxh3 if White tries something active.

23. Rad1 b6

Again – Ne4 is about equal.

24. Bf2

Again – f5 is good for White.

24… Rc7

Again chickening out of Ne4. I’m sure we both knew the right moves to play but wimped out of playing them at every opportunity.

25. Rfe1 Rec8
26. Rc1

Natural, I suppose, but setting up various tactical possibilities for Black on the c-file. The engines now recommend 26… Ne4, when Black will have enough compensation if White snatches the pawn, or 26… Nd3, but instead I wimp out again and move my knight to an unfavourable square on the edge of the board.

26… Na6
27. Rxc7 Rxc7

Giving White a tactical opportunity. Instead Nxc7 is correct.

28. Rc1

Missing 28. Nxe6 (it’s easy to miss tactics starting with a seemingly antipositional move) when 28… fxe6 is not possible because of 29. Qd3, hitting both a6 and g6.

28… Bc5
29. Rd1

As we approach the time control White allows a tactic which I manage to spot.

29… Bxh3
30. Nb5

Not the best reply. One improvement is 30. Be2 (hitting the loose knight on a6) 30… Bg4 31. Bxa6 Bxd4 32. Qxd4 Bxd1 when Black has an active rook and a pawn against White’s two bishops. The engines claim equality. Needless to say I hadn’t seen any of this at all, but in a complex position with neither player having too much time left inaccuracies are inevitable.

30… Qxb5
31. gxh3 Bxf2
32. Qxf2 Nb4

32… Qd7, to prevent f5, with a slight advantage to Black.

33. Be2

33. f5 gives White enough counterplay for equality.

33… Qc5
34. Qg3

A mistake as we approach the time control…

34… Kh7

And the final hesitation, playing a ‘safe’ move rather than 34… Qc2 with Rc3 to follow and the black major pieces infiltrate.

35. f5

On the last move before the time control White finally manages to play the thematic pawn break which he might have played on move 19, or on various other occasions thereafter.

35… Qc3

The best reply. Time was called and, as it was my opponent’s move he had the choice of adjourning and playing on at my club or proposing an adjudication. By now the other games had finished and my team had secured enough points to win the match so there was nothing except honour at stake. He proposed an adjudication, and, having better things to do with my life than spend a couple of days analysing the position and another evening travelling to his club to play it out, accepted his proposal. (I’d probably have asked him to seal a move and played on if the match had depended on it.)

I consulted the engines when I returned home and decided that after what appeared to be best play for both sides: 36. Bf3 Nd3 37. e6 Ne5 38. fxg6+ fxg6 39. Rxd5 Rc5 40. Rxc5 Qxc5 I was going to win the e-pawn and reach an ending with an extra pawn, but, with the queens still on the board it was unlikely to be enough to convince the adjudicator to give me a win. So I emailed my opponent and proposed a draw, which was accepted. Of course if I’d asked him to seal he might not have found the correct move. With more courage and determination I might have won the game. But with more courage and determination, and by playing f5 at the appropriate moment, my opponent might also have won the game, so I guess a draw was the fair result.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.