Sharp Is Risky

Game 9 of the World Championship between incumbent Anand and challenger Carlsen, saw Anand play a sharp game straight from the opening, in an attempt to get back into the match. Unfortunately for him he missed a Queen move in his calculations and then after 28.Nf1 had to resign after Carlsen played 28…Qe1 (28.Bf1 would have drawn). From the post-game interview afterwards it sounds like Anand just overlooked that his knight on f1 was no longer covering the key h4 square. Effectively his hopes of retaining his title died with this game.

This kind of blunder – a tactical oversight or miscalculation – is all too recognisable in average players, but rarer at elite GM level. We can only speculate as to what might have contributed to this mistake – such as the clock, the pressure of the match situation, the tactical nature of this game. It is not really the way Anand wanted to play against Carlsen in general, but it is understandable why he felt he needed to take a risk and ‘go for broke’ in this particular game given the match score.

Going into sharp lines can be highly stressful for both players as it becomes difficult to evaluate who is better and unclear as to what may happen next. Safety first and being cautious and trying to keep the position under control is usually the option that players find more comfortable to deal with. Unless of course you are a player that excels in unbalanced and unclear positions, in which case you may find a kind of safety in these positions, and be more scared of clearer ones!
I often find it interesting to see at club level how unconcerned players can be with entering crazy positions that are so unclear they can’t possibly fathom what is going on. I had a couple of highly tactical games myself in the past week where numerous mistakes were made on both sides, and the result of each game could have been easily reversed. I happened to win one and lose one, but any outcome could have been possible. These games are not exactly smooth going and are battles more akin to street fighting than strategic thinking.

Stronger players are probably more comfortable with simple positions that require much less tactical calculation because they understand what else is going on positionally. That gives them quite an advantage – they don’t need to take huge risks to outplay opponents. I am trying to play more solidly myself and to avoid where possible the sharpest openings. This has made me harder to beat, although I also have a higher proportion of draws and fewer wins. It also got me the Mr Solid award with 10 draws from 13 games for one team I played for last season!

Given that even at the highest level no one can completely avoid making tactical oversights in very sharp positions, it should make sense to try to steer games into quieter territory for those that are trying to improve. Learn to play simple chess before you try to play chaotic chess. My advice to improvers is don’t take unnecessary risks, play it safe if you can, think solid and sensible rather than inviting complications.

Angus James