The Temptation To Play Safe Can Prevent Improvement

A student of mine lost a game almost straight out of the opening as a result of facing Alekhine’s Defense as White and overextending and losing the advanced e5 Pawn; there may have been drawing chances later in the game, but losing the e5 Pawn at move 13 was not fun:

Avoid overreacting to the loss

This kind of thing happens to all of us: we can play too aggressively or carelessly, and end up losing. That’s natural. But how we respond to our failure can determine whether we improve or simply get demoralized. In his disappointment, he suggested that maybe he should meet Alekhine’s Defense with the cautious d3, protecting the e4 Pawn and refusing to play into Black’s provocative idea of causing White to advance with e5.

OK, d3 is objectively not horrible, so why not play this? There are a couple of reasons:

  • If Black plays …e5, then you as White are playing a Philidor reversed with an extra move. Now, if you already play the Philidor as Black, this might well be just fine for you.

    But if you don’t play the Philidor as Black because you don’t like the cramped positions, then why would you want to play it in reverse as White? From a psychological point of view, it makes no sense to open the game with e4 if you don’t have a clear plan on taking on the Alekhine.

  • If you do not play e5, you are passing up a great opportunity to learn how to try to use a space advantage in chess. This is an important skill to work on. In less “unusual” openings the the Alekhine, White has to fight hard to get an undisputed space advantage, so it is a shame not to take up the challenge immediately when it is presented on move 2.

Take a middle path

In the game, White played the ambitious Four Pawns Attack against the Alekhine, trying to support the e5 Pawn with the f-Pawn, etc. Another wrong lesson to learn would be that White should not play the Four Pawns Attack. It is quite playable, if one is tactically precise. So I could advise studying all the various tricky lines Black has against the Four Pawns Attack.

But for an improver, I advise taking a middle path. Instead of either cowering in fear with d3 or going all out with the Four Pawns Attack, there are two other possible variations for White that are positionally quite sound and should ensure White a pleasant game with a space advantage, and completely avoid the problem of a possibly overextended e5 Pawn.

The Modern Variation with 4 Nf3 is quite sound, intending to recapture on e5 with the Knight if necessary. The Exchange Variation with 4 exd6 is also sound, dissolving the e5 Pawn entirely. So I advise learning the ideas behind one of these variations before embarking on other possible variations against the Alekhine.

The advantages of taking a middle path:

  • The solid positional approach is always useful to learn and understand, even if later on one chooses the sharper approach.
  • If is not yet prepared for tactical trickery, it is quite justifiable for an improver to step back from it and save exploration of sharp lines for later.
  • It can sometimes be useful to build up confidence after an annoying loss by avoiding an awkward line in any case.

Franklin Chen

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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.