The Value Of Thematic Complete Games Against A Weaker Opponent

One of the paradoxes for the intermediate level chess improver is that very often, focusing on studying well-annotated top-level games, such as in the excellent anthology The Mammoth Book of the World’s Greatest Chess Games, backfires. This is because the games are so subtle and dominated by sharp tactical turns, that the chess improver find its hard to apply the lessons to everyday practical play.

One good piece of advice that has often been given on this blog has been to study older games, such as those by José Capablanca and Akiba Rubinstein, in which the greats of the past faced weaker competition. But even this is not ideal, because “weaker” in this context is still stronger than the average club player today. I feel that what can be truly valuable is the study of games in which one can identify with the loser, but at the same time also aspire to be the winner (where the winner is not a super-strong Master or better).

Through a lower-level game, one can learn how to see through the eyes of the thematic play of the stronger player while learning how to avoid the faulty defensive play of the weaker player. It is instructive to study how to gradually press home a plan against a clearly weaker opponent, because in club chess, what I hear often after a game is “I knew I was better at this point but didn’t know how to proceed”. It is more important, at club level, to have a clear idea of how to transition well into the middlegame and endgame against imperfect opposition, than to know how to handle the best possible responses in some sharp opening line; if you don’t know how to win against weaker moves and plans, how can you learn to win against strong ones?

I offer the following game, which I played this week in the first round of a Tuesday night tournament at the Pittsburgh Chess Club, as an example of this kind of instructive game, from the opening through the endgame. (The players were rated USCF 1703 and 2164.) The game illustrates the successful use of the Rubinstein Variation of the English Opening by Black, through the classic Maroczy Bind Pawn structure:

  • how to create the bind in the opening, characterized by the c and e Pawns
  • how to defend both the c and e Pawns against counterplay while continuing development into the middlegame
  • how to punish attempted too-late counterplay by winning material
  • how to finish off a won endgame (often just called “a matter of technique”, but it’s not over till it’s over, especially in club play)

The lessons for White involve seeing:

  • missed opportunities to play more actively in the opening
  • the dangers of creating exploitable Pawn weaknesses on the Queen side
  • the folly of attempting “freeing” play too late, when the opponent has already prepared to handle it

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.