What If Your Opponent Just Gives You Twelve Free Moves?

Not long ago, I wrote a post about imagining that you can play ten moves in a row from the initial opening position. I never thought I would be writing about this same theme from the point of view of starting from a non-opening position.

But I just saw an astounding game fragment in the January 2014 issue of “Chess Life”, in the column by GM Andy Soltis. He gave a position in the game between GM Ulf Andersson and IM Michael Basman in Hastings, 1974-75, in which after many moves, Basman (Black) had his pieces exactly where they were at the beginning of the sequence. And Soltis indicated that Basman won this game, without adding more details.

Upon seeing this game fragment, of course I had to see the rest of the game, so I looked it up. It turned out that Black’s pieces after his move 23 were exactly where they were after his move 11!!

So how could White, with twelve free moves, actually worsen rather than improve his position? How did he lose, when all intuition would suggest that he must have had a forced win?

Returning to the theme of “imagining you have ten moves in a row”

Before reading my analysis of what happened and what could have happened, you might want to take a look at the critical position after move 11, and come up with a plan (or multiple possible plans) for White:

Finding a suitable plan

Here are some thoughts on this position. First, it is a classical fixed Pawn structure arising often from a Queen’s Gambit Declined or Queen’s Indian Defense, in which White has exchanged the c Pawn for Black’s e Pawn. Black has a natural plan of possibly playing for Queen side counterplay c5, which might lead to a hanging Pawn structure. White has a natural plan of possibly playing for e4.

In any case, in order to break through Black’s position, it is clear that White has to get a Pawn storm in somehow, to further restrict Black’s pieces and to open lines.

e4 then e5

Now, there are subtleties concerning an e4 break by White. First of all, if White plays e4 without the support of f3, he might end up with an isolated d Pawn and get blocked up. Also, if White does play e4 without f3 support, it might be that the position is open enough to justify the isolated d Pawn. And playing a preparatory f3 has its drawbacks: White’s Bishop is temporarily locked in, pressure on d5 temporarily drops, and Black might strike back with c5.

Finally, it is almost certainly bad for Black in the long run to allow White to play e4 and then e5, because then f4 and f5 will follow, with a strong King side attack.

b4 then b5

As mentioned, White needs to restrain Black from playing a possibly freeing c5. Often in these kinds of positions (especially in the Tartakower Defense of the Queen’s Gambit Declined), White may play the minority-attack b4 to try to restrain c5, and also have idea of playing a4 and b5 against Black’s c6 square (or Pawn if Black moved there). But sometimes this plan, which weakens c4, might give Black the possibility of playing c6, b5, a Knight to b6 and c4 for counterplay.

The other thematic restraining idea by White is to play Qb3 and Rfd1.

g4 then g5

Finally, another possible plan for White is a flank plan, aiming for g4 and g5 to pry apart Black’s King side.

What actually happened

What actually happened was that White began the restraining process against Black’s Queen side, and so Black decided to simply shuffle pieces around, having nothing better to do than to wait.

Then White switched to the other wing and embarked on the g4 plan. This in itself was not actually terrible. In fact, at some points White had a won game with an eventual threat of g5 dislodging Black’s Knight defending d5.

Unfortunately, White made the mistake of instead overextending on the King side while exposing his own King. As a result, Black actually ended up freeing himself. Then after a number of errors, White further exposed his King and got into more danger.

Nevertheless, it took one final blunder before White lost the game by force, as a result of an exposed King combined with invasion by Black’s Queen and Rook.

It took quite a few errors in judgment for White to end up losing this game, but all of us have lost games in which we had a huge advantage and lost the thread, first losing the advantage and then losing the drawable endgame!

Looking for a breakthrough myself

While analyzing this position, I came to the conclusion that a combination of playing on the Queen side and center and King side was a good way to go. My plan, with some variations, is in the annotations below. First, make sure that to watch d5 square, and make sure that c5 and c6 are always bad for Black. Second, tie Black down on the Queen side and get control of the critical c6 square, by a3, b4, a4, b5. Third, advance on the King side (I chose h4) to restrain Black there. Finally, I believe White can then, after acquiring so much space, gang up on black’s c7 Pawn and d5 Pawn.

I invite you to work out other plans of winning, whether variations of Andersson’s g5 idea or an f3/e4 idea. I think it’s instructive to try out these different plans.

Unseen tactics

Black’s shuffling around actually left open some tactics both player missed, such as a decisive 21 g5 breaking through on d5 as well as on g6 and the g file. This illustrates that even in a position in which seemingly quiet maneuvers are being performed, there could be moves that completely change the nature of the position.

The full game

Franklin Chen


Author: 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.