When Weaknesses Didn’t Matter (And When They Did)

When one first begins learning about “positional chess”, one quickly learns concepts such as “weaknesses”, such as

  • weak square in your territory (a square you don’t have much control over, especially if you cannot protect it with one of your own Pawns)
  • backward Pawn (a Pawn that is behind its neighbor Pawn(s) and therefore cannot be protected by another Pawn)
  • weakness on a half-open file (such that the opponent can multiply attack your Pawns and pieces by means of a battery of Rooks and a Queen)

These are very important concepts, and one is taught to recognize these patterns and avoid weaknesses. One is often also shown instructive games in which one side had these weaknesses and eventually lost. This is all well and good, and an important step in chess improvement is to understand these structural weaknesses and to try to avoid them for one’s own setup as well as try to induce them and exploit them in one’s opponent’s setup.

However, time and again, when I work with chess players to help them improve, I get asked some very good questions:

  • “The position looks bad, but is it really that bad?”
  • “What do I do if I end up in one of these positions with weaknesses?”

In other words, many chess books geared at improvement present a biased view of the game, showing “how to plan an attack” and “how to punish weaknesses”, rather than “how to defend” and “how to deal with having weaknesses”. They present exciting games where somebody wins. Well, today I present a “boring” game where nobody wins, despite Black having all three of the example weaknesses I mentioned at the beginning of this article! And in fact, nobody was really ever in danger of losing. I think boring, “correct” games have much to teach as well as the exciting, flawed ones.

Summary of the game Baramidze-Leko, Dortmund 2014

I saw this game while following the Dortmund 2014 tournament earlier. Nobody annotated it, because it was so boring. But I thought it would be a great illustration of when “weaknesses” don’t matter, and why.

At move 12 in an Open Catalan, a characteristic Pawn structure arose, in which Black can be considered to have certain weaknesses: the backward c-Pawn on c7 cannot advance to c5, because of White’s bind with the Pawns on b4 and d4 controlling c5, and White has the half-open c-file. Also, White has the extra center Pawn (d-Pawn) vs. Black’s c-Pawn. So it could be considered that Black might be in trouble.

But a “weakness” is a problem only if it can be exploited. In this kind of position, White usually tries some combination of these ideas (see the game Kramnik-Carlsen, Dortmund 2007 at the end of this article, for example):

  • plant a Knight on c5 or a5
  • plant a piece on c6 to constrict Black
  • double Rooks on the half-open c-file
  • win Black’s c-Pawn
  • advance e4 to get the big Pawn center

However, Black in this game basically thwarted all of these ideas:

  • Move 13: maneuvered the Queen to a8, controlling not only c6 but the long diagonal and prevented e4
  • Move 15: advanced with c6 after the light-squared Bishops were traded off, so even though the c-Pawn is still backward, it is defensible; also, this prepared for a5 counterplay
  • Move 16: White, under danger of a5 counterplay against the b-Pawn, decided to trade Knights to allow the dark-squared Bishop to protect b4.
  • Move 17: maneuvered a Knight to b6, noting that White’s attempt to bind the c5 square had the side effect of creating a White weak square at c4
  • Move 19: a5 created counterplay against White’s b-Pawn and ensured that White would end up with an isolated Queen side Pawn
  • Move 20: Nc4 put the Knight on a great outpost in White’s weak c4 square
  • Move 23: White could not bear to leave Black’s Knight on c4 and forced a trade

After the final simplification on move 23, the game could have been called a draw already. Each side had a Queen, two Rooks, and a dark-squared Bishop.

White still had a bind on c5, but so what? In the rest of the game, he tried putting a Bishop there, then a Queen, then a Rook, but to no avail. That “outpost” did not help with any further penetration. If White had a Knight to put on c5, the story could have been very different, but note how in the game, Black virtually forced two Knight trades. Every trade brought Black closer to a comfortable position, because Knights are the best pieces to use against weaknesses, since if they can reach a good outpost, they can attack effectively from there.

All of Black’s most important Pawns (b5, c6, e6) were on light squares, which meant they were immune from attack by White’s only remaining minor piece, the dark-squared Bishop. Meanwhile, White had an isolated a-Pawn on a dark square to attend to on a3. Given this situation, and no Pawn breaks on the King side, the inevitable conclusion to the game was a draw, and it was agreed so after almost thirty more moves of shuffling around.

What conclusions can we draw from this game? One is that it is quite feasible to attempt to defend a position with weaknesses, if you play actively and force simplification in your favor so that your weaknesses do not matter. Another conclusion, unfortunately, might be that this main line opening variation of the Catalan, in which Black willingly plays dxc4 and then goes for counterplay with b5, allowing White to create a bind on c5, is drawish for both sides when each plays correctly.

However, there was once a time when this plan by White was very powerful, in the hands of Vladimir Kramnik, against those who did not adopt the right defensive plan as Black. In fact, 7 years ago at Dortmund 2007, Kramnik beat Magnus Carlsen with the Catalan. I have attached this game below so that you can see what it looks like when White’s idea works perfectly! Make note of every mistake that Carlsen made as Black, allowing White to execute his plan cleanly.

The complete game Baramidze-Leko, Dortmund 2014

Kramnik-Carlsen, Dortmund 2007

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.