Going Back to the Basics (1)

“Everything in life goes back to the basics”
Kron Gracie

One of my online students (let’s name him C) sent me his latest analysed games and the following message as he was preparing for a local tournament:
“Recently I’ve been noticing that when I’m in a game, sometimes I don’t find an attack, or a really good move right away, and I start to focus on dumb, and pointless things in the game like taking a side pawn, and I forget about what is happening around me. This is mainly why I blunder and then lose. If you could give me some advice before the tournament I would appreciate it.”

Week after week we repeat the same process while going over his games. It is interesting to see how he struggles to make connection between our analysis and his thought process during the games. I have seen it too many times: the student believes after the lessons taught and puzzles solved, we are done and they do not have use for them anymore. During my earlier years as a coach I would not even think about it (too obvious, right?) and could become frustrated; one such moment was about 10 years ago during the national final of a team competition when I was coaching team British Columbia. Our province is a perennial 3rd in the country with Ontario and Quebec being in a league of their own. There are a number of reasons why this is the reality, but they are not important for the purpose of this article. Anyway the matches versus Ontario and Quebec are always a measuring stick of how we are doing; any wins or draws versus them are important. Our player in question was an up and coming junior at the time and he happened to be my student as well. Do not remember exactly what was the situation he missed in the endgame after a long battle in the match versus Ontario; it might have been going for a draw in the side pawn and bishop of wrong corner color (our app level 3, lesson 24). The point was that coincidentally we covered that situation right before the tournament (one would assume to be fresh on his mind) and I could not believe he failed to remember it.

Coming back to today I just reminded C of our process. One hears a lot in sports “go back to the basics” when things are not going well. It is easy to dismiss it as a cliche and to believe it does not apply to you when in reality it does very much. The first step in going back to the basics is to mind at all times the material balance or in simpler terms to know how many pieces you have versus what the opponent has. Do you mind this at all times in your games? Is it just as simple as counting the pieces and their value, subtract it from what the opponent has and see what you got? Do you count the pieces left on the board or the ones already captured? I see some of my level 2 students counting the pieces captured because they are fewer. This is not very good practice. Do you know why? There are a couple of obvious reasons for it:

  • The captured pieces cannot influence what is going on in the game anymore
  • Some captured pieces could be misplaced (example: falling under the table) or the opponent might hold one or more in their hand

Get into the habit of counting the pieces on the board and watch the balance between you pieces and the opposing ones. It is a basic aspect of the game you can use from the simplest “I am up by a point”, to the most sophisticated ones such as “I am going for an imbalanced material situation”. I am not going to spend time on “I am up by a point” C was alluding to when he mentioned taking a side pawn; however I am going to show a very interesting position where the imbalanced material situation was the answer. Here it is from one of our unfinished team voting games:

We had a long discussion about what to do here and some of the ideas were as follows (in chronological order):

  • “19. c5 gives us a passed pawn but it’ll be very difficult to defend; 19. Rfd1 is also a good idea since b5 is such a slow move”
  • “I like 19. Qb2 to move the queen away from the Black rook”
  • “Going back to 19. c5 it could be interesting to look at: 19. c5 Na5 20. Rbc1”
  • “19. c5 Na5 20. Rbc1 Nb7 21. c6 Bxc6 (21… Rxc6 same line) 22. Qxc6 Rxc6 23. Rxc6 and Black loses at least one queen side pawn”
    This was the seed of looking for an imbalanced material situation!
  • “19. a4 bxa4 20. Qxa4 Nd4 21. Qd1 Nxe2 To me this doesn’t seem great as I’d think their bishop is a bit better than our knight in such an open position, and both …Be6 and …Bg4 look like good moves for them”
  • “At the moment, the blunder 19. cxb5?? is in the lead, so we’re going to have to unite around a move. How about 19.Qb2 … ? It doesn’t seem to have any immediate downsides, and it gets us out of the pin”
  • “One quick note; 19. cxb5 is not a “blunder” per se. 19… Nd4 20. Qd2 Nxe2+ 21. Qxe2 Bxb5 22. Rxb5 axb5 23. Qxb5 with two pawns and a knight for a rook. Not the best, but not a total disaster”
  • “19. Qb2 is a safe option, but the resulting position (19. Qb2 b4) is probably not too much better for us than the a4 line”
  • “19. Qb2 b4 20. Rfc1 a5 21. Rc2 Rc7 22. Rbc1 Rfc8 23. Qb3 a4 doesn’t seem very good for White”
  • “I am not convinced that 19. cxb5 is all that horrible. I also wonder about 19. a4 having an issue with 19…b4 19. Qb2 looks interesting but the variations I see so far look defensive. So, let us look at 19. cxb5 in a little more depth. Tell why it is bad”
  • “19. cxb5 Nd4 20. Nxd4 Rxc2 21. Nxc2 Bxb5 22. Bxb5 axb5 23. Rxb5”
  • “In that line it is not clear to me how Black wins just with the queen, rook and 3 versus 4 pawns after they capture the a2-pawn (worst case scenario). White defends the f2-pawn with one rook and holds (for example) the 4th row with the other rook and knight. It feels easier to play than suffering in the 19. Qb2 line”
  • “I don’t like a4 b4 now (thanks to eric for finding that!). I am skeptical of cxb5; we’ll hold, but it won’t be easy, and we won’t have winning chances. The lines with Qb2 and Nd4 looks pretty good for us. Therefore, my vote goes to Qb2 (though I would be really unhappy if cxb5 won out)”

It is very interesting to go over the above and follow the train of thoughts. In the end 19. cxb5 won by one vote (10 votes) over 19. Qb2 (9 votes). Which move would have you chosen if you could be white in this position? Looking back here we were at the crossroads and going for 19. cxb5 made all the difference. My guess is it also surprised the opposing team and the resulting material imbalance influenced them into playing from bad to worst; now we are in an endgame where winning is just around the corner. Before showing you how the game went on for a few more moves, please remember to watch the material balance at all times until your subconscious will take over and do that for you.

Valer Eugen Demian

This entry was posted in Improver (950-1400), Intermediate (1350-1750), Strong/County (1700-2000), V.Strong/Master (1950 plus), Valer Eugen Demian and tagged on by .

About Valer Eugen Demian

The player - my first serious chess tournament was back in 1974, a little bit late for today's standards. Over the years I have had the opportunity to play all forms of chess from OTB to postal, email and server chess. The journey as a player brought me a lot of experience and a few titles along the way: FIDE CM (2012), ICCF IM (2001) and one ICCF SIM norm (2004). The instructor - my career as a chess teacher and coach started in 1994 and continues strong. I have been awarded the FIDE Instructor title (2007) for my work and have been blessed with great students reaching the highest levels (CYCC, NAYCCC, Pan-Am, WYCC). I am very proud of them! See my website for more information. I have developed my own chess curriculum on 6 levels based on my overall chess knowledge and hands-on experience. A glimpse of it can be seen in my first chess app: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/chessessentials/id593013634?mt=8 I can help you learn chess the proper way if this is what you seek!