IM Sagar Shah and myself (GM Igor Smirnov)
In the first part of this article, we discussed what we should do in a critical position and how to stop your opponent’s idea. If you missed it, I strongly recommend you to read it here, and only then continue with this second part, so that you won’t break the continuity but will DIGEST this lesson fully. 🙂
In the second part, we’ll address a much more important question:
But what if your opponent’s idea cannot be stopped?
Prophylactic thinking is a key tool in critical positions. But one need not always prevent the opponent from executing his plan. Sometimes you can create a threat that is stronger than the opponent’s idea.
To make this point clearly, let us see a most interesting position from the 2013 World Championship match between Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen.
Anand – Carlsen WC Match 2013
What should Black do?
Now you know that whenever you see a position, the first question that should come into your mind is this: What is my opponent’s idea?
We answer this by “giving the move to our opponent”. If it were White’s turn, he would simply play 27.Rf4! b2 28.Rh4 b1=Q 29.Nf1 and no power in this world could prevent mate on h7.
Carlsen realizes that his opponent’s threat is strong but, at the same time, that he can’t do anything to prevent it. Hence, rather than making futile attempts to prevent his opponent’s idea, he goes ahead with his own idea of queening the pawn via 26…b2!
Now Anand lets Carlsen queen his pawn and goes for the attack with 27.Rf4!? b1=Q 28. Nf1?? This blunder effectively seals the fate of the World Championship match after 28…Qe1!, preventing Rh4. Anand promptly resigns.
28…Qe1 – preventing Rh4 – ended the game
Let us not get into too many intricacies but merely note that instead of the blunder 28.Nf1, 28.Bf1 would have been a better try. But it would have not been enough for a win, as Black can successfully defend his position.
What we learn from this position is that sometimes preventing the opponent’s idea is either not possible or not good enough. Therefore, you need to create a threat that is stronger than your opponent’s threat. In this way, you can successfully refute his idea.
Magnus Carlsen is definitely a master when it comes to creating counter-threats, and all world-class players know a fine balance exists between preventing the opponent’s ideas and ignoring them. But now let us look at a game of mine right out of the opening, where I was able to create stronger threats than my opponent’s idea.
Sagar – Deepthamsh, National B, Tirupati 2012
What should White play?
My opponent is a 2100 player. He played the Old Indian Defense, which is a little passive yet a very solid opening. His last move in the position was Nd7-b8. What would you do?
Instinctively, I am sure you have already asked yourself the question as to what my opponent’s threat is. If it were Black to move, he would have definitely played Na6! with the idea of parking his knight on the wonderful location of b4. There is no really good way to prevent this plan. Hence, White must come up with something that is stronger and will put Black in trouble.
If you look carefully, there is one more factor that is highly in White’s favor, and it is that he is far ahead in development. A very common rule in chess is that when ahead in development, you must open the position. Such rules come in very handy when you are trying to formulate a plan.
Keeping all this in mind, the best move for White here is 14.c5! This moves blasts open the position and makes Black’s plan of Na6-b4 quite slow. After 14…ed4 (14…dc5 is met with 15.de5!) 15.cxd6 Bxd6 16.Nxd4 – and White is clearly ahead.
Black to play
Well-developed pieces and a mobile central majority give White a clear advantage. Black now continues 16…Na6 17.f4 Nb4 18. Qf2
Black to play
Black has been able to plonk his knight on to the weakened b4 square but, as you can see, that hardly matters now. The center is fluid and the b4 square has very little or no relevance to this position. White cannot prevent Black’s idea but can make it less powerful with the central break of 14.c5!
Let us conclude this article at this point and offer some important reminders about what we have learnt, so that you can start using these techniques right away in your very next game.
- Critical positions occur approximately 4-5 times in a game, but the most important is the first critical position that arises because it gives direction to the game.
- How do we identify a critical position? Ask yourself: “What is my opponent’s plan/idea?” Think carefully about his idea. The best way to understand it is to “give the move to your opponent” in your mind. In this way, you can find what his idea is.
- Once you find the opponent’s idea, two things can happen.
- The real skill in identifying critical positions is to be alert to the opponent’s possibilities at all times. If you cannot identify your opponent’s ideas, you will be missing the critical positions all the time and end up in a bad situation.
- Whether to be prophylactic and stop your opponent’s plan or to make your own counter-threat is another skill that is extremely hard to master. You need a lot of practice to perfect this art. But you have to make a start on it.
And the right way to do so is always to ask the extremely important question: “What would my opponent do if it were his move?” It can be boring to ask yourself this after every move, but if you keep doing so, soon it will become very natural and you will make prophylactic moves without much thought.
Identifying critical positions is something you must do in every game; and if you do master this art, then you are well on your way to becoming a strong chess player! The day won’t be too far away when, like my Grandmaster friend in the first paragraph, you too will be able to identify critical positions based on your intuition and feel for the game. But till then, you will have to follow the guidelines given in this article! I wish you the very best for your future games! 🙂
Finally, I’d like to make one additional note that will help you to improve. After your game is over, you must try to analyze it without using an engine. When you do that, try to note which positions you thought were critical during the game, make a few observations about each one and also how much time you spent on that position. This will surely help you to improve your sense of identifying critical positions.
All the games discussed above are in PGN format and can be downloaded from here.
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