Decision making in critical positions

Comments: 27

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How to identify critical positions in chess and make the right decisions



IM Sagar Shah and myself (GM Igor Smirnov)

critical thinkingLet me start off with a conversation I had with an experienced Grandmaster friend of mine a few days ago.


Me: According to you, what is a critical position?


GM friend: It is a position where you need to spend a good amount of time in order to make an important decision during a game.


Me: Ok. You’ve told me what to do during a critical position, but what about how to recognize whether or not it is a critical position?


GM friend: (after a long time thinking) I think a player can understand whether or not it is a critical position, based on his feel and understanding of the game.


Me: But then, how do you explain whether or not it is a critical position to players who do not have a highly developed understanding of the game like you?


GM friend: (again, after a long period of thought!) I don’t really know!! 🙂


The above conversation sparks off a few very interesting points about critical positions, the first being that a critical position is one where you must put in a lot of thought and make an important decision; second, great players, thanks to their endless hours of chess practice, have developed a feel for what a critical position is.


But for mere mortals who are taking their initial steps in the game of chess, it is important to understand what exactly a critical position is.


Why is a critical position so important?

whyThe point is that if you do not understand that a given position is critical and do not spend time on it, you will miss the opportunity either to gain an advantage or to equalize the game (if you are in a worse position). Hence, it becomes extremely important to understand what a critical position is and how to identify one.


Of course, you could work for hours and hours on chess, see top level games of GMs, analyze them, play in strong tournaments, analyze your own games, solve combinations, work on positional chess, etc., and you too would have a keen sense of knowing what a critical position is.


While there is no substitute for all of the above activities, by reading this article you can get an initial idea as to how to identify a critical position.


But, first of all, let me start off with an example from the 1979 USSR championship game between Gutman and Vitolinsh.


Gutman-Vitolinsh 1979 USSR
critical chess It’s Black to play. How should Black defend?


{The answer to the above position can be found in something like this. Suppose I play Qe7, White will give Qh6+ and I cannot interpose Qh7 because my f8-rook hangs. Next, his rook comes to g1 and it’s all over. Hence, I must somehow bring the White king to d3, where the interposing Qh7 will be a check. Hence, the right move is Bd3!! And after Kxd3 Qe7 Qh6+ Qh7+! is a counter-check. Black wins.}


No matter how difficult the answer to this position is, and even if it takes you a while to find it, I am sure each one of you understands that Black is in trouble. We can safely conclude that White has very dangerous threats here and that Black has to have a long think – hence, this is a critical position.


Even a beginner can understand this. We shall not be dealing with such positions in this article because the threat is quite obvious and any person will devote a lot of time to finding a solution to it rather than getting mated.


Suggestion: you may like to study our article “How to evaluate a position in chess?”.


Instead, we will be dealing with positions where the opponent’s threat is not so easy to understand.


Let’s kick off with an easy position.


Kasparov – Dubiel, Katowice 1993
critical chess What should White play?


First of all, let us understand why this position is so critical? Most of the time, in order to understand the importance of your move, you must give your opponent’s move some consideration. Think here as if it’s Black to play. What would he do?


Of course, if it were Black to play, his choice would be very easy. He would simply play 13…c5! and activate his b7-bishop. Once you are aware of what your opponent wants, you become aware of why the position is so critical.


If you don’t think this way and just play a natural developing move, like 13.Bf4, Black will react with 13…c5! and the position becomes equal. The problem here is that you are not paying enough attention to your opponent’s idea.


If you do ask yourself the question about what the opponent wants to do, you will immediately come up with the move 13.c5! for White, clamping down on the b7-bishop forever. It’s a very typical positional idea to keep your opponent’s bishop passive. Therefore, an awareness of what the opponent wants to do can make your decision very easy.
connect the dots steve jobsKasparov might have found this move within five seconds because such patterns are firmly engraved in his mind. But for us, we must constantly train our mind to be prophylactic.


Prophylactic?! What exactly does this mean? Prophylaxis is the art of understanding what your opponent wants to do and then preventing it.


Very strong players, like Kasparov, Karpov, Anand, and Carlsen, are very quick to spot the opponent’s ideas and prevent them. The first step in recognizing critical positions is quickly to understand what the opponent wants to do.


Here is a little more complicated example from a game of mine.


Sagar – Vinay, Bhopal 2013
critical chessWhat should White play?


As we already know, the first thing we must do when we get a position in front of us is “give the move to the opponent”. In this way, we will know what he is intending to play. So what would Black play if it were his move? He would go for 13…c6-c5 and then bring his knight back into the game with 14…Na5-c6. Once that is achieved, White will have no advantage. Hence, once you realize what Black’s plan is, you must try your best to prevent it.


I played the move 13.c5!, hitting the Black center, and after 13…e5 14.Bg5 Black’s central position is falling apart. He has to take 14…Bxf3 15.Bxf3 d5. It seems as if Black has an extremely strong center but you need to look a little further …

critical chessBlack’s center is strong and he threatens the move e5-e4. What should White do?


16.e4! is a powerful move; and after 16…d4 17.Na4, with the idea of Be2-c4 later, White has a dominant position with the two bishops, as well as a target to attack on a6, to say nothing of Black’s peripheral knight on a5.


Suggestion: you may also like to read our article “How to approach a position from a different angle?”.


The way to think in such positions is as follows:


  • What is my opponent’s idea?
  • Is it dangerous?
  • If yes, how can I prevent it?


Once you know that you must prevent your opponent’s idea, you must give it your all. This is the key. You cannot stop half-way through the above position, thinking that Black has a strong center. You have to look a bit further and find the move 16.e4!, then assess the position.


This is how you must approach critical positions. Strong willpower is the key to preventing the opponent’s ideas and making your own ideas work.


All the games discussed above are in PGN format and can be downloaded from here.


P.S. Now that you know what a critical position is, have you ever played some game(s) which involved a critical position and grasped its importance? If so, how did you react to it? Feel free to share your game(s) with us – I’ll be glad to see them. 🙂

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Quick Succes in chess

Comments: 27

Comments 27

  1. On the internet, I play” Live chess “. each player is given 10 minutes. Most of my losses are due to time. How to manage my time better? Earlier on, the Yahoo had a different format- 5 min plus 10 seconds increment, which suited me much better. The new format is something like rapid chess, which I do not like much.But I still play ,having no better option.

      1. dear igor your latest course just blew my mind how simply you explain complicated positions.i had one request if you had time then please contact gm rb ramesh of india and collaborate with him for special course.thankyou.ASAP

        1. Thanks for your appreciation. He is quite famous I have seen him in commentating on chess tournaments.


          1. dear sir ,he is not only famous but he is the most loved coach from all across the globe he had produced numerous gms and ims in india.his commentary is also flawless and quality .he has opened chess school namely chessgurukul. in chennai.

          2. it s my plesure sir.dear sir what do you think about gm boris alteman and gm alex yermolinsky course every russian school boy knows.??thankyou in advance.are they useful.??gm rb ramesh is aslo on whatsapp and twitter.

          3. Hi Ayush,
            Thanks for the info.
            I am unaware about the lessson that you are talking about you may find more information by searching the internet.

            Prasaadh | Support Officer

          4. dear sir it is on website .please suggest mr smirnov to collaborate with other gms to make long hour courses on modern opening theory because it is very hard to understand.

          5. dear igor,i had one request can you please explain gruenfeld opening in detail by making a webinar on that because peter svidler had made 12 hours series on that and it is solid weapon in top level.??

  2. Sayeed on his YouTube channel GM Smirnov has a great video about time management. It’s called “Finding the Best Moves Quickly “.

  3. dear sir this article is just fantastic but a video lesson is more instructive your new course the midlegame course is just awesome what a superb advise dear igor.thanks for this wonderful explanations please make a course on latest complex opening therory.

  4. Hello I’d like to ask something regarding the Grandmaster’s Positional Understanding course. I have the course, and I reaally love how GM Igor creates a simple system of understanding and even a system of thinking, algorithm to play in a real game. What my question tho is, what about planning? Should I compose plan or should I just follow his thinking algorithm?

    1. Hi Lovro,

      It’s nice to see you are studying the course diligently, and putting new thinking algorithm in place. I’m sure you’ll start winning more games soon!

      General principles help you find a particular move, while planning provides you with the right direction of play. Similarly, when you drive a car you need to know where to turn in the particular crossing, but it’s important to know the ultimately destination as well. I hope it makes sense to you 🙂

      To conclude, both skills are important. If you wish to master planning, you may check out the course “Your Winning Plan”. Also, just 1 month ago I released a course “Winning the Middlegame”, it’s suitable as well. Good luck!

  5. Here in Kasparov – Dubiel; I would have been hesitant to play .. c5 and my thinking was – : 1. I am creating a hole at d5 for the Black Knight to occupy 2. My d4 pawn is backward on an open file ; which in an ending will cost me dear. 3. My Q Bishop which is undeveloped , will become a bad bishop. What is WRONG with this thought process ??

    1. Right! According to Igors basic principles c5 wasn’t even a move candidate before developing the bishop. It doesn’t seem to be that simple. c5 limits the b7-bishop, but the knight gets d5 and the bishop can use the a6-f1 diagonal. Hmhh, Igor, please help!

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