The Winning Academy 11: The Most Important Skill of a Chess Professional

by Jan Markos
6/29/2022 – When young players ask me, what chess skill should he or she improve to be able to enter the tough arena of professional chess, I usually have a simple answer. My short advice is: "You should learn how to defend. Especially, you should master the art of positional defence." | Photo: Pixabay

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Amateur players seldom defend well. Why? Well, the process of defending is often unpleasant, stressful, and exhausting. And amateurs mostly play for fun. So why would they concentrate on what is boring and stressful, instead of focusing on the cheerful aspects of the royal game? The result of such a mindset is logical: non-professionals are usually much more skilled in attacking than defending.

With professionals, things are rather different. They play chess for fun, but also to pay the bills. They simply need to achieve good results, and to get these, they need to master all the chess skills, even the unattractive ones.

So, let us in this article open the gate to the world of professional chess. I would like to show you four different defensive methods, and maybe also change your mind a bit. Perhaps we will find out together, that the art of defence is not entirely uninteresting.

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This is the 14th game of the Kramnik-Kasparov London match, in which Kramnik became the World Champion. Just imagine being Kramnik here: You have a nice 2-0 lead in the match, and you are only inches away from the chess crown.

However, you misplayed the opening and are worse against one of the most dangerous players in the entire chess history. If he wins this one, the following day you will be Black and have to defend against Kasparov full of new energy and optimism.

So, what would you play? How would you defend yourself?

Kramnik-Kasparov, World Championship Match (14), London 2000, White to move:

 

Kramnik understood that Black has got a positional threat of …Rc8-c5, with a long-term pressure against the weak c4-pawn. Defending such a position would be exhausting and difficult. Therefore, he decided to pull a handbrake, using the first method of defence: simplification.

He sacrificed a pawn with 29.c5!?, and after 29…Rxc5 30.Rxc5 Bxf6 31.Qxf6 dxc5 the position has simplified into a bearable endgame:

 

Ok, Black is a pawn up. However, both White's heavy pieces are very active and there are several weaknesses in Kasparov's camp: the a-pawn, the c-pawn and – most notably – the king. Kramnik played a nice prophylactic move 32.Kh2!, preparing a rook lift, and drew the game without much effort.

Here's the complete game:

 

Another much used method of positional defence is creating a fortress. Fortresses do sometimes occur in closed middlegame positions, but they are much more common in endgames. Why? The reason is simple: with less pieces on the board, there are less attackers trying to get into the fortress, and therefore even shaky and thin walls might do the job.

In the following position, I had to solve a difficult problem: How should I stop the White king to enter my camp via the queenside while controlling the b-pawn?

Zilka-Markos, Slovak Team Championship 2020, Black to move:

 

Black's main difficulty lies in the fact, that his d6-knight is taking away an important square from its own king. The black monarch belongs to c6. But how to get there? Firstly, we need to find a new spot for the knight. I played 54…Nb7!, and the game continued 55.Bc8 Nc5 56.b7 Na6!. At the first glance, a6 – far away from the centre – is a poor place for the knight. However, more important is that the way to c6 is now free. So after White's possible try 57.Kd3 Kd6 58.Kc4 Kc6 the fortress is impregnable (see the diagram below.)

 

Zilka-Markos, line

In the game, Zilka played 57.Kf3 and tried another forty moves to break my defences, but my minimalistic fortress withstood all his efforts.

Let us have a look at the third defensive method, perhaps the most enjoyable one: counterattack. Usually even inexperienced players do not have many problems with finding counterattacking possibilities. After all, a counterattack resembles a "normal" attack to some extend, and we all love to be active in chess, don’t we?

However, sometimes counterattack might be organised in unexpected situations. Let us have a look at Aronian-Carlsen, Sinquefield Cup 2014, White to move:

 

White is a pawn down in an unpleasant rook endgame. I bet that most of the club players would put the rook behind the pawn and then simply wait. After all, what else could be done here, with so few pieces on the board?

Well, Aronian found a nice counterattacking possibility. He played 52.Kg2! with the plan of attacking the black pawns with a king march g2-h3-h4-g5-f6, as soon as the black king moves to the queenside.

Against lesser mortals this idea would easily hold the draw. However, Carlsen showed his miraculous technique again, confused his opponent later in the endgame and won.

Here is the complete game:

 

The last defensive method is almost unknown to majority of the club players. It does not even have a proper name yet. In our book Secret Ingredient, co-authored by David Navara, we named it sabotage.

Sabotage is not the same thing as counterattack. The defender is not trying to come up with his own activity. Rather, he tries slowing down the attacking pieces, usually by creating micro-problems. Sabotaging means pouring sand into the attacking mechanism of your opponent.

Let us have a look at a superb example:

Ding-Vachier Lagrave, Candidates tournament 2021, Black to move:

 

Vachier-Lagrave's position is rather unappealing. His king is very vulnerable and White's heavy pieces are well placed in the centre. The direct threat is Re5-e6, followed by a deadly queen check on g6.

However, there is a way hot to slow down White's attack. The Frenchman played the spirited 51…Rf7!, attacking the vulnerable f3-pawn. Now 52.Re6?? is answered by a counterblow 52…Rxf3+, and therefore White needs to find new, slower attacking ideas.

After fifteen more moves, the situation has almost repeated itself:

 

Again, Ding is threatening to invade the black camp. This time, the main threat is Qe4-b7+, followed either by a quick mate, or by major material gains. And again, Vachier-Lagrave comes up with an only move. This time, the Black monarch itself becomes the saboteur!

Black played the courageous 66…Kf6!, disrupting the harmony of the white army. The rook is hanging, and after both 67.Qf5+ Kg7 and 67.Rf5+ Kg7 68.Qb7+ Kh8 there is no direct win. The game ended peacefully after 88 moves.

 

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I know, defending is tough. Sometimes, it is boring and exhausting as well. But you might fall in love with it. After all, it is an important skill that will bring your game to an entirely new level.

I hope that after reading this article, you have a better idea about available defensive methods. I always advise my pupils to ask themselves: "Which method I should defend with in this position? Shall I simplify, build a fortress, go for a counterattack, or organize a sabotage?" Once you pick the correct method, it will be much easier to find the suitable moves as well.

Of course, these methods might (and often should!) be combined in a single game. Karpov was the one who was able to "change gears" in defence very skilfully: he mixed patient defensive play with unexpected counterattacks, and he especially loved to simplify into awful but holdable endgames.

However, even strong players sometimes lose the thread when it comes to picking up the correct defensive method. We will have a look at such "defensive mishaps" in the next part of The Winning Academy.

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Jan Markos is a Slovakian chess author, trainer, and grandmaster. His book Under the Surface was the English Chess Federation´s 2018 Book of the Year. His last book, The Secret Ingredient, co-authored with David Navara, focuses on the practical aspects of play, e.g. time-management over the board, how to prepare against a specific opponent, or how to use chess engines during the training process. Markos was the U16 European Champion twenty years ago. At present he helps his pupils from several countries to achieve similar successes. Apart from focusing on the royal game, he is also the author of several non-chess books, focused on critical thinking, moral dilemmas, and phenomenology.
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