The Winning Academy 12: Defensive Tragedies

by Jan Markos
7/6/2022 – In the previous part of The Winning Academy, we have distinguished between four very different modes of defence: creating a fortress, playing for a counterattack, simplifying into a holdable endgame, and organizing a sabotage act. In this follow-up part, I would like to show you how important and practical this distinction actually is. When defending, you should keep all four modes in mind and be flexible in choosing the most suitable. | Photo: Garry Kasparov | Photo: Lennart Ootes

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The inability to do so might have tragic consequences for the defender. Let us have a look at three games played by top grandmasters. None of them was able to defend effectively because they failed to choose the correct defensive mode.

In the first diagram, Black's position is rather unattractive:

Ni-Filippov, Hyderabad 2005, Black to move:


Black is a pawn up, his d5-knight is well-placed and strong. However, the other pieces seem to be randomly distributed around the board: the king is in the centre, the heavy pieces are  disconnected. White possesses the bishop-pair and is threatening to invade with his queen to h7. If I could choose, I would definitely pick White here.

Fillipov was aware of all the holes in his position and therefore chose the "fortress" mode of defence. He played the rather passive 35…Ke8?, hoping to glue together the kingside after 36.Qh7 Bf8. However, White played 36.Rc4 and after 36…Ra6 37.Qh7 Bf8 38.f5 Black was completely passive.

Instead of playing the feeble king move, Black could have switched into the "simplification" defensive mode and played 35…Rc5!, exchanging one pair of rooks. After 36.Rc4 Rxc4 37.Qxc4 Black can play 37…Kd7! and his king is not a hunted animal anymore. It has become an active defender: c6 is well protected now.

Twelve moves (and some mutual mistakes) later, the following position arose on the board:


Black is a piece up, but his king and his e6-rook are in a grave danger. The e5-pawn is untouchable because of the queen fork on h8. What should Black do? Again, Fillipov chose a passive mode of defence. He played the seemingly forced 47…Rec6?? and the game lasted only five more moves: 48.Qh8+ Ke7 49.f6+ Ke6 50.Qh3+ Kxe5 51.Re1+ Kd6 52.Qg3+ 1-0

However, if Black had been able to mentally switch to the "counterattack" defensive mode, he would have found 47…Qd3/d5! 48.fxe6 Qxb3+ 49.Rb2 Qd3+ 50.Rcc2 fxe6 with full compensation for the sacrificed material easily.

Here's the complete game:


In the following example, Teimour Radjabov, one of the best players in the world for decades, committed an incredible seppuku.

Sakaev-Radjabov, FIDE World Cup 2009, Black to move:


Black is OK. His position is reasonably solid, and he is the owner of the "better" bishop. White has only one active plan: to transfer his knight to f5. Normally, Radjabov would probably understand in seconds that this is a position suitable for a "fortress" defensive mode, and play something like 32…cxd5 33.cxd5 Be8! 34.Ng3 Bg6, and the g6-bishop easily annihilates the white knight, controlling the crucial squares h5 and f5.

However, this game was played at the World Cup, and the tension at this event consisting of K.O. minimatches is often difficult to bear. Radjabov, being the higher-rated player, probably felt that he should fight for the initiative, instead of cowardly and carefully defending some squares.

He chose the "counterplay" defensive mode and played the positionally inexplicable 32…b5??. Naturally, Sakaev had nothing against exchanging his "bad" bishop. The game continued:

33.axb5 cxb5 34.cxb5 Bxb5 35.Bxb5 Rxb5+ 36.Ka3 Rbb8 37.Ng3


Now we can sum up the results of Radjabov's "active" play. The f5-square is totally unguarded, and so is the h5-square. The pawns on d6 and a5 are both weak. The f6-knight is a tactical weakness. In fact, White threatens to take it immediately, followed by Nh5+.

Black is lost. The game lasted only one more move:  37…Kg6 38.Nh5 1-0. Radjabov resigned, as after 38…Nd7 White exchanges all rooks and then takes the a5-pawn with an easy win.

Here's the complete game:


Sometimes, it is not easy to decide for the simplification defensive method, because we are unable to evaluate whether the resulting position is drawn or lost. The evaluations of complex middlegame positions may have many shadows: E.g., White is a bit better, the position is unclear, Black has sufficient counterplay.

But in most simple endgames there are no subtleties. Zero shadows of grey. The evaluation is only threefold: win, draw or loss. Therefore, if you make a mistake in the evaluation of an endgame position, it usually costs you more than misevaluating a middlegame position.

In the following position, Ding had an extremely difficult decision to make. Should he enter a difficult endgame or should he play an awful middlegame?

Ding-Topalov, Gashimov memorial 2018, White to move:


Despite the bishop-pair, White is worse. Black's c4-pawn is very strong, and all his pieces are very active. That can't be said about the c1-bishop, standing idle behind the pawn chain. Should Ding simplify by taking twice on e4?

After 41.Nxe4 Nxe4 42.Bxe4 dxe4 White's king seems to be rather vulnerable.


At the first glance, many players would simply say: "White is worse." But wait! In such a simple position, the evaluation should not be that abstract and vague. White can either hold or he cannot. This is a loss, or a draw. No shadows, please.

So, is White able to hold this position? Most probably yes. He needs to block the c-pawn with the bishop and then mirror the manoeuvres of the black queen. E.g. with the black queen on g4 or f3, the white queen should be on f1.

I think that something like 43.Bb2! followed by Qa3-a1-f1 or Qa3-c3-e1 should do the job.

However, at the board Ding was not so sure. He could not find clear guarantees that the endgame is holdable. Therefore, he took 41.Nxe6 and after no more than three moves could have landed in an absolutely lost position. The game continued 41…fxe6 42.Bf1 and now 42…Ng4! 43.f3 Qb8! wins convincingly. However, Topalov chose the flashy (but weaker) 42…Nxf2?! and Ding later miraculously saved the game. Please, see the full game below:


I strongly believe a chessplayer should not only calculate lines, but also think in words, using metaphors and abstract strategical concepts as important tools. I hope that this part of The Winning Academy confirms my belief.

I am sure that Ding, Radjabov and Fillipov could have defended much better, if they were able to spend a minute or two contemplating over questions like "Which mode of defence should I use?" "Is this holdable with a passive defence?" or "Do simplifications generally help me or not?" before starting to calculate concrete lines.

In chess, automatic thinking sometimes helps. However, more often than not we want have control over our thinking, forcing our brains to ask the correct questions and find the correct answers.


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.