The Winning Academy 20: Simple means safe

by Jan Markos
7/17/2023 – "KISS", which stands for "Keep it simple, stupid!", is a design principle first formulated by the US Navy in 1960, but which quickly caught on. KISS suggests that simplicity is preferable to complexity in most systems. Chess is no exception - Jan Markos knows more. | Photo: Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha on Flickr.

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"The most difficult task in chess is to win a won game."

I had heard this sentence from my coaches so many times as a teenager! And of course, for a good reason: before I turned 18, I had accumulated a respectable track record of spoiled winning positions in important games.

Why? After getting a decisive edge, I somehow expected that the game would finish automatically, by inertia. However, this is simply wrong. At a chessboard, you need to be careful and vigilant at all times.

And what exactly is your task when having a decisive advantage? Well, you need to turn a complicated winning position into a simple winning position. Simple means safe. In a simple position, it is usually quite difficult to go wrong. And thus, you will almost certainly get your deserved full point.

Good technique in chess simply equals to the ability to untie the Gordian knots arising on the board. Let's have a look at several examples:

Topalov-Carlsen, Bilbao 2008, White to move:

White is a pawn up and Carlsen's king is very vulnerable. There is surely more than one way how to finish the game with a direct attack. And honestly, this is exactly what I would have expected from Topalov, a renowned tactician.

However, the Bulgarian Super-GM kept his calm. He decided to win in the simplest and smoothest way. He played the prosaic 44.Nd6! and after 44…Qd7 he simplified into a won endgame: 45.Nxf7 Qxd2 46.Rxd2 Kxf7. In fact, this endgame is so easily won that after 47.c4 Ke7 48.Kc3 Carlsen resigned.

Surely this was not the most spectacular way how to finish the game. But a win against Carlsen is always an exceptional success and Topalov wanted to make sure that he will get the job done.

Here's the complete game:


In the following example, Jobava showed an impressive ability to find a clear route out of a complicated endgame:

Jobava-Tregubov, Ohrid 2001, White to move:

Surely, White is better. However, I can imagine many scenarios how a club player would be able to spoil this position. For example, many rook endgames are actually drawn, because the passed d-pawn is too close to the black king.

However, Jobava was able to calculate a winning line. He decided to force matters:

33.Rxa5! Rxa5 34.d7 Rd8 35.Nc6 Raa8 The only move. However, now White enjoys full domination. 36.Ke2 Kf6 37.Rd6+ Kg7 38.Nxd8! An important subtlety. After the automatic 38.Ke3? Black draws with 38…Ra6!, pinning the rook. 38...Rxd8 39.Ke3 Kf8 40.Ke4 Ke7 41.Ke5

I am sure that it did not take Jobava more than ten minutes to calculate the sequence from 33.Rxa5 to the position diagrammed above. It is not complicated to calculate far provided that your opponent has to play forced moves all the time.

Now Black is in a zugzwang. Any pawn move would just weaken his kingside. Therefore, Tregubov played:

41…Rxd7, but after 42.Rxd7+ Kxd7 43.Kf6 Ke8 44.Kg7 White wins easily in a trivial pawn endgame.

To see a hidden simple pawn endgame in the complicated position before 33.Rxa5, that is a sign of an exceptional technical player! Tregubov got no chance to save himself.

Here's the complete game:


A winning position is much better manageable if your opponent has zero counterplay. Therefore, the ability to rob your opponent of active possibilities therefore is the key skill of a good technique.

In the following example, Aronian untied the Gordian knot in a very elegant manner:

Aronian-Nakamura, Moscow 2012, White to move:

White is an exchange up, but Black has significant counterplay. Both …g5-g4 and …Be6-g4 are unpleasant threats. Also, the c6-knight eyes the central d4-square. Therefore, Aronian's task to convert his material advantage into a full point does not seem to be easy at all.

However, the Armenian managed to make the life simple for himself. He played the beautiful 25.Rxc6! bxc6 26.Qa1!, returning the exchange but conquering the important e5-pawn. With the fall of this pawn Nakamura's centre will collapse.

White won without any troubles.

Here's the complete game:


When a player is able to find simple solutions to complex problems, he might benefit from it at all stages of the game, not only in won positions.

Here is an example of how beneficial this skill might be even at the very beginning of a game:

Short-Williams, West Broomwich 2003, White to move:

In this closed Sicilian position, Williams played …h7-h5 at a very early stage, threatening to follow up unpleasantly with …h5-h4. I had shown this position to several pupils, all of them rated well over 2000, and many of them struggled to find the correct antidote.

For example, 8.Bg5 does not solve anything, Black can still play 8…h4, as 9.Bxh4? loses a piece to 9…Bxh3 10.Bxh3 g5.

However, for Short this was a piece of cake. He understood that all he needs is to be able to answer …h5-h4 with g3-g4. After that Black's counterplay evaporates. Therefore, he played 8.Nd5 to be prepared to exchange the f6-knight. Now 8…h4 runs into 9.Nxf6+ Bxf6 10.g4. Williams answered 8…Ne5, attacking the g4-square one more time. However, Short responded calmly 9.f3!.

And that is the end of the story of the Black's attack along the h-file. There is no follow-up. The h5-h4 push will be always answered with g3-g4.

Admittedly, 9.f3 is not the most beautiful move ever played. But it serves its purpose, solving the problem with Black's activity on the kingside in a very efficient and effective manner. Short won convincingly in 28 moves.

Here's the complete game:


When I was at my first Olympiad, 15-years old, I watched the games of all these grandmasters and thought: "I wish I could perceive the thoughts of these geniuses. Surely, they are thinking in a very complicated and sophisticated way!" Today, being a GM myself, I know the truth. Many of these professionals in fact weren’t thinking about complicated details. Instead, they were pondering: "What is the simplest way to win this?"

Simple is safe. To be simple means to be successful. Therefore, when you see a simple solution, go for it!

It is no shame to win effortlessly. On the contrary: the simpler you win today, the more energy you are going to spare for tomorrow.

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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.