The Winning Academy 30: The Laziness Paradox

by Jan Markos
2/6/2024 – Winning at chess is hard work. It is difficult and it costs a lot of energy. Especially calculation. Therefore, it is no surprise that our brains and minds are trying to find all the possible shortcuts. Sometimes, avoiding hard work equals being practical. However, often it is simply laziness. We are often being lazy, and we don´t have enough willpower to force our minds into exact calculation. And thus, we often play a move that looks good, instead of looking for one that actually is the best. | Photo: RalfDesign, Pixabay.

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However, this strategy seldom pays off. Avoiding a bit of hard work at the critical moment usually makes your task much more difficult later. Instead of getting rid of work, you will have to work more.

I call this rule The Laziness Paradox.

Let's have a look at four examples of how laziness might complicate your task at the board. Three of these four examples are from the praxis of GM Levon Aronian. I would like to say very clearly that it is not because he is lazier than the other top GMs. Rather he is being very honest in his annotations, willing to write about his moods during the game.

***

In the first example, Aronian is undoubtedly better. But how should he continue?

Aronian-Grischuk, FIDE Grand Prix 2008, White to move:

It is quite clear that White does not especially want to take on d5. Such an exchange would correct Black's pawn structure. Therefore, it would be natural for Aronian to look for an alternative. For example, 30.Kg1 is a very sensible move, avoiding checks along the h-file. 30…Nxe3? runs into 31.Qd2.

But Aronian was a bit lazy. He did not want to check all the black knight's jumps after every move. Therefore, he played the slightly antipositional 30.Nxd5?!. After 30…exd5 Black's defensive chances increased. Yet, Aronian was able to win the game in the end.

***

Apart from choosing simplistic solutions, laziness often leads also to needless prophylaxis. This time the Armenian GM was Black:

So-Aronian, London Classic 2017, Black to move:

Aronian has the upper hand again. All he must do is to prevent White's pieces from creating counterplay against his king. But how to achieve that?

At the first sight, White seems to threaten Nf3-g5 and Rf1-f7, attacking the vulnerable g7-pawn. Therefore, Aronian decided for a purely prophylactic move, playing 30...h6?. This gave White the vital tempo to activate his rook via the d-file. After 31.Rf2! c4 32.Rd2, White is active enough to force a draw.

Much better was to ignore the Ng5-threat, playing 30...Qc2!. Now Rf1-f2 is impossible, and the b-pawn is prepared to advance. The seemingly dangerous 31.Ng5? runs into 31…h6 32.Nxe6 Qxe4, and Black collects one of the weak minor pieces.

All Aronian had to do was to invest a little bit of energy into exact calculation, instead of playing a routine prophylactic move.

Here's the complete game:

***

Laziness often overcomes us when we feel that the game is already over.

Carlsen-Sokolov, Tata Steel 2013, White to move:

Despite being nominally a pawn down, White is winning. His pieces are excellently coordinated, and the black monarch is weak. Also, the presence of the opposite-coloured bishops enhances Carlsen's initiative.

The Norwegian understood very well that Black's position is beyond repair. He lost concentration and played the natural but imprecise 46.Nd5?, allowing the return of the black queen 46...Qc6. After that, his task would be more difficult.

Easily winning was 46.Bf5+ Ke7 and 47.Qa7 Qc6 48.Qd4, threatening 49.Nd5+. But to find this variation, White needs to calculate the lines, instead of relying on intuition.

However, Sokolov did not take his chance. Instead of 46….Qc6, he played 46…Bd8? and lost soon.

Here's the complete game:

***

Quite often, laziness (or superficiality) goes hand in hand with fatigue. In the following endgame, Aronian was unable to get maximum from his advantageous position.

Aronian-Grischuk, Candidates 2011, White to move:

Despite limited material White has good winning chances. His c-pawn is very dangerous and for Black it is by no means easy to exchange all the pawns on the kingside. After 69.Ne5, Grischuk would face difficult problems, E.g. 69….Kd6 runs into 70.Nf7+ Ke7 71.Nxg5 Nxg5 72.c7 Kd7 73.Kb7 and queens.

Instead of calculating all of this, the tired Aronian played 69.Nc5??, assuming that the pawn endgame with a passed pawn must be won. This may be true in 95 percent of cases, but not in this one. Grischuk answered simply 69…Nxc5 70.Kxc5 Kd8 and the game ended in a draw. Black plays …g5-g4xh3 and then waits with the king under the c-pawn. After the white king goes pawn grabbing, Black takes the c-pawn and returns in time to the kingside.

Here's the complete game:

What can you do when feeling a bit lazy at the chessboard?

  1. First, check whether you are tired as well. If tired, grab your coffee or some sweet treat, and try to refresh your mind a little bit.
  2. If you find out that your energy level is OK, but you are still a bit lazy, try to motivate yourself. You might E.g. remind yourself of the Laziness Paradox, telling your brain: “Please, this is a critical moment. Let's try to work a bit now, and we might avoid a lot of hard work later.”
  3. Also, please remember that at the board, nothing fully replaces precise calculation. You might have a good chess intuition or strategical feeling, but this does not mean that you can play purely intuitively. You need to calculate. Tactics decides 80-90 percent of all games. Therefore, the player who calculates more and better usually wins.

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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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