The Winning Academy 35: Impatience Loses Games

by Jan Markos
6/24/2024 – It is incredible to see how many drawish or marginally better endgames is Magnus Carlsen able to win. The computer claims the advantage of the Norwegian is minimal, let us say +0,2 or +0,4, and yet he wins. Again, and again. What is his secret? Jan Markos tries an answer. | Photo: Magnus Carlsen at the World Blitz Championship 2022 | Photo: Lennart Ootes

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Well, I think that Carlsen plays against the psychology of his opponent as well as against his pieces. There are some defensive tasks that are notoriously difficult for any player, and Carlsen knows that all too well. He is a master of creating situations in which his opponent has to fight not only the position on the board, but also his own psychological limitations.

One thing that virtually any (human) player hates to do is to defend passively. Doing nothing is very difficult for the human nature. We are active beings and hate being powerless.

Therefore, if your opponent has to defend passively, your chances to win are very high although your objective advantage is rather small.

Let us have a look at several examples of this rule.


Let us start with a simple one. The diagrammed position is from Jussupow-Spraggett, Candidates 1989, Black is to move:

Black has got a somewhat worse pawn structure. Also, White's bishop is active, whereas Black's is nicely restricted by the white pawns. However, these disadvantages are rather small and Spraggett's position is reasonably solid.

What should he do? Well, mark time and wait. A small move like 24…Red7 would be fully appropriate. However, Spraggett did not want to wait. He wanted to do something. And he played 24…b6?, a move that does not help Black in any way, but weakens considerably the c6-knight. White responded 25.Rf4! and it transpired that the threat Rxc6 followed by a fork on e5 is very unpleasant. I am sure Spraggett wished to have his pawn back on b7.

This example nicely illustrates a seemingly paradoxical rule: When defending a passive position, do not try to improve it to light-heartedly. Too often the improvement turns out to be a weakening.

Here's the complete game:


In the following example, a super-strong GM, Jakovenko, has committed a silly mistake. However, to understand what really happened in the game we need to peek at a position from an earlier stage of the game.

Bacrot-Jakovenko, Jermuk 2009, Black to move:

After the opening, Black is in a difficult situation. His position is slightly worse because of the weak c6-pawn. More importantly, it is a position that can't be improved. Black has no active plan whatsoever. His task is to sit and wait, defending carefully.

Any decent chess engine would hold a draw against Bacrot here. An engine never gets tired, never commits stupid oversights. However, for a human this task is much more difficult. Let us now teleport to the position after White's 44th move:

As you can see, little has changed on the board. The pawn structure is still the same. The biggest change has happened in Jakovenko's mind. After more than 20 moves of boring defence, he is annoyed and tired. And therefore, he commits a mistake:


White naturally accepts the present:


Now 48…gxh5 49.Nxh5+ loses a bishop, and thus Bacrot is simply a pawn up. White won soon.

Here's the complete game:


In the following example, the former World Champion Vishy Anand was patient, but not patient enough.

Adams-Anand, Grenke Chess Festival 2015, after White's 35th move:

Club players usually expect that the top GMs play rook endgames as this one on autopilot. The position is simple enough for a player like Anand to draw it with his eyes closed, or not? Surely it is. But don’t forget the human factor: Black is worse and can be tortured endlessly.

And Adams did torture his mighty opponent. And he took his time to do it slowly. After twenty moves, the following position arose:

I am sure that Anand was completely fed up with the game at this stage. Of course he can sit and wait for another twenty or thirty moves, but isn't it humiliating for a World Champion just to sit and wait like this.

Therefore, Anand decided to change the character of the endgame. He played the objectively unnecessary 55…Rd5, sacrificing a pawn to get into a more simplified position. White answered 56.Rxb7 Rxa5 57.Rh7 and consumed the h6 pawn.

Anand was correct in his evaluation. The resulting three against two endgame was still drawn. However, Adams again played slowly and got his chance in move 84.

Adams clearly won this game because he played against his opponent's emotions rather than against his army.

Here's the complete game:


In the last example, White was also suffering in a slightly worse endgame for more than 20 moves.

Kotronias-Mamedov, European Championship 2013, White to move:

White is a pawn down, but Black has got a doubled pawn. More important is that some of White's pawns are rather vulnerable, especially pg3 and pe5. Still, White can surely defend stubbornly for another fifty moves.

Instead of this, the tired Kotronias committed a simple mistake. He played 59.Bc6? (59.Kg2 or 59.Bd3 is better) and Mamedov dully consumed the e5-pawn. 59…Ra3 60.Kg2 Re3 61.Rd2 Rxe5.

After the loss of the pawn, White's position is probably beyond repair.

Here's the complete game.


I hope that this article has inspired you to avoid slightly worse passive positions at all costs. And if you get into one in your game, please try to be immensely patient defending it. Your opponent will torture you dozens and dozens of moves. You need to accept in your hearth that being bored and annoyed in this type of positions is a part of chess skill. Only then you will be able to defend these positions successfully.

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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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