The Winning Academy 9: Fight till the very end!

by Jan Markos
5/2/2022 – What is the most important phase of the game? Surprisingly, many club players get the answer wrong. Usually, they put a lot of effort into positions that are approximately equal. However, once they get a much better or much worse position, they tend to relax a bit. In an almost winning position, a voice in the head of such a player whispers: "You are great, my dear, and you have proved that already. The rest of the game is a mere formality." And in a lost position, this voice says: "You have played rubbish. Ok, you have to pretend some fight, but the game is decided already, you will surely be defeated." Although psychologically understandable, this approach is wrong. Why? | Photo: Pixabay

The Art of Defence The Art of Defence

The purpose of this DVD is to explain the viewer all main methods of defence: exchanging pieces, creating a fortress, eliminating dangerous enemy pieces, escaping the danger zone with the king, improving the position of the pieces.

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In some sports, e.g., in tennis, only two results are possible. No draws are allowed. That means that the match is being decided when the score is approximately level. However, in chess three results are possible: a win, a draw, and a loss.

In equal positions, the game is well inside the drawing margins. A small inaccuracy would not change the result. However, the positions where one side is much better are those where the border between a draw and a win/loss lies. One small inaccuracy, and half-a-point is lost.

Therefore, you can relax a bit in equal positions. But you should never stop working at a maximum in a nearly winning or an almost lost position.

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The ability to fight in an endangered position is the key skill of a professional chess player. Once you have lost your spirits, you are going to lose the game as well. Here is a telling example:

Artemiev-Mamedyarov, Novi Sad 2016, White to move:

 

Black has a very clear plan: his central pawns will start rolling soon. On the top of that, Artemiev's h4-bishop is almost trapped and his queenside pawns weak. The young Russian GM lost all his hopes for a good result and succumbed under pressure.

The game followed 21.Re1?! f5 22.Qb1 d3 23.Nd2 Rc2 and Black dominated the entire board. (Please, have a look at the entire game below.)

However, in the diagrammed position White can still kick. The key question that you always ahould bear in mind is: Where can I get some counterplay?

Here is a possible line of thought: Being a piece up, White should attack. And the most natural target to attack is the black king. However, the king is safely guarded by the rook. Therefore, we should try to exchange it.

The best practical chance therefore is: 21.Re2! f5 22.Rc2!. Now there is the first chance for Black to go wrong. After the natural 22...Rxc2?! 23.Qxc2 the white queen enters the black camp, providing enough counterplay, E.g.  22…e4 24.Nd2 d3 25.Qc8+ Kh7 26.Bg3 with a balanced play. Therefore, Black should try 22…Re8!. However, after winning the c-file, White's possibilities are much rosier. He can choose between 23.Rc4, 23.Rc7 and 23.Qc4, in all cases with some survival chances.

Here's the complete game:

 

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The next position was the result of an opening disaster of the World Champion Magnus Carlsen, who messed up a line in the Nimzo:

Morozevich-Carlsen, Tal Memorial 2012, Black to move:

 

Black is fully bound up, and any resistance seems to be hopeless. The easiest thing in the world would be to give up mentally and hand over the point after a couple of moves. However, this is not the approach that makes you World Number 1.

And therefore, Carlsen asked himself: Where can I find some counterplay? However small, counter chances are needed!

The World Champion thus turned his attention to the kingside:

29…h5!

Once the g-file opens, the g2-pawn might be vulnerable. The game continued:

30.Kb4 h4 31.Re8?! (This helps Black a bit.) Rxe8 32.Bxe8 Be6 33.Bb5

 

It seems that everything is going well for Morozevich. After Black covers the b7-pawn, the white king can enter via c5. However, Carlsen had no intention to cover the pawn!

33…d4!

Another extremely annoying move. Now White needs to calculate long lines and can easily slip. The game continued:

34.gxh4 gxh4 35.exd4 (After 35.Rxb7 Rg8! Black's counter chances are very real.) Bd5 36.f3 Rg8

The worst is over. Carlsen's pieces are very active, and this activity is sufficient to hold the game.

Here's the complete game:

 

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Why is active, daring play so effective when defending bad positions? There are two reasons: Firstly, active play often leads to a tactical skirmish. And most people do more costly mistakes in tactical positions. Therefore, you get better practical odds in a position that is full of tactics.

Secondly, by playing actively you are putting psychological pressure on your opponent. Most probably he will get annoyed that he must work so hard for a full point. Also, he might have problems to adapt quickly to the changed character of the game.

The psychological edge you get when you start defending actively sometimes justifies even seemingly suboptimal, risky decisions. Have a look at the following diagram. What would you play?

Kramnik – Harikrishna, Gashimov Memorial 2017, White to move:

 

Although all white pieces are centralized, Black has the upper hand. His knight on e4 is a wonderful piece, and …f7-f5-f4 is coming soon. My Stockfish suggests White should play the timid 24.h3 f5 25.Bh2. But honestly, how would such an approach challenge Black and force him to make any mistakes?

Instead, Kramnik played the spirited 24.Rd5! f5 25.Rxe5!. Sacrificing the entire rook, White has completely changed the course of the game. Now the hunter will be hunted! The game continued:

25…dxe5 26.Bxe5+ Nf6 27.Qxb5 Nce4 28.Bd4 Rfd8

 

The objective evaluation of the position is still in Black's favour. My Stockfish screams -1,2 and an emotionless computer would surely win this position with Kramnik.

However, Harikrishna, despite being a top GM, is still a human being. And human beings commit errors, especially under pressure. Kramnik played the cool 29.h3!?, claiming silently that his compensation is long-term. In the following fight, Black was unable to challenge white passed pawns on the queenside and resigned thirteen moves later.

Here's the complete game:

 

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Well, how to sum up this article? Easily: Never give up! Fight like a lion (and work hard!) till the very end, and you will soon find out that you are scoring more points than you were used to.

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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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