The Winning Academy (1): Creating Imbalances

by Jan Markos
11/17/2021 – Winning is fun but not easy. For example, how do you create winning chances when you are in a must-win situation or if your opponent is more than happy with a draw? The Slovakian Grandmaster and award-winning author Jan Markos knows the answer: create imbalances! In part one of his "Winning Academy" series he shows you how to do so. | Photo: Dreamstime

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The Winning Academy 1: Imbalance, not Risk

Imagine that you are playing a tournament, and in the last round you are in a must-win situation. How would you maximize your chances for a victory? Well, we all know the answer, don't we? Without taking risks there is no win! So, you should play a risky line and hope for the best. Or should you really?

Well, that would be a superficial and, in most cases, wrong decision. There are other, more sophisticated, and efficient paths to victory. Winning is a skill that can be mastered. And precisely this is what this series of articles aims to teach you.

My name is Jan Markos. I am a GM from Slovakia, a two-times champion of my country and a former European Youth Champion. However, in the recent years I have focused more on coaching, working with several young GMs and IMs. Also, I wrote some chess books. The one called Under the Surface was awarded the Book of the Year 2018 by the English Chess Federation. My newest book The Secret Ingredient, co-authored with David Navara, focuses on practical aspects of chess fight.

Now back to our topic. Why is taking risks wrong? How can you get a fighting position without taking risks? What should you do? Well, chess is not a game of roulette. It is not a game of pure luck, but a game of skill. Therefore, you need to get a position where you can show your superior skill, not a position, where luck or accident decides the fight.

To put it shortly, you don't need to take undue risks, but you need to create an imbalance on the board. What does that mean? Let us have a look at some examples from grandmaster practice.

Imbalance 1: Better structure vs. two bishops

In 2018, when playing his World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana and his team had to solve a difficult task: How to get a winnable position against Carlsen when playing with White ?

Carlsen decided to opt for the Sveshnikov Sicilian as his main defensive weapon against 1.e4. To get a fight against a superbly prepared opponent, Caruana tried to create long-term imbalances. In game one he went for the Rossolimo variation:

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 g6 4.Bxc6 dxc6

 

Why would anyone voluntarily give up a bishop-pair at move 4, without even being provoked by …a7-a6? Well, in the Rossolimo White wants to create a very specific kind of imbalance: better pawn structure vs. the pair of bishops.

Black's doubled pawns are not weak yet. The c5-pawn can be nicely covered by ..b7-b6. However, the necessity to cover this pawn means that the entire black queenside structure is immobile. Also, the presence of doubled pawns might suit White's pair of knights, as they love a weakened pawn structure. On the other hand, in case that the position opens, Black's pair of bishops will give him an important advantage.

Most importantly, this strategical imbalance will not evaporate any time soon. There is no simple way to "undo" the Bxc6 move and exchange Black's pair of bishops for White's better pawn structure.

Therefore, a complex fight awaits both players, and the better player is likely to win. Here is the proof:

 

After only 14 moves, the position is full of fight, no quick draw ahead. Black's bishops are strong, but White's chances also shouldn't be underestimated: he is better developed and can start active play along the f-file. A knight on f6 would look nice, or not?

Carlsen felt obliged to play 14…g5, getting space on the kingside. However, after this move it was clear that he is going to castle queenside, unbalancing the position even more.

However, in the subsequent fight it transpired that Carlsen had a better feeling for this type of position. Caruana did not play precisely and got even on the verge of defeat. With a bit of luck, he drew.

The complete game

 

The following two Rossolimo's also ended in a draw. Therefore, in game 8, it was time to try another type of imbalance…

Imbalance 2: Asymmetrical pawn structure

In the eight game, Caruana went for the 7.Nd5 line of Svesnikov. The diagrammed position arose after 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Ndb5 d6 7.Nd5 Nxd5 8.exd5 Nb8

 

The imbalance hidden in this position is different from the previous one. It is based on the asymmetry of pawn structures. White has a majority (=an advantage) on the queenside. This means that Black cannot play passively. His queenside is indefensible in the long run.

However, the same applies for White's kingside. With a king on g1, facing the storm of Black's kingside majority, passive defence on this part of the board might be a mission impossible.

Therefore, both players must be smart and imaginative: combining activity on their wing with defensive measures against the opponent's attack.

And again: there is no simple way to "undo" this imbalance and get a dull drawish position. Therefore, the better player will win in most cases!

This time, Caruana was much closer to victory. Let us see the position after twenty moves:

 

The American played 21.c5!, making most of his queenside majority. Computers agree that White is already objectively winning. Although the game ended in a draw again, the result of the opening is astonishing. Getting a won position against Carlsen in only 20 moves is an outstanding achievement.

The complete game

 

Imbalance 3: Fast vs. slow

There are plenty of different types of imbalances that you can use to win your games. Let us have a look at a game of Vishy Anand, in which he had to decide how to win with Black against a much lower-rated opponent, FM Matthias Bach. The first moves were:

1.Nf3 d5 2.c4 d4

 

Only two moves are played, and already an imbalance is created. By playing the ambitious 2…d4, Anand puts considerable pressure on his opponent. Why? Because the d4-pawn is both vulnerable and strong. On the one hand, it voluntarily marched closer to White's army. This gives White a short-term initiative. However, if White does not play actively and forcefully and allows Black to develop and support the d4-pawn, this very pawn will be the basis of Black's spatial (=positional) advantage.

So, this is a typical example of a fast vs. slow imbalance. Fast, active, double-edged play favours White, slow play with both armies peacefully developing favours Black.

But wait! Just imagine: would you be able to go all in against Anand already in the opening? FM Bach was not prepared to do that, and he chose a peaceful pace. As a result, Black was better after no more than 13 moves:

 

The d4-pawn is safely covered, Black's space advantage and more active pieces secure him a tangible edge. Anand won effortlessly.

The complete game

 

Imbalance 4: Bishop power play

Bishops are – because of their specific movement - notoriously difficult to transport from one wing to another. That is why an experienced player is often able to create a subtle kind of an imbalance, which might be called bishop power play.

I had to learn this the hard way. I was playing with GM Tomashevsky as Black, and was relatively satisfied with the result of the opening:

 

All four knights disappeared quickly from the board, and I thought that in a simplified position I would be able to successfully fight the stronger opponent.

However, I underestimated the fact that our dark-squared bishops are operating on different diagonals. More precisely, in different universes. It is a basic fact, but ignored by many players, including myself in 2008: Bishops of the same colour on the same wing usually interact with each other much less than bishops on different wings.

What happened next? Tomashevsky put his dark-squared bishop to b2, then opened (with my cooperation) the long diagonal, as well as the f-file. The resulting opening disaster looked like this:

 

After no more than 13 moves, Black is much worse, perhaps on the verge of defeat. His c5-bishop is useless, whereas White's dark-squared bishop will shine on b2. Tomashevsky doubled his rooks on the f-file and then put his bishops to b2 and e4, concentrating all his firepower on my poor kingside. I lost without real fight.

The complete game

 

Why did I lose this game? I wasn't simply aware of the imbalance called bishop power play.

***

There are many other imbalances that a player aiming for a professional level should know. Some are obvious, as castlings on opposite sides. Others are more sophisticated, as the imbalance knight vs. bishop.

But for the time being, there is one single piece of knowledge to take from this article. To play for a win, you don't need to take excessive risks, play artificially or unnaturally. All you need is to create a long-term, strategical imbalance – and afterwards prove your skills as a better player.

Links

Svitlana's Smart Moves: Material Imbalances


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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ninth-pawn ninth-pawn 11/18/2021 09:33
The key message is in the last words: "prove your skills as a better player". It is like signing insurance contract - the most important contract terms are written with smallest font on the last appendix :-)
lajosarpad lajosarpad 11/18/2021 12:59
Very nice article! Kudos to the author to being honest and modest enough to show his own failure of understanding of an imbalance as an example. It adds a personal touch. I would still somewhat disagree with the main argument of imbalances being better than risks. I believe that the creation of imbalances are examples of risk-taking. I would say that it is better to have a calculated risk, or, some kind of systematic approach to risk taking that actually makes sense than blindly go into an uncalculated risk. Perhaps the author also meant this.
genem genem 11/17/2021 11:53
Anything about "imbalances" reminds me of Jeremy Silman's books. In this article, I liked the relatively subtle imbalance that Markos named "fast vs. slow imbalance". Perhaps the term "asymmetry" is a slightly narrow concept than is "imbalances", in that asymmetry seems limited to the relative *positions* of the white vs black pieces?
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