You cannot always get a great position out of the opening. Besides falling into preparation or just making a mistake (everyone does) you can also have a temporary loss of control or weak nerves. Being able to fight back in a bad – or even lost – position is one of the elements of being a good player. If you are in good form, you can find constant resources in a bad position. If you have total concentration and immerse yourself in the position, you can find ways to evade all of your opponent’s ideas, to divert the battle to a different area, and to create confusion. The goal is to make the opponent walk the thinnest possible line, and the tool is to find every resource your position offers.
I will show you a strange game I played a couple years ago. It was played under (for me) tense circumstances. It was the 2009 National Chess Congress, in the city where I lived, Philadelphia. I had started off with 4/4, and was leading the tournament by a half a point. But in the morning of the last day I had failed to win an easily won position against GM Alex Lenderman (instead it was a draw). Although I was still leading by half a point before the last round, I had black against GM Robert Hess, a strong young player rated around 2600. Drawing would give me at least a tie for first, but psychologically this was unpleasant, since after all if I had merely won in the previous round I would have already guaranteed first place even in the event of a loss.
In the opening, tiredness and nerves got to me. I lost control and made a basic oversight, which led to a very bad position. I was down a pawn with dubious compensation. Nevertheless, Black’s position held some kind of “mysterious” trumps which allowed me even to sacrifice my queen. Let’s see how the game went:
The opening had gone well for me. I reached a type of position that I wanted - in fact, better than I could have hoped. But if White's opening play was perhaps a little inaccurate, it was psychologically tricky. You can get away with a lot as white, and I was provoked to try to take immediate advantage. This resulted in a miscalculation, leading to this position, where I am down a pawn without enough compensation. My hope is that White's shaky structure and exposed king will give me practical chances. In such positions you must be very accurate, not only finding what resources your position offers, but also anticipating your opponent's ideas, to prevent the position from getting even worse. The game continued like this:
True to his active style, rather than slowly try to consolidate his extra pawn Hess has returned it in an attempt to take over the initiative. In fact, the way he played looks very strong. Not only is the black queen threatened by 22.Bf4, trying to escape by 21...Qe5 doesn't help - 22.Bf4 follows anyway, followed by 23.Nxe7+ and 24.Bxd6. It looks like a hopeless position for Black, but I saw that there was hope in the rock solid dragon structure and the two bishops which I will get. It was necessary to sacrifice the queen.
I guess the key to Black's compensation for the queen was the solid structure without weaknesses and - most importantly - the incredible security of the king. One of the keys to real compensation for material is having a safe king. This means you will not face serious counterthreats for some time, allowing your positional compensation to grow into something more concrete.
Part of the point of showing this entertaining struggle was to show that you can recover from a bad position even against a very good player, if you can only find what is good about your position and try to make it the relevant factor.