Emanuel Lasker, who was famous for his psychological insight and philosophical approach to chess, made a keen observation:
“He who has a slight disadvantage plays more attentively, inventively, and boldly than his antagonist, who either takes it easy or aspires after too much. Thus a slight disadvantage is frequently seen to convert into a good, solid advantage.”
Probably some of you have experienced this phenomenon in your own games. This is yet another reason why it doesn’t necessarily pay off to focus too much (in your studies) on working everything out in the opening, rather than in improving your fighting ability and general understanding. While getting an advantage is obviously beneficial, it is only an advantage if you feel better playing that side of the position.
The keys to playing when your opponent has a slight (non-decisive) advantage are patience and resourcefulness. First of all, you have to be willing to put off aggressive actions for later, and focus on holding the position. Only when the opponent is off balance can you look for a counterattack. The following game struck me as particularly instructive. Radjabov patiently holds his inferior position, balancing perfectly between patient defensive moves and counterattack once Ivanchuk was off balance.
The key was for Radjabov to balance defensive moves with counterattack at the right moment. When you stand worse, you have to acknowledge that fact and not try to change matters by force. Only once your opponent has taken definite steps which weaken his own position in some way can you look for counterattack. This takes good intuition and lots of patience.
While as always paying attention to your opponent’s ideas is crucial, you should keep in mind the typical overcompensation that takes place in positions where one side stands better: when you have the advantage, you are more likely to forget about your opponent’s ideas; while when you stand worse you are more likely to forget that you too can play. If you focus entirely on preventing your opponent’s plans, you miss the chance to take over the game. You cannot fight your opponent’s initiative with passivity – you need at some point to exert your own influence on the game. The problem is finding the correct timing.
The following game was very important for me. It was the eighth game of the Limpedea Cup, a round robin tournament in Romania. The start of the tournament had been simply spectacular for me – before this game I had six points out of seven, and I had played five grandmasters and two international masters. Although there were two games remaining after this one, if I won the game, I would simultaneously clinch overall victory in the tournament and the grandmaster norm.
Naturally, if I lost the game I would need one point out of the last two games, which would be quite stressful since my last two opponents were not weak at all; while drawing would mean I would need one draw out of two. It would make sense to play carefully. However, I was playing the lowest rated player of the tournament, rated only 2283. The temptation to finish things immediately was too strong.
I think White missed some chances for a clear advantage between move fifteen and twenty (16.d5 really sticks out – that kind of advantage, with a strong initiative, would be more difficult to fight against). Nevertheless, the position at move 21 can only be evaluated in favor of White. The defensive plan involved simplification, anticipating threats, and eventually looking for counterplay based on Black’s structural superiority on the queenside, established long before (admittedly at too high a cost). With a few inaccuracies by White, Black even took over the initiative, as often happens in these cases.