When you hear the word "brilliancy," what comes to mind? A dazzling combination with multiple sacrifices? A captivating tactical melee in which both players display their calculational expertise? Without a doubt, brilliancy has a tactical connotation. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the general body of chess knowledge was still in its fledgling stages, and maestros earned their deferential status through tactical prowess alone, there was no other type of brilliancy. After all, if you have no taste buds that perceive sourness, how can you enjoy a glass of lemonade? In the same vein, with positional understanding still in its nascent stages, it was virtually impossible to produce a positional masterpiece, much less have it appreciated by the chess community.
Nowadays, with the highly developed state of opening theory and the significantly improved defensive abilities of modern players, it is exceedingly difficult to throw pieces at your opponent and end up with a Mona Lisa of the chessboard, as Adolf Anderssen did in rapid succession against Lionel Kieseritzky (1851, The Immortal Game) and Jean Dufresne (1852, The Evergreen Game).
At a Grandmaster level especially, positional brilliancies - games in which a player demonstrates rare strategic ability and outplays his opponent purely through positional means - are far more common. Make no mistake: I am not implying that tactical brilliancies are no longer possible, nor am I suggesting that every player is equally skilled at calculation and defense. In fact, this might be true on a 2750+ level, but my accent on the "positionalizing" of modern chess is in no way intended to denigrate the importance of tactical understanding.
With that said, let me zero in on the specific theme of this article. Frequently, a cursory examination of top-level games (those of Magnus Carlsen, for instance) reveals a staggering number of apparently inexplicable moves. You are often told at the outset of your chess career that practically every move must have both a concrete purpose and also constitute a part of a larger plan.
Nevertheless, in Carlsen's games, inscrutable knight moves, seemingly illogical queen trades, and plain old mysterious moves abound. As I have already mentioned, I strongly disagree with the notion that these moves - moves that often directly contribute to the result of a game and epitomize true positional mastery - are "accessible" only to top Grandmasters and simply unexplainable to mere mortals. With such a belief, it might be tempting to utter a resigned sigh and analyze moves that we can rationalize through direct calculation or straightforward thinking. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you will no longer be tempted to do so!
I am not a fan of timeworn examples that have been thoroughly and accurately analyzed in chess literature, but there exists a category of games that many players know about, but do not actually know. The 24th match game of the 1985 World Championship between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov features prominently in this category. Kasparov needed to draw with Black in order to dethrone his fiercest rival, and the immense pressure drove him to perfection rather than anxiety (don't we all play the best game of our life under such circumstances?). Hopefully, a close inspection of Kasparov's play during the middlegame will provide us with our first glimpse into the inner workings of a top Grandmaster's positional mind.
Take a moment to let your eyes adjust to the position. In 23 moves, only one pawn has been traded, and the position is exceedingly complex. In fact, White's plan is rather simple: he will combine central pressure (Bd4, Rd1, etc.) with a frontal assault on Black's king by means of Qh4 and/or f5. Due to the immense pressure on his position, it is logical that Black should seek relief by breaking through in the center. How can this be done? Well, 23...d5 falls prey to the crushing 24.f5!, when the d5 pawn obstructs Black's own bishop. This leaves 23...f5, but after 24.gxf6 Bxf6 (24...Nxb6 leaves the b6 pawn en prise) 25.Bd4, the weakness of Black's king becomes rather pronounced. With the crucial f6 bishop in peril and the h7 pawn undefended, Black is hard-pressed to control White's burgeoning kingside pressure.
But can this break be prepared? If, for example, Black's rook were on e7 (defending h7), Black would have been able to bolster his defenses with 25...Rf8, when White's pawns on e4 and f4 suddenly become vulnerable. Besides, a pre-emptive doubling on the e-file - as absurd as it looks - would render Bd4 impracticable, since Black would always have the reply ...e5 in store. Kasparov's 23rd next move is a joy to behold:
It is often said that complex thoughts require complex sentences (it is no fluke that Nietzsche or Descartes is hard to read, even in the finest English translation - not that I've ever tried). This idea can be directly translated to the chessboard: ...Re7 was certainly not played "for show" - there was no better way to simultaneously buttress the position and prepare the ...f5 break.
Some moves are very difficult to make, not because they are somehow hidden, but because our brain literally rejects such an outwardly cumbersome and awkward idea. Such superficial reasoning has its advantages - at times, a move that "looks" wrong is wrong - but it is the mark of a Grandmaster to veto this unreliable positional intuition. In the following game, GM Jaan Ehlvest does just that:
Many club players have told me that they do not actually find it difficult to make a paradoxical move once they see its purpose. Their problem is to actually find this purpose. In other words, they might know of a certain move's existence, but they do not see to what end it should be played. Sometimes, it is easy to underestimate the effectiveness of a straightforward assessment of the position.
Through the mere act of weighing the pros and cons of your position (and that of your opponent), you can often unearth the path to an advantage and beyond. In our next example, White's first three moves can be discovered only by perceiving the idea that they seek to implement. Note: While this game is relatively unknown, it is featured, with excellent annotations, in Jonathan Rowson's The Seven Deadly Chess Sins.
Jonathan Rowson's The Seven Deadly Chess Sins | Image Amazon
White's position is clearly superior. Beautifully coordinated pieces, protected passer on e5, tremendous central and kingside pressure, noticeable disparity in piece activity - all of these factors should, in a perfect world, allow some kind of decisive invasion on the kingside, but no such invasion exists. 25.g4? is futile after 25...fxg4 and there is no follow-up, while 25.Bh3 is similarly useless: 25...Qd7 and the f5 pawn is safely defended. Frequently, in order to exploit a strategic advantage, you must open a second front.
In other words, your opponent might be able to keep one flank or square reliably protected, but he will not be able to deal with simultaneous threats on two sides of the board. The hard part, of course, is to actually find a way to open up the queenside to White's favor. To this end, 25.Rb1?!, preparing 26.b3, allows fearsome counterplay with 25...f4, while 25.Qd1 similarly leads nowhere after 25...b5 (or 25...f4!?). Thus, White's first order of business is to prevent Black's own queenside expansion: 25.a4! Qd7 (diagram)
White has prevented ...b5, but how does he follow up? Clearly, in order to actually open the b-file, White will need to delegate a competent piece to the queenside. Since the rooks must remain on the f-file to stop f4, only White's queen is left. As difficult as it is to remove the queen from its dominant post, White simply has no other choice.
A game worthy of eight brilliancy prizes! Hopefully, you were able to perceive the rationale behind Rozentalis' irreproachable play.
Obviously, it is impossible to fully define the inner workings of a Grandmaster's mind. To find subtle positional ideas on a consistent basis requires a wide arsenal of general chess knowledge and a keen sense of the concrete aspects of a position that make a specific idea or plan possible.
However, by now, you should begin to understand that the title of this article is a misnomer - there is no such thing as a truly mysterious chess moves! Uncanny intuition and peerless positional understanding might allow Levon Aronian or Magnus Carlsen to find subtle ideas in a short amount of time, but you can certainly do the same with an ironclad drive to penetrate the surface of a position and a firm belief that an awkward-looking move might well change the course of the game in your favor. Adios!