Balance is Everything, Part 2

Balance is Everything, Part 2

| 7 | Strategy

Positional Gains and Tactical Pains

Many players feel that balance (doing your best to understand every phase of chess) is only for very strong players. This is hogwash. Of course a 1200 player isn’t going to understand any phase as well as a 2000 player, but he should still seek to grasp as much as possible.

I always feed my students advanced material when going over their games. I know they will only understand a tiny bit of it, but by introducing them to a concept – even an advanced concept – their mind absorbs it and, subconsciously, chews on it until something on some level makes sense. Over time, as this concept is seen again in master games or as possibilities in their own games, they will “grok” more and more of it without even realizing that this “osmosis” is happening.

This “throw them into the deep side of the pool” mentality works for openings, tactics, positional chess, and endgames. A 1200 player will start out with a 1200 understanding of a certain opening, but as he studies it he will “swallow” the moves of grandmasters that play the same system and, over time, digest them. He won’t fully know the opening, but more often than not practice, painful experience, and study will transform his 1200 understanding of that system into 1400 understanding, then 1600 understanding, and on and on it goes. The same formula works for the other phases of the game too.

I personally started out with a rating of 1068 (I played in my first event when I was 12). I looked at tons of master games, played friends that were better than me (losing over and over and over), and jumped back into tournaments knowing that I’d be smashed (I rightly felt that I couldn’t fix weaknesses I didn’t know I had, so defeats were extremely valuable). I loved to attack, but when I’d botch a very basic endgame it became clear that I needed to plug that “leak.” And when better players easily rebuffed my primitive attacks, I realized that a positional foundation was also called for (and more advanced attacking skills too!).

phpLxeWHN.jpegAnd, due to this search for balance, I slowly climbed up the rating ladder: 1000 strength, 1400 strength, a leap to 1600, another to 1800/1900, and then (at the age of 16) a massive surge to 2100/2200 (depending on the kinds of positions I got… my tactics were still better than the other phases, but they weren’t too far behind). My USCF rating eventually reached 2593, but that only occurred due to a serious work ethic and the realization that every phase of the game needed to be nurtured.

Balance not only makes you a stronger player, it also allows you to enjoy chess on a much deeper, artistic level. When you look at a 40-move grandmaster draw, you might say, “How boring! These guys weren’t even trying.”

Two years later, after slurping up some positional skills, you’ll look at that same game again and suddenly realize that the “boring” game was actually a hard-fought positional masterpiece. And, as you continue to increase your understanding, you’ll look at that game yet again and see magnificent opening nuances, hidden tactics that you never noticed until this third viewing, and much more.

Simply put, balance makes the chess experience far richer on every level. This doesn’t mean you can’t be a “gambit only” dude, or a quiet 1.Nf3 “bore him to death” guy, or a “trade everything and get to an endgame as quickly as possible” maniac. We all have our preferences. But in chess you will often find that your preference has nothing to do with the position you reach – the gambit you played will often lead to a quiet positional struggle, the endgame you longed for is never reached, or the quiet maneuvering game you wanted erupts into full-board violence. 

This time our puzzles will have us look at balance from the “positional player/endgame master” Kramnik and the “hyper-aggressive” Kasparov. In my opinion Kramnik is the more well rounded of the two since he not only possesses god-like positional and endgame skills, but also loves to slug it out tactically. Kasparov is more explosive and perhaps more consistent, but though his handling of endgames and quiet positions is very fine, he’s not as comfortable (or as good) in those areas as Kramnik is.

The puzzles will show that we all (beginners and World Champions alike) have preferences, but if you want to improve and be as good as you can be, balance is critical.


[Most of the puzzles offer invisible prose and variations. After you try and solve the puzzle, click SOLUTION followed by MOVE LIST so you can all the hidden goodies.]

Puzzle 1:

Puzzle 2:

Puzzle 3:

Puzzle 4:

Puzzle 5:

Puzzle 6:

This long, complex game features the wonderful mix of strategic acquisitions and mind-altering tactics. In Kramnik’s world, these things blend seamlessly into each other. Please look it over, make sure you look at the variations and prose, and (finally) try your hand at the puzzle, given at the very end of the game.

Peter Leko – Vladimir Kramnik
Monte Carlo, 2002

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Nb8 10.d4 Nbd7 11.Nbd2 Bb7 12.Bc2 Re8 13.b3 Bf8 14.d5 c6 15.c4 Nb6 16.Bd3 Nfd7 17.Ba3 cxd5 18.cxd5 f5

After a quiet opening Black lashes out and undermines White’s d5-pawn. The idea is to gain the advantage of center pawns vs. White’s kingside pawn majority.

19.exf5 Nxd5 20.Ne4 N7f6 21.Nfg5

Heading for the hole on e6. Has White refuted Black’s plan?


Black keeps White’s knight out of e6, frees his d-pawn, and prepares to chop on d3 and gain the two bishops.

22.Bc1 Nxd3 23.Qxd3 Nxe4 24.Nxe4 d5

25.Ng3 e4 26.Qd2 d4!

Black’s center pawns are dynamic monsters and his bishops are lasers darkening White’s sky.

27.Bb2 Bc5 28.Rac1 Bb6 29.Qf4 Qd5 

Black is always striving to give his pieces maximum activity.

30.Rc2 e3!

31.fxe3 Rac8 32.Rd2 Rxe3!!

33.Rxe3 dxe3 34.Re2

The following variation is very important: 34.Rxd5 e2+ 35.Kh2 e1Q 36.Rd4 Bxg2! 37.Qd2 Qxd2 38.Rxd2 Bf3 and after all the tactics subside, Black is left with a clear endgame advantage due to his two very active bishops. 



Creating a mate threat on g7. Worse is 35.Qe5 Qxe5 36.Bxe5 Rxa2! and White’s busted.

35…Rxb2! 36.f6

36.Rxb2 e2+ 37.Kh2 Qxg2 mate.

And now we finally come to the puzzle. Find the prettiest way to win.

Puzzle 7:

A glance at this position might lead us to believe that Black is doing well – he’s ahead in development, his rook owns the c-file, and White’s b4-pawn appears to be weak. Kramnik’s next few moves destroy that illusion.

Moving on to Kasparov, I have to admit that the guy is a force of nature. His opening repertoire sets up the kind of dynamic positions he loves (this is how all opening repertoires should be – designed to give you the best possible chance to reach positions that are to your taste), and his energy, imagination, and incredible tactical vision makes him hard to stop.

Kasparov’s strengths remind one of a nuke going off on the board. However, even such an explosive player as Kasparov has to defend, has to play quiet positions, and has to show some serious endgame knowledge. There is no such thing as a good player that can only do one thing well!

Puzzle 8:

Puzzle 9:

Okay, I’ll take mercy on your souls and tell you Black’s plan (titled players would see this plan quickly and easily). Once you understand the plan, you should be able to find the moves that make the plan a reality.

PLAN: Black wants to maximize pressure against White’s a- and c-pawns. This will force White’s rook and bishop into a passive defensive mode. Black’s knight will also join in the party by blocking White’s passed d-pawn and pressure c4. Once all this is done, Black will play a well-timed ...b7-b5, which undermines the c4-pawn and leaves d5 weak and helpless. Good luck!

Puzzle 10:

Puzzle 11:

Our next puzzle shows a position that doesn’t seem very good for White. His rooks aren’t doing much, and black’s queenside pawns will eventually become dangerous if given the chance. How did Kasparov handle this situation?

Puzzle 12:

Puzzle 13:

Puzzle 14:

Puzzle 15:


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