Chess Lessons Exposed: A Lesson Learned?

Chess Lessons Exposed: A Lesson Learned?‎

IM Silman
23 | Other

This series is about chess lessons and how a chess teacher tries to push key points home. If you are looking for a chess teacher, don’t grab anyone that comes along! Take your time, take a lesson or two from various teachers so you can get a feel for their different teaching styles, and you’ll eventually find just the right teacher for you.

Remember: if you and the teacher have zero chemistry, then look for another teacher. There is no fault for either side, but a successful teacher/student relationship is all about great communication (on many levels). If that doesn’t exist, both parties need to move on.

I NO LONGER TAKE STUDENTS! I have a few that are old friends, so I teach them. But that’s it for me. Fortunately, you can find tons of experienced teachers here on

Test 1

1.e4 c5 2.a3

A rare move, but GM Alexei Bezgodov uses it all the time (draw against Bologan in 2013, a win over Nadanian, a draw vs. Kurnosov (2657), a win over Guseinov (2631), etc.), and others use it to get out of book quickly.

Vanessa has an incredible imagination, an aggressive style, and fears nobody, but she had never seen this move before, while she had to think that her opponent knew it quite well.

2...Nc6 3.b4

The game has turned into a form of Wing Gambit. With the information you now have, what would be Black’s best reply: 3...cxb4 or 3...e5? (There are other tempting possibilities but we’ll just focus on these two.)

The move isn’t enough; you should also explain why you would choose one over the other (once again making use of the tiny bit of information I’ve given you so far).

Test 2

White is facing an international master. She sacrificed a pawn for active play but things didn’t work out as she hoped they would, and now she doesn’t know what to do.

How would you play this position for White?

Answer to Test 1

If I had to choose between 3...cxb4 and 3...e5, I would personally go for 3...e5, and as a teacher I would (and did) admonish Vanessa for not being more practical. This doesn’t mean that 3...cxb4 is a bad move. In general, I like greed in chess and gobbling up a free pawn with Black is a great way to play for a win (indeed, Vanessa beat her opponent in 29 moves). However, I think it was an illogical decision.

Here’s why:

  • White clearly knows this line.
  • Vanessa didn’t know it at all.
  • White is looking forward to the lines that followed 3...cxb4 while Vanessa had no experience with those positions.
  • Vanessa is a wonderful attacking player.
  • You should (when possible) always play to your strength. You should create an opening repertoire that fits your strengths, and you should try to turn every position you get into something the fits with your talents (of course, this isn’t always possible, but it’s something you should always look for). 
  • This line is actually quite dangerous for Black, and walking into a minefield is a good way to get pasted.

For example:

Now check out 3...e5:

See the difference in the two choices? By accepting the gambit, Black walked into her opponent’s prep and also allowed White to get exactly the kind of game he likes -- he knew more analysis/theory and he had more experience. 

3...e5, on the other hand, might take White into unknown territory and, even if White is well versed in it, offers Black active play with an excellent chance to take over the initiative. Also, though Vanessa didn’t know any theory about 3...e5, a player of her strength could easily figure out the right moves and create a position that’s more to her liking while denying White the positions that he had hoped for.

As I mentioned earlier, she won the game quite quickly, but the opening didn’t go very well and the result could have easily been very different. When the opponent throws something like 2.a3 at you, it’s important to sit back and consider not only the moves, but the psychological battle that White’s clearly trying to initiate. Her grabbing the pawn was a brave (and ultimately successful) decision, but it was also extremely risky and, for that particular situation, illogical.

In a nutshell, 3...cxb4 might be the right move to play against one opponent/situation, but can easily be completely wrong in another. A useful rule: don’t play into your opponent’s strengths unless you are 100 percent ready for that kind of battle!

Answer to Test 2

Though White’s a pawn down, the position is far from easy to play for either side.  Black would love to play ...e6-e5 at some point, but he has to be careful that he doesn’t activate White’s dark-squared bishop or end up (after dxe5) with a vulnerable pawn on d5 and a big hole on d4 for White to use. Black would REALLY love to kick away White’s annoying knight, but tactics prevent this from happening: ...h6 allows Nxe6, ...f6 walks into Nxe6 forking Black’s queen and rook, and ...Be7 blocks the Black queen’s connection to f7, allowing Nxf7.

Another problem for Black is his knight, which can’t move at the moment since ...Ne7 or ...Nf4 lets White chop off the f7-pawn.

White would love to take advantage of Black’s present paralysis, but it’s extremely hard to break down Black’s position. For example, 17.Rf3 fails to accomplish anything due to 17...Rd7.

Vanessa should have remembered the lesson I gave her in the game Vanessa West-Luke Cheng (2017), Western Pacific Open, 2015, when she reached the following position (discussed in my article -– Tactics or Positional Play? A Beautiful Imagination!):

Black’s getting wiped out (indeed, Vanessa destroyed him), but Vanessa wasn’t sure how to continue. I told her that almost any IM or GM (if they couldn’t find an immediate win) would confidently play 13.a3! without giving it a second thought.


Vanessa West (Photo by Chuck Ensey)

Here’s my note after 13.a3:

“You might ask, ‘White’s attacking on the kingside so why bother with this passive, seemingly useless move?’

“Please remember what she wrote in her notes: ‘I wasn’t sure how to improve my position.’

“This move is a vast improvement over the position without a3. One reason is that Black’s problem isn’t just his miserable kingside, it’s also his complete lack of counterplay. If you have no means of making gains (no matter how small), then you will almost always go down in defeat. White’s 13.a3 takes the b4-square away from Black’s pieces, thereby stripping him of options like ...Nb4. But it also adds to Black’s worries due to the possible threat of b2-b4 (thanks to 13.a3). White might not make that push, but what he’s done is take away options from Black while giving new options to herself (b2-b4). Note that if Black wanted to stop b2-b4 with ...a7-a5, he would weaken the b5-square.”

So, an important lesson should have been learned: When there’s no clear way to bust your opponent’s position or stir up dynamic play, calm down and make a simple improvement move.

An improvement move can be something that makes your king feel a bit safer, or it might improve your pawn structure, or it might improve the position of one of your pieces. In particular, my favorite improvement move is to kill off the enemy pieces’ activity.

If she had taken that lesson to heart, she would have found the correct move in her game against the IM: 17.g3!

So what does 17.g3 do? It dominates Black’s knight (no more leaps to f4!) and sets up future moves like Bg2 or Bh3. White might not make either of those moves, but now she’s expanded her options. After 17.g3 Black’s position is still for choice, but it’s a tight battle. For example: 17...Bd6 (17...e5 18.Rd1 is another story – White has chances there too) 18.Rae1 Rdf8 (defending f7 and intending ...Ng6-e7) 19.bxc4! (I’ll illustrate Black’s ...Ne7 idea: 19.Bg2 Ne7 20.Nxf7 g6 21.Qf3 Nc6) 19...dxc4 20.d5! (threatening Bxg7) 20...Bc5 (20...e5!? is an interesting alternative when White should probably reply with 21.Rd1) 21.Bxg7 Bxe3 22.Rxe3 Bxd5 23.Bxf8 Rxf8 24.Qxh7 and the beat goes on.

Lessons Learned In This Article

  • Don’t dance your opponent’s dance. As often as possible, try to guide the trajectory of the game (be it the opening or middlegame) into skillsets that are favorable to you.
  • When there’s no clear way to bust your opponent’s position or stir up dynamic play, calm down and make a simple improvement move. An improvement move can be something that makes your king feel a bit safer, or it might improve your pawn structure, or it might improve the position of one of your pieces. In particular, my favorite improvement move is to kill off the enemy pieces’ activity.
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