Chess Psychology

IM Silman
Jan 3, 2011, 12:00 AM |
34 | Other

From LondonSystem89: You mentioned your new book contains a section on chess psychology. I’m wondering if the material is different than the chess psychology information in your previous works: THE AMATEUR’S MIND and THE COMPLETE BOOK OF CHESS STRATEGY? Maybe you can give a preview.

Dear LondonSystem89: Though I discussed a few tidbits of chess psychology in my past books, in general I was still in the early stages of creating a “unified chess psychology” paradigm. It took many years for me to come up with psychological recommendations that were actually useful in real play, and my ideas finally hit print in the 4th Edition of my new How to Reassess Your Chess, which immerses the student in this psychological paradigm through 135 (problems and their solutions included) intense pages (the whole book, of course, is 658 pages). All this is covered in Part Four of my book, with the following chapters:

Part Four / Psychological Meanderings

Ch. 1: Material / Fear of Giving up or Taking Material

 Stepping Beyond Fear

 Embracing Your Inner Greed

 Imbalances vs. Material

Ch. 2: Mental Breakdown / Overcoming the Trap of “I Can’t” and “I Must”

 Bowing to Panic

 It’s My Party and I’ll Move What I Want To

 The Eerie Phenomenon of Mutual Delusion

 The Curse of “I Can’t”

Ch. 3: Macho Chess / The Art of Insistence

 Pushing Your Own Agenda

 Key Positions

Ch. 4: Various States of Chess Consciousness

 Lack of Patience

Lazy/Soft Moves

 Pay Attention!

As you can see, it’s all about taking control of a position and branding a game in “your own image.” And this takes us into our next question.


Juan Francisco de Jesus de Sousa asked:

I was playing an English game the other day and faced a problem I’ve always had questions about. When you have a more comfortable position but you know your opponent will eventually equalize, should you seize the moment and gain material to have a winning endgame, even if the position might end up going from comfortable to uncomfortable? Or should you just take it easy and play for the long run? Here’s a game between me (as White) and a friend. Both of us are in the 1600 range.

1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 Bc5 4.Bg2 c6 5.e3 (5.e4, stopping black’s …d7-d5 idea, seems the right choice, even though it badly weakens the dark squares.) 5…d5 6.cxd5 cxd5 7.Nge2 (Intending d2-d4 when, after 7…Nc6 8.d4 both of us will have isolated d-pawns.) 7…d4 8.Na4 Bb4 9.a3 Ba5 10.b4 Bc7 11.exd4 exd4 12.Bb2 (I suppose White is better here, with very comfortable Bishops and better development. The c5-square is great for one of my Knights as well.) 12…Nc6 (At this point I realized that I was better, but Black is pretty close to equalizing as well. He can fight for the e-file, and advancing the pawn isn’t even that bad since the e2-square will be great for an invasion. Thus I thought about trading my comfortable position for an extra pawn and, eventually, a winning endgame. Was this correct?) 13.Bxc6+ bxc6 14.Nxd4 Bh3 15.Rg1 and Black followed with castling, …Be5, etc. I won in the end, but not without defending for a long time.

Dear Juan: I don’t understand the comment about you “knowing the opponent will eventually equalize” since I didn’t see anything so cut and dried in your example. Instead of addressing that, I’ll take it you’re asking if it’s worthwhile to take a few chances (i.e., gobbling material) even if it’s risky to do so, hoping that it will make itself felt if and when an endgame eventually occurs. In general, it all depends on the specific position – it might be a great idea in one game, while being suicidal in the next. However, having the courage to “leap into chaos” is indeed important, but please keep in mind that this leap might be a fatal one if your King isn’t safe. I’ll take a look at your game now, but take a moment to ponder the following sentence, which really could serve as a title to the game we’re about to explore: YOU CAN LAUGH IN THE FACE OF MOST THREATS, BUT DO KEEP YOUR KING AS SAFE AS POSSIBLE!

Juan (1600) – NN (1600)

1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 Bc5 4.Bg2 c6

Instead of playing quiet (and solid) developing moves like 4…0-0 or 4…Nc6, Black tries to imprint the board with his own vision via the “threat” of …d7-d5, which creates a big pawn center. This is a HUGE psychological moment, since if White allows Black to have his way then Black will get through the opening with a very comfortable position.


Playable, but the most combative move is 5.Nf3 (hitting e5 and forcing black’s hand) which actually leads to some very complicated positions: 5…e4 (5…d6 means that Black didn’t get to play his hoped for …d7-d5 after all – that would be a psychological coup for White, who would follow with 0-0 and d2-d4 crashing black’s center) 6.Ng5!? and we get an interesting fight were Black will try to show that his center is strong (while also kicking white’s g5-Knight about), while White will try to prove that the center is a target: 6…d5 (6…Bxf2+ 7.Kxf2 Ng4+ 8.Kg1 Qxg5 9.Nxe4 favors White) 7.cxd5 cxd5 8.d3 h6 9.Nh3 0–0 10.0–0 Nc6 11.Nf4 gives White pressure against black’s center. After 11…g5 12.dxe4! gxf4 (Better is 12…dxe4 13.Nfd5 Nxd5 14.Qxd5 with White having a shade the better of an equal position) 13.exd5 fxg3 14.hxg3 Ne5 15.Bxh6 White has serious compensation for the sacrificed piece.

After 5.Nf3 e4 White can also consider 6.Nh4!? d5 7.d4 Be7 8.cxd5 cxd5 9.0–0 h6 10.f3 g5 11.fxe4 gxh4 12.e5 Ne4 13.Qb3! with all sorts of crazy complications that seem to be more fun for White. Clearly, 5.Nf3 is a very logical reply to black’s provocation, and this kind of “I’m going to punish you” move would be the first thing I’d look at (I might or might not play it, but my first reaction would be to stamp the game with MY vision and stomp on his!).

However, instead White only considered the rather lethargic 5.e3 (which he played – I call it lethargic because it pretty much gives Black a free hand to do what he wants), and 5.e4?!, which overreacts to the “threat” of ...d7-d5. In an effort to stop …d7-d5, Black creates a gaping hole on d4 and turns the c5-Bishop into a monster. Once you begin reacting to an opponent’s idea and cease to have your own, you become a puppet and your opponent turns into the puppet master. Not a happy image for the poor puppet!

At first I thought that 5.e4?! would run afoul of some instant refutation and I looked at all sorts of stuff, but none of it panned out. However, if Black plays slowly White would do well with Nge2 followed by 0-0 and d2-d4. Thus, the dynamic 5…h5!? is very interesting: 6.Nf3 (stopping black’s intended …h5-h4) 6…d6 7.0–0 (7.d3 h4! 8.Nxh4 Ng4 is strong for Black) 7…Bg4 8.h3 Bxf3 9.Qxf3 h4 10.g4 Nbd7 (This Knight’s heading for the holes on d4 and f4 via …Nf8 followed by …Ne6) 11.d3 Nf8 (I would actually prefer 11…Nh7 with …Ng5 to follow) 12.Bg5 Ne6 13.Bxf6 Qxf6 14.Qxf6 gxf6 and though White can hold but suffer with 15.Ne2, black’s clearly in charge due to his great Bishop vs. white’s bad one.

Hopefully the readers will appreciate the psychological differences in the “do what you want” 5.e3, the hysterical (and self defeating) “I have to stop his mighty threat!” 5.e4, and the far more combative “I’m going to bash your center!” 5.Nf3.

5…d5 6.cxd5 cxd5

Black could also consider 6…0-0!? when 7.dxc6?! Nxc6 gives him good compensation due to the weakness of d3 and his lead in development. This introduces us to a typical “I have to” moment where both sides think, “I take on d5 and he has to take back.” But why fall into the “I have to” trap, which only blinds you to the board’s infinite possibilities?


White’s intending to play d4, but you have to realize that there’s an opponent sitting on the other side of the table and he might not let you do what you want to do. Instead, 7.d4! was much more to the point and doesn’t allow Black to get away with the nonsense he does in the game: 7…exd4 8.exd4 when White is ready to put serious heat against d5 by Nge2, 0-0 (King safety!), Bg5, and Nf4. After 7.Nge2 Black gets to lead the dance.

7…d4 8.Na4

Again, we run into the “he’s threatening my piece and I have to move it” mentality. Surprisingly, White could have considered two other moves (I’m not counting 8.exd4 exd4):

1) 8.Qa4+!? Nbd7 (8…Bd7 9.Qc4 Qb6 10.Na4 Bxa4 11.Qxa4+ Nc6 is a whole other kettle of fish) 9.exd4 exd4 10.Nxd4 Qb6 11.Nf5 Bxf2+ 12.Kf1 0–0 13.Qf4 (13.d4!? is probably white's best move) 13...Bc5 14.d4 Re8! and now, since 15.dxc5 Nxc5 gives Black a powerful attack, White should settle for 15.Qg5 Bf8 (Black doesn't have to "settle", and should play 15...g6 16.Nh6+ Kg7 when white's loose King will be a longterm problem.) 16.Nh6+ Kh8 17.Nxf7+ Kg8 18.Nh6+ with a draw by perpetual check.

2) 8.b4!? intending to meet 8…Bxb4 with 9.Qa4+, though 8…Bb6 is fine for Black.

I should add that a titled player always looks at a supposed enemy threat as garbage – he will only take it seriously after proving to himself that it’s actually for real. His first inclination will be to ignore it and push his own agenda. Amateurs tend to take every enemy threat as gospel and panic tends to be their first reaction. Training one’s mind to laugh at threats instead of fainting before them is a huge step towards chess mastery.


Not only giving White the chance to gain a free move with a2-a3, but also placing the Bishop on a vulnerable square! Instead, 8…Be7 gave Black a good game since white’s a4-Knight is offside and black’s extra space is a plus.


Very interesting was 9.exd4 exd4 10.Qb3 Na6 11.a3 d3! (Did you really expect Black to respond to white’s threat and retreat the Bishop? Note that 11…Be7 would have run into 12.Bxb7) 12.axb4 dxe2 13.b5 Nc7 14.Qe3+ Ne6 15.Nb6 (You didn’t think the Knight could go here, did you?) 15…Ng4! (ignoring the threat to his a8-Rook) 16.Qxe2 Qxb6 17.Qxg4 Qxb5 18.Qa4 Qxa4 19.Rxa4 and on and on it goes. One sample: 19…Bd7 20.Bxb7 (as usual, ignoring the threat to the a4-Rook) 20…Bxa4 21.Bxa8 Kd7 22.Be4 Rc8 with super activity for the sacrificed pawn.

9…Ba5 10.b4 Bc7

Black could have ignored the threat to his Bishop (surprise!) and countered with 10…d3, though white’s better after 11.Nc5, leaving everything hanging!

11.exd4 exd4 12.Bb2?

White had to get his King to safety! Instead, 12.0-0 was both obvious and strong, when White would be ready to play Bb2 and begin the battle with a happy King.


Good or bad, Black had to try 12…d3 followed by 13…Qe7+ when White will lose the ability to castle. Yes, after 13.Nc1 Qe7+ 14.Kf1 0-0 15.Nxd3 White is a pawn up, but Black can still fight. Instead, his 12…Nc6 let’s White once again call the shots.


Risky (white’s giving up the light-squares), but real men are willing to take risks. Of course, the simple 13.0-0 (my choice – does that mean I’m not a real man?) gives White a good game with little risk. But testosterone tends to flow when two males lock horns for total board supremacy!

13…bxc6 14.Nxd4

What’s the rush? Just 14.0-0 was the way to go. Remember the old saying, “You have nothing if you don’t have your health.” Well, you have nothing if your King gets mated.

14…Bh3 15.Rg1??

You asked if this was wrong. How could it be right? You make a move that doesn’t do you any good, to stop a threat that might or might not happen. Far superior was 15.Qe2+ Kf8 (not 15…Kd7?? 16.Nc5+ with mate to follow) 16.0-0-0. After white’s “I think he’s threatening …Bg2 and I have to stop it!” blunder (15.Rg1), I’ll create a fun fantasy continuation that should prove entertaining for young and old alike:


Black has a throbbing initiative and White will be hard-pressed to survive. In fact, from here on out Black will have one and only one thought in mind: KILL!!!

16.f3 Re8+ 17.Kf2 Be5 18.Nc2

18.Nb3 Bxb2 19.Nxb2 Qd5 20.Re1 (20.Rc1 Qf5! and White will need to give up the Exchange with 21.Rg2 or 21.Rf1. Instead, 21.Rh1?? Ng4+ 22.Kg1 Re1+! 23.Qxe1 Qxf3 and the game’s over) 20…Ng4+ 21.Kg1 (21.fxg4 Qg2 mate) 21…Rxe1+ 22.Qxe1 Qxf3 and mates in a few.

18…Ng4+!! 19.fxg4 Bxg4!! 20.Qxg4 Qxd2+ 21.Kf1 Qxc2 22.Bxe5 Rxe5 23.Nc5

White had to swallow the bitter pill and allow 23.Rg2 Qxa4.

23…Rf5+, 0-1.

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