Dancing With Yourself

Dancing With Yourself

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When I look at games played by 1500-rated players and below, I see many weaknesses, but one is almost ubiquitous: both players are, more or less, dancing with themselves. What this means is that a player decides to do this or that, he might calculate a move or two, and when he makes his move he’ll often find that the opponent’s reply has nothing to do with his expectations.

The reason for this is that his calculations/expectations are based on a fantasy, and his internal dialogue might sound something like this: “I’ll go there and then he’ll do that and I’ll wipe him out with that! Oh yeah! Am I good or what?”

It certainly sounds nice. But when the “dancer” is making his calculations, he isn’t trying to find the opponent’s best move. Instead, he’s looking at enemy moves that highlight his own dream. When this happens, all hell can break loose.

It could lead to the loss of material. It could lead to a simple loss of time. It could lead to a tactical oversight. Or it could lead to a complete positional meltdown. 

Here’s a position that commonly occurs in amateur games:

This position is almost always reached by “mistake.” What I mean is that Black usually doesn’t know the opening and just finds himself here. If you look at a database you’ll notice that good players avoid it. In fact, I’ve only found one player with a 2300 rating (2350 to be precise) that’s given it a try. 

If you take a good look at it you might begin to feel Black’s pain: White’s ahead in development, Black’s d6-pawn is weak, and the d5-square (a hole) is something White intends to use as a home for his knight. Indeed, theory doesn’t want you to go anywhere near this particular position, and though I’ve looked at this position a lot and feel Black is okay (perhaps something for a very advanced article), it really should be avoided by non-masters.

In any case, in the game Black played 10...Rc8. His reasoning probably went something like this: “I’m moving my rook onto a half-open file and, at the same time, taking aim at White’s king.”

Notice how he didn’t ask himself what White would play; he just saw a reasonable-looking move, enjoyed the (usually good) idea of placing a rook on an open file, and that was that. Also notice that he didn’t study White’s plans, tactics, or reply. The game continued:

An honest look at the intended 10...Rc8 would tell Black that it’s certainly not what he wants. But, unfortunately, being honest with yourself turns out to be far from easy!

Incredibly, this move turns a winning position for White into a vastly superior position for Black! Once again, let’s take a look into White’s thinking process: “My kingside knight can leap into f5 at any moment and Black’s king is stuck in the center. So, now it’s time to kill him! With 13.Nb5 I threaten two pawns and if he takes my knight I take back with my queen and end up with a winning endgame due to the superior knight and the holes on d5 and f5. I think 13.Nb5 is a stone-cold winner!” 

Sadly, White’s move is indeed a stone-cold winner (or close to it) – for Black! White’s crime: he was dancing with himself!

So, what was wrong with White’s thinking process?

White did what Black did, he entered fantasy land and only looked at ideas and moves that made him happy. What he forgot was that the b5-knight was inadequately defended (the queen was the b5-knight’s only lifeline), the other knight (on h4) was completely undefended, and by moving the c3-knight to b5 the e4-pawn was also inadequately defended. All these things should have set off alarm bells, but those bells were not heard due to White’s potentially fatal dose of myopia.

By the way, after 12...Rg8 White had a several winning moves:

Here’s another (albeit more complex) example of fantasy chess:

White is obviously much better, mostly due to his enormous space advantage in the center and on the kingside. White’s answer to increasing his advantage was to take on f5 (15.gxf5), the idea being to open the g-file and penetrate on it with his rooks.

There are several problems with this kind of basic, “I’ll do this, which will lead to this” mentality. Here are two obvious missteps:

  • He didn’t ask if he could create new imbalances in the position.
  • He DID realize that he was doing something nice for Black (bringing Black’s dead kingside knight to f5), but he felt that (after he took the knight with his light-squared bishop) the open file would be worth it.

Let’s look at each of these bullet points:

He had plenty of time but it never occurred to him that new imbalances were screaming to be created. And, to be honest, if you don’t look, you won’t find if there are opportunities waiting for you to grab.

As it turns out, White could have completely taken over the game. See if you can find it:

In the actual game he went “all in” with the idea of opening the g-file. Let’s see how that worked for him:

As one moves up the rating ladder, it’s extremely important to truly explore the ideas, plans, tactical nuances, and structures of both sides. Though grandmasters see most of those things at a glance, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start to train yourself to see as many possibilities for both sides as you can.

Even if your scan is all wrong, you’ll still find that your results get better and the mutual positions get clearer. But, this takes time, dedication, and lots of practice to succeed. Fortunately, there’s no better time to start than now!

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