Don't Be Lazy In Chess!

Don't Be Lazy In Chess!

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In the introduction to his famous book "Grandmaster Preparation," GM Lev Polugaevsky tells a story that happened on December 17, 1969, when he and ex-world champion GM Mikhail Botvinnik were walking on the streets of Belgrade.

Mikhail Botvinnik suddenly asked me:

"Are you writing any sort of chess book?"

I glanced at him in surprise, and mumbled in reply that I played and prepared a lot, that I was still young, and that I would start writing sometime in the future. Towards the end of this lengthy explanation I suddenly sensed its complete lack of conviction, but even so Botvinnik's retort quite overwhelmed me:

"Why don't you admit it - you're a lazy-bones! You should be ashamed of yourself! It's the duty of every grandmaster to write books," declared Mikhail Moiseevich, very severely bringing the conversation to a close.

Don't be lazy in chess
Botvinnik told Polugaevskey "You're a lazy-bones!". Photo: Harry Pot/Dutch National Archives, CC.

Now let me assure you, my dear readers, that it would be difficult to find a more hardworking person than the late Polugaevsky, so calling him a "lazy-bones" sounds comical to me. This little conversation just demonstrates that it is typical for people to rationalize their decisions even if they are wrong.  

A good example of this concept could be found in an excellent book "The Road To Chess Improvement" by GM Alex Yermolinsky.

As you could see, White missed a forced win by 27. Bxf5! and it became a turning point of the whole game. Step by step he kept ruining his winning position and the final blunder sealed the deal.

Here is Yermolinsky's conclusion:

"Failure to calculate (and to go for it!) a seemingly risky line in a better position could be attributed to the fear of blundering. The problem is that the 'safer' move may lead to even
greater danger due to increasing complications in the later play. Problems tend to snowball, multiplied by your perception; it seems like all 'dark forces' of chess rise against you to punish the coward."

Failure to calculate (and to go for it!) a seemingly risky line in a better position could be attributed to the fear of blundering. The problem is that the 'safer' move may lead to even greater danger due to increasing complications in later play.
— GM Alex Yermolinsky

I think Yermolinsky is too harsh calling himself a coward. I've known him for almost 40 years and he is anything but. He grew up in the neighborhood where street fighting was quite common, and therefore Yermolinsky is not a person that can be scared easily.

In my opinion, what really let him down in that game is the 'why bother?" attitude. Indeed, he knew that his position was completely winning, so instead of calculating a whole bunch of long variations, he preferred something that looked much simpler. So, he was more complacent than scared. Some people would call it an inability to leave a comfort zone and I bet Botvinnik would call it laziness. 

I am sure that every single player has had similar episodes. I shared mine in this old article. Here is the game where I had a chance to beat GM Viktor "The Terrible" Korchnoi:

As you could see, instead of the correct 14.Nxe5, which was essentially winning the game, or even 15. Nxe5, which would lead to an approximately even position according Korchnoi and GM Garry Kasparov, I played the losing 15.Nxd4??

Kasparov suggests in his book that I simply didn't see the move 15.f4! after 14. Nxe5 Qd6. Of course from Kasparov's chess height I was just a chess tourist, but nevertheless I was in the top 50 in the world at that point and therefore the move 15. f4 was the first move I considered.

Don't be lazy in chess
Korchnoi asked Serper why he didn't play the virtually winning move. Photo: Stefan64, CC.

In our post-mortem after the game, Korchnoi asked me why I didn't play this variation. I told him that Black is winning after 15... Qc5 with a nasty threat of a discovered checkmate and attack on my Nc3. And then Korchnoi showed me a very simple refutation: 16. e3! and Black is in trouble.

Boy, did I hate myself then! Apparently, the threat of checkmate seemed so strong that I stopped analysis of the position exactly one move before White wins! Of course, I fell a victim to the same "lazy" attitude: I am winning, why bother with all these complications where my opponent can even threaten a checkmate in one move!

I don't want you to have an impression that only grandmasters get "lazy". Here is a game that one of my students played last week:

Yes, both players made many mistakes in this game, but the most instructive happened after 30 moves. How difficult was it to calculate that after a rook capture with 31. Qxe8 Black's seemingly dangerous move 31...Nf4 leads nowhere after the simple 32. Ng3? At that point Player A had about 40 minutes, but he spent less than two to play 31.Qf5?

His thinking was obvious: "I already have an extra exchange and a winning position, why bother with all the calculations after 31. Qxe8 where my opponent can threaten a checkmate in one?" Sounds similar to my game vs. Korchnoi, doesn't it? Unfortunately for White, the result was exactly the same. Just like Yermolinsky correctly observed "all 'dark forces' of chess rise against you" and as a result White blundered terribly and lost the game.

It is ironic that first it was Black who got in trouble because his queen got trapped and just three moves later it was White whose queen was trapped!

I hope now you can see that this lazy "why bother?" attitude doesn't work in chess. If you see a very promising move, don't skip it in favor of a simpler, but less promising solution on the superficial ground of "playing safe".

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