How To Play Decisive Games

How To Play Decisive Games

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All chess players can remember the games that had ultimate importance for them. The level of the competition is irrelevant: it can be your local chess club's championship, national tournaments, or even the FIDE World Championship. 

What matters is that the game was incredibly important for you for some reason. Sometimes, it is not even about winning a tournament. Say it is your first over-the-board encounter against a master or a grandmaster. I am sure you'll remember such a game for a long time.

There are even cases when a chess player's life depended on the outcome of the game. Here is a story that, according to Wikipedia, happened to GM Ossip Bernstein:

A 36-year-old Bernstein in 1918 was arrested in Odessa by the Bolshevik secret police whose purpose was to investigate and punish "counterrevolutionary" crimes. Bernstein was to be shot by a firing squad for serving as a legal advisor to the banking industry.⁣ On the day of his execution, Bernstein watched as the firing squad lined up before him. At the last minute, a commanding officer asked to see the list of prisoner names and recognized Bernstein's name as he was a chess enthusiast. After confronting Bernstein about his identity, the commanding officer offered him a deal he couldn't refuse.⁣ They would play a game of chess. If Bernstein won the match, he would win his life and freedom. However, if he drew or lost, he would get shot along with the rest of the prisoners. Bernstein won in short order and was released.

GM Ossip Bernstein at a chess tournament in 1946 in Groningen, Netherlands.
GM Ossip Bernstein at a 1946 chess tournament in Groningen, The Netherlands.

I had a similar "game of my life" situation. While it wasn't as dramatic as Bernstein's case, there was still a lot hinging on the outcome of that game. You can read the full story here.

How should you play such a super important game? Unfortunately, in such stressful situations, many players make one typical mistake: they try to change the way they play. The reasoning goes like this: My opponent is going to prepare for my usual opening, so I am going to surprise them with an opening I never played before.

What such a player is missing is the obvious fact that they don't know an opening they never played before as well as their regular opening, and therefore, they put themselves at a disadvantage right away.

Or sometimes, when facing a very strong opponent who is rated some 400 points higher, a chess player might think that playing careful, cautious chess would increase their chances of surviving. Of course, careful, cautious play would lead to a passive position, which is a sure way to lose against a very strong opponent.

Sometimes, even very strong players forget about these obvious things. Judge for yourself. In the sixth round of a recently concluded FIDE World Cup, two very strong grandmasters, Magnus Carlsen and Arjun Erigaisi, needed only a draw with the White pieces to knock out their respective opponents, GMs Gukesh D and Praggnanandhaa R. You can read the full report here. Both Carlsen and Erigaisi chose the same Alapin Variation of the Sicilian Defense, and both suffered. While Carlsen ultimately managed to make a draw, Erigaisi couldn't. Here are the games:

What surprised me in these games was the opening choice. Neither Carlsen nor Erigaisi play the Alapin variation on a regular basis, so they chose this opening line just to make a draw with White. Chess history knows many similar examples. Here is just one of them. 

Here is how GM Raymond Keene described the game: "In the last round, Mikhail Gurevich just needed a draw to qualify for the Candidates. He chose the French Exchange (despite being a Queen Pawn player with White). Short beat him like a drum, and proceeded to face Kasparov in the World Championship. Gurevich's never recovered from this blow (to qualify to world Championship level)."

To demonstrate the correct way of playing in such a situation, let me give you examples from two legendary players. First, let's take a look at the opening comment by GM Garry Kasparov. It was the decisive last game of the World Championship match, and Kasparov just needed a draw to become the new World Champion.

Another classical game happened in the last round of the Interzonal Tournament of 1973 when GM Lev Polugaevsky had to win his last round game in order to qualify for the Candidates matches. The problem was that the opponent, super-GM Lajos Portisch, was an excellent theoretician—people even called him the "Hungarian Botvinnik."

Polugaevsky had to decide what opening to choose for such an important game. His second, GM Igor Zaitsev, suggested starting with 1.e4 and playing the Italian Game because Portisch played the resulting positions less confidently than closed openings. Polugaevsky responded that he didn't play the Italian Game even as a kid. "That's great!" Zaitsev answered, "so it will be a total surprise for Portisch." So, they started preparing the Italian Game.

Suddenly, Polugaevsky realized that this is not how you are supposed to play a decisive game. What if he doesn't get an opening advantage? Then, he would have to play in an unfamiliar position while cursing himself for making the wrong opening choice. So, he decided to play his regular opening. Yes, it would make it easier for Portisch to prepare, but the resulting positions would be the ones Polugaevsky had the most experience with. Here is the game:

So, the answer to the question of how to play decisive games is very simple: play your regular chess. If you are an attacking player, then attack even if you need just a draw. If you are a positional player, beat the temptation to go for an all-out attack from the very first move just because you are in a must-win situation.

Remember, you are doing the best at what you've been practicing in most of your games, so suddenly changing your openings or playing style will put you in an uncomfortable situation. Here is an example from my knockout match at the U.S. Championship:

Looking at the aggressive opening moves played by Black, you might get the impression that I was in a must-win situation. However, the reality was the exact opposite: I just needed a draw to win the match. But while it was tempting to play a solid line, I played my regular opening precisely for the reason described by Polugaevsky. So, if you find yourself playing the game of your life, do what you do best: play your regular chess!

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