Losing Focus and Meeting 1.d4

Losing Focus and Meeting 1.d4

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LionHeart319 asked:

I’ve been spending hours and hours of study to improve my game, I mean I’m kinda obsessed with the game. But recently (after reading a couple of books, improving my tactics, and solving a lot of chess puzzles), I seem to lack focus in almost every game I play. I can’t understand but I just seem to loose track in the middlegame, committing lots of mistakes, giving a piece for free, and other blunders.

What can you recommend to improve one’s focus on the game?

Dear LionHeart319:

I … have … no … idea. Thanks for the question!


azax1 asked:

I’m a young chess player with a provisional USCF rating of around 1500 (I estimate my true strength lies around 1900). I’ve recently run into a problem: I don’t have a comfortable response to 1.d4! I feel most comfortable in openings without large amounts of theory, and where I try to wrest the initiative away. Do you have any suggestions for openings or books I should try?

Dear azax1:

It’s funny, but ever since my first step into the tournament chess scene other players would always say (when asked what their rating was), “My rating is so and so, but I’m really XXX strength!”

Everyone thinks they are better than their rating. Everyone! Usually they add 200 points to their existing rating, but why not go whole hog and add more? Your 400-point addition shows that you really are much stronger than the 1500 rating, or that you’re a very positive, confident guy (which is also good). It might also mean you’re delusional, but hey, we won’t go there!

So, you want an opening system vs. 1.d4 that doesn’t have much theory but gives you good chances of wresting the initiative away from White? To top that off, you are hoping for a book recommendation too, which means it’s a thin book (you did say the system should not have much theory), it won’t be a secret because it’s in an easy-to-get book, but even if your opponent buys the book, you will still be able (as Black) to take the initiative and crush him like a bug. Is that summation correct? Should this magical opening system also attract women? Yes, let’s go for the gusto!

Okay, I looked long and hard, but couldn’t find anything that fit this description. So, we’ll toss the “attracts women” thing away, along with some of the other stuff, and that leaves … hummm … what?

The King’s Indian Defense (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6) has TONS of theory, so that’s out. The Slav and Semi-Slav (1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6) is also theory intensive, so out that goes too. The Budapest (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e5) used to be a great choice if you didn’t like theory, but thanks to the efforts of grandmasters Gutman and Moskalenko, there’s now reams of analysis, and more coming every day. No, that won’t do! The Grunfeld (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5) is insanely theoretical. But the Black Knight’s Tango (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 Nc6) is a very real possibility. I covered this line in an older column:

For the Tango, I recommend TANGO! by Richard Palliser (Everyman Chess 2005).

Other possibilities are 1.d4 d6, 1.d4 g6 (there’s a new book on this titled THE ALL-PURPOSE DEFENSE for BLACK by Vladimir Barsky - Chess Stars, 2011).

The Dutch Defense, Stonewall Variation is also very interesting, and its closed nature makes theory less important than most other openings. In particular, the plan where Black plays …b6 followed by …Bb7 and eventually …c6-c5 is often very effective. Here’s an example:

Helgi Olafsson - Simen Agdestein, Reykjavik 1987

1.d4 f5 2.c4 e6 3.g3 Nf6 4.Bg2 c6 5.Nf3 d5 6.0–0 Bd6 7.b3 Qe7 8.Bb2 b6 9.Qc1 0–0 10.Ba3 Bb7

Black intends to eventually play …c6-c5, after which he’ll have good central play, plenty of space, and excellent squares for his pieces.

11.Bxd6 Qxd6 12.Qa3 c5 13.dxc5 bxc5 14.Nc3 Nbd7 15.Rfd1 f4! 16.Rac1 a6 17.Bh3 Rae8 18.Rc2 h6 19.Na4 Ne4 20.cxd5 exd5 21.Bxd7 Qxd7 22.Nxc5 Nxc5 23.Rxc5

23.Qxc5?? fails to 23…Rc8.

23…Rxe2 24.Nd4 fxg3 25.fxg3

25.Nxe2 gxf2+ 26.Kg2 Qg4+ 27.Ng3 d4+ wins for Black.

25…Qf7 and White resigned since 26.Nxe2 Qf2+ 27.Kh1 d4+  mates.

If you’re interested in this line of the Dutch, I highly recommend WIN WITH THE STONEWALL DUTCH by Sverre Johnsen and Ivar Bern (Gambit, 2009).

LionHeart319 asked:

I’ve been spending hours and hours of study to improve my game, I mean I’m kinda obsessed. But recently (after reading a couple of books, improving my tactics, and solving a lot of chess puzzles), I seem to lack focus in almost every game I play. I can’t understand but I just seem to loose track in the middlegame, committing lots of mistakes, giving a piece for free, and other blunders.

What can you recommend to improve one’s focus on the game?

Dear LionHeart319:

You again? You didn’t like my earlier answer? Okay, then let’s see if I can come up with something else.

Firstly, there are endless things that can cause different people to lose focus. It could be a medical problem (Attention Deficit Disorder, a sugar problem that causes you to weaken halfway through a game, etc.), it could be emotional, it could be caused by stress, it could be dietary, or the complexities of a tense game might just blow your mind which, in turn, causes you to freeze like water in the icebox. It’s possible that you committing these mistakes has nothing to do with focus, but is rather a natural result of your present playing strength and/or level of experience.

The only way I would be able to give you an educated opinion is if I saw lots and lots of your games, and discussed the inner workings of your mind before, during, and after the errors occurred. But, obviously, this is way outside the scope of what I can do with this column (but, at $150 an hour, 5 hours a week, for 40 straight weeks, I’m sure we could get to the bottom of this mystery).

Pushing these limitations aside, I’ll give one answer for a typical chess “illness” in the hope that it might help you or others. That “illness” is “moving too quickly in key positions.”

To quote my new book (HTRYC 4th Edition): “We’ve all seen notes to a game where the annotator says, ‘This is the key position.’ But, what exactly is a key position? A key position is, in my view, a very personal thing – while one player might see a particular situation as a key position that demands a huge effort to solve, another will see the same position as easy and thus not important at all. A position is only ‘key’ if you sense that the correct move or plan will have a major impact on the game, but the right move or plan isn’t clear to you.”

Okay, were back to the column … and your question. Perhaps your mistakes mean that you’re simply doing things wrong in relation to key positions and verbalization. For example:

1) You should always have the position verbalized, with the plans for both sides known, and the basic tactical themes in that kind of position guarded against (or ready to be sprung on the enemy!). That way you will always be making moves that conform to the position’s needs.

Of course, this will be done to the best of your ability, but you need to train yourself to do it. Making moves without knowing these things is a death sentence waiting to happen … a good opponent will flay you alive.

In the following game, I blithely played a bunch of “reasonable looking” opening moves and then did a full stop when I realized that things we’re not going my way.
















Roy Ervin - Silman [B70], Berkeley 1976

1.Nf3 c5 2.g3 Nc6 3.Bg2 g6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 Bg7 6.Nb3 Nf6 7.Nc3 d6 8.0-0 0-0 9.h3 Bd7 10.e4 Ne5 11.a4 Rc8 12.Nd4 a6 13.Nce2 Bc6 14.f4 Ned7 15.Nxc6 bxc6 16.Be3 Rb8 17.b3 c5 18.Rb1 Qc7 19.c4

I hadn’t played the opening particularly well and now was facing slow suffocation due to my lack of counterplay (it’s almost impossible to attack b3 in any meaningful way), White’s two Bishops, White’s superiority in space, and White’s long-term chances against my King. Realizing that the situation was critical (in other words, I recognized that it was a key position for me), I thought for a solid hour (!) and came up with a very interesting plan.


The first preparatory step in a positional pawn sacrifice that will give me all the counterplay I could want.

20.Qd2 Nf8 21.g4 Ne6 22.g5 Nd7

It was only now that White saw what I was up to!

23.Kh1 Nd4

Now the point of 19...Rfc8 can be seen: by making the f8-square accessible to my Knight, I was able to maneuver this piece to d4 where it can take part in an assault against b3 (which is my natural target). If White chops on d4 and wins a pawn, the newly opened queenside lines and my remaining Knight’s access to c5 gives Black tremendous compensation and active play.

24.Nxd4 cxd4 25.Bxd4 Bxd4 26.Qxd4

White’s 23.Kh1 was important since Black could force the trade of Queens by 26...Qc5 if the White King still stood on g1. Why would Black want to exchange Queens when he’s down a pawn? Because Black is doing very well on the queenside, while White’s main hope is a counterattack against the Black King. This wouldn’t be possible if the Queens were no longer on the board.

26...Rb4 27.Qd1 Rcb8

Though a pawn behind, Black's position has suddenly turned into a thing of beauty: he is exerting tremendous pressure against b3, can increase it by ...Qb6, and his Knight will rule on the luscious c5-square.


A lovely move! White gives the pawn back to activate his Bishop and also clogs up the e5-square in anticipation of an f4-f5 advance. The immediate f4-f5 would let Black’s Knight leap to e5, and would also doom the White Bishop to permanent passivity.

28...dxe5 29.f5 gxf5!?

With the thrill of battle burning through my veins, I “forgot” about my usual safety first approach (29...Nc5 was sensible and very strong) and decided to enter into a long tactical sequence that seemed so interesting that I simply couldn’t resist it!

30.Rxf5 e6 31.Rf1

31.Rf6 fails to 31...Nxf6 32.gxf6 Qxc4!

31...Nc5 32.Qh5 Rxb3 33.Rbe1 Nd3??

This pushes the envelope a bit too far! Instead of the suicidal text, the obvious 33...Rb2 would have given Black a winning advantage. However, I had something amazing (which turned out to be garbage) in mind.

34.Be4 f5??

Continuing with my “brilliant” plan. Instead, 34...Nf4 was forced: 35.Qxh7+ Kf8 36.Qh8+ Ke7 37.Qf6+ Ke8, =.


Why would anyone in their right mind purposely enter such a situation? I was caught up in the tactics and forgot about the lesson learned from Petrosian: always deprive your opponent of counterplay! I thought (in my “manly” frenzy) that I had calculated everything through to the end but, of course, such positions are full of surprises and the slightest miscue can turn a well-earned win into a well-earned defeat.

35...Nf4 36.Rxf4??

This is what I had expected. For some reason I had completely missed the obvious 36.Qg5+ Kh8 37.f7 Rxh3+ 38.Kg1 when Black can resign. Fortunately, my opponent shared my hallucination.

36...exf4 37.Rg1+ Rg3 38.Rxg3+ fxg3 39.Qg5+ Kh8 40.f7

This was the position I had envisioned when playing 33...Nd3. My opponent thought he was winning (Qf6+ is a crushing threat, and 40...Qxf7 41.Qe5+ picks up Black’s Rook with check), but he completely underestimated my reply.

40...g2+!, 0-1. Yes! I was very excited about this move. Where were the cheerleaders to dance my victory dance to the world? Of course, I thought I had played flawlessly, not realizing until much later that I had actually tried to lose the game with my delusional 33rd move.

Why in the world would White resign here? Let’s look at his various possibilities: 

* 41.Kxg2 Rb2+ is game over.

* 41.Qxg2 Qxf7 is easy for Black.

* 41.Bxg2 Rb1+ is even worse!

* 41.Kg1! Qb6+ (the point – with gain of tempo, Black is able to place his Queen on b2, thereby covering the tender a1-h8 diagonal, and thus stopping white’s threatened Qf6+) 42.c5 Qb2! 43.Qf4 Qd4+ 44.Kxg2 Qg7+ (the immediate 44…Rf8 is also very good) followed by 45…Rf8 and black’s winning.

2) When you reach a position that poses a problem (an enemy threat seems daunting, his plan seems to be gelling faster than yours, or you simply can’t see how to best implement your own ideas), you need to STOP and think hard until you’ve solved the situation. For you, this is a key position and the fate of the game probably rests on your ability to master its secrets.
















D. Bragg - Silman [E30], Los Angeles 1990

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Bb4+ 4.Nc3 c5 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bh4 cxd4 7.Nxd4 a6 8.f3 Nc6 9.e3 0-0 10.Be2 Be7 11.g4 d5 12.Bf2 Nxd4 13.Qxd4 dxc4 14.Qxd8 Rxd8 15.Bxc4 b5 16.Be2 Bb7 17.e4 Rac8 18.a3 Ne8

Black decides to swing his Knight over to c4 via d6. This move also frees the h4-d8 diagonal for the e7-Bishop.

19.Be3 Bf6

Here we reach a key position for White. He’s under pressure, Black clearly has the initiative, and black’s position is easier to play. To make matters worse, Black threatens to chop on c3 and win a pawn. In this position White needed to hunker down and think for a long, long time until he fully understood all the possibilities for both sides. All his energy should have been given to this position, but instead he resorted to the extremely lazy (and suicidal), “I should guard my Knight, thus 20.Bd2 defends and even prevents my pawn structure from being damaged from …Bxc3.”


The game is now over. Instead 20.Rc1 was playable (though Black maintains an edge with 20…Nd6), but I would prefer the more pointed 20.Kf2, connecting the Rooks. Now 20…Bh4+ 21.Kg2 only helps White, while 20…Bxc3 (20...Be5 21.h3 Nd6) 21.bxc3 Rxc3 22.a4 b4 23.Bb6 Rb8 24.a5 freezes the pawn on a6 (labeling it as a target), and also deprives the b4-pawn of protection via …a6-a5 (meaning that Rhb1 followed by chopping on b4 is threatened). Instead of 20.Kf2 Bxc3, Black would have played 20…Be5 21.h3 Nd6 with continuing (but not terminal) pressure on white’s game.

After 20.Bd2?? the game ended quickly:

20...Bh4+ 21.Kd1 Bg5 22.Nb1 Rxd2+ 23.Nxd2 Rd8 24.Ke1 Bh4+ 25.Kd1 Bg5 26.Ke1 Rxd2 27.Rb1 Kf8 28.Kf2 Bf4 29.h4 Be5 30.b4 Bd4+ 31.Ke1 Ra2, 0-1.

After the game I’m sure White thought, “I lost focus and blundered. It happens.” But is that true? No, White failed to appreciate the problems his position was facing, and the tactical possibilities that he should have been aware of were completely overlooked. The lesson here is, when you feel you’re under pressure, it’s imperative to immerse yourself in the position and come to terms with everything that’s going on. A lazy, cavalier attitude like, “I’ll just guard the piece and all will be well.” is a sure fire way to be blasted off the board.

As you can see, if you’re not doing these things, your problem isn’t about focus at all, it’s about not recognizing key positions and not knowing WHEN to focus and solve the key position once you notice it. Thus, an important moment in the game passes by without you being aware of it and, as your position falls apart, you feel it’s due to a lack of focus when, in truth, it’s due to a very different (but curable) “lack.”

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