Milking the +/=
In this and the next article I will be discussing the situation where one player holds an advantage which is tangible but not necessarily of the level we call a “winning advantage”. But while we are at it, what exactly is a “winning advantage”?
Logically, one would think a “winning advantage” would mean that if both players play the absolute best moves, the side with the advantage will win the game. However, speaking in such terms as “absolute best” moves - and assuming we could ever know the “absolute truth” about the position – is basically meaningless for human players. So in practice players refer to a “winning position” as one which should lead to a win with “normal play”; one which is clarified enough that the level of play required to win falls within the capability of the player involved.
Thus, the line between a normal advantage and a “winning” advantage theoretically should be fixed, but in practice is rather more subjective. Good players often speak about “chances to win” rather than trying to nail down a position as either “winning” or not. I believe in this way they recognize the essentially infinite nature of chess – that while certainly an absolute truth to the position exists, neither they nor the most powerful computer will ever be certain of finding it, at least in a relatively complex position.
For example, let’s look at the following position:
Does White have the advantage here? Of course not. The position is simple enough that we know the absolute truth to it – it is drawn. Nevertheless he does have an extra pawn and cannot lose – only Black could lose. Thus, in some subjective sense (i.e. in a game between two beginners) White has an “advantage”. But the position is simple enough that we know that such an advantage will not be sufficient to win. Between two relatively advanced players, speaking of an “advantage” in such a position is nonsensical.
Now let’s look at the following position:
Clearly White has a stereotypical positional advantage in his superior minor piece (the knight on a strong blockade square versus the “bad” bishop, which is impeded by its isolated center pawn). Any knowledgeable player would prefer to have white here. However, endgame theoreticians say that this endgame should be drawn. According to the accepted belief, if Black defends correctly, he will draw no matter how well White plays - just as in the above example with a king and pawn against a king. Nevertheless, there is no way these theoreticians could know the absolute truth in the same way that we can assert that the above endgame with king and pawn versus king is a draw. In the actual game, Capablanca erred somewhat, giving Flohr chances to win, which Flohr did not utilize, and the game was drawn.
We may be able to say that for the best players this endgame may be drawn; although I am sure that even between two 2700 players White is going to win some small percentage of the time. I myself would be quite confident of being able to outplay a – for example – 2300 rated player most of the time from this position. I would not mind getting this position (as white, obviously) against a player of my own strength, and I think I would win a decent percentage of the time; conversely, I would certainly be worried if I had black in such a position. This position is rich enough that while it may be a “theoretical draw” it would always give some chances in a practical game. I also do not think the theoreticians' assessment of this basic type of position (which, with slight differences, has been reached many times in practical games) as “drawn” is 100% bulletproof. I could imagine such an assessment being challenged.
Now let’s see another position:
Here again it is clear that White has an advantage. But is it winning with best play? No person has the authority to tell you for certain, nor does even the best computer program (and let’s hope it remains that way). Ultimately, there should be some truth, but it is known only by the guy upstairs, or whatever it is you believe in.
All that is clear is that White does have the advantage, and that if anybody is objectively winning, it is White. Between players of equal level, I think we can say without doubt that it is White who has the better chances to win. In the actual game, however, I managed to win as Black.
How do you play when you have obtained that cherished “+/=”? It seems like it should be easier to play when you have the advantage, but – paradoxically – that is often not the case. The reason is “responsibility”. I discussed this concept last year in my column about the psychology of chess – “Responsibility vs. Apathy”. You feel “responsibility” when you have something to lose. This is also why you are usually more relaxed and less nervous when you are dead lost – you have nothing to lose in that case.
To avoid the negative effect of “responsibility” you need to avoid evaluating the position as “winning”. Do not think so much about how your position is advantageous in general – doing so will only blur your mind – but rather note the specific advantages that your position contains. For example, White in the above position should keep in mind the fact that he has more space, better development, a very strong knight on e5, pressure against the kingside, a potentially weak black pawn on a4, a potentially weak square to use on b6, and so on. Seeing the whole position as one big advantage, on the other hand, can lead one astray, especially once the specific advantages disappear.
A further principle is that you should look to maintain your advantage, but be willing to exchange “specific” advantages for new advantages. Rather than trying to crush your opponent with a direct attack (which is often not possible) try to keep the pressure on him and maintain a type of position where he has to find more difficult moves to survive. Of course, this advice is general and does not apply to all positions. But often I see people who have a “quiet” type of advantage try to strike too soon. Defending for many moves during which one has no chance to win can be very difficult psychologically.
Finally, as usual you need to maintain a constant vigilance regarding your opponent’s chances. Often players overpress and lose from an advantageous position because their advantage “goes to their head” and makes them forget about the opponent’s possibilities. Just as you should note your specific advantages, you should also note your opponent’s specific possibilities. In the above position Black may not seem to have much to talk about – yet White should be aware of such things as the fact that the b2 and a3 pawns are fixed, the c5 pawn can be attacked by the move …b6, the d4 pawn could become weak, the knight can be exchanged by …Ne7-g6, etc.
Now let’s see a game I played in a recent tournament, where I was able to use my small – almost minute – advantage. I was very satisfied by this game for a couple of reasons. First of all, I have often had some trouble exploiting small advantages – it is simply not really my style. In many games I have overpressed and lost from better positions. Also, the situation in the tournament was the following: it was the second game of the one day in the schedule which had two games. In the morning I had lost to GM Ivan Zaja in a game where I mixed up one move in the opening and was immediately lost. It was the second such game which I had lost in the opening as black against 1.d4, and I was quite unhappy about that. Despite the fact that I was lost after the opening, the game still lasted a very long time, and I was very tired. Next I was paired against the junior champion of Croatia. I realized that playing a young player on the day with two rounds was not ideal, not to mention the fact that he was undoubtedly stronger than his rating, as his performance up to that point showed. I got very little in the opening, and at move nineteen he offered me a draw despite the fact that I had white and was rated higher. I guess he was thinking that the position was even and I was too sleepy or cautious to try to win. He was right – I was close to accepting, but I tapped into some reserves of energy and took the risk.
I think I had some advantage when I refused a draw at move twenty, although it is a very tiny one, not to mention that my position is not without risk due to my exposed king. It is important to understand that being able to successfully exploit a small advantage takes - above all - strong nerves. You might expect that people with poor nerves tend to play cautiously and slowly and try to build up a small advantage; but paradoxically this is often not the case - many nervous characters tend to play explosive chess. Strangely, playing a very tactical position where the danger is immediate is actually less stressful than trying to "milk" a position where you have a small advantage. Next week we will be seeing the opposite point-of-view: how to play when you stand somewhat worse.