Musings of a Chess Teacher, Part 2

Musings of a Chess Teacher, Part 2

| 12 | Strategy

In part one of this series I discussed how a good chess teacher can turn a bunch of opening moves into something that makes sense. This tightening of one’s opening repertoire pays enormous dividends as one becomes more and more familiar with your chosen systems’ subtleties (typical tactics, plans, pawn structures, etc.). A true understanding of the lines you play won’t happen right away, even with a teacher’s help. It takes lots of practice, lots of defeats (each one carefully deconstructed by the teacher), and a good deal of patience as you slowly but surely turn it into a true weapon.

This time I’m going to show how a teacher can open your eyes to all the positional possibilities in your games. Most of these are missed during actual play, but if you don’t fix the problem then you’ll be doomed to repeat it over and over again.

Before going over the following extremely instructive game, I need to bring something up: When I started teaching Pretty Boy, he told me in no uncertain terms to lay it all out there, not treat him with kid gloves, and be brutal if it helps him learn any key concept that he’s oblivious to. Fortunately for him, straightforward honesty is how I usually approach these things when I’m teaching adults. In my view, there’s nothing worse than seeing a poor move and saying: “Good move, but you could have also tried…” 

If a student’s ego is so fragile that it can’t take criticism, then I’m not the right teacher for Humpty Dumpty. The student is paying me to help him, not fawn over him or lie to him. In a way, I guess you can consider me to be a chess drill sergeant. Fortunately, I never force students to run laps between moves!

Actually, this somewhat tongue-in-cheek tough talk reminds me of an article I wrote for Chess Life Magazine decades ago. In it I said that each time a student makes a bad move, I zap him with a cattle prod. Thinking that I was being serious, several people hysterically wrote to the magazine screaming that the police should be called due to my cattle prod abuse!

DW (1200) – Pretty Boy B (1502)
L.A. Chess Club, 2013

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6 6.Be2 cxd4 7.cxd4 Nge7

A well-known book position. White’s main move is 8.Na3 followed by Nc2 (it’s critically important to defend the d4-pawn).

8.0-0? Nf5 

9.Qa4 Bd7 10.Bb5 Nfxd4

Best, though 10...Nxe5 is also possible: 11.Bxd7+ Nxd7 12.Ne5 Rd8 and Black’s way ahead. 

11.Nxd4 Qxd4 12.Qxd4?

12.Bxc6 Qxa4 13.Bxa4 Bxa4 is better, but still winning for Black.

12...Nxd4 13.Bxd7+ Kxd7 14.Nc3 


Pretty Boy B said: “I didn’t put the bishop on b4 because I thought White might play Bg5 at some later point preventing me from putting a Rook on d8.” 

First off, Black’s trying to stop White from making a move (Bg5) that White most likely has no intention of playing. Why would Black want to put a rook on d8, and why would White want to stop such a useless move?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with 14…Be7. What is wrong is that Black hopes to win because he’s up a pawn, but thinking he’ll just slide into victory by stopping enemy “threats” and pretty much doing nothing, will come back to haunt him later. When you find yourself up material or enjoying a huge positional edge, DON’T STOP PLAYING CHESS! You need to continue fighting for new plusses, creating new imbalances, and (always!) watching out for tactical tricks. In short, you need to constantly try and improve your situation in some way (big or small). If you do that, you’ll find that the win will indeed (on many occasions) just fall into your lap.

I came down hard on poor Pretty Boy since he didn’t have a plan, didn’t really know how he’d continue, and was already on cruise control. Black’s most pointed move would be 14…Bb4 intending to snap white’s knight on c3. Why give up a bishop for a knight? Because you should always be aware of potential minor piece imbalances (bishop vs. knight battles are critically important to understand). When you carry that awareness into every battle, you’ll be surprised how often you make an exchange and find that your minor piece dominates the opponent’s.


The other thing you should always be trying to do is create new weaknesses in the enemy camp. Never stop doing this!

Let’s take a look at a couple variations that demonstrate this kind of mentality:

 15.Bd2 Bxc3 with two possible recaptures:

1) 16.Bxc3 

16...Ne2+ 17.Kh1 when 17…Nxc3, leaving White with a weak pawn on c3, is very good, while 17...Rhc8 18.Rab1 b6 (18...Nxc3 is still very nice for Black thanks to the extra pawn and the newly created weakness on c3) 19.Bb4 Rc4 20.Bd6 Rac8

gives Black total domination of the c-file (it’s nice to own the only open file!) and a knight that’s full of potential. Black can exchange all the rooks with ...Rc1, or he can take the 7th rank with ...Rc2, or he can swing the knight to d4 and f5. All in all, White would be forgiven if he resigned here.

2) 16.bxc3 when Black has two ways to continue – the tricky way and the easy way:

Black’s knight is ready to leap all over the place (for example, ...Nf4-d3-c5-e4), and if White chops it off by 21.Bxf4 the position after 21...Rxf4 still features an extra pawn for Black, but now the pawns on c3 and even a2 are also weak.

Though there’s nothing wrong with Pretty Boy’s 14...Be7, it showed me that he wasn’t even remotely aware of creating some sort of minor piece superiority, and as a result, he just plays moves with no real concept behind them.

15.Rd1 Nc6 16.f4 Bc5+ 17.Kf1 a6?

Not a good move. What should White do to punish it?

Puzzle 1

I would prefer 17.Ne7 which intends to (eventually) swing the knight to f5 (after ...h7-h5) where it hits both d4 and e3. Think about it: the knight on c6 hits d4, but the knight on f5 hits d4 and e3. Why not maximize the power of your pieces?

Here’s an important point to 17...Ne7: If you aren’t aware that Black’s knight is superior to White’s bishop, then you might not play 17...Ne7 due to 18.Na4 when White “gets” your bishop. However, Black (who would answer 18.Na4 with 18...Rhc8) would be delighted with that trade!

If White takes on c5 via 19.Nxc5+ Rxc5, Black owns the c-file and, after ...h7-h5 followed by ...Nf5, Black’s knight will be beautifully placed.


White misses his big chance.


Still oblivious to the hidden tactic.


Not only missing the tactic, but doing a mindless one move attack that weakens all the squares along the c-file. Thus 19.b4 is both a tactical and positional blunder.

Why is 19.b4 a positional blunder? First off, attacking something doesn’t mean anything if the attacked piece can just move away (unless the attacking move serves another purpose too). But the real problem is that it creates a gaping wound on c4! Handing squares to your opponent isn’t something you should do lightly – if you give a square to get a square, fair enough, but in this case White’s giving away c4 and getting nothing in return.


I don’t like this move at all. How should Black have played the position?

Puzzle 2


20.Ne4 might have freaked Pretty Boy out. It was White’s best chance, and though Black’s still much better, it’s easy to panic and blow it.


Nothing wrong with this, but it’s a “dead” move. No energy. What was Black’s best continuation?

Puzzle 3

21.Bb2 Rhc8 22.Rac1 g6

Pretty Boy B said: “Fearing a later f5 push and planning to control the light squares.”

“Fearing.” Why is Black fearing anything? He should stop f4-f5 when and if it is really threatened. Don’t stop things that aren’t a real threat. Anyway, bringing the knight to f5 via 22...Ne7 was correct, which also stops all of White's f4-f5 dreams.


23.g3 h5 24.Nd4??

This just loses (like most of White’s moves in this game). He was lost anyway, but he didn’t need to jump off a cliff.

24...Nxd4 25.Rxc7+ Rxc7 26.Bxd4 Bxd4 27.Rxd4 


What does this do? Other than the fact that 27...b5 doesn’t help Black, it also closes off the queenside. In the endgame, the side that’s trying to win wants to break into the enemy position (often with the king!), which means he needs to keep roads open. In the position after 27.Rxd4 Black’s king has an easy path into White’s camp via an eventual ...Kd7-c6-b5-a4. 27...b5 closes off that pathway to victory and, if the kingside also gets closed, finding a win for Black can easily become far more difficult than it should be.

Ways Things Can Go Wrong By Closing the Queenside

 Let’s say that rooks get traded and we enter a king and pawn endgame. For example:

Let’s take a look at a few possible positions. In these “make believe” situations, Black can’t win if his king isn’t able to break through on the kingside (courtesy of Black’s 27...b5?).

1...Kf7 didn't work for Black, so what about 1...g4? Can White still draw? Is 2.h4 or 2.hxg4 better? Let’s look at both.

So 1...g4 2.h4 draws for White. How about 2.hxg4? After 2...hxg4 3.Ke3 Kf7 4.Kf4 Kg6 we come to a very important moment:

Puzzle 4

Now that you’ve seen the vast importance of keeping as many roads as possible open if you want to get to Rome, you’ll be less inclined to make moves like Black’s ...b5 or a move like ...g5, which takes the g5-square away from Black’s king (thereby closing yet another road). The following position shows how Black can still grab victory in spite of that ...b7-b5 atrocity:

Returning to the position before 27...b5, we can now look for a more logical continuation.

Puzzle 5

Though Black is still easily winning after 27...b5, the mistaken pawn move is the first step into a lost night’s sleep.

28.Rd3 Rc1+??

This still wins, but why chase the king to a better square? 28…Rc2 kills the king. Black’s move helps it.

29.Kg2 Rc4

29...Rc2+ forces his king to h3 (not a happy square) or g1, where it's dead on the back rank.

We’ll end the game here. Suffice it to say that Black managed to get a clearly won game and then blundered horribly, which resulted in a painful draw.

Lessons From This Article

  • Just because you have one advantage doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and create others.
  • There’s no better way to blow a winning game than to stop playing chess by waiting for the win to happen all by itself.
  • Don’t try and prevent everything your opponent might do. Of course, if he’s going to do something of great importance and you can prevent it, by all means do so. But worrying about everything creates a mind that reacts instead of creates. For the most part, push your own agenda and laugh at what your opponent is tying to do.
  • Everyone has heard about one minor piece being better than another. Most players can recognize it if it’s handed to them, but few create this imbalance when other things appear to be going on. The creation of a superior minor piece is an enormously important strategy, and you should always be looking for an opportunity to turn minor piece parity into minor piece domination.
  • You should always be aware of undefended pieces (his and yours). Be aware of his so you can punish it. Be aware of yours so you don’t fall victim to a tactic.
  • In this game, if Black had noticed the possibility of creating a superior minor piece, whole new strategic vistas would have opened up for him. By not noticing this one “little” thing, the board’s secrets remained just that – secrets.
  • Don’t make a one-move threat unless the threat leads to some positive result. Attacking a piece and then crossing your fingers and hoping your opponent won’t see it is a typical beginner “strategy” that often does more damage to you than your opponent.
  • Be careful about pawn moves – every time you push a pawn it loses the ability to guard a particular square. 
  • In blocked positions, endgames are often won or drawn by creating “roads” that allows one’s king to penetrate into the enemy position.
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