Musings of a Chess Teacher, Part 1
Everyone has heard about chess lessons, but the dynamics of a lesson depends on a myriad of different factors: Is the teacher an “all moves” kind of guy, philosophical, an openings’ maniac, etc? And is the student open to change, stuck in his ways, weak tactically, a positional disaster, etc? Most importantly, do the teacher and student get along and are they able to communicate with each other (the student making his needs clear, and the teacher fully understanding and respecting those needs but going even further and ascertaining what the student’s needs should be)?
The last point is important. The student might think he knows what his weaknesses are, but the experienced teacher will see beyond that and, sometimes after only one lesson, will ascertain the student’s real problems – something the student isn’t able to see for himself.
Chemistry is also key: your teacher might be a 2700 rated grandmaster who is adored by countless students, but if he isn’t able to communicate with you on a personal level, then it’s usually best to jettison the teacher and seek someone else.
In case you’re wondering, I’m not trolling for students. In fact, I rarely teach anymore (I’m not accepting any new students at this time). I’m writing this new series so that chess players will understand what a lesson might be like, and what kind of illuminating things can occur during a good session.
A qualified chess teacher is often extremely useful in ironing out opening problems. Quickly play through the following game (my student has the white pieces):
That was very impressive (I loved the way he punished his opponent’s central king, which is a concept we have talked about in detail in previous lessons) and I was very proud of Pretty Boy B (and he was proud of himself!). After the game, his opponent was also impressed and more or less thought he had refuted the whole Caro-Kann! However, a teacher’s job isn’t to pat the student on the back and move on to the next game. No, that would be a crime. Instead, I pointed out the various small inaccuracies made by both players (which I won’t bother with here), but went out of my way to highlight three areas that I deemed to be critically important:
- Why his 6.Bc4 followed by 7.N1e2 (which obliterated his opponent) isn’t the most accurate way to set up that plan.
- Black’s 6…h6 was a horrific blunder, and it’s of critical importance for White to know why it’s so bad. In fact, understanding this one point will enable him to understand his whole setup against 4…Bf5 on a much deeper level.
- Why 19.Qxa7, though completely decisive, was a big mistake that could have negative repercussions in future games.
First, let’s start with White’s perfectly reasonable 6.Bc4. The question I posed is: “Does this move fit in with the N1e2 follow-up?” He insisted it did, due to the threat of an e6 sacrifice after Nf4 (look at the note to Black’s 10…Bg8 in the above game for two examples of that sacrifice). However, I pointed out that the immediate 6.N1e2 (instead of 6.Bc4) is more pointed since it creates a whole slew of threats on its own, while flexibly allowing his Bc4 move if and when it’s needed.
During the lesson I gave the following examples:
What we saw here is that White doesn’t give up anything by moving the knight to e2 before playing Bc4. However, it’s also clear that in many lines the bishop doesn’t move to c4 at all, since that tempo can be put to better use. Often the bishop moves to d3 instead.
I then pointed out a very basic, but hugely important point: 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 5.Ng3 Bg6 6.N1e2 e6 7.Nf4 Nf6 8.Nxg6 is useless since the pawn structure after 8…hxg6 is quite nice for Black.
However, after 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 5.Ng3 Bg6 6.N1e2 e6 7.Nf4 Nf6 8.h4 the threat of h4-h5 is very annoying and the pawn structure after 8…h6 9.Nxg6 fxg6 is a complete disaster due to the weaknesses on e6 and g6. After 10.Bd3 Black’s game is already in its death throes.
Due to these structural considerations, Black’s best development strategy is 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 5.Ng3 Bg6 6.N1e2 e6 7.Nf4 Bd6 as seen in the Fedorchuk-Kludacz game above. In fact, if Black isn’t aware of these things he won’t be able to play the 4...Bf5 Caro-Kann correctly!
But WHY is 7...Bd6 so important? The answer is that now 8.h4 will be met by 8...Qc7 hitting f4 twice. Then 9.h5? Bxc2! 10.Qxc2 Bxf4 favors Black while 9.Nxg6 hxg6 (a structure we already know is fine for Black) 10.Ne4 Bf4 offers White nothing.
That’s why White (in the Fedorchuk-Kludacz game) answered 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 5.Ng3 Bg6 6.N1e2 e6 7.Nf4 Bd6 with 8.c3! Nf6 9.h4 Bxf4 10.Bxf4 h6 11.h5 Bh7 when White has the two bishops (and a small edge), but Black is solid and safe in the resulting middlegame. Black’s idea of giving up the dark-squared bishop for the f4-knight is an extremely important one. But there’s one other subtle point to be made: You only want to make that bishop for a knight trade after White plays his pawn to h4 since in that case White’s kingside structure has been weakened and White will have to think twice if he wants to castle kingside.
All this might seem insanely advanced and difficult, but if White wants to play this line against the Caro-Kann he must know this stuff. Fortunately, if you push away the hysteria you’ll soon realize that there’s actually very little to memorize. Instead, both sides have to learn what structures they do and don’t want, and they have to remember Black’s idea of giving up the dark-squared bishop for the f4-knight via …e6, …Bd6, and …Bxf4 after h2-h4 by White.
I’ll add one more thing: After 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 5.Ng3 Bg6 6.N1e2 e6 7.Nf4 Bd6 8.c3! Nf6 9.h4 Black’s best move (trying to give White nothing!) might be 9…Qc7, but that’s far more complicated than the simple 9…Bxf4. Indeed after 10.h5! Bxf4 11.Bxf4 Qxf4 12.hxg6 fxg6 13.Bc4 White has serious compensation for the sacrificed pawn thanks to the fact that we’ve managed to inflict Black with that bad structure we mentioned earlier.
Going back to the actual game we can now understand why 6…h6 was so bad (1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 5.Ng3 Bg6 6.Bc4 h6): Black only wants to play this weakening move if White weakens his own kingside by h2-h4 first! Thus 6…h6 weakens his kingside and wastes a crucial tempo. After 7.N1e2 e6 8.0-0 Nf6 9.Nf4 Black will be forced to lose a second tempo by retreating to h7, which allows White to build up some serious sacrificial themes against e6.
Here’s one final comment about this look at teacher/student opening study, or any kind of opening study for that matter. If you think all this is useless for you since you don’t play either side of the Caro-Kann, you’re badly mistaken! Openings are much more than a bunch of moves, and opening study is much more than memorizing variations. Understanding why those moves are played and understanding the various pawn structures that occur in your openings is what will make you proficient in the systems you choose.
In this position White played 19.Qxa7 which is completely winning. I looked at him strangely when he made this move during the lesson, and he said: “You always teach me to keep things simple when I’m winning.”
Quite right! So why would I criticize a winning move that follows my “keep it simple” doctrine? The answer is simple, and it was important to highlight it so he doesn’t botch a future game by blindly following my advice. Rules and advice are great crutches, but they all have to be carefully weighed by the realities of each individual position.
In this particular position White is material ahead and should win the endgame (which he did after 19.Qxa7). But endgames can be botched, and there will be times when the “winning” endgame you enter won’t be as easy as you thought it would be. In any case, we have to ask if the material advantage is White’s only positive imbalance. The answer is a resounding no. Black’s king is in the center and his kingside pieces (the bishop on g8 and rook on h8) are in a comical state of incarceration.
Can’t White make use of these enormous plusses? Before playing 19.Qxa7 White needs to see if there’s a way to end the game immediately (thus avoiding the occasional botch). And, when you take an honest look, it’s not hard to find 19.Rad1 Qb7 20.Rd2 when not only is Black completely bound and helpless, but he’s facing 21.Red1 which wins the knight and forces immediate resignation.
Pretty Boy B wanted to play 19.Rad1 during the game, but my “keep it simple” rule haunted him and he decided to follow my advice. I was happy he thought of it, but it was also imperative that I clarify the limitations of that (and every other) rule. Rules aren’t laws, they’re just guidelines that are sometimes helpful and sometimes useless. You need to know and understand them, but you can’t fall in love with such things, and you can’t take them too seriously.
All these puzzles are from the games WS (1941) – Pretty Boy B (1569), Oak Tree 2012, and Pretty Boy B (1502) – RH (1052), Los Angeles 2013.
In the diagram Black played 11...Qb6. Is that a good move? If it is, why is it good? If it isn’t, what should Black play?
In the diagram White has to deal with his hanging e5-knight. What would you do?
White has just played 23.Qb3, threatening to take the d5-pawn with check. How should Black react to this?
Answers to Puzzles One and Three
Black played 11…Qb6. Is that a good move? If it is, why is it good? If it isn’t, what should Black play?
ANSWER: Though ...Qb6 is a thematic move in the French Defense, here it’s off the mark. Black needs to make a decision: does he want to play on the queenside or the kingside? And what about your two bishops? How can you active them?
Once you decide to commit to one side or the other, then the moves you choose will be to the point. Thus, if you’re after queenside play (since you have a spatial plus in that sector) then 11…b5 is the way to go. If you want to play on the kingside, target the e5-pawn, and (potentially) activate your bishops, then 11…f6 is the way to go. Then 12.exf6 Bxf6 leaves Black with a very pleasant position: the bishops are starting to make themselves felt, …e6-e5 can follow, and the open f-file (which activates the f8-Rook) might prove important.
White has to deal with his hanging e5-knight. What would you do?
ANSWER: In the game White mistakenly chopped off the d7-bishop by 16.Nxd7 when Black enjoyed an edge (thanks to his center pawns, active bishop vs. the inactive g3-knight, and use of the f-file for his rooks). Instead, White should have kept the knight on e5 by 16.f4 (or 16.Qe2 first) followed by 17.Qe2 and Rbe1 when the monster e5-knight freezes Black’s e-pawn, lashes out in all directions, and allows White to slowly build up pressure against the pawn on e6 (in other words, a better minor piece and a target on e6). After 16.f4 Bd6 17.Qe2 Rf6 18.Nh5 Rh6 followed by …Rf8 both sides have chances.