Never Trust Your Opponent!

Never Trust Your Opponent!

| 39 | Tactics

In 2007, at the Far West Open in Reno, I played the first two grandmasters of my life: Melik Khachiyan and fellow columnist Gregory Serper. Khachiyan soundly outplayed me in a King's Indian, but my battle with Gregory was a different kettle of fish.

After seizing the initiative in a Sicilian, I found myself with a golden opportunity to sacrifice a knight on e6. The complications clearly worked out in my favor — the attack was devastating in every line — but I could not imagine that a grandmaster could overlook such a banal tactical motif. I retreated to b3 instead, and resigned 20 moves later. 

I had fallen into the deadly psychological trap of trusting my opponent: assuming that a strong (read: high-rated) player is incapable of a blunder or miscalculation. By approaching your opponent's moves from an objective and unemotional perspective, you will considerably improve both your tactical awareness and your ability to exploit mistakes. In this article, I would like to examine just how much of a positive difference this approach can make. 

As an introduction, take a look at the following rather sensational miniature.

White had several ways to obtain a clear positional edge (especially the "trusting" 9.Nbd2), but Sakaev was not interested. By questioning the soundness of Black's setup, he came up with a crushing tactical sequence that ended in Delchev's resignation on move 10! 

Perhaps the most famous case of TYO (trusting your opponent) occurred in round six of the 2014 world championship match between Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen.

photo: Mike Klein

By move 15, Vishy was on the ropes and few spectators doubted that Magnus would eventually bring home the bacon. But then, the unimaginable took place. 

A mutual oversight of this kind is unprecedented at the world championship level, but in my opinion, it is very much understandable. 26.Kd2 was a tactical blunder of the garden variety; 26...Nxe5 simply fell out of Magnus' field of vision.

In such a position, with Black entirely deprived of counterplay, it is hard to imagine that White can possibly end up in harm's way. As a consequence, Vishy resigned himself to a passive defense, trusting that Magnus's technique would be precise. At the end of day, chess is a game played between humans, and humans — regardless of the number or title before their names — are never perfect.

At the recently concluded 2015 World Team Championship, I had a rather similar case of TYO against Cuban GM Yuri Gonzalez Vidal.

A painful game, but an excellent learning experience nonetheless. I rejected 22...cxd5 purely because of its appearance, and because my opponent looked so confident. But calculation should always transcend general and emotional reasoning. Had I called my opponent's bluff and taken the knight, the result of the game would have probably been different. 

And now, it is your chance to break the circle of trust!

Hopefully, the bottom line is clear: if you believe that your opponent has blundered, then he probably has! Whatever the circumstances, his rating, title, or playing strength should never influence the decisions you make on the chessboard. 

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