Chess Plans, Losing Streaks And Petrosian Speaks
IM Jeremy Silman opens his reader mailbag.

Chess Plans, Losing Streaks And Petrosian Speaks

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Well, here I go again, answering questions from the members. We will start out with an oldie but goodie: planning


The member @001GENERAL_GRIEVOUS asked, “Isn’t planning good to know?”

Silman: I’ve mentioned this in other articles, but I’ll do so again since many players are confused about it. We will discuss this with a partial game from @001GENERAL_GRIEVOUS.

To answer the question:

Of course planning is important (in fact, it’s very, very important). But random threats are often mistakes (in your game, both players made threats, but no real plans). If you don’t understand the position and where the pawns and pieces are, you can’t just say, “I think I’ll make a plan.”

If you want to be good, you will have to know the following:

  • Understanding pawn structure is first.
  • The placement of your pieces go second (working with the pawn structure).
  • The plan comes last.


The member @chriskr asked, “How do players deal with losing streaks?”

Silman: It’s different for everyone.

Here are some of the things people do when they have a long losing streak (and playing badly at a tournament or losing 10 games in blitz is not a losing streak):

  • Some people, with huge egos, quit playing.
  • Some people, who have no confidence, also quit.
  • Some people think they are good players and think a losing streak is just bad luck.
  • Some people, feeling “this has to stop,” study chess books (or Chessbase) to improve their game.
  • Some hire a chess coach to give lessons. If you go on this road, (and I’ve said this before) make sure your coach fits your needs (chess and psychology). If you don’t feel comfortable with your coach, get rid of him and find someone else (and there are endless chess coaches out there).
  • Some decide that they need a rest for a couple months. And, after those two months, quite a few come back better than ever.
  • Some might smile after the 50th loss and think: “Every loss teaches me something! So bring it on!”

As you can see, all players have their own ways to deal with a losing streak. My worst was long and painful, with me playing like a fool over several tournaments. Realizing that I had to do something, I went to a Chinese doctor who was well-known for his skills in acupuncture. I went to him several times and then went to the 1982 U.S. Open. I tied for first.


The member @Kamalakanta kindly shared an interesting interview. The interviewer was Viktor Khenkin, the person being interviewed was Tigran Petrosian, it was 1979, and it was Petrosian’s 50th birthday!

Viktor Khenkin’s question:

There is a widely-held opinion that the only players that enjoy competitive longevity are those who base their play not on the calculation of concrete variations but on positional understanding. In short, their play is founded on general positional considerations. Such a method allows a player to expend less energy, and hence to withstand better the tension of a tournament game. Is this true?

Tigran Petrosian
Tigran Petrosian via Wikipedia.


I do not share this point of view. Positional understanding is indeed a sign of the great practical strength of a player. But with the years this skill also becomes blunted. It must be constantly stimulated and modernized; in other words a player must work on chess art and analyze.

But on positional understanding alone you will not go far. Without sharp tactical vision there is no chance of success. But as a player grows older his calculating capacity is markedly reduced, and he has somehow to compensate for this deficiency. Why did Botvinnik retain for so long his great fighting ability? Because he was able to recognize this irreversible process earlier than others and to ‘reprogram’ himself. In what way? In the same way as I am doing now.

Although I have never been assigned to the category of ‘chess calculators,' in my youth I used to work out at the board an enormous amount of variations. I used to calculate them quite quickly and quite deeply. Today too I can calculate deeply and well, only not for five hours at a stretch. I can now switch on my ‘calculating apparatus’ at full power only once or twice during the course of a game. Therefore I try to choose my openings and build up my play so that there is no need to analyze variations move after move. But if at a critical moment such a necessity suddenly arises, I can cope with this no worse than I used to.


The member @Mr_Hollwedel asked: “I have a specific question about something you taught in your Great Courses class about a basic opening repertoire, specifically about playing the Zukertort opening as White. I find that occasionally (while playing Blitz, that is) my opponent plays ...Bf5 before I can play Bd3. Where should I place my light-squared bishop in that case?”

Silman: The Zukertort Chigorin Variation doesn’t offer an opening setup in stone. Black has all sorts of ways to create a reasonable position. For example:

As for Black getting his light-squared bishop on f5, it’s playable; you can’t stop it. Thus 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Bf5 and now 3.c4 is probably best but White can also play 3.g3 and 3.Bf4.

After 1.d4 you also have to deal with 1...f5 or 1...g6 or 1...d6 etc. Openings are endless! But learning how to place your pieces on useful squares will easily and quickly improve your understanding of the opening and the game as a whole.

Here’s an example: You are Black and your opponent plays 1.e4. You respond with 1...c5. You’re excited because you have studied the Dragon. Your excitement crashes and burns when White plays 2.Nc3 followed by 3.g3 (the closed Sicilian). So much for preparation. You play another game and it goes: 1.e4 c5. Once again you get excited. White plays 2.c3. Argh!

It takes two to reach a specific opening. However, it’s not a disaster. As long as you understand what your opening is all about, you will always be fine.

Though you asked about openings, let me say that the last thing you should be studying is the openings. Yes, you can (and should) create a simple opening repertoire. But most of your chess energy should be about tactics and positional skills. A fun way to do this is to find a chess hero (usually players from 1880s to 1930s) and go over his games. A good start (other than lots of tactical workouts) is the book (actually two books together): My System & Chess Praxis: His Landmark Classics in One Edition by Nimzowitsch.

My System & Chess Praxis: His Landmark Classics in One Edition by Nimzowitsch.
My System & Chess Praxis: His Landmark Classics in One Edition by Nimzowitsch.


The member @cyboo has a question: “I just finished playing in my first FIDE tournament, and it wasn’t too bad, but I was reading your strategy book and there was a chapter about chess psychology. Could you tell me more about PSYCHING OUT my opponents? Like...create psychological tension? Scare them? Appear confident? Maybe bang the clock as hard as you can? Would that work to intimidate my opponent?”

Silman: I’ve seen a lot of players try to intimidate their opponent. From threatening to start a fistfight to a couple players stabbing each other with their pens to pushing a piece of paper under the table and telling the “intimidated player” that he will be punched if he didn’t resign. And there’s a lot more than that. However, nowadays such people would be tossed into a hole filled with 200 rabid guinea pigs...problem solved.

If you want to learn about practical chess psychology you should hunt down my book, How to Reassess Your Chess 4th Edition. It has 658 pages, and 92 pages are all about chess psychology.

Some of the stuff:

  • Stepping Beyond Fear
  • Embracing Your Inner Greed
  • Imbalances vs. Material
  • Mental Breakdown/Overcoming the Trap of “I Can’t” and “I Must"
  • Bowing to Panic
  • Pushing Your Own Agenda
  • Macho Chess
  • It’s My Party and I’ll Move What I Want To
  • The Curse of “I Can’t"
  • Various States of Chess Consciousness
  • Lack of Patience
  • Lazy/Soft Moves

Good luck!


The member @cmboivin asked: “Why didn’t Averbakh and Emanuel Lasker mention undefended pieces as tactical targets?”

Silman: My guess is that a lot of grandmasters didn’t (or don’t) care much for beginners. I would be shocked if Emanuel Lasker (who was an amazing mathematician and a close friend of Albert Einstein) said, “Don’t leave pieces undefended!”

It might be the same with Averbakh and many other professional chess players. Averbakh loved endgames and he put a lot of work writing about it. I can’t imagine him screaming at a student (who would probably be a strong master), “Don’t leave pieces undefended!”

As for me, my students in the 1500 to 1900 range constantly ignore their undefended pieces. Thus, I nag them endlessly, hoping that they will finally make it a habit.

I think lots of chess teachers and chess writers, no matter how strong they are, tell their students that refrain: “Don’t leave pieces undefended!” But lots of grandmasters don’t teach, or only teach very strong players. Thus, you won’t see them do the “Don’t Leave Pieces Undefended Tango.”

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