| 18 | Middlegame

A big part of being a good player is knowing what liberties you can afford, and where the real danger is. Knowing from experience what kind of attack is deadly and what can be shrugged off is more important than being able to calculate more and faster. When I have taught chess, one of the biggest weaknesses I have seen in players rated under 2000 is an excessive fear of certain things which are not really dangerous. Quite often I would see people avoid a good way of playing because of a fear of an imaginary attack, only to face a quite-real one as a result. 

How do you develop intuition about real or imaginary danger? In the same way as everything else – by playing through many master games. By this sense of danger I mean not just learning how to tell when an attack is dangerous and when it is not, but also what kind of weaknesses are fatal and what kind are unimportant; or what kind of passive position will lead to an inevitable loss and what kind is very solid and can lead the attacker to overpress and face a counterattack.

In the game I am about to show, grandmaster Sergei Volkov walks the line between real and imaginary danger. Probably in search of chances to win, he provoked his opponent, GM Ketevan Arakhamia, into a very dangerous-looking attack. Yet somehow his king skips away in a wild battle, and then the counterattack comes.  He faced a real risk, but did manage to increase the pitch of the battle to a high degree, where any mistake would be fatal.

By the way, in my column I usually use my own games, because they are a great source of material which I am very familiar with and which you probably have not seen before. I would rather not reproduce famous classical  games that you have already seen, or analyze the most recent elite games which many other commentators (along with their computer engines) have already picked apart. So this is why it is more expedient for me to use my own games. My column this week is an exception, because I just saw this interesting game and decided it would be good to show.

I think the most instructive moment of this game was when Volkov played 17...g5. My first impression was that this was a rather crazy move which was typical of Volkov's style (I was already acquainted with his chess and saw that he likes very sharp, complicated play). At first it seemed like a risky attempt to create complications, rather than a move that meets the objective requirements of the position.

You would think that - being up a pawn - Black should be looking to consolidate rather than create complications. After all, Black doesn't need to create winning chances - the extra pawn already does that.

But, looking again, I realized that this move might even be best. Most likely, if Black had continued in a "normal" way (probably by 17...Bg7, which is the most natural move) Arakhamia would continue by tucking her king away with 18.0-0-0. So, Volkov had to compare the position which he got in the game a few moves later:




...with the position that he could have after "safe" play:


In the first diagram (what happened in the game) Black faces very real and obvious dangers. His king ran the gauntlet, and any slight miscalculation would be fatal. White even had several ways to draw (although I didn't see anything resembling a win). In the second diagram, what could have happened if Volkov had not played 17...g5, things are much more sedate. White has no immediate threats, and Black has an extra pawn. On the other hand, White is not facing any direct counterattack either. In fact, Volkov probably realized that despite Black's extra pawn, the medium-to-long term nature of the position was not really in his favor. Black has no clear way to counterattack, or even any great consolidation ideas. With time, White can manage to prepare some e6 move, or g4 followed by landing a blow against g6, or some other kinds of maneuvers, such as Be1-h4 and invading on the dark squares. Black has no safe place to put his king - it is not really safe on the kingside, and definitely not safe in the center.

So this is why I thought it was an interesting point when the strong GM decided to provoke this fierce assault which - nevertheless - gave him counterplay; rather than wait around for a slower but more prepared attack. Nevertheless, it took fantastic judgement to realize that the real danger lay not in having his king chased across the board, but rather in allowing White to quietly tuck her king away in preparation for a much slower attack.

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