Recognizing The Big Moment In A Game

Recognizing The Big Moment In A Game

| 33 | Amazing Games

drakkar-noir (1786) - E. Karadayi (1808), ECO B15, 2011

1.e4 d5

A Center Counter, which has had a revival in recent years.


White usually chops on d5 (2.exd5) when 2…Qxd5 3.Nc3 is met by both 3…Qa5 and also 3…Qd6!? Another line is 2…Nf6 (intending to take on d5 with the Knight), which is called the Scandinavian (it’s also known in one dusty Stockholm club as Mjolnir’s Flight – hmm … perhaps the guys in that club were screwing with me!?). After 2…Nf6 the attempt to hold the d-pawn via 3.c4 is usually met by 3…c6 (3…e6!? is also fun) 4.dxc6 (4.d4 transposes into a Caro-Kann, Panov Botvinnik Attack) 4…Nxc6 5.Nc3 e5 when Black has tons of compensation: a lead in development, a hole on d4, more space, and after moves like …Bc5/…Bb4 and …Bf5/…Bg4, Black will also have more active pieces.


White is a very aggressive player and wanted to take the game into his favorite Blackmar-Diemer Gambit after 2…dxe4 3.Nc3 (3.f3? is a bad move order for White due to the very strong 3…e5! when 4.dxe5 Qxd1+ 5.Kxd1 Nc6 isn’t what White has in mind, while 4.fxe4?? Qh4+ is horrific. The game A. Mondoloni - M. Mchedlishvili, EU Blitz Championship 2007 went 5.Kd2 Nf6 6.dxe5 Nxe4+ 7.Kd3 Nf2+ and it was all over) 3…Nf6 4.f3.

Black’s choice, 2…c6, is a very wise one IF he plays the Caro-Kann since we’ve now transposed into that (let’s see … we had a Center Counter or Scandinavian/Mjolnir, which then threatened to turn into a Blackmar-Diemer Gambit, which is now a Caro-Kann. Can anyone make up their mind!?). However, it quickly becomes clear that Black didn’t know anything about the Caro-Kann, which makes 2…c6 a bit risky. Of course, 2…e6 would have taken the game into a French Defense.

3.Nc3 Nf6?



A most unfortunate choice! Black ends up in a bad French Defense where his main break (…c7-c5) will be a tempo short due to the earlier …c6 move. He should have just played 3…dxe4 with the promised Caro-Kann.

4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4

A sensible move – White gives his pawn center some support and gains kingside space. As long as you can list the positive things your moves do (while making sure that they won’t be punished by some tactic), then you can play them with confidence. However, if you’re thinking of a particular move but you can’t explain the move’s virtues, then why in the world are you going to play it?


Now it’s official: We started with a Center Counter or Scandinavian/Mjolnir, which then threatened to turn into a Blackmar-Diemer Gambit, which transposed into a Caro-Kann, which magically transmogrified into a tempo-down French Defense!


Develops, gives d4 and e5 support, and gets a step closer to castling. What’s not to like?




In the French, black’s play usually comes from counterattacking white’s center by …c5 followed by …Nc6 and …Qb6 with pressure against d4. This would lead to a highly theoretical main line where Black is, unfortunately, a whole move down (thanks to …c7-c6-c5). However, …c5 was still infinitely better than the masochistic (“Hurt me! Please hurt me!”) 6…h6.

White will react in a logical fashion: he gets his pieces out, castles, and prepares for an eventual kingside assault.

7.Be2 Be7 8.O-O O-O 9.Qe1 f5?

Black fears a kingside attack, which White can unleash after moves like Qg3 and f4-f5. Nevertheless, this moment of panic will not only result in a host of weak light-squares around black’s King, but will also create a host of other weaknesses that White can take advantage of.

Black’s play has been devoid of theoretical acumen, while also demonstrating a complete lack of desire to create some positive things for himself such as space, counterplay, or even development. Once again: you won’t get good results if you just react to your opponent's real or imagined threats. You need to insist on creating active pieces, weaknesses in the enemy camp, extra space for yourself, or a number of other things that will make good moves easy to find. Like it or not, Black had to play 9…c5 10.Be3 Nc6 (developing, gaining queenside space, and putting pressure against d4) and then hope for the best.

10.exf6 Rxf6



There are certain moments (also known as key positions) in a game when you realize that something’s up, that your opponent is begging for the death blow, or that some other major happening is hidden behind analysis and chess logic. In general, amateurs let these moments pass by since their spider sense isn’t that highly developed. However, instead of hoping that some comic book super power or mystical signal will give you a sign, you can usually figure it out by a simple imbalance breakdown. Let’s take a look here:

1) White has a big lead in development since he has more pieces in play and black’s pieces will face serious difficulty finding their way out of the hole they are presently in.

2) White enjoys more central and kingside space.

3) Black has a very weak square on e5.

4) Black’s e6-pawn, which is sitting on an open file and thus will eventually come under serious heat from a white Rook(s), is a permanent source of worry for Black.

5) The light squares (g6 and h7) in black’s camp are weak.

Since we know that a lead in development is a temporary plus (in time the opponent will catch up!), White needs to do something right away if he wants to take advantage of it. In more normal circumstances, I would play 11.Be3, which develops a new piece and gives support to d4 (which Black will soon attack by …c6-c5). But this isn’t a normal situation. In fact, my brain would be (internally) screaming, “Kill! I … must … kill this guy!” And the imbalance list I just read off, mixed with my intuition demanding that I lower the boom on my opponent, would force me to look long and hard for some way to slap him down.

The answer looks a bit scary (and I’m not into taking chances), but the only way to try and break down black’s fortress while simultaneously not giving him time to continue his development is 11.g4! intending the not-so-subtle 12.g5. Let’s have a look and see what White actually did.


White didn’t hear the alarm bells going off, so he settled for something good, but not great. This, of course, will allow Black a little wiggle room. However, sometimes a position is beyond your powers to solve and that’s perfectly okay. In that case, a good move like 11.Bd3 is fine and, more often than not, effective.

Let’s take a deeper look at my recommended alternative: 11.g4! c5 (the only way to create counterplay) 12.g5 Rf7 (12…hxg5 13.fxg5 Rf7 14.Bd3 and White has a huge attack, though it’s still very complicated.) 12…Rf7 13.f5!! (getting the c1-Bishop into the action) 13…Qb6 (13…Rxf5 14.Bd3 and 13…exf5 14.gxh6 are both pretty bad for Black) 14.Kh1! hxg5 (14…cxd4 15.fxe6 Qxe6 16.Nxd4 is even worse) 15.Nxg5 Bxg5 16.Bxg5 Nf6 (16…cxd4 17.Bh5 [double attack against f7 and e6] and black’s toast) 17.dxc5! Qxc5 18.fxe6 Bxe6 19.Bxf6 Rxf6 (19…gxf6 20.Bh5) 20.Rxf6 gxf6 21.Ba6!! and Black can resign.

11…c5 12.Be3

An obvious but very good move; White isn’t looking for a quick kill anymore and instead is finishing his development and taking care of his potential weakness on d4. 


A serious mistake that allows White to once more seek a nuclear end to the game. Instead of letting White bring his dark-squared Bishop to the powerful d4-square, he should have played the simple (and highly thematic) 12…Nc6.


Now 13...Rxf4?? loses outright to 14.Qxe6+ Rf7 (14...Kh8 15.Qxh6+) 15.Ng5 and it's all over.




Black can’t move his Rook to safety since that would allow Qxe6+.

We’ve reached another key position. Before going on, allow me to explain that a key position isn’t a universal thing – what’s “key” (an important, perhaps game changing, position that needs to be solved) for one player might be easy for another. Thus, a grandmaster might see a 1200 player agonizing over a life and death decision, while the GM would solve it blindfold in a second or two. On the other hand, one grandmaster might have trouble with a certain kind of position while another would not find it challenging at all.

I remember (in one of the famous Lone Pine international events) hanging out in the analysis room and watching 10 grandmasters trying to figure out how to play a certain kind of position. Nobody could agree after an hour’s hard work, and they were about to give up when Petrosian calmly walked up to the board, glanced at the position for a few seconds, made some move and quickly explained the correct plan, and walked away. All the other grandmasters were stunned, looked at Petrosian’s recommendation, and within a few minutes had to agree that he’d solved it! Clearly, this was a key position for those 10 grandmasters, but it clearly wasn’t for Petrosian.

Coming back to our own game, after 13…Bc5 there’s a massive battle going on for the d4- and e5-squares. I like 14.Qe3 (14.Na4!? is also interesting, but what could be more natural than 14.Qe3?) which puts maximum pressure against the points just mentioned, hits c5, and also (in some lines) prepares to swing the final unused piece (Rook on a1) into the action by Rae1.


This move is okay (getting his King off the “dangerous” g1-a7 diagonal is often a good idea), but not nearly pointed enough to do justice to this position’s secrets. Note that 14.Kh1 is purely defensive, while 14.Qe3 builds the position and announces that moves like Kh1 just aren’t necessary.

14…Bxd4 15.Nxd4 Qb6?

Better was 15…Nc5 16.Qe3 Nxd3 followed by …Nc6 when White has a small edge, but not more than that. Analyzing the position after 16.Qe3 Nxd3 17.cxd3/Qxd3 Nc6 is very instructive, and offers a wealth of positional lessons (White will be trying to gain control of the dark squares on e5, d4, and c5 if Nxc6 bxc6 occurs, leaving a new hole on c5). Black will be seek queenside counterplay, pressure against f4, possible …d5-d4 advances, and possible …e6-e5 advances. In other words, Black would be trying to whip up dynamic compensation for white’s strategic (static) plusses.


Suddenly Black is under serious pressure!




Of course, 16…Qxd4?? isn’t possible due to 17.Bh7+ followed by 18.Rxd4. After 16…Nc5 all of white’s pieces are primed and ready for action, while black is still woefully behind in development. How can White capitalize on this state of affairs?


White needed to find something big, and this clearly isn’t it. The question for White was: “How can he rip open the position and make use of his lead in development?” The only way to do this is 17.f5!! Nc6 (17…Nxd3 18.Rxd3 Nc6 transposes to line B) 18.fxe6 and we get the following breakdown:

A) 18…Nxd4 19.Nxd5 Rxf1+ 20.Qxf1 Qxe6 21.Re1 Qf7 (21…Qd7 22.Ne7+) 22.Bh7+ Kf8 23.Qc4 and, due to threats like 24.Rf1, 24.Qxc5+, and 24.Qxd4, Black is dead meat.

B) 18…Nxd3 19.Rxd3 Rxf1+ (19…Nxd4 20.Rxf6 gxf6 21.e7 Bd7 22.Nxd5 wins) 20.Qxf1 Nxd4 21.Nxd5 Qxe6 (21…Qc5?? 22.Qf7+ Kh8 23.Qe8+ Kh7 24.Rg3 and mates) 22.Nc7 (more accurate than the pedestrian 22.Rxd4) 22…Qf5 23.Qd1 Rb8 24.Rxd4 and white’s a solid pawn ahead.

Please don’t think that I expect you to find all this at the board (or even during after-game analysis!). What’s important is that you learn to recognize positions where quiet measures are called for, and other positions where dynamic (even violent) measures are called for. Once you realize that violence is the way to go if you want to utilize a dynamic advantage, you’ll be able to find attractive moves like 17.f5 – if you can’t calculate many of the lines, that’s okay. Just suck up some courage, tell yourself that it’s the logical move in the position, and give it a shot. If you win, send me a check. If you lose, look at it as a learning experience.

17…Nxd3 18.Rxd3 Nc6 19.a3 Bd7

This move catches up in development but allows White an interesting (but ultimately ineffective) tactic. Far safer choices (offering equal chances) were 19…Ne7 (swinging the Knight over to the tasty f5-square), 19…a5 (intending to kick white’s b3-Knight with …a5-a4), and 19…Qc7 (hitting f4).

Here’s a fun aside: You might think that the position after 19…Qc7 20.Qe3 is now a purely positional, rather dull, exercise. But tactics are always waiting to rear their ugly head and one must be very careful about leaving pieces undefended (in the present case, the f1-Rook isn’t guarded).



Thus 20…Ne5! launches a whole series of fireworks: 21.Rxd5! (back at you!) 21…Ng4! 22.Qc5 Rxf4! (Threatening all sorts of horrific stuff! Is White dead?) 23.Nd2! (I’m alive!!! Note that White isn’t falling for 23.Re1?? Rf1+! 24.Rxf1 Qxh2 mate!) 23…Rxf1+ 24.Nxf1 (the Knight defends h2!) 24…Qxc5 25.Rxc5 Bd7 with an equal position. It’s clear that, in chess, you never know when the bogeyman will leap out of the closet and clamp his teeth down onto your throat.


A dubious move that chases the black Queen to the good c7-square. White’s best move, 20.Ne4, takes advantage of the undefended Bishop on d7. This appears to be very strong since 20…dxe4! (20…Rf7 21.Nec5 puts Black under pressure) 21.Rxd7 looks tremendous for White. However, it turns out that black’s game is far more resilient than one might have thought: 21…e3! (this pawn turns out to be a real pain) 22.Qg3?! (Not a good idea. Instead, 22.Rf3 Raf8 23.Rg3 R6f7 24.Rxf7 Rxf7 25.Qxe3 Qxe3 26.Rxe3 Rxf4 is equal) 22…g5!



This looks like suicide but it somehow works (22…Rf7 23.Rxf7 Kxf7 24.Re1 Rd8 is also okay for Black). After 22…g5 white’s best might be 23.h3 (23.Rf3 is probably also okay, but 23.h4 isn’t: 23.h4 e2! 24.Rf3 [24.Rg1? Rxf4 25.hxg5 Qxg1+! 26.Kxg1 Rf1+ 27.Kh2 e1=Q wins for Black] 24…Ne5! 25.hxg5 Rg6 26.fxe5 Rxg5 27.Nd4 [27.Nc1 e1=Q+ 28.Qxe1 Rh5+ 29.Rh3 Rh3+ 30.gxh3 Qc6+ 31.Kg1 Qxd7] 27…Rxg3 28.Rxg3+ Kh8 29.Nxe2 Rg8 30.Rh3 Rg4 31.Rxh6+ Kg8 and black’s clearly better) 23…e5 24.Qf3 (Threatening both 25.Qd5+ and 25.Qe4) 24…Qb5 24.a4 Qc4 26.Re1 Raf8 (26…exf4 27.Rxe3; 26…Rxf4 27.Qxe3 Raf8 28.Rxb7 Qxc2 29.Rc7) 27.Rxe3 R8f7 28.Nd2 Qxf4 29.Rxf7 Rxf7 30.Qe4, =.

Okay, the note to 20.Na4 was all tactics, given so you can get a small taste of what’s going on after 20.Ne4. It’s fun if you’re into it, but for most players it will simply look like a tsunami of moves.

20…Qc7 21.Nac5 Raf8 22.Nxd7 Qxd7 23.Rdf3 Qc7?!

Missing 23...e5! 24.fxe5 Rxf3 25.Rxf3 Rxf3 26.gxf3 Qf5 and black’s suddenly the one with all the chances!

24.Qe3 Na5

Cashing in his chips for a draw. 24…e5 was still the way to go if Black wanted to play on.

25.Nxa5 Qxa5 26.h3 Qa4 27.c3, 1/2-1/2.




* You always want to know what your plusses and minuses are in every position.

* If you aren’t making use of your plusses (and if you aren’t punishing your opponent’s weaknesses), you aren’t playing chess properly.

* A key position occurs when a critical juncture in the game has been reached – if you solve it good things will happen, if you don’t solve it, your game will slide into oblivion or you’ll lose all (or some of) the advantage you’ve achieved up to that point.

* If you don’t know how to spot key positions, lost opportunities will constantly plague you.

* If a battle (sharp or placid) is going on, you have a sense that you’re game is either pretty good or in critical shape, and you have no idea what’s happening or what to do, THAT is a key position and you MUST solve it.

* To solve a key position, you to know all the position’s plusses and minuses, understand if your position calls for static (long term) or dynamic (short term) play, and then find a move/plan that takes advantage of these factors.

* In the case of a dynamic (short term) advantage, you usually have to play quickly else it will evaporate before your eyes.

* Don’t be afraid to enter a tactical minefield. If you feel that leaping into the fire is what the position wants, do it even if you can’t calculate more than a couple moves ahead. Always do what the position wants, and don’t ever let fear talk you out of it!

[ Ed. note: Would you like IM Silman to comment on a game of yours? Submit your game with any related story, history, information, and comments of your own to and he just might!]

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