The Art of Doing Nothing, Part Four

  • GM Gserper
  • | Apr 8, 2014

In parts one, two, and three of this article, I described the unusual concept of "doing nothing." In this article we'll discuss when it is appropriate to use this idea.

Once upon a time, I showed my game vs. Nakamura as an example of "doing nothing" to one of my students. At that point he was slightly above USCF 2200, and I thought he was at an appropriate level to appreciate this advanced concept. To my horror, he started "doing nothing" in one of his games where he really needed to do something! Of course, he was promptly crushed by his opponent. So, let me reiterate the key features of a position where you might consider "doing nothing." The position must meet all three of the following conditions:

  1. You absolutely, positively have no good plan.
  2. Your pieces are on their best squares so you cannot possibly improve any of them.
  3. You are well prepared for any possible activity of your opponent.

Sometimes even very strong chess players make bad judgment calls, and the following game is a good example:

The position on the diagram is clearly in White's favor since the isolated d5 pawn is very weak. Spassky decided to switch to "doing nothing," and Karpov was able to produce an instructive example of how to win against an isolated pawn. While Spassky might think that the position met criteria one and two (It is indeed not easy to find an active plan for Black, and also he probably thought that his pieces would be relatively well placed!), condition three simply wasn't met. White had almost unlimited possibilities to improve his position, and sooner or later Black's defense was bound to collapse. What should you do in situations like this when "doing nothing" is not an option and you have no good plan? 

Anatoly Karpov | Image Wikipedia

“Attack is the secret of defense; defense is the planning of an attack.”
  - Sun Tzu

Following this stratagem of Sun Tzu, Karpov recommends a very interesting sacrifice: 21...Rxc3 22. bxc3 Qa5. While Black's position is still not particularly good, at least he gets some counterplay against White's weak pawns on the queenside. From a practical point of view, it was a much better decision since it's more challenging for White to find the best moves when his opponent has some pesky threats - particularly when compared to the game variation where Karpov could slowly improve the position at his leisure! 

Now let me address a question posted in your comments to the previous installments of the article. A reader asked what happens if your opponent starts repeating his moves as well (basically doing nothing too).

Against Nakamura, I wouldn't lose any sleep over such an improbable outcome. You should know Nakamura and how he despises draws. Here are two very graphic examples:

When they started repeating the moves, and it became clear that Kramnik was ready for a draw, Nakamura played 23. Nb1!?!? I don't know how to describe this move. For many chess players it would be easier to resign a game rather than play such a move. It is especially difficult to play such a move against one of the strongest players in the World!

Nakamura won that remarkable game, but of course such fighting spirit can easily backfire:

Here Nakamura avoids a threefold repetition of the position and immediately drops a pawn which ultimately cost him the game. Generally speaking, "doing nothing" or repeating the moves can be a very strong psychological weapon. We make our opponent believe that we don't mind a draw which confuses him in many cases. I was a victim of this strategy numerous times, so I know what I'm talking about. We discussed such a situation in my article: To Err is Human, Part Three.

"Mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy”
 - Sun Tzu

Here is one of the recent examples from an elite tournament:

You can possibly ask: what the heck was 21. Rc2 followed by 22.Rcc1 about?

Well, look at the position. To say that Black is very solid is an understatement. The lyrics of a popular song describe it best: "I am bulletproof. I am titanium." So crafty Magnus moves his rook back and forth while Kamsky gets an idea that his position is better and that he has a good chance to beat Carlsen. About ten moves later, after a bunch of very active pawn moves, Black's position was ruined. 

Magnus Carlsen

I know it is very confusing. Sometimes the concept of "doing nothing" is the best you can do and sometimes it is a sure "kiss of death." What should a poor chess player do? Usually, as you get stronger in chess and get more experience, you will better understand the requirements of a particular position. But above all, remember the Serenity Prayer:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.



  • 21 months ago


    good image markus clarsen

  • 2 years ago


    Very cool to see grandmasters also "doing nothing" and turning the tides of the battle. They're not too much different from the common chessplayer after all Tongue Out

  • 3 years ago


    I too would like to see Nakamura be in the world championship match next year.

  • 3 years ago


    Guys.... check out this game Rykba(computer) vs GM Nakamura.... the computer stonewalled and for 20 straight moves Nakamura moved his rook between e7 and e6. A few moves later bishop does the same thing for 20 moves or so. After 271 moves Nakamura wins. Probably funniest chess game i have ever seen.

  • 3 years ago


    This was a cool series.  Nothing I could/should ever put into practice at my level, but fun reading nevertheless.  I would just like to say here that GM Hikaru is awesome.  He played the Sinquefeld cup in STL and chatted after those games, and I also think its awesome that he is coming in here commenting on the articles.

    That being said.... Naka I am rooting for you in the World Championships next year, so quit wasting time with us duffers in here and find a way to beat Magnus/Anand :).

  • 3 years ago


    I agree with you Rupali1998: Very good articles (all parts) indeed!!!

  • 3 years ago


    This is a rather interesting series since doing nothing requires of a lot patience when it comes to someone that doesn't like draws, I find myself identified in this case just like GM Nakamura, I don't know why but I just dont like draws. So, it's something to analize and put into practice, I'll try to see if I can get a win out of doing nothing! Thanks GM Serper.

    Ps: How nice is to see you around GM Nakamura!

  • 3 years ago

    GM Hikaru

    @Vibhav_G  You are right, of course. However, for anyone who grows up in the US or more precisely playing in swisses, its a matter of winning, winning and winning at all costs. 

    @BobDylanSoldierChild Whoops, you are right. Somehow I only saw the 2nd and 3rd parts of the series!

  • 3 years ago


  • 3 years ago


    Nakamura, the repetition against you was in the first part of the series me thinks...

  • 3 years ago


    I enjoyed the articles, Sun Tzu quotes and the games, especially the Carlsen-Kamsky position which is a great example of when to wait. What I take from it is don't be afraid to 'do nothing' in the right circumstances. I won't be going into games with this as a strategic plan, but more an extension of a realisation I had last year (it was like a light bulb coming on, honestly), that is, don't try to force something that isn't there - patience, especially in the late middle and end game, improved my results massively, and I don't equate patience with inactivity necessarily, just sometimes methodical play is what's needed.

  • 3 years ago

    GM Hikaru

    With all due respect, GM Serper seems to be missing the point. I will sum it up a bit more succintly. My game with Hauchard and the repetition was due to Hauchard being content with a draw and knowing that as I was 200 points higher; therefore, I had to try and win. My game with Kramnik was a bit closer to proving his point as Nb1 looks ugly but even the computers say the move is fine. His last example of Carlsen-Kamsky is the only model example where the repetition had venom as it was a provoking manouver. However, I feel like this is simply an overanalysis and trying to view these games from a level which does not exist.

    I do, however, hope that the people reading this article do pick up some useful points.

    Last but not least, it is very curious that through 4 parts of this series, GM Serper has yet to show his repetition against me which was supposed the purpose of these articles/lessons.

  • 3 years ago


    Well, it seems that doing nothing is more useful than it suggests. Thank you for this article!

  • 3 years ago


    interesting aspect haha a subconcious one for me

  • 3 years ago


    Nice article!

  • 3 years ago


    The song reference is "I'm bulletproof. Nothing to lose."

  • 3 years ago


    Made me smile :)

  • 3 years ago


    There is nothing to doing everything.Cool

  • 3 years ago


    The hyperbole is amusing but also a little distracting. nevertheless, I really enjoyed reading the series. Thanks!

  • 3 years ago


    I especially like the quote at the end, as it can no doubt apply to many aspects of life!! Philosophy and chess are not so distant from one another! Looking forward to more articles.

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