The Art of Doing Nothing, Part Two

The Art of Doing Nothing, Part Two

| 37 | Strategy

In last week's article, we started an analysis of a bizarre game I played ten years ago in the U.S. Championship. The key moment happened around move 15 when, quoting the ChessBase article, Serper "started moving his bishop back and forth between d2 and e1. For nine moves in a row! Was there a method to his madness? We may never know if this was an odd way to offer a draw, a strange way to gain time on the clock, or a brilliant try to get Nakamura to create weaknesses in his position."

It is easy to criticize White's unusual plan of doing nothing, but I would appreciate if a good alternative was suggested as well. If I had a choice between doing something or doing nothing, I would prefer active play, just like about any chess player.

It is difficult to argue with another piece of wisdom from the great philosopher:

“Can you imagine what I would do if I could do all I can?”
Sun Tzu

But what I could really do? Let's check the position:

Superficially, White's pieces are placed well, but what's my plan here? I cannot really play on the queenside where Black has more space, and I cannot play on the kingside where I have no pieces. The only possible way to play in the center is to prepare the e3-e4 break - but even that doesn't work. First of all, it is really difficult to prepare e3-e4 to start with. If I play Ng3 followed by e3-e4, then Black plays Bxg3 and wins my e4 pawn. In some imaginary case where the e3-e4 break doesn't lose the pawn right away, Black simply trades everything on the e4 square, and I am left with a weak isolated d4 pawn. So what should I have done here?

I spent about 40 minutes looking for a plan but all in vain. So, my time was evaporating, and the possibility of time trouble was becoming a reality. In case you have been living under a rock for the last ten years and are not aware of Hikaru's legendary speed, I can assure you that getting into time trouble against him is a sure way to lose!

I remembered the advice of the famous Russian coach Mark Dvoretsky that, if you see no clear plan, try at least to improve the worst piece you have. The problem (if I can really call it a problem) is that all of my pieces were pretty decent, and if I tried to improve any of them, then the result would have probably been counterproductive. I don't remember if it was Bronstein or Miles (but I am sure it was one of these two great original thinkers) who described his play in a worse position: "I tried to not make my position worse or, more importantly, tried not to make it better."

Unfortunately I don't remember the exact quote and the game it was referring to. I hope you, my dear readers, can help me there!

Just like any joke, this saying holds a lot of truth: sometimes, by trying to improve our position, we only make it worse.

David Bronstein | Image Wikipedia

But before I continue to describe my thinking process during the game, it is important to establish if White's position was indeed that bleak, or if I just wasn't able to find a correct plan there. I was really interested to know the opinion of my opponent, but since the game finished very late in the evening, we didn't really have a chance for a post mortem. But life is full of surprises...

The next year after that U.S. Championship, I was an instructor in a chess camp organized by a good friend of mine, NM Alex Betaneli, and the Wisconsin Chess Academy. The way Alex does his chess camps is really unique. Besides being a true chess connoisseur, he loves teaching kids and finding creative ways to do it. Betaneli's chess camps deserve their own special article. I remember how during one of the camps, we, the instructors, were supposed to play blitz with the campers, giving them insane time odds - like ten seconds vs. five minutes! I tried to convince Alex that it is impossible, but he insisted. As the result, I'll always be proud that I beat a future World Champion in less than ten seconds. I will conveniently omit the fact that Awonder Liang was about six years old then Smile.

In that particular camp where I met Hikaru, Alex Betaneli managed to outdo himself. Three GMs (Nakamura, Goldin and myself), one future GM (then-IM Friedel) and IM Donaldson were teaching the talented Midwest youngsters.

So, I couldn't miss the opportunity, and I asked Hikaru what he thought was a better plan for me in that position instead of doing a chess version of rope-a-dope. After some deliberation, Hikaru admitted that White didn't have a good plan in that position, which made me feel very good. It is one thing to do a clever trick while you have many other promising options, and it is a totally different situation when your scheme was caused by necessity.

Back to my thinking process during the game. When I was running out of options, suddenly I remembered a very old article by GM Keres published in the Soviet magazine Chess in the USSR. In that article, Keres analyzed a similar situation, and his advice was simple: prepare for the possible assault of your opponent the best way you can, and then do nothing since you cannot possibly improve the best defensive formation that you've already created. As an example, Keres referred to the next famous game:

Please notice White's moves: 29, 30 and 31.

So, I thought that if Lasker managed to save the position where he was down a pawn, then I should give his strategy a try. Besides, I didn't really have any other options.

To be continued...


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