The Fog of War & The Caro 2 Kts

The Fog of War & The Caro 2 Kts

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jlueke asked:

I suffer mostly from missed tactics, more often my opponents' than my own. I do study tactics 30 to 60 minutes a day, slowly, and I can solve the easier ones but slowly. What I want to ask about is a related issue I have at the board. My opponent makes a move and I start to think and then a fog begins filling my brain. It usually leads to repeating the same moves over and over in my mind. Then I finally snap out of it, “What are you doing?” I ask myself.  “Five minutes have gone by and you haven’t done anything.” Then I promptly make a move that I’ve hardly analyzed. My question to you is: have you found a good way to teach people, especially adults, how to think at the chessboard?

To amuse you here’s a move I spent 13 minutes considering:

From this position I was thinking 14.Rxf7 Rxf7 15.Qg6 and I repeated this multiple times until finally I snapped out of the fog and saw 15...Rf5! 16.Bxf5 exf5. Having spent 13 minutes I then quickly played 14.Nf3. How I do stop the madness?

Dear jlueke:

In general, a well-balanced player needs to have firm positional skills, know all the basic tactical patterns, have a reasonable opening repertoire, and know a certain amount of elementary endgames (of course, the amount of knowledge he needs to know in each category depends on his level).

My imbalance system is the easy answer to your “How do I think at the chessboard?” question. However, the situation you give here is all about tactics/basic calculation, and that’s quite a different animal than pondering positional niceties. Since you go over tactical puzzles, you’re clearly making an effort to improve in that area. But other than puzzle solving (there are many books and computer programs that cater to this need), and going over a huge amount of games (many of which will also offer up tactical situations/patterns), I’ve never managed to come up with an easy fix for calculation. One famous player I know feels that absorbing patterns (via problems and master games) will ultimately help your calculation skills since you will learn when an attacking setup will and won’t work from experience. I suspect that all titled players feel that way (I certainly do).

In a recent conversation with my titled friend (where I voiced the opinion that blitz chess might help in the acquisition of tactical motifs), he told me that a mathematical study was made of hundreds of amateur blitz addicts and the numbers shockingly pointed out that a large majority actually got WORSE after playing thousands of games. Why? Because in blitz one often strives to win on time or move fast to avoid a time forfeit. Thus you learn the bad habit of making moves based on speed and not understanding or logical thought. Ultimately, this “habit” will indeed destroy your game if you don’t balance it with slower time controls or serious analysis during study. Of course, your question had nothing to do with blitz, so we’ll move on!

Let’s have a look at the position you offered us:

When I was 15 years old, I suffered from a near-terminal case of “the fog.” My head would literally become clogged with it and a form of brain death would result. In fact, I was going to give up chess due to this disease when, suddenly, it stopped and I was able to calculate deeply and easily (the hundreds of thousands of games I went over suddenly “computed” and I leapt up several levels literally overnight – of course, “overnight” is a horribly simplistic view since it was actually due to countless hours of chess work).

In my “fog days”, I would calculate everything (no imbalances or verbal breakdowns for me at that time!), and do the old “I go there he goes there” dance without even knowing what a position really needed. So Mr. jlueke, you are not alone. In fact, most people never get past this “calculate without knowing” stance.

White has a lot of good moves in the diagrammed position: 14.c4 and 14.e4 both calmly gain space and show that White has a positional advantage and some kingside chances too (with zero to minimal calculation needed). Your 14.Nf3 is also perfectly playable, (though I don’t really know where that Knight is heading) as is 14.Rae1.

Instead you became fixated on finding a tactical solution, though your a1-Rook, b2-Bishop, and Knight aren’t participating in the kingside festivities. Fair enough! Though I would have wanted to make new positional gains with 14.c4 or 14.e4, I would have also looked for a simple one-two punch since 14.Bxh7+ Kxh7 15.Rxf7 might win a pawn, while 14.Rxf7 Rxf7 15.Bxh7+ is also interesting. Thus the calculating lizard brain would have come out of mothballs and zipped through the following:

14.Bxh7+ Kxh7 15.Rxf7 is very tempting, but what’s guarding my Queen? (I’m always keeping an eye out for undefended pieces!). I wouldn’t be worried about 2…Be8 due to 3.Rxf8 with an extra pawn, but 15…Qe8 is annoying! Then 16.Raf1 (the most natural move) runs into 16…Bg5 when Black is doing well, while 16.Rxf8 Qxh5 17.Rxa8 picks up two Rooks for the Queen (usually a good deal!) but is punished by 17…Qe2 when undefended units on e3, d2, c2, and even b2 will leave White in a miserable state.

No, 14.Bxh7+ just doesn’t cut it. How about chopping on f7 right away?

14.Rxf7 (the move you wanted to play) 14…Rxf7 and now 15.Bxh7+ (as you can see, I’m trying to win material while you’re obsessed with mate via 15.Qg6. More on that in a moment) when 15…Kxh7 16.Qxf7 leaves White with an extra pawn, and 15…Kf8 16.Bg6 regains the Exchange (with an extra pawn to boot) since the Rook has nowhere safe to run to. A possible continuation: 16…Be8 17.Bxf7 Bxf7 18.Rf1 Qe8 19.c4 with an obvious advantage for White.

Now we can return to your 14.Rxf7 Rxf7 15.Qg6??? which threatens 16.Qxh7+ Kf8 17.Qh8 mate. You finally noticed that 15…Rf5 blocks the b1-h7 diagonal and refutes the attack, but it’s interesting that you never considered a simple idea: White is attacking the Knight on h7, so why can’t Black move it? Thus 15…Nf8 moves the Knight to safety, attacks white’s Queen, and forces immediate resignation! When you were looking at the position after 15.Qg6 in your head, you should have asked yourself, “I’m attacking his Knight, so can he move it?” It turns out that 15…Ng5 would also do the job since 16.h4 (White could get his Queen out of Dodge with 16.Qh5, but you just sacrificed a Rook, so it would be lights out) 16…Be8 traps the White Queen (threat: 17...Rf1+)!

Okay, so your calculation skills aren’t that great. Who cares? The same can be said for most players, so don’t let it get you down. Your biggest flaws here were:

1) You got into a mate or bust mentality instead of just playing to improve your position (space gaining moves like 14.e4 or 14.c4) or even play for the tactical win of a pawn (14.Rxf7 Rxf7 15.Bxh7+).

2) You did the old “give up on your line and toss out something else without really looking at it” tango.

This “toss another move out” thing is something everyone does! So again, don’t get down on yourself. The cause of this “disease” is frustration born of not knowing what’s really going on in the position. And that takes us back to the imbalances, which will make the needs of most positions clear (or at the very least offer a good deal of clarity).


newbie_learner asked:

I would also like to ask for your opinion about the Two Knight’s System in the Caro-Kann (1.e4 c6 2.Nf3 d5 3.Nc3). Maybe it’s just me, but it seems quite unpleasant if Black tries to play against it with the usual Caro-Kann ideas.

Dear newbie:

This system was once thought to be white’s best reaction to the Caro-Kann, but now it’s viewed as a very playable but non-threatening system.

1.e4 c6 2.Nf3 d5 3.Nc3

Here you don’t want to play 3...Nd7 since that hangs d5, and 3...e6 blocks in the c8-Bishop.


Best, though if you play the Bronstein-Larsen variation (1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3/3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nxf6+ gxf6) then 3…dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Nxf6+ gxf6 takes you right back into your line.

Note that 3…dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5? is an old trap that still collects victims year after year: 5.Ng3 Bg6 6.h4 h6 7.Ne5 Bh7? (7...Qd6, though clearly better for White, is probably best.) 8.Qh5! g6 (Horrifying, but Black doesn’t have any choice.) 9.Qf3 (In my day, 9. Bc4 e6 (9…gxh5?? 10.Bxf7 mate) 10.Qe2 with the threat of Nxf7 used to be the recommended line, and it’s also very good for White. However, 9.Qf3 wins material and is better) 9…Nf6 (9…f6 10.Bc4!) 10.Qb3 Qd5 11.Qxb7 Qxe5+ 12.Be2 Qa5 13.Qxa8 Qc7 14.Ba6 Bg7 15.Qb7 Nxa6 16.Qxa6, etc.

4.h3 Bxf3

4…Bh5 is possible, but after 5.exd5 cxd5 6.g4 Bg6 7.Bb5+ Nc6 8.Ne5 Black needs to know a lot of theory (though Black is perfectly okay in these lines too). Why bother when 4...Bxf3 leads to solid, perfectly sound positions for Black? 


White has a lead in development and two Bishops. Why isn’t this at least a bit better for the first player? The reason is that after ...Nf6 followed by ...e6 (or the immediate  ...e6) the semi-closed pawn structure curtails the potential strength of the Bishops, while black’s very solid, weakness free structure leaves White with very little to attack.


Jovanka Houska, in her excellent PLAY THE CARO-KANN, is an advocate of this order. Schandorff, in his THE CARO-KANN, sticks with the more popular 5...e6. In most lines, both moves ultimately transpose into the same thing.



1) 6.d4 dxe4 7.Qe3 (7.Nxe4 Qxd4 picks up a free pawn) 7…e6 8.Nxe4 Nxe4 9.Qxe4 Nd7 10.c3 Nf6 11.Qf3 Be7 12.Bd3 0–0 13.0–0 Qb6 14.Bg5 Rfd8 (Where is white’s plan? If he ever pushes the c-pawn to c4, the d4-pawn will become weak. In the meantime, ...c6-c5, striking at the enemy center, might follow.) 15.Rfe1 Rd5 16.Bh4 Rad8 17.Bc4 R5d7 18.Re2 Nd5 (Offering the trade of a pair of Bishops which will leave White with just one Bishop and a classic Bishops vs. Knight battle which can favor either side.) 19.Bxe7 (19.Bg3 c5 gives Black very good play.) 19…Rxe7 20.Rae1 Red7 21.b4 (Stopping black’s ...c6-c5 ideas. (21…a5 22.a3 axb4 23.axb4 Ra8 with a good game for Black.)  

2) 6.e5 (This lets Black create a favorable French Defense position.) 6…Nfd7 7.d4 (7.e6 fxe6 8.d4 e5 doesn’t give White anything for the sacrificed pawn.) 7…e6 8.Bf4 c5 9.dxc5 Nc6 10.Qg3 Qa5 11.Bd2 Qxc5 12.f4 Rc8 with an excellent position. 

6…e6 7.a3


1) 7.g3 Bb4 8.Bd2 d4 9.Nb1 Qb6 is known to be nice for Black. 

2) 7.Be2 Nbd7 8.Qg3 g6 9.0–0 Bg7 10.Bf4 Qb6 (avoiding 10…0–0 11.Bd6 Re8 12.e5) 11.Rab1 e5! and Black stands well since 12.Bxe5?? loses to 12...Nh5. 

3) 7.Bd2 Nbd7 8.g4 b5!? 9.g5 b4 10.Nd1 Ng8 11.Ne3 Bd6 12.h4 Ne7 13.h5 Rb8 14.Qg2 Be5! 15.Rb1 and now Houska recommends the fun 15…Bc3! while the more pedestrian 15...Qc7 offered both sides chances in a sharp battle in the game J. Hall - M. Sadler, German League 2002. 

7…Nbd7 8.g4 Bc5 9.Qg3

9.g5 Ne5 10.Qg3 Nfd7 11.Bf4 Bd4! 

9…dxe4 10.dxe4 and now both 10...Qb6 and 10...e5 promise Black good play.

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