The Winner's Toolbox

The Winner's Toolbox

| 19 | For Beginners

In this article, we're going to take a look inside the winner's toolbox.  Some of these items are absolutely essential to have, or you will lose games that you shouldn't have lost.  Not having these skills in your toolbox would be like a carpenter not having a hammer or screwdriver.  You HAVE to have them.  Other items are not essential, but useful and are in your toolbox according to your personal taste.  That's one of the great things about chess.  You can really express your personality on the chessboard.  There are a million ways to win a game, and you can choose whichever one suits you.  You can be whatever type of player you want to be: an Attacker, a Positional Player, a Counter-Puncher, an Endgame Grinder, etc.  And you can win and be successful with any of them.

On to the toolbox.  Here is my list of essential toolbox items:

1) An opening for White that you know as well as anyone. 

This will be your CONFIDENCE FOUNDATION.  This will be the opening in which you will fear no one, not even player's outranking you by hundreds of rating points.  Remember, your rating is a measure of your average strength in playing all positions.  You can have a low overall rating, but be a master in a certain position or opening.   For me, the opening is the Italian Game, which is actually a group of openings including the Guioco Piano, the Two Knight's Defense, Evan's Gambit, the Goring Gambit, and perhaps the Danish Gambit.  The one I know the best is the Two Knight's Defense.  I have a huge positive score with that opening from both the White and Black sides.  When that opening comes up, I can feel a surge of confidence swell up inside me.  I KNOW I know more than my opponent.  I REMEMBER past victories with this opening.  I have MEMORIZED exact move sequences that lead to my advantage.  I DETECT any slight error my oppent makes and know how to take advantage of it.  I have a FEEL for that opening and all of its variations.  When that opening is played, we are in MY BACKYARD, and you are in  trouble.

2. A weapon.

A weapon is some aspect of the game in which you have more skill than the average player.  A skill that can win a game.  It could be excellent opening preparation, tactical skill, or endgame skill.

There is an old movie called "Banning" starring Robert Wagner as golf pro at a country club (which also stars his current wife Jill St. John).  In the movie, Mike Banning (Wagner) plays club members who sometimes like to make side bets.  In one scene, Banning hits his ball into the sand trap, walks over to it and purposely steps on it, giving himself a difficult buried lie.  When the club member sees it and looks happy, Banning bets him he can get his ball closer to the hole than the member, who gladly takes the bet.  What he doesn't know is that Banning has practiced THIS EXACT SHOT thousands of times.  As he states later, he is " expert at buried lies."  He wins this bet (and probably a hundred similar bets).  You can be an expert at a certain opening and fear no one.

The point here is that you need to have a weapon to hurt your opponent with.  I watch tennis a lot on TV and sometimes commentators will say that a certain player plays well, has a good serve, is fast, gets a lot of balls back, but is almost certain to lose to another player because the first player has no weapons with which to hurt the second player, who, let's say, has a deadly forehand.  So the second player will just hit balls back until he gets to hit a forehand, which he will hit for a winner.  And he will do this over and over.  The first player will be unable to prevent the second player from hitting forehands indefinitely, and does not possess a weapon of his own, so he will be helpless against the second player. 

Higher rated chess players have the same ability.  Instead of "hitting balls back", they can make a seemingly endless series of moves, some threatening, some not, without making a blunder.  They just wait for you to miss a threat or tactic or for you to undertake a faulty plan, and then scoop up the full point without having "done anything".  If you have no weapons, no one fears you.

A weapon can be anything: extensive knowledge of a particular line of a certain opening, skill at kingside attacks against a fianchettoed bishop, a great feel for king-and-pawn endgames.  The thing is to feel that surge of confidence as you get near a position where you can take out your weapon and show everyone what you've got.

3. Ideas

"A bad plan is better than no plan at all".  This is an old saying in chess and no truer words were ever spoken.  An idea can range from an plan to position your pieces to a plan to checkmate the opposing king.  As long as you have a plan, even one that can be stopped by a single move from your opponent, you are forcing him to find that move.  A dumb plan, executed with focus and speed, will defeat an aimless opponent, even one with objectively better skills.  I've had lots of games where I KNEW my plan didn't work.  All my opponent had to do was play a certain move and it was stopped--but he would not play that move.  I almost tried to stop thinking of the move for fear he would read my mind and play it.  I'm not suggesting that you try dumb plans all the time, I'm just asking that you not over-censor yourself and not try anything because you are not absolutely sure it will work.  Sometimes a positive attitude is the most important move in your plan. 

You can increase your generation of ideas by using your imagination.  More specifically, imagine how you would like things to be and then work backwards to see if that end position can be plausibly be created.  When you find things that interfere with your plan, you can attempt to execute a subplan to eliminate that problem.  That's how good players come up with startling sacrifices that deflect or capture pieces that interefere with a plan.

In a losing position, don't give up until you run out of ideas for saving the game, no matter how crazy they may seem TO YOU.  Your opponent, being confident, may not see one at all.  When you run out of ideas for saving the game (AND ONLY THEN), resign.  Don't embarrass yourself by playing to mate, or mate in one, on the theory that "no one ever won by resigning".  Instead of being "a fighter who never quits",  playing too long makes you look dumb and insults your opponent, who obviously had enough skill to reach the winning position, but you do not acknowledge that he has the skill to finish off the easy part.  The only exception I sometimes make is if an opponent has played a nice combination that ends in mate, I'll allow him the satisfaction of playing the mate instead of resigning.

So why are better players better than you?  They have more tools in their toolboxes.  So how can you get better?  Get some more tools!  Just collect them one at a time and soon you'll have a tool for every job on the chessboard.  

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