When A Chess Pattern Backfires

When A Chess Pattern Backfires

GM Gserper
Dec 4, 2016, 12:00 AM |
10 | Strategy

Everyone agrees that knowledge of typical chess patterns is one of the main requirements for a chess player to become really strong. In our weekly column, we regularly analyze typical positional and tactical patterns. But imagine a position where you just "caught" your opponent in one of those patterns and are ready to enjoy what's supposed to be a highly favorable situation for you.

Instead your position is getting worse with every move. Sounds improbable? Well, situations like this happen more frequently then you might believe. In our old article, we already discussed that there is no rule in chess that works in every single situation. There are always exceptions!

An exception to every rule.

Let's consider one of the most common strategic patterns: a good knight on d5 versus a bad bishop. This classical game shows the type of position I am talking about:

We devoted a three-part article to this strategic pattern. You can find those articles here, here and here. The position with a beautiful Nd5 versus a very ugly dark-square bishop looks so impressive that it is difficult to imagine that there could be a situation where this pattern wouldn't work. Well, look at the following game played by two strong players:

White completely occupied the central squares d5 and e4 plus he had a wonderful knight versus a horrible dark-square bishop, and yet he lost. What went wrong? 

As the game shows, the main source of counterplay for Black in similar situations is the march of the f7-pawn. After Black plays f7-f5, White basically has two options: do nothing or just capture the f5-pawn by e4xf5. Both options carry some negative consequences for White. If White takes with e4xf5, his central e4-pawn is gone. Therefore, White loses the firm control over the the all-important d5-square. Eventually Black is able to play d6-d5, just like in the aforementioned game. In this next positional masterpiece by Vishy Anand, we have a similar strategic picture. White slowly loses control over the d5-square, Black plays d6-d5, and White's position collapses!

From the other side, if White completely ignores Black's counterplay on the kingside that starts with f7-f5, it can lead to a direct kingside attack, like in the following game:

As you can see, while in the most situations it is very advantageous to have full control over the central d5-square, especially if you have a "good" knight versus a "bad" bishop, sometimes this pattern can backfire! So, how can you decide if a particular position is good for you, or if it is one of those pesky exceptions from the rule?

Strangely enough, the first thought that comes to my mind is weird and somewhat disturbing. It is the quote that I had to repeat almost on a daily basis some 35 years ago when I was a schoolboy. It's one which I never used since then. Moreover, I never guessed that I would ever use a quote by Vladimir Lenin in a chess context, but anyway, here it is: "No revolution is worth anything unless it can defend itself."

I guess I can paraphrase and say that no d5-square is worth anything unless you can defend it and keep a firm control over it. If you need a better chess authority than the leader of the world's proletariat (this is what Lenin was called in the USSR), I can give you a quote by GM Michael Adams.

According to a brilliant book, "The Seven Deadly Chess Sins" by Jonathan Rowson, Adams said about this kind of positions:

"Looks better for White, you just plonk a knight on d5, and ... (pause) ... well, these things are never so clear."

If now you are confused even more, let me give you a very simple rule of thumb. In all the classical examples that we analyzed in the aforementioned articles where White pieces dominated the board, it happened mostly because the white pieces were more active than their black counterparts. Yes, the powerful knight on the weak d5-square magnified White's advantage, but the key factors were the placement of other pieces. So, the next time you encounter this kind of position, don't judge it superficially: "White has a good knight versus a bad bishop, and Black has an ugly hole on d5." Instead see the whole picture! And if you notice that the majority of Black's pieces are more active than your own pieces or your opponent has an obvious plan while it is not that clear what you are going to do, then probably the position is not that great for you, despite the powerful strategic pattern.

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