When is Brilliance Helpful?

| 20 | Middlegame

Every year we hold the charity Holly Heisman Memorial Tournament to raise money for women in need. Thanks to our organizers, the Ramachandras, our TD Joshua Anderson, and Howard Stern, who donates a trip to his studio which we auction off on EBay (coming up this October!), we have raised about $75,000 over the past 10 years. The Holly Heisman Memorial Fund is presided over by The Philadelphia Foundation.

A few years ago the following position occurred in the event. As usual, try to figure out what you would do in a slow game before proceeding:

In this position, Black played 1...Qe2. Take a moment and see how you would rate this move:

   a) Brilliant!
   b) Unnecessary but OK
   c) Unnecessary but not quite OK
   d) Terrible!

In the game White thought for a little while and responded 2.Bd2. Black then proceeded to play 2...Qxd2 and won easily with his extra piece.

Hopefully you found both players' moves somewhat lacking. After 1...Qe2?? 2.Rxe2 Rd1+ 3.Ne1 Bf1 4.Qc2 White is just winning, and even after 1...Qe2 2.Rxe2 Rd1+ 3.Re1 Bxg2+ 4.Kxg2 (but not 4.Qxg2? Rxe1+ and Black wins the queen and regains superiority) 4...Rxe1 White is winning.
After the game I asked White why he did not play 2.Rxe2 and he replied that he would be checkmated. I challenged him to play White and see if he could checkmate himself after 2.Rxe2 Rd1+ and he could not, although a sui-mate is possible in lines like 2.Rxe2 Rd1+ 3.Ne1 R8d8 4.Rc2?? Rxe1#, but that is not germane to the story. But it is germane to say that if your opponent plays a move like 1...Qe2, even if he took a long time to do so, you usually don't just believe him, but ask "Maybe he made a there ANY way I can get away with taking the queen?" and analyze very carefully because a sacrificial offer like this is almost always critical.
Let's evaluate the position in the diagram and see what is happening. Black has almost every conceivable advantage:

    a) Black is ahead a pawn
    b) Black has the advantage of the bishop pair (commonly just shortened to "the bishop pair", meaning that he has two bishops and his opponent does not - the average value of the bishop pair is about a half a pawn).
     c) Black's king is safer
     d) Black's army is much more active (more important than his also-stronger pawn structure).
     Together these amount to a winning advantage for Black. When you are winning, in general you want to keep things simple. Complications favor the player who is losing.
     Look at it this way: suppose you are ahead a knight and can create complications where it is certain someone will lose a knight, but it is 50-50 whether it will be you or your opponent. Then winning a knight to put you ahead two knights just goes from winning easily to winning more easily, while if your opponent wins the knight he goes from losing badly to even, so he has a lot more to gain!. Even if it's not 50-50, if you're winning, you still have a lot more to lose then he does. More on this, and other recommendations on how to best go after the full point when you're way ahead, in "When You're Winning, It's a Whole Different Game" at

     In the diagram, Black does not have much incentive to look for, much less play, tricky moves like 1...Qe2. Tricky moves and complications are fantastic when you are losing and they give you chances to get back in the game. And grandmasters make a living finding clever moves when it looks like they are about even, but in fact they have some genius idea that shows that they really are winning. So if you are rated 2300+ and want to win with a flashy combintation to show everyone how good you are, we trust you can do it without much risk. But if you are already way ahead, then you have to be very careful that if you play something tricky, the one who will be tricked is not you! If you are not that good, you are taking a big risk by making "brilliant" but unncessary moves that raise the chances that you can miscalculate and throw it all way. When you have more to gain, that's when you want to be more careful, so the more ahead you are, the more careful you should be. Note that I am not saying the opposite, that when you are way ahead you should play very defensively and passively - that's not usually good either. But the "normal" middle ground should be sufficient.

     In this case, Black should play the "normal" 1...Rd1, offering not just a rook trade, but creating big back-rank problems for White. This move is not only much simpler, but it is obviously much stronger. Even if 1...Qe2 worked, it probably was unnecessary. It's great to show everyone how smart you are, but it's also good sometimes to show everyone how wise you are by avoiding unnecessarily "smart" moves. Smile

PS: If you would like to make a tax-deductible contribution to one of my charitable funds, follow the directions at Thanks!

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