Common Sense for the 21st Century

May 14, 2010, 12:57 PM |

My methods are based on Lasker's "Common Sense," which describes an entire thought process by which we can evaluate and select moves. Not that I claim to have the same standing as the man who held the world title for almost 30 years. What each of us must do is develop our own criteria by which we select our moves. These are my criteria; I am not claiming that my methods are the only right way to do things -- after all, I am only 2100 on my best days. But these fundamentals are just as good in the endgame as they are in the opening and middlegame and can be used in any given situation. They are:

1. Development;
2. Attacking moves;
3. Defensive moves.
That said, there is one thing that we must do before selecting our move -- check for threats. For instance, it does not do us any good to bring our Bishop out if there is a ghastly Knight fork which is threatening our Queen. That narrows our options considerably and leads us that much quicker to our best move. By "check for threats," what I mean is that we must pretend that we are the other person and that it is their turn to move instead of ours -- what would we do?
That said, this does not mean abject groveling on our part. For instance, take the example I mentioned above -- the Knight threatening our Queen. First, we should check and see if we can threaten something of greater value than our opponent. For instance, what if there is a back-rank mate that we can threaten? Let's suppose that there is such a scenario -- we are not ready to move yet. We have to make sure that our opponent can't bail out. For instance, what if they can just snap off our Queen with check and then take care of the back rank threat next move? Or what if we threaten the hostile Queen instead of making a defensive move on our part, and the other Queen can just bail out with check? The next thing we must do is we must check to make sure that our piece that we propose to move is not guarding something -- if it is and we move it away, then we have just dropped material.
This is where concrete calculation comes in -- rules are no substitute for concrete calculation. First, in the scenario mentioned above, we look at all our developing moves -- can we safely bring our Queen out to f3? Or is it guarding a pawn on c2 that will collapse the whole position if we abandon it? Then, we look at our attacking moves -- can we threaten mate or threaten to gain the other Queen with interest? Then, we look at our defensive moves -- like simply guarding against the threatened fork. The thing to do here is to keep calculating -- if our first and second looks don't work, keep working. If it means looking at every single legal move to find the right move, that is what we have to do.
One of the few exceptions that we make to our progression is if, in our judgment, the hostile King or Queen is in danger. For instance, after 1. g4 e5 2. f3??, we have no compunction about delivering the mate simply because it involves moving the Queen out too early. Or, if we need three moves to get a Knight to h6 to stop Black from castling, we do it.
In order to see our principles at work, let's see an actual game:
[Event "New York sim"]
[Site "New York"]
[Date "1892.??.??"]
[EventDate "?"]
[Round "?"]
[Result "1-0"]
[White "Emanuel Lasker"]
[Black "James Moore Hanham"]
[ECO "C41"]
[WhiteElo "?"]
[BlackElo "?"]
[PlyCount "71"]
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 d5
You are Lasker and your opponent, a specialist in the Phildor, has just taken you out of book. Objectively, a line like this is bad – but it has the psychological advantage of making you fight on his territory, not yours. Your pawn is threatened, meaning that your replies are narrowed immediately.
There are no obvious ways of threatening something of greater value, meaning that we must look at moves that save the pawn and which develop our position. The first three that come to mind are 5. exd5, 5. Nc3, and 5. e5. 5. exd5 has the merit of opening up the position while ahead in development -- directly taking advantage of Black's last move. After something like 5. exd5 Qxd5 6. Qe2+ Be7 7. Be3, White is all ready to castle on the Queen side, put his Rook on the open d-file to boot, and attack. The second look is 5. Nc3, bringing the Knight out. After 5...dxe4 6. Nxe4, the Knight is in a perfectly centralized position and Black will lose the right to castle -- 6...Nf6 7. Bg5 Be7 8. Nxf6+ Bxf6 9. Qe2+. Now, the Bishop can't interpose because the King will be defending it, meaning that Black can never castle. In the meantime, O-O-O, hitting the Black Queen, is coming. Lasker chooses a third option -- driving a wedge into the hostile position.
Deciding which line to play is a matter of personal choice – you should look at these lines for yourself and decide which one you should play.
5...a6 6.Be2
Now, when calculating, you must always ask yourself what would happen if your opponent were to threaten one of your pieces or check your King. In other words, if Black were to play 6...c5 in response to this move, what would White do with his Knight? Lasker simply retreated it back to f3, where it is perfectly positioned to support the pawn on e5. In other words, Black’s threat was harmless – it gained space on the Queen side, but it also drove the Knight where it wanted to go. Another possibility for Black would have been to threaten the pawn with 6...f6. But it turns out that had Black done that, he would have opened himself up to a basic tactic on his king – White replies 7. Bd3!, and Black is hard-pressed to guard against the threatened Qh5+, forcing Black to forego castling.
6...c5 7.Nf3 Nc6 8.O-O Be6 9.Re1 Be7 10.Nc3
All of these moves are easy to understand if you have been reading carefully -- every move by White brings a piece out and his 9th overprotected the pawn, so that both the R and N are free to move. Now, White has to decide whether he can deal with ...d4 in the event of 10. Nc3. But in this instance, it turns out that ...d4 simply gives away the e4 square to the Knight -- 10...d4 11. Ne4 Qd5 12. Nfg5. Now, it turns out that the pawn on e5 is poison -- 12...Nxe5? 13. f4 Nc6 14. Bf3 Qd8 15. Qe2, and White will capture either the pawn on c5 or e6 after the trade on e6. The reason the pawn on e5 was poison on move 12 was simple -- it opened lines up for the White pieces, creating a pin on e7. When you open lines up for the opponent, even a 1200 player can take advantage.
10...b5 11.a3
Black was threatening to chase the Knight onto the rim with ...b4. But it turns out that the Knight would have been fine on that square – it would have tied down the Bishop to the defense of the c5 pawn. The two obvious developing moves, 11. Bd2 or 11. Bf4, would be our first looks. But 11. Bd2, while not hurting anything right away, shuts in the Queen so that we cannot finish our development. The next look would be 11. Bf4. But if we look at potential threats (even ones outside the box), it turns out that Black has ...g5! – getting a King side attack going with tempo. Since he has not castled short, a move like 11. Bf4?! is like waving a red flag to a bull. Black will follow up with ...Nh6-f5, securing the Two Bishops. At this point, Lasker may well have decided to make a practical choice – play 11. a3 and limit Black’s expansion on the Queen side unless he wished to open lines for the White Rook. But there was another possibility – recall the idea of ...g5 – why not rule out expansion on the King side altogether? Then, the development of the Bishop, overprotecting the Pawn on e5 would become feasible. So, if we can play 11. h4, and the pawn cannot be captured, then we are in good shape. And it turns out that the pawn on h4 is poison -- the Queen is guarding d5, meaning that 11...Bxh4 12. Nxh4 Qxh4 runs into 13. a4!, hitting Black on the Queen side which he just deserted with his last move. And after 11...b4 12. Na4, the Knight is covering c5, meaning that if Black captures the pawn on h4, he gets his Queen side broken up.
11...Qd7 12.Ng5?!
Now, 12. Bf4 would have been possible since thanks to Black’s last move, he cannot respond with ...g5, driving the Bishop back. However, White takes advantage another way – since the Bishop on e6 can’t move away, White uses this opportunity to secure the Two Bishops. However, I suggest that this was a mistake by Lasker -- it turns out that Black will force White to waste a bunch of moves to do so, meaning that he will be able to improve his position. The Bishop on g5 will be driven right back to where it came while Black will get the Two Bishops right back in a few moves. Therefore, it would have been better to simply bring the Bishop out to f4. Never give up on a move just because it was not feasible the last time -- it might be feasible the next time around.
12...Bxg5 13.Bxg5 h6 14.Bc1?!
14. Bh4 instead would have saved time, since the Bishop winds up on f2 anyway.
14...Nge7 15.f4 Nd4 16.Be3 Nxe2+ 17.Nxe2 d4 18.Bf2 O-O 19.b4!
Time to take stock again. White has lost some of his advantage thanks to his sloppy play, but still has plenty of play. But if it were Black's move, he would play ...Bd5 and ...Qg4, menacing g2, and White would have a hard time guarding against it. Therefore, White must act now -- he does not have time for such moves as 19. Qd2?!, because then Black would simply fulfill his plan and have the advantage. But with 19. b4, Black does not have time to do this -- if 19...Bd5 20. bxc5 Qg4 21. Bg3, then it is only a matter of time before the pawn on d4 falls. Let's compare the Queen on d1 with the Queen on d2 -- after 19. Qd2? Bd5 20. b4 Qg4 21. Bg3 h5, White will lose material. But if White goes 19. b4 right away, then he will have time to cover g4 with the Queen -- 19...Bd5 20. bxc5 Qg4 21. Bg3 h5 22. Nxd4 -- and Black is worse because he does not have time to exploit the pinned Bishop because his Queen is attacked.
The ability to find non-routine moves like 11. h4 or 19. b4 is what separates the masters from the rest of us. The "routine" 19. Qd2? would have likely cost us a piece.
19...cxb4 20.axb4 Rfd8 21.Nxd4
Now White has stolen a pawn and remains with the better game.
21...Qb7 22.Qh5 Qc8 23.h3
Black was threatening to chase the Queen off with ...Bg4. White had the choice between swapping on e6 and the text. But why trade off a perfectly active piece like the Knight on d4 unless forced?
23...Nf5 24.c3
Just because White is up a pawn does not mean that the game is over -- there is still plenty of action going on. The game is not over until the other person has thrown in the towel. For instance, Black is now threatening to chase off the powerful White Knight. White can safely maintain it there with the text because the pawn is poisoned -- the Queen on c8 is guarding the Knight on f5. But what if Black chases the Queen? It turns out that in the event of 24...g6 25. Nxf5! gxh5, White has a fork with 26. Ne7 and liquidates down to a won ending. Black keeps the Queens on, but coughs up another pawn.
24...g6 25.Nxf5 Bxf5 26.Qxh6 Rd2 27.e6
Also possible was a double discovery -- 27. g4 Bxg4 28. f5 and 29. Qxd2. The pawn would have had to be captured because of the mate threat on g7. The text is a clearance sacrifice; Lasker undoubtedly decided to make the practical choice of keeping his King safe.
27...Bxe6 28.Bd4 Rxd4 29.cxd4 Qc3 30.Kh2
Now White has to evaluate the ensuing counterplay by Black – should he safely be able to capture on b4, Black will get two dangerous passers on the Queen side. But it turns out that the b4 pawn is poisoned – after 30...Qxb4? White plays 31. Rxe6!! fxe6 32. Qxg6. He will then be able to pick up the loose Rook after a series of checks. The capture on d4 simply opens up lines for White’s a1 Rook, which will come into the game with tempo. Therefore, White does not have to fear either capture. When up material, it is frequently good to return some of it to improve one’s position.
30...Qxd4 31.Rad1 Qb6 32.Re5
Recall the idea of sacrificing on e6 – White will now simply line up his Rooks on the e-file and then push the f-pawn and mate on g7 – Black is helpless to oppose this plan. Should he move the Bishop, he becomes victim to a back-rank mate.
32...Rc8 33.Rd3 Rc1 34.Rde3 Rc6 35.f5 Qc7 36.f6 1-0