Improve your thinking process - deal with threats the right way

Improve your thinking process - deal with threats the right way

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Dealing with threats in chess is not a skill that comes naturally. It has to be learnt. Or even better, the natural reaction to threats has to be unlearnt. This is an area where I always see huge differences between beginners and advanced players, and I assume other coaches have similar experience. 

So, let's dive into the world of threats a little bit.

What is a threat?

It is not only about checkmates and winning material. A threat can be anything that significantly improves the opponent's position, like occupying an outpost, or saving a piece that is about to get trapped.

A very simple example:

White's bishop could be trapped with f5-f4 right now, so we can say that White is threatening to play something like f2-f3 or h2-h3 to save their bishop.

The principles

When dealing with threats, you should follow the principles below.

In the collecting phase:

Make the threat check a conscious effort

Look for exact moves

Make the threat check the first step

Look for multiple threats

Do it after every move

Notice all the consequences as well

In the evaluation phase:

Check if the threat is real

Don't give in to threats without a struggle

Make the threat check a conscious effort

In my experience as a coach, most amateurs are completely on autopilot, as far as threats are concerned. They rely on their pattern recognition, which shows them the basic threats instantly and automatically. Anything complex and sneaky remains hidden for them. 

So train yourself to be more conscious and proactive about threats. Don't wait until the threats "come to mind" - make your mind go and fetch them. happy

Imagine that you are filling out an online form, where there is a mandatory field called "threats". If there are no threats at all (which happens a lot, by the way), you can write "None" in the field, but you cannot move on leaving it empty.

Look for exact moves

When you are looking for threats, you are looking for moves. Saying something like "White is threatening to bring his queen in the attack" is not precise enough. What exact moves will White play to achieve that? In what order?

If you take a closer look for the exact moves, you will find that a lot of times your opponent's threats turn out to be paper tigers.

Let's see an example:

Jakovenko - Ponkratov

Black just played 26. - Nc6, so we have to check his threats. Simply saying that "Black is threatening to take the b4-pawn" would be rather sloppy - after all, he has two different ways to do it: Nxb4 or Qxb4. These result in two different positions, so we have to check them separately.

If we do that, we will realise that one of them is a real threat, the other one is a losing blunder. I will let you figure out which is which. happy

Make the threat check the first step

Always start with the threat check before looking for candidate moves or starting your calculation. Whenever you consider a move for either for yourself or your opponent, clarify what threats are attached to that move, and proceed to candidate moves only then. 

It is very easy to forget about the mandatory threat check in the heat of the battle, when you are deep in calculations, and the game is getting more and more exciting. 

Let's illustrate that with the same Jakovenko-Ponkratov game, only one move later:

An interesting moment. By playing 27. - Rc8, Black has just abandoned the f7-pawn, so White can take it with the knight. And because it is such an interesting moment, whenever I show this position to a student, they completely forget to check Black's threats. Instead, they normally start to calculate 28. Nxf7 straight away. 

Well, 27. - Rc8 does create a threat, or rather activates a threat which was not real. Can you see what is it?

(By the way, when you are done with the threats, you still have to collect candidate moves first, before plunging into calculations. 28. Nxf7 is certainly a candidate, but in the position above White has at least two more: 28. b5 and 28. Qf3.)

Look for multiple threats

That basically means that you shouldn't stop looking after finding one threat, because the opponent might have several ones.

Let's consider the following puzzle:

When I show this position to students, a surprisingly lot of them misses that White can also take the black rook. It would be probably easier to spot Qxc1 if the main threat Qxg7 checkmate would not overshadow it.

Still, Qxc1 is just as decisive as Qxg7 and Rxg7, so whatever the solution is, it must deal with all of these threats.

And that's what makes that puzzle easy: Black's options are so restricted, that they can hardly try anything else but the solution. happy

Here is another example, an old blitz game of mine.

Horvath - Opponent

Black is obviously threatening with Qxa2, but he also has a stronger threat, which I completely missed, as Qxa2 took my attention.

I played the rather lazy and unprincipled a2-a3(?). Can you see how Black should continue after that?

Black to move after a2-a3.

Do a threat check after every move

Well, we already said that, but it is such a common mistake to forget about the usual threat check that it is worth pointing it out separately: it is literally after every move, until there are any forcing moves left in the position.

Don't get relaxed because you are already winning, or the opponent's move looks so logical that you assume you understand it perfectly. Remember, assumptions are very dangerous in chess!

A famous example is the following game from Judit Polgar.

Greenfeld - Polgar

Black just played Qb6-c7, which looks very logical, and almost forced - the d7-pawn was hanging, so Black had to defend it, right? Anyhow, what else could she play? There is not much to do with Black, as only a few pieces left on the board, and White is practically winning with his material advantage. 

As Judit writes it:

He may have thought that I planned to activate my queen with ...Qc3 and correctly evaluated that after his answer I would have no time for that.

So White assumed he understood Black's last move, and went on with his plan by playing h3-h4. As it turned out, that was a blunder, as Qb6-c7 did create a sneaky threat. Can you see what it was?

And a not-so-famous example: my game against IM Karolyi, where I got similarly sloppy in a winning position. Luckily for me, the consequences were not so dire. 

My opponent just played 23. - Bc7, a very logical move, as I was threatening with Bxa5. Now if take on a5, Black can exchange queens, which is really desirable for Black, because his king is so weak. Also, the black knight is completely out of play, and 23. - Bc7 frees the d6-square for it.
So, I have a winning position, I think I understand why the opponent played what he played - that's when threat check goes into a slumber. happy
I played 24. Ne3 to improve my knight. When he played his next move, it was like a punch in my stomach.

I completely missed 24. - Qd6, and for a few seconds, I had the terrible feeling that I messed up a completely won position by missing something that primitive.
Luckily, it is nothing serious as after 25. g3 Bxh3 26. Rfc1 White is completely winning. It turns out that  24. Ne3 was one of the best moves in the position.
So, a good move, but bad thinking process - I hope you agree that if you keep missing simple threats like that, you cannot go really far in chess...

Notice all the consequences

That means you should see all the significant changes a move causes in the position, like changes in:
piece stability (defended-undefended),
piece mobility (e.g. pinned-unpinned, bishop's diagonal closed-opened),
piece function (e.g. a knight takes over a defensive task from the queen), etc.
Noticing consquences is really intertwined with noticing threats, as all changes can create threats as well: If you miss the change, you might miss the threat
Most amateurs are really prone to that mistake: they only spot the threats that are created by the moving piece.
Let's see a simple example.

Banas - Vilela de Acuna

Black just played 9. - Qc7 - a smart way to neutralize the threat on the b4-bishop. White's bishop on c1 is undefended, so the c3-pawn is pinned. Also, after 10. cxb4 Black can play 10. - Qxe5+, forking the king and rook on a1. 
After a couple of moves the game reached the following position:
White just played 12. Ne2. A logical developing move - but it also creates some important changes: 
1. The knight is protecting the c1-bishop, so the c3-pawn is not pinned any more.
2. The knight is blocking the e-file. That means Qxe5 won't be a check. 
All that means that cxb4 has become a real threat, due to the consequences of the knight move.

Check if the threats are real

After you have noticed everything that might be a threat, you need to evaluate them and dismiss the ones that are not real.
You can do it by simply giving an extra move to your opponent, assuming that it is their turn again. What will happen if they are allowed to realise their threat? Is it really that damaging?
If it turns out that their threat is not real, we can just ignore it, or even calling their bluff by forcing them to realise it
One of my favourite examples:
Nielsen - Volokitin
Black just played 17. - Nd3, creating the threats of Nxf4 and Nxb2. (You remember to look for multiple threats, right? Even if Nxf4 is the big one, we should still notice the Nxb2 possibility.)
Well, if you evaluate those threats by adding an extra move to Black, hopefully you will realise that they are not real.
How would you continue with White?

Don’t give in to threats without a struggle

This is a scenario when the opponent's threat is real but not a crushing one, so not a checkmate or picking up the queen, but rather winning a pawn or a minor piece, ruining your pawn structure, or something similar.
In that case it is important that you don’t just defend against threats automatically (as most club players do). The most annoying thing about threats that they narrow down your candidate move options, and this is something you should consciously fight against.
When facing threats, try the following steps:
1. nervous Best case: you can still play the most useful move in the position, which is what you (hopefully) intended to play anyhow. 
2. happy Second best case: you have to change your plans, but you can defend against the threat by playing something useful. (Remember considering counter-threats!)
3. meh OK case: you have to waste time by playing something that is not useful at all, but at least it does not harm your position.
4. angry Worst case: you are forced to play something outright harmful, detrimental to your position, like weakening your king, putting your knight in the corner, exchanging your most active piece, etc. That is giving in to the demands of the agressor, and you should feel that you lost a little battle here. You do it because you have to, not because you want to. 
Let's see a famous example.
Morphy - Consultants
Morphy's last move was 7. Qb3!, when Black had to respond with 7. - Qe7, blocking the way of their bishop, and therefore delaying castling. So Morphy managed to squeeze out a worst case reaction of Black (No 4 on the list above), and that's why 7. Qb3 was worth playing.  
Now, let's suppose that Morphy postpones Qf3-b3 one move, and plays 7. 0-0 Bc5 8. Qb3?! instead. 

It is really not the same thing any more, as Black can respond with 8. - 0-0! (case No 1, exactly the move they wanted to play), and after 9. Qxb7 they have 9. - Nbd7 (case No 2, as the best square for the knight would have been c6, but Nbd7 is still a healthy developing move). In the position after 9. - Nbd7, Black would have had very decent compensation for the pawn.

So, whenever you have to deal with threats, try to remember that list and don't accept automatically that you have to go for No 3 and No 4. 

To finish, I show you one of my favourite examples in the threat topic. It is just an opening line from the London System, but I really like how Black keeps ignoring White's puny threat on the b6-pawn. Instead of defending, Black plays useful moves by creating counterthreats all the time. 

I hope you enjoyed the post. If you are looking for no-nonsense coaching with a professional coach, feel free to send me a private message here or on, and we can arrange a non-committal video call to discuss your goals and get to know each other.