How To Convert A Winning Position

How To Convert A Winning Position

GM Illingworth

Do you remember a time when you had a winning position, but got swindled out of the win?

It's happened to all of us, but the good news is, converting a decisive advantage into victory is a skill we can continually train and improve!

Yesterday I finished reading the amazing book 'The Complete Chess Swindler' by GM David Smerdon, and it's definitely helped me to be a much more practical and tricky player!

Here are the 4 main pitfalls to avoid when you have a winning position (as noted in Smerdon's book):

1. Impatience
2. Hubris
3. Fear
4. Kontrollzwang (trying too hard to control everything in the position)

Therefore, what should be replace these with?

1. Patience

Take your time - as long as necessary to play good moves and win the game. Also, if your opponent has no meaningful counterplay, don't rush with your breakthrough instantly. Instead, improve your position as much as needed and then patiently calculate the winning lines once you find it hard to improve your position much more (either your pieces are already on the best squares, or the opponent has started to create counterplay, so you need to be concrete).

2. Detachment

Instead of focusing on the result, or questions unrelated to the position on the board, we detach ourselves from these extraneous things, and consider the position from the opponent's perspective as well. What moves would you be looking at, if you were in their perspective? What's good about their position and how might we negate these advantages or otherwise make them irrelevant?

I was tempted to call this 'empathy' instead, due to the focus of always considering things from the opponent's perspective as well as our own (thus allowing us to anticipate their tricks and avert them). However, because excessive pride and arrogance comes from our relationship with ego, it is more profound to detach ourselves completely from our ego. This is not something I expect one to achieve overnight, but separating yourself as a person from your chess games and performances is a good starting point.

3. Objectivity

Instead of being afraid of every little idea the opponent may try, or doubting ourselves, we take an honest appraisal of the situation as it really is. We don't make things any worse or any better than they really are. So, if the position is not easy to win (at least in the way we hoped), we accept this and then embrace the challenge of working out the correct approach to the position, confident in our ability to figure things out.

Being objective also helps us to realize when we were initially wrong, admit our earlier mistake, and then adapt with a new approach. For example, maybe you were so fixated on winning with a checkmating attack, but by realizing the opponent has defended against it successfully, you can switch your focus to attacking their weak pawns on the queenside, now that their pieces are tied to defending their king.

4. Flexibility

I mean this in the context of appreciating that there is more than one way to convert an advantage into victory, and being open to all the possibilities. True, in some ways this requires a similar mindset shift to 'detachment', where we let go of the need to control everything. We accept that we do not directly control life as a whole or the actions of others, but we do accept the full control that we have over our life and our responses to any situation.

From a chess perspective, this means that we accept that, against a sufficiently creative opponent, we will not be able to stop all their counterplay forever. We understand that, at some point, we will have to transform our 'control' of the position into another type of advantage, be it a material advantage or temporarily giving the opponent threats to evolve our own initiative.

Of course, the advice that is given to most players for winning positions is much less psychological in nature than this. You probably remember phrases like 'when ahead in material, exchange pieces' or 'Be particularly mindful of the opponent's threats'. However, these tend to have various exceptions - for instance, trying too hard to stop every little idea of the opponent could lead to the loss of the initiative, if we are not improving our own position significantly and making well-timed counterthreats in the process.

One of the more interesting insights I have had in life (as it applies far beyond chess) is that of duality - that the principles that apply in one component can be translated to its opposite as well. The most obvious example is attack and defence, but we have seen here that it applies just as well for converting an advantage (as opposed to swindling the opponent).

However, not much has been written before about the psychology behind converting an advantage, and I hope that my insights shift your chess mindset to a much higher level in general.

More creative students will even incorporate the above ideas in their own way to greatly improve the quality of their life and approach greater fulfilment, befitting their own definitions and values.

See you in the next post!

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