Sense of Danger

Sense of Danger

GM Illingworth

What is the main challenge that young children face in their chess games?

There are many possible answers, but at least for me, in the early years of my chess 'career' (up to around the 1400 level), my main weakness was that I lacked a sense of danger.

Those familiar with the concept of duality will understand that this was also my strength - I had no fear of my opponents or their ideas, and my confident, ambitious play was often rewarded with (upset) wins/draws in practice! 

And yet, as GM Ian Rogers once told me, 'You can't stop the opponent's threat if you don't see it' (unless you are just lucky). 

That is one reason why one of the main topics I cover with my students is that of threats - in particular, how to spot, and best deal with, the opponent's threats. 

I will cover this more deeply in the future, but for now, I want to focus on a general sense of danger in chess.

Let's take a simple example, with White to move: 

If White doesn't consider what his opponent is trying to do, he might play 7.h5?, and blunder his pawn after 7...Qxb2. One thing you quickly learn in chess is that your opponent has different ideas to you, and they are not necessarily less important than your ideas!

This is known in psychology as Theory of Mind, which most people take for granted, but young beginners often forget this when playing chess, focusing only on their own possibilities. 

Let's continue with this example. What if White plays 7.Na4? A common mistake among inexperienced players is to assume that the only idea of this move was to defend against their threat (of ...Qxb2), and forget that a defensive move - especially the best ones - can make a threat of their own! Of course, White is threatening Nxb6, and Black should reply 7...Qa5 8.c3 Nbd7 or 8...Ne4 with a fine game - but even experienced players can sometimes make such assumptions, to their cost. 

If you are a chess coach, you've probably seen the sequence 1.e4 e5 2.Qh5 Nc6 3.Bc4 g6 4.Qf3 Nd4 5.Qxf7# at least once - which is another example of Black assuming that the only idea of 4.Qf3 was to defend against the attack on the queen, and not considering what new threats/moves are possible after White's move

What if White plays 7.a3 instead in the above position? Doesn't that hang the b2-pawn? 

You probably remembered the title of this article, and checked for White's threatening moves after 7...Qxb2 - and also seen that, after 8.Na4!, the Black queen is trapped and lost! Therefore, the pawn on b2 is poisoned.

You can see from this how important it is to try and find the problem with a move, before playing it! It's more natural to try and justify our idea as much as possible, but our analysis will be of a higher standard if we ask 'If there is something wrong with this move, what would it be?' Sometimes there will be no problem with the move, or the 'issue' with it is not relevant or significant in that position. 

Incidentally, this is a well-known persuasion technique - to point out a potential issue or weakness in your perspective/argument, and then rebutt it. The thought process in chess is not entirely different - if there is no strong argument against my move, it is probably a good move. 

Those of you who follow the 'Blogs' section of closely will have noticed that many bloggers have written some nice reports and game analyses of games in the FIDE World Cup. With nearly all of the world's top players playing this tournament, it is easy to forget that there are other tournaments being played at the same time, such as the Fall Chess Classic in St Louis, and the FIDE Women's Grand Prix tournament in Skolkovo - which is where my annotated game below is from.

First, here is my analysis of the opening phase, which can serve as an introduction to the Ragozin Defence for club players:

The position after 17.Rcd1 is quite a tricky one for Black to defend, due to her backward development. The strong IM playing Black lost her sense of danger at this point - can you do better?

It was quite important for Black to find the solution move in the puzzle. 

If Black had played 17...Bxe4, she would have lost her bishop pair and given up the initiative (although that's still better than what happened in the game). The same is true for 17...Bd5, while 17...Nd7 would allow the very strong d5 break, which is White's dream in these IQP positions.

In the game, Black blundered with 17...Qc7?. Let's see if you can find the refutation Koneru played in the game: 

After solving this puzzle, we can appreciate that Black found the right idea of placing her major piece on the open c-file, where White's queen and bishop are lined up. However, Black lost her sense of danger at this moment, forgetting that, after 17...Qc7, there are no pieces defending the Black king - and with White's pieces all actively poised for an attack, this was immediately fatal. 

So, how can we improve our sense of danger? It is clearly an intuitive skill, through which we can anticipate the threats coming before they strike - and this is what the former World Champion, Tigran Petrosian, was very famous for, with his 'prophylactic' approach. 

Tigran Petrosian

However, we can retroactively consider why an attack on the king might be successful. What are the key factors behind a successful attack on the king?

1) Initiative (a sustainable flow of threats that cannot be ignored) 
2) More attackers than defenders (self-explanatory)
3) Weaknesses around the enemy king (weak squares and pawns, or lack of pawns, around the king)
4) Space advantage around the enemy king's position (e.g. a White pawn on e5 with a Black king on g8). 

We can see that, in our game, nearly all these factors were at play - White also had a lead in development, which suggested that Black needed to keep some protection around her king as she caught up in development, and took the sting out of the d5 break by White. Admittedly, it is not easy to play 18...Rd8! just after playing 17...Rc8, but the ability to 'admit our mistake' and move our piece back, when appropriate, is one skill that separates the strong chess players and the best chess players.

Of course, one could extend sense of danger to a positional/strategic sense of danger - but this is something that can only be obtained by having a strong understanding of chess, and of course, that topic is too broad to do justice to in just one article.

What is the main thing you learned from this post? 

What is a game you played where you or the opponent lost their sense of danger?

How are you going to improve your chess sense of danger? 

You can find more of my chess puzzles, chess improvement and life improvement ideas at:

My mission is: To help as many chess players as possible achieve their chess dreams.

If you're committed to achieving your chess dream, and you're ready to invest in some personalised help from me, so that you can achieve your dream more quickly and easily - you can apply to become my private student.

I'll see you in the next post!