Concrete Problems, Part 5
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Concrete Problems, Part 5


    Hello everyone and welcome to the fifth installment of the series! This time, we'll look at how we can apply the idea of concrete problems to our game, and what they mean in regards to the game of chess as a whole.

    I'm not suggesting any miracle cures or secrets, as I just don't have any of those and find them to be in bad taste anyway. Rather, I hope to give you something useful to think about by reflecting on my own games.

    I love chess, and there are a few different reasons why. I love chess for its complexity and inherent difficulty. I love chess for the chess community, which is one of the world's friendliest at its best. I love chess because it's a game of complete information and of justice: nothing stands in the way of the best man winning except his opponent playing better, and the board, not the players, dictates what happens and what the players can get away with. But I also love chess because it's relentlessly practical, a messy game of psychology, mistakes and problems where knowledge is usually difficult, not easy to apply.

    There it is again. Did you notice it? The word problems, a staple of this series, has wormed its way in again! It's no wonder, since problems are literally everywhere in chess.  How do I place my pieces? How do I deal with this annoying piece? How do I keep them tied up? How do I create chances in a bad position? How do I lower the boom? How do I create winning chances? That's six questions, and six problems. Everything, to some degree, is a problem, and it's when confronted with ones which are just thorny enough that we tend to mess up badly, particularly when there is a danger to our position.

    And if we take a little look, I think we can all find ways the idea of problems applies to chess as a whole.


 Problems in the Opening

     You know that feeling? Yes, that one: the one where you're convinced your opponent has done something wrong and you're better, but the advantage you should have is nowhere to be seen. The one where if you only had time, you could chop some wood and consolidate your fairly large static edge, but your opponents' pieces won't stop being so darned active.

    It's this feeling that people like me get all the time, and I don't like it: there's nothing that irks me more than activity standing in the way of a good old positional crush.

    Think of the main line of the 3... Nf6 Tarrasch French. Think of Najdorf lines with ... e5. Think of the lines in the Gligoric KID where Black plays ... g5 and ... h4 and stuff like that.

    I'll focus on the Tarrasch here: it's the opening I have the most experience playing, and the juiciest material in. And we'll start, as always, from the beginning.

After taking up the variation a short while ago and playing it in a few blitz and rapid games, I decided to try it in a slow game: after all, I liked the positions I was getting. My feelings were confirmed when Black erred immediately with the short-sighted 10... Nb4?! and was beaten soundly in this nice game. The exchanges with which I obtained a good knight versus a bad bishop and even the moves in between give a clockwork, paint-by-numbers impression of the best kind.

    But not for nothing are today's chess players better than they have ever been, and in my other games in this opening, no one has even let me get close to what happened above. (Of course, 2 of the other 3 Black players in this opening were engines, so that counts for something...) The opening of my most recent 90 30 game in this position went like this:
    I ended up winning a tiring three-and-three-quarter-hour fight where the position went through all kinds of transformations of better, worse and equalish kinds, something that just doesn't happen when you have an unopposed static plus. In this game, my opponent gave me close to no time to achieve my static dreams because there was always a threat to address. Essentially, the sheer number of problems Black can pose seemed to make pressing uncomfortable and even difficult in all of my games.
    This same idea explains why I don't like playing against 1. d4 sidelines. I get complete equality and I still feel like I'm on the back foot, because White puts a Rook on the c-file before me or gets a Knight to e5 or something.
Problems in the Middlegame
    This series is all about practicality, all the nuances that make a position different for us than for computers, and there's no more interesting situation to see this in than after a positional sacrifice. Of course, there's an objective evaluation. With best play, the person who made the sacrifice might be winning. They might be clearly worse. They might be clearly better. They might be a little worse or a little better. Or it just might be about equal.   
    The practical evaluation is an entirely different thing. How wide is the path of each player? Is it easier to have the material or the compensation? Is either side's play more natural? Who is burdened by the bigger problem?
    In the following game, I grabbed a pawn after White made a dubious move in a Breyer, but regretted it later when f5 became a nightmare and I wasn't even close to consolidating.
    What went wrong? I certainly could have defended better, but an argument could also be made that my troubles were partially practical: I had more problems untangling than White had creating lasting compensation, and though in objective terms White might not have had enough for the pawn, in practical terms they had full compensation, all because I had the bigger problem.
Problems in the Endgame
    The title is not a typo! True, the endgame is not exactly known for being a minefield, but it's tough in its own way: if the superior side loses control of the game, they may not get it back. Anyone who's ever played an endgame against Stockfish knows this: the silicon beast mercilessly exploits every single mistake you make, and if you're below 2000, you often can't manage a win except in the most theoretical cases. In the following game, I played against a computer rated just 2200, already having a rough idea of the winning method, and yet it still went sour.
    Why? It's called counterplay, and it's annoying: it never seems to exist in master games. In master games, the superior side sets endless problems without any being set back, ever. I won't bother to annotate this endgame (the amount of time that would take is too massive), but the big picture is interesting in and of itself: I always had an advantage, but I was never even close to winning, because I always had to react to something.

    Thanks for reading! I hope you all learned something (even if I can't quite figure out what it is) from this long blurb about how problems apply to the game of chess as a whole. Next time, we'll wind up this series with a look at how to pose problems in your own games and how to apply the concept of problems to making decisions in chess. Bye for now! 
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