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5 things that set masters apart and how they can help your game

5 things that set masters apart and how they can help your game

May 17, 2015, 11:09 AM 4

What differentiates a less experienced player from a strong master? I've been flipping through a bunch of games of strong masters on chessgames.com recently and, in contrast to watching the games of club players, have noticed some patterns of distinguished master play that might not seem immediately obvious:


1. Masters aren't cowed by ghosts. They don't overreact to their opponents' threats. Maybe that check on h7 or sacrifice of that bishop for the g4 pawn isn't such a big deal, after all. If an over-eager player wants to throw a piece at a master, the master will calculate coldly, carefully, objectively and determine whether  the threat is real or imagined. The master will generally restrict an opponent's counterplay, but if that counterplay attempt allows the master to get a better position, let 'em have it. Opportunities are rare. They must be seized through bold and accurate play in which the will of the opponent is subjected to intense scrutiny -- and often ignored -- so that the will of the master may prevail. So, this is just about relentlessly seeking the initiative, right? Sort of. It's about not giving up the initiative needlessly. There are times when threats need to be responded to and times when they don't. The game below is a great example of finding a masterful balance.

Mamedyarov-Aronian, 2014. Shak doesn't really care that Aronian's rook is lined up against his king and queen on the open e file. He calmly calculates that he should give up the exchange and continue his attack undeterred. Then he plops his king on g3 and gets a brilliant win. I love watching Mamedyarov play.

Kramnik-Mamedyarov, 2008. Oh no, Shak will not be schackled (no matter how authoritative Kramnik may look)! Kramnik piles up on black's pinned knight with 27. Nh4. Shak calculates that it's no big deal and simply moves his rook to h5, attacking the knight. Later, Kramnik plays 30. e4, again threatening to win the pinned bishop with f5. Shak again ignores Kramnik's ghosts and plays 30...c4, continuining his own attack, winning the battle of the wills and soon thereafter the game.

Kosten-Farago, 1992. White completely ignores black's ominous d4 bishop. Black fiddles around, sure that it must lead to something good, and then gets swiftly crushed by the able hands of Kosten. 


2. Masters resist the temptation to attack when it's not called for. In other words, strong masters play based on the demands of the position, not just what they feel like doing. Sure, they'll play an opening that suits their style, but even if they're an attacking player, if the grounds for attack aren't present, then they'll wait. (This is a key differentiator between amateur and master play from what I've seen.) They'll quietly maneuver if they need to. They'll, in Silman's language, determine the imbalances (or differences) of the position then play to strenghten the imbalances that favor them while minimizing those that favor their opponent. But if attack isn't in the cards, then they'll keep their cool.

Tal-Lehmann, 1966. Tal, a fearsome attacker, plays directly to gain control of the center, win a pawn, liquidate, and convert. 


3. Masters often calculate for slight positional gain. No, chess isn't 99% tactics. I'd argue that it's not even 99% calculation, as Soltis contends in The Inner Game of Chess (which I highly recommend). Positional understanding is essential, too; it's a hybrid. In the vein of point 2, what good is the ability to calculate a mate in 20 when, well, there isn't one?! Often, tactics flow from a strong positional advantage. But it's more than that. In order to obtain that positional advantage to begin with, concrete calcuation is needed. Strong masters understand that hard calculation is needed not just for beautiful combinations but also to gain a miniscule positional edge. And that tiny positional edge, once milked, may lead to a beautiful combination in the end. Or perhaps a workmanlike win. There's no hard and fast rule, of course, but this is for sure: it's all connected. No aspect of the game can be neglected.

Reshevsky-Capablanca, 1935. Reshevsky allows a complex line beginning with 45...Bxg5, having calculated that the position arising after the dust settles -- in which he will have a mere extra pawn and an ostensibly shaky king position -- is actually justified and leads to a win.

Napier-Steinitz, 1897. Napier calculated that his temporary knight sac (21. Nxc6) would lead to a position where his remaining knight could outplay the two bishops. 19th century or 21st, chess is chess, and its fundamentals remain unchanged!


4. Masters have awesome technique. How else are they going to convert that tiny positional edge? Masters turn "drawish" positions into full points. They do so with concrete calculation, a high degree of activity, restriction of the opponent's counterplay, and a fundamental understanding of endings. Gufeld's Exploiting Small Advantages provides some instructive examples. Generally, they win with uncompromising, tenacious play. No matter the position, they squeeze whatever they can out of it. They don't get discouraged by perceptions such as, "this position is drawish. Let's just call it a night." They know that they're playing against a fallible human. And they set out to prove that they're that much less fallible, if imperfect, by working their asses off and grinding out the win. Some may be draws, but at least they tried.

Petrosian-Botvinnik, 1963. Amazing how Petrosian is able to convert the slightest kink in black's armor into a win. Like a great symphony, no commentary is needed.

Capablanca-Tartakower, 1924. The position looks innocuous enough, but after 27. h5! the brilliant Capablanca finds a way to force the win using impeccable technique and enormous activity and efficiency of the few remaining pieces over and above any materialistic concerns...which, fittingly, leads to a material advantage in the end!


5. Masters are patient. In real estate, it's location, location, location. In chess -- practical chess, the kind that consistently wins over time -- it's patience, patience, patience. There's a time for dynamic, sacrificial play. We all know that. That's why I'm not talking about it here! I'm talking about the majority of the game, lest we neglect it. That part of the game requires patience. Chess isn't day trading, people. It's value investing in the spirit of Warren Buffet. That means being contrarian. That means no immediate results. That means being consistent, deep objective analysis, sticking with it, and prying at your opponent's position till it cracks. That means being a badass and winning many, many great games.

Sznapik-Balashov, 1990. Nothing much happens for the first 50 moves or so. A lot of manueving, a few trades. Much like the cold war. But Balashov's patience pays off, because, as swiftly as the Berlin Wall falls, he proceeds to pull off one of the most exotic wins I've ever seen.

There is a bizarre tension across the board: white's extra knight wants to move and unleash a devastating discovered check by the queen. However, it is pinned by black's queen. White can't move his king because he'll drop the knight. Meanwhile, black has two outside passers marching down the board. Upon closer inspection, we see that white is actually almost out of useful moves. Balashov's patience is about to pay off as he achieves this staggering win. But it requires accurate play. Can you find the win?


What are your thoughts? Feel free to post any other instructive examples of these concepts that you've come across. May your play be ever the more masterful!


Photo credit: "Brown Lady of Raynham Hall," alleged ghost photographed by Captain Hubert C. Provand. Don't be cowed. 

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