The Most Common Phrases In Chess Commentary (And What They Mean!)

The Most Common Phrases In Chess Commentary (And What They Mean!)

IM hellokostya

I'd like to break down some of the most common phrases used in chess commentary that, as far as I know, have never been clearly defined by any other source. This is a topic I've long wanted to write about, because I watch a *lot* of chess commentary (not only from ChessTV but also from Saint Louis, other chess sites, official tournament coverage, etc.) and find that these phrases are often used without a super clear explanation of what they mean, leaving viewers needing to use context clues to deduce what the commentator is actually saying.

So, here are some of the most widely used phrases, and what they mean! If you disagree with my descriptions or think I forgot about a common phrase, please let me know in the comments!

"And the rest is a matter of technique." - This one is so common that at this point most fans have a good idea of what it means. Basically, this is used when a position is winning as long as the winning side doesn't blunder and slowly converts their advantage. There is a slight stigma attached to this phrase because it's so broad. One man's "simple technique" is another man's "brilliantly won endgame" . Sometimes it's really easy to show winning technique, like when you have three extra pawns in a K+P endgame--more often, however, the winning technique is fairly straightforward for Grandmasters, but not even close to obvious for club players. Here the skill of a good commentator is measured by whether or not they can actually explain the winning technique step-by-step . Another way of saying this is:

"And now it's just a matter of time." - This means that the game is effectively decided, but it will take a few moves for the winning side to fully convert their advantage. Now, this doesn't apply to all positions that that the computer evaluates as completely winning, commonly referred to as "+10". This applies to how easy it is to win the position. Some endgames are winning but require a lot of accuracy to win, others are winning and could be won 10 times out of 10 by a sub-1500 player, even when facing a Grandmaster.

"White is simply winning." (thanks Sam Copeland!) - Similar to the first two, this refers to both how big the advantage is and how easy it is to convert. Is there one precise winning line, or multiple winning moves on every turn to choose from?

"White can press for another 100 moves." - By "press", commentators usually mean trying to win without risking any chance to lose. For example, a rook endgame with two pawns vs one. The side with two pawns can spend many moves trying to slowly advance and win, but will never be in danger of losing. Another way of saying this is "White can play for two results." -- meaning White can try to win, and if Black defends accurately the game will end in a draw, but the chances of White losing are close to zero. Note, when someone "overpresses", it means they've tried too hard to win and allowed the opponent a chance for serious counterplay/counter chances.

"White is fine." - This means the player is not in any immediate danger and probably has counterplay. Specifically, has a few decent moves to choose from and isn't relying on "only moves" to keep the position stable.

"White does not have enough." - Enough what!? Compensation. In the analyzed position, whoever sacrificed material does not have enough compensation in return for their material investment. This phrase is also used when one side has crippled their pawn structure (lots of isolated pawns, doubled pawns, etc.) in hopes of launching an attack, but doesn't really get a lot of piece activity. Then it would also make sense to say that side "doesn't have enough" to compensate for their damaged structure.

"White has nothing." - No attack or immediate threats, basically. Doesn't mean they have a bad position, just that their pieces aren't able to pose any concrete threats for the moment. 

"White's position is loose." - Tactics are in the air! Loose pieces drop off! When one side has a lot of unprotected pieces floating around, it is very likely that some tactic exists to take advantage and create a double or even triple-attack. "Loose" can also refer to a very airy king or a pawn structure that's full of holes.

"White is busted." - Strategically, White is lost, terrible pawn structure, bad pieces, unsafe king, etc. AND no attack or any significant counter chances.

"This is too much." - A very short way of saying that a move or series of moves is too ambitious. This often happens in commentary as the players analyzing suggest very outlandish or enthusiastic moves (enthusiastic meaning that you believe all of your ideas will succeed while your opponent's will fail, i.e. being biased towards your own ideas). Then once they've realized the move suggested is total baloney, they'll usually say "Ok, this is too much", meaning the move suggested makes some sense but is really too crazy to actually work under scrutiny, so let's not waste time analyzing this and go back to the live position.

"Let's look at this concretely." - Offering to analyze a position "move-by-move", i.e. "White goes here, Black goes here, and so on" rather than thinking about the position in general, strategic terms, like assessing the pawn structure.

"Playing on inertia." - This refers to when a player continues to play on despite being completely, 100%, totally lost. Meaning they're down two pieces with no counterattack, or they have a rook vs. queen with pawns on the board and no chance of creating a fortress. This often happens after the players reach the second time control, and continue playing on simply because their body is still full of adrenaline from the bout of time-trouble they just finished.

Well, there you have it! My list of the most common phrases widely used in chess commentary and what they all mean. Did I miss one? Do you disagree with one or more of my explanations? Let me know in the comments! - Kostya