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Respect and Risk

Respect and Risk

Sep 8, 2012, 11:14 PM 1

If you want to play well then you need to respect your opponent. In particular, you should assume that if you can think of a line then your opponent can too. Don't be tempted by lines that are favourable to you but which rely on sub-optimal play on their part. Such a choice often turns out badly. If you think you are a much better player than your opponent then show it by playing better chess, ie don't assume poor play on their behalf. Don't hope for an opponent blunder, hope for inspiration.

Yet it is wise to provide your opponent with opportunities to blunder. In particular, laying a trap can lead to a quick win, or it might be the best option in a desperate situation. However, you should always count with the possibility that your opponent will see the trap and turn it to their advantage. Laying a trap can risk disaster or simply waste time.

Another form of wishful thinking is "if only his Knight were not on b3". The position is as it is and every detail makes it unique, allowing some combinations but not others. There are no "accidents" in chess, just oversights, as well as moves that turn out better than you envisaged. On the other hand, thinking "if only" can be extremely productive if it allows you to see what is the essential condition that will pave the way for a win, provided you can find a sequence of moves that will achieve that condition.

What is meant by risk? Some lines allow attacking chances for both sides, whereas more cautious play limits those chances. This is especially true of undeveloped attacks during the opening. Another example is when you advance a piece into the opponent's position, thinking that you won't lose it, but there may be too many possibilities to calculate. Or you might sacrifice a piece to crack open the opponent's defence, though a forced mate is not visible.

At another level, chess is all about risk, as the outcome cannot be known in advance. Otherwise there would be no point playing. Chess is always a matter of stepping into the unknown. You try to push the game in a certain direction, but your opponent has a competing agenda, and you never know whose logic will prevail. This is true until a thoroughly won position is reached, at which point good players resign (except in speed chess, where anything can happen under time pressure). Before that point, the outcome is in doubt and each initiative you make carries a degree of risk. Some lines are clearer than others because they involve forcing moves or because the position is simple, but essentially you are always taking risks. Even "quiet" moves are risky because they give the opponent time to build their attack.

Even after you have analysed a line with great care, you need to allow for uncertainty. Unless there is a forced mate or other forced win (eg a pawn that cannot be stopped), there is always the chance that your carefully laid plans will be disrupted or refuted by the opponent. Your opponent is an unknown quantity - you can never know what ideas come into their head. This is the source of uncertainty in chess and also why we play it, why it is fun.

So taking risks is an essential part of chess. Respect and risk are opposite polarities. The more you respect your opponent the less likely you are to launch a questionable attack because you expect them to respond intelligently. It's wise to calculate the risk factor as much as possible, but ultimately, your intuition will decide. It is a matter of balancing risk with respect.

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