Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Can Amateur Chess Players Defend? At All?

I'm going to surprise our readership today with not only a serious-minded post, but one about one of the most difficult things in chess - defence. Furthermore, I'll even suggest how we might improve our defensive capabilities. But first...

... place yourself in the black player's seat, in the position to the left with you to move.

It's a serious league game, and you know your team mates are struggling: your result might well prove crucial. As for you- you have twenty minutes left on your clock for the rest of the game. It's been an uncomfortable, uneven affair, your lower-graded opponent smoking out your king at the cost of material for the last ten moves. He's now a rook down - but has a clear and immediate threat of mate in two, beginning 35.Qh5+.

Which move do you choose to play?

Which variations do you analyze & how do you evaluate them?

And how much time on the clock does it cost you?

I'll return to the position at the end of this post, but for now consider the question as to why is defence in chess so difficult. Firstly, I'd like to suggest, there are undoubtedly psychological elements involved. The spectre of defeat looms over our thoughts, there's the embarrassment of potentially being on the receiving end of a brilliancy, there's the sheer instinctive, extreme discomfort that comes of facing someone out to kill us, or so we feel.

But there are more intrinsic chess reasons involved too. One defensive slip & we're mated, no matter how many previously perfect moves we've made. But for an attacker, several inaccurate moves in a row may merely lessen their initiative, rather that dissolve it or cost the game. Many unsound attacks win games through the sheer will to get at the opponent's king & the confusion thus caused. So many attempted-defences fail due to one seemingly-random oversight. This is the nature of chess for humans; the scales are tilted in the attacker's favour. (If you're not convinced, consider how many games have you won with sterling defence, compared to those won through attacks, traps, strategical superiority, positional understanding, endgame knowledge, or - just plain luck during complications? How many can you recall seeing won through defence at club level?)

So, what can non-professional, ordinary club players such as myself do about it? Many things no doubt, but I wish to suggest just one right now as most important. Remember that Botvinnik used to play seven hour training games with a radio playing, surrounded by cigars, to get used to the distractions that often accompanied playing conditions back then? Remember that Rowson says in his two books on chess improvement how crucial it is that we practice concentration? I suggest that to improve our defensive capabilities, we simulate over-the-board defending at home.

There are several ways we might do this. Play a risky opening against Fritz, except do it with a proper set and a proper clock, all phones switched to off. And make it the only chess thing you do that day, so you simulate too the bitter taste of defeat that comes with a failed defence. Or set up positions that featured famous defensive victories, such as Petrosian's, & play those out against a strong computer - but again, setting them up on the board with the clock ticking. Or play out such defensive positions against club-mates. Or finally, try out moments such as the above one from practical club play yourself, similar to that which you might encounter at the board, and measure yourself against what actually happened & what should have actually happened.

Speaking of which, how did you get on with the above position? If you played 34... Rg8, then you made the same mistake my 2221 Elo/195 ECF graded opponent made during the game, after which it's a draw: 35. Qh5+ Kg7 36. Rg4+ Kf8 37. Qh6+ Ke7 38. Qf6+ etc. Instead, there is a tightrope walk to a win that starts with 34...Rb1+ 35.Kh2 Qc1. Here I had thought at the board that 36.Rf4 at the least saved me, and as we analyzed in the postmortem it seemed that way too: 36...Qh1+ 37.Kg3 Rg8 37. Rxf7+ Kh8 38.Rf8. The 'we' I mention includes not only my opponent but three other very strong amateur chess players, incidentally, and this we all missed that now after 38... Rb3+ 39.f3 Rxf3+!, it's all over for white. As for other moves at the diagram - 34...Rb4 draws as does 34...Qa1+ with the correct follow up; the others lose.

If you analyzed all of that- congratulations, and you don't need to practice defence, after all! But, if not, well...


Jonathan B said...

Wot no quiz report?

Woot woot - as I believe the young folk are likely to say (when they're not collecting ASBOs).

Tom Chivers said...

The quiz report will have to wait for photographs, scans, etc... 2008!

ejh said...

Is this really a question about defence, or concentration, though, or one about finding hard-to-see finesses at the end of tactical lines?

I think most amateur players defend pretty poorly, but not so much out of lack of concentration as inability to see that they need to defend until it's far too late.

Anonymous said...

I think defending is easier than attacking because there are usually many fewer candidate moves to analyze (i.e. you just have to counter the opponent's threats).

(But I can see there is a logical problem here as shouldn't both sides be analyzing the same position so the amount of analysis on each side should be equal?)

Mike G.

ejh said...

I think the idea (with a lot of truth to it) is that there's more pressure on the defender because their mistakes are more likely to be fatal.

That said, I personally like defending far more than most club players do. Most people think you have to attack, and half the time that's why they lose.

Anonymous said...

I think this is a bit of a dud question while it lacks clear definitions about what we mean by "attack" and "defence". Let me have a go:

"attack" - make a threat
"successful attack" - see that threat realised (or achieve some other material concessions in return for the aversion of that threat"
"attack the king" - make a threat with the intention of delivering checkmate.

"defence" - avert a threat without incurring significant material concession

In the position in question, using the above definitions, one could argue that 1...Rg8, 1...Rb4 and 1... Qa1+ would (if followed up correctly) should all be considered examples of successful defence. The fact that Black had a better alternative doesn't really come in to it. The only grey area would be if White launched this whole attack, including presumably sacrificing a rook, with the sole intention of delivering perpetual check, presumably in desperation from a position where s/he was otherwise significantly worse.

In fact, when considered as a whole (ie. including the lead up to the position in question) couldn't the question just as easily be considered "Can "amateur" (I presume you mean "weaker") players defend?" ! ;)


Tom Chivers said...

Interesting comments!

The position is finely poised in the sense that now is the time for black to in some way stop defending and start a counterattack, so Richard I agree terminological issues are pertinent. Nonetheless, the 'flow' of the game was one where black had been defending for ten moves in an attempt to win, & this was a 'critical moment' for that when he needed to switch his type of thinking. That such a strong player can fail to do so - he missed the idea entirely - I thought was quite interesting. Probably the readership of this post would have spotted the win had I written "black to play & counterattack to win", but the whole point of my description of the game was to try to simulate what it probably felt like to be black in that position... Ie, it felt like black had to defend, since he had been for so long.

Mike G I do not agree that defending & attack involve the same thing. Kramnik puts it better than I ever could:

"Defence and a magnificent tactical vision were [Petrosian's] strongest points - that's why he was so good at defence. Only a brilliant tactician can succeed in defence, and he had perfect sight of all the tactical opportunities and nuances for his opponent. I would even say that attack, rather than defence, is a positional skill. You can attack mostly on the basis of general ideas, whereas in defence you have to be specific. Calculations of lines and verification of specific positional features are more important for defence than for attack."

Anonymous said...

In this position one's immediate short term requirment is stop the mate. The second is to preserve one's winning chances. Rg8 only does the first part - I'm staggered a player of that calibre could not see that. I quickly saw that Rg8 was no good and the idea of Rb1+ followed by Qc1 was not hard to find. Because I don't have a very good chess mind I could not have considered all the ramifications beyond about move 3 but with the clock ticking and in the absence of anything much else I would have bashed out Rb1. The one thing I would not have done is play Rg8. Black's decision to bail out to a draw is a major surprise.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

'39...Rxf3+!, it's all over for white.'

What if white plays 40 Kxf3 and then what? If 40...Qf1+ 41 Kg1 Qd3+ 42 Kh2 Qg6 then it is white who is winning, with 42 Qe7.

However, I think that black wins with 39...Rg8.

Tom Chivers said...

I don't quite follow your analysis, Anonymous. The rook is already on g8 as of move 37, so 39...Rg8 is actually not a move at all.