Saturday 29 September 2012

Improvement in chess - Part three, Strategy and understanding

It was a very busy period for me, with some quality training sessions, and of course tournament in Denmark took lion´s part of my focus.
Today, I want to continue the series of articles about improvement in chess.
As I promised last time, the subject of this article will be strategy and understanding (and an endgame comes in the next article)
The main difference between this article and previous two articles will be that this article can be used directly into training practice (but it will contain no real exercises).
The strategy and play in the endgame is the parts in chess where majority of the players can make significant progress. Many believes that the best possible training is solving the combinations (and some, who are completely wrong, believes that working on the openings can improve their level of play) and analyzing their own games.
This is partly true.
Solving the huge number of combinations helps you calculate better or spot combinations much easier, as I explained in previous article, but what shall we do when there are no tactics in the position which in the main part determinates it.
We need to make some positional moves too, and what to do then is the easiest thing what players ignore to analyze and the hardest thing to improve.
Endgame play is on the other hand easier to excel but for some strange reason it is mostly underestimated in training. More about an endgame in the next article.


Why I think that it is so hard to improve our level of strategy in chess (and our understanding of chess as a whole) ?
It is simply because it is not as concrete as tactics when we can precisely point out the moves which was bad and as we can not concrete prove some move (or the whole plan) to be wrong then it is much harder to go out of our comfort zone.
As every player believes that their Elo is somehow under their real strength in chess many of these players also believes that their understanding of chess is much better than the level of their performance.
And....what is wrong with that, after all there are many delusional players and a task of chess trainer is to try to eliminate these weaknesses.
Well, that is not so easy, because as I already mentioned, it is not easy to show concrete why is something good or bad.
Of course a player can learn something (without understanding) but it will not stop him to make the same type of mistake in similar position.
I will show what I mean on the simple example:

In the position on the left diagram, White obviously has some advantage because of his strong knight on d5. The knight can not be pushed with e7-e6 and White can build his play with possible e3-e4 and than Ke2. Possible play then is a4-a5, Ra1.
I am not sure how big is White´s advantage but it is long-term and unpleasant. 

Now let´s imagine that we learn our student about weak square on d5 and that he understand the point that the knight can not be exchanged  by Black pieces or pushed with e-pawn.
A student has partly understanding of this pattern but it needs to be developed.
In our hypothetical case we can imagine that the student change his trainer, and that he got the position on the right diagram in one of his games.
If trainer asks him , why he went for these position, it can be answered:

"But, I have a strong knight on d5, it can not be exchanged or pushed away as there is no e-pawn on the board. I had similar position and my former trainer explained to me why is White better in these kind of positions"

Completely wrong!
The similarity between these two position is just visual, but the real characteristics are completely different.
In the second position, Black´s bishop has d4 square and is equally strong from it, as a white´s knight on d5. As a matter of fact, I would prefer Black here, who can play for b5-break after Bd4 (unprotected knight on d5- tactic). After that Black can open the b-file when he wants (we can assume Rb8 before bxc4) and also a play on the f-file can not be underestimated, after let´s say Kg7.
I am not sure is Black better, but everyone would prefer Black here.
It means that understanding of imaginary student was not good enough, but there are no concrete ways to prove it to him. He don´t want to go out of his comfort zone (his previous understanding) and will make many similar mistakes.
If you ask a question what is that what is favorable for black in the second position the answer can be the following:
We are already in the endgame and in the endgame there are other rules which can not be apply in the middlegame and vice versa.
In the endgame the bishop on d4 and the rook on d8 are much better coordinated then whites pieces. The possibility of b6-b5 is much more dangerous than b3-b4 which does nothing (bxc5, Bxc5).
All right, now we know why is so hard to improve our understanding but we don´t know how to do it.
There is no such thing as 1000 exercises which can improve our understanding (or, there are some tries but I am not sure that this is the right way to do it).
We simply needs to analyse more games (not only ours) and to constantly ask yourself a question "Why he played that and not this what I think is the most natural?".
The method of comparation can be very useful.
What changed in the position which made my advantage impossible to convert?
What detail is not in my favor compared to some famous (or not famous, maybe just instructive) game?
I got this favorable version for me. What makes it favorable?
All this question can be answered in analyze of our own games but are mainly answered based on our understanding.
We needs to put our knowledge of some position under the new investigation and it can be done best with a method of comparation with some similar examples.
I will show two examples of this:

If we ask an experienced  title player which of this position has not the same type of play as other three position I am sure that he will point out the upper-right position.
Only that position is a clear fights between two minor pieces, while other three positions has as main characteristic the fight between side with better places minor piece used in coordination with major piece (queen or rook, it doesn´t really matter).
We can learn a much more from these simple examples.
In the upper-right position we have pure example of an endgame. White has some advantage but it is not as big as you may think, because the importance of d5-square in this position is lesser than in the middlegame. It means that the play in the endgame has different characteristics than the play in the middlegame.
From the positions on the left side we can learn that a real strength of outpost piece is in the coordination with other pieces.
Also, in the upper-left position we can see that the most important think in the position with opposite colors bishops is the activity of the pieces (not the static characteristics like a free pawn on d4).
The nature of play in the positions on the left side is much more similar then the nature of play in the lower positions. It means that the position on lower-left side is much more similar to the position on the upper-left side than the position on the lower-right side, despite that we have different pieces included.

The same problem of understanding (with a few layer of understanding) can be seen in this example:

The first thing that we can notice in this position is that we have typical position with IQP (Isolated queen´s pawn).
What we learned about these positions is that the weakness of IQP can be significant in the endgames.
On the other hand IQP can be useful as it can control some important squares in the center and it can give us more active piece play.
In the left position we have a nice example of this subject.
This is an endgame, but still, much more important characteristic of IQP is that pawn on d5 covers squares c4 and e4 and together with a knight on e6 it makes a barrier for the king on d3.
What is the only way for White to improve his position and make at least some progress?
It is c3-c4 exchanging his healthy pawn on c-fine for the weakness on d5 !
Of course, concrete look at the position will assure us that the pawn on d5 is not a weakness but a strong point of black´s position.
After dxc4 and Kxc4 White did some progress, but position is still a draw.
For a comparation purpose I gave the position on the right side.
All is the same, but after c3-c4 and let´s say dxc4, Kxc4  White chances are much bigger than in the position on the left side.
Why is that?
Exactly this kind of questions is what I am asking you to do in order to improve you understanding of strategy in chess. 
Answer is, because there are some weak squares in front of b7-pawn (which is the weakest pawn on the board) which can not be easy covered by black who had a help of a-pawn in the position on the left side.
Of course, we should never forget basic understanding of the position which tells us that White has a more active king and his bishop is stronger than black´s knight because of the pawns on the both side of the board in the open position. But the bishop is better than the knight just after c4, dxc4 sequence, not before!

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