Bored to Death?


What can you do? Sometimes chess is just not interesting. – IM Yochanan Afek


IM Sam Collins had a question about “boring positions” and why he scores so poorly in them. He had read a blog post by a GM who used to be 2600, but has now dipped below 2500. This GM claimed that the loss of strength was to a great extent because he became bored in simple positions and lost them seemingly effortlessly. Sam felt he had the same problem and thus asked me if I could maybe have a look at a few of his games and explain why he lost these equal positions so reliably.


I certainly have limited talents in all directions (which is maybe a reason why I do not like the idea of talent a lot) but I do pride myself on having a reasonable bullshit-detector. Well, the red light was on high alert when I read this. Not what Sam said, but what the GM said.


Because what is boredom in chess? It is not a question of style or taste, as some would like to think. I have personally never heard that anyone found complicated tactical battles boring. Difficult, unpleasant and so on, yes, but boring, no.


The only boring things I have heard attached to chess (with the exception of studying opening theory or the game itself) are technical positions; especially those of a fixed symmetrical nature.


But why would some find these positions boring? Sure, I understand that these positions are not the most fascinating, but they certainly hold plenty of challenges, as Sam’s and other strong players’ record shows.


My theory is that things in general are boring when you look on their surface only. There are a few exceptions to this rule, of course, but in general being bored is (as I see it) a symptom of a lack of understanding.


I could expand this rule to a lot of things, but why not debate so-called tedious chess positions?


As I see it (we are really talking about a working theory here) the reason people find simple positions boring is because they frustrate them. They frustrate them because they are not able to see what is happening in them; mainly because they do not know what to look for. If you do not understand the positional and strategic goals you should be pursuing then you would get frustrated. Why your brain comes to the rescue and supplies you with the emotion of boredom, I do not know. I only know that the way to get past this is to learn to work your way through it. Here I find the three questions very useful – they were specifically constructed to deal with teaching problem-solving in positions where there is nothing to calculate, for players who approach all chess problems with calculation.


But let’s move from theory to practice so I can get on with my proper work!

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Be7 5.Bf4 0–0 6.e3 Nbd7 7.a3 c5 8.cxd5 Nxd5 9.Nxd5 exd5 10.dxc5 Nxc5 11.Be5 Bf6 12.Bxf6 Qxf6 13.Qd4 Qxd4 14.Nxd4 Bd7 15.f3


Let’s have a three-questions-based strategic look at this position:


a) the weaknesses are the d5-pawn and the c-file. The e3-pawn and the b3-squares might look a bit weak, but it is unrealistic that you can attack the with the pieces left on the board. So, all the weaknesses are on the black side of the board.

b) The worst-placed piece is probably the rook on f8, which is not only without a function, but is in the way of the rook on g8. (From this follows the logical question of where the rooks actually belong. A deeper look at weaknesses would suggest that one rook needs to be on the c-file, which includes the weak c7-square.)

c) The opponent’s idea. White wants to get his king to d4 and exchange into a bishop ending, if possible. He would also like to expand slowly on the kingside and create a second weakness. I believe there are several acceptable ways for Black to play this position and eliminate the very minimal pressure he might feel at the moment.


Kramnik did a good job in the following game:


15…Rfc8! 16.Kd2 Ne6

This is by no means the only way to play, but the thinking is easy to follow. Black wants to take the d4-square away from White, by putting a white pawn there.


17.Nxe6 fxe6 18.Bd3 e5 leaves Black with three pawn islands against two. But the pawns are no longer weak and the bishop is no longer bad. White could try ideas with f3-f4, but I doubt they will really work in practice. It is not full equality, but it is very close…

17…Nxd4 18.exd4

White’s advantage is very marginal. Good bishop vs. bad bishop, but with no real targets.


Preparing …Kf7 to cover the e7-square.

19.h4 g6 20.Rac1 Kf7 21.Rc5 b6 22.Rxc8 Rxc8 23.h5 Kg7 24.f4 Bf5!

A draw was agreed in Kasparov – Kramnik, Moscow 2001.


Let’s see how Sam did with the same diagram position…


Simon Williams – Sam Collins

Cork Masters 2013



What is the rook doing here? This is what I call an aesthetic move; it looks right (rook to the open file and so on) but it is not actually achieving anything. The e-file is not an arena of combat; the c-file is. It is thus no surprise that the correct way to prove equality is to take the rook to the c-file.

16.Kd2 Rad8?

Again this looks logical. Rook to the centre! But again, what is the function of this move? Isn’t the c-file still the place where it should happen?

16…a5!? 17.Bd3 a4 is an interesting idea. Basically Black would decide not to exchange the knights after all and simply protect it with …b6 and hold the position like this. Does White have an advantage with a slow kingside expansion? Perhaps, but it should not be too dramatic.

17.Bd3 Ne6 18.Rac1 Nxd4 19.exd4 Rc8

This position might look quite harmless to the untrained eye, but actually it is starting to get rather unpleasant for Black. White can fight for the c-file, he has a better bishop and the black king is still on g8, far away from the action.


From this moment I would say that White has an advantage.


But it is only after this move that the advantage is really significant. With a pawn majority on the queenside and the ability to attack the d5-pawn from d4 with the king sometime in the future, Black is structurally struggling. And his pieces are inferior as well.

Black should have played 20…Be6, when White can try to annoy Black with 21.Bb5!? or 21.Rhc1, though Black is not seriously worse after 21…Kf8! 22.Rc7 Rxc7 23.Rxc7 Re7, when the bishop ending is a draw and the pressure after 24.Rc5 is minimal.

21.dxc5 Rd8

In order to meet 22.Kc3 with 22…d4+. Not that this is clearly the wrong track for White, but at least it offers a bit of resistance from Black.

22.b4 Kf8 23.Re1!

Simple chess: keep the king away. Black cannot exchange the rooks anymore as White would march the king to d4 and win the bishop ending with his outside majority.

23…h6 24.f4

White’s advantage is significant and it is really hard to suggest a move for Black. But this does not justify:


A famous strategic concept goes: “Don’t move pawns on the side of the board where you are weaker.” True, these are not universal rules (even though people at times have presented them as such; before explaining how naive they are…) but still they are valid for a reason. Here Black opens the c-file for White to come in and attack the weak a-pawn.

25.Rc1! bxc5

25…Rc8 26.Ba6 does not improve things, but Black should maybe have tried 25…Ke7!?, though his position is very suspicious.


White’s advantage is quite substantial now. All his pieces are preferable, the a7-pawn is weak and White will make a passed pawn on the queenside at some point.

26…Be8 27.Rc7 Ra8 28.Kc3

28.b5! fixing the a-pawn would have been even stronger, but White wins all the same.

28…a6 29.Kd4 Bb5 30.Bf5 a5!?

Desperation. But Black is lost after 30…Re8 31.Rc8! as well.


Winning a piece is of course attractive and I am sure that Simon checked that this won. But a more technical player would have played 31.Rc8+ and won the bishop ending easily.

31…axb4 32.Rxb5 bxa3 33.Rb1 Ra4+ 34.Ke5 a2 35.Ra1 f6+ 36.Ke6 d4 37.Bd3 g5 38.fxg5 fxg5 39.Kd5 Kg7 40.Bc4 h5 41.Kxd4 g4 42.Rxa2 Rb4 43.Kc3 Rb1 44.g3 Rg1 45.Kd4 h4 46.gxh4 g3 47.hxg3 Rxg3 48.Be2 Rb3 49.h5 Rb6 50.Ke5 Rc6 51.Bf3 Rb6 52.Kf4 Rb4+ 53.Be4



Thanks to Sam for a good question. Sorry to use one of your losses again. I promise that if you ever play a good game, I will use it as well 😀 .

50 thoughts on “Bored to Death?”

  1. Fascinating article, being a club player who until recently always tried to “calculate” a solution I can really relate to this subject. The initial position with Rfe8 followed by Rd8 I could easily have seen myself playing such a continuation in the past. I chose the move Rac8 so I like to think I’m making progress it’s just great to have some new tools to use and hopefully hone in the future. The great beauty of the 3 rules is how simple they are to remember and use.
    Thanks Jacob after many years of stagnation it’s great to have found a path to improvement.

  2. Actually when I follow a game live, with commentary, I’m always happy about “boring” aka technical positions. It’s where you really learn the most. Especially Adams’s games are fantastically instructive that way.

  3. I suspect another reason players label technical positions as “boring” is that they are guilty of this type of thinking: “Well this position is just a draw. I hate draws and don’t like to study draws. Draws without fiery tactics do not interest me. Since it is a draw anyway, I’ll just figure it out at the board.”

  4. Interesting article again! I guess you have to learn to love variations like the French Exchange and the Slav Exchange (both of which my opponents regularly play)…

  5. Gilchrist is a Legend

    I would not mind playing against the French Exchange after GM14 and Playing the French are released. 4. Nf3 Nc6 is probably one of the sharpest lines, but I am not sure if that is offered.

  6. I think part of it is too, that in more simplified positions (another way to call a position boring) is that players tend to let there guard down and their level of concentration drops, which can lead to simple mistakes and overlooking simple continuations. We can have a very high level of concentration in a very sharp positions and then for some players I am guessing that there may be an adrenaline dump when a position simplifies and the intense focus grinds to a halt. the player than may see this as I am bored in this position and have the same attitude like the game is a boring draw so I can let down my guard. I think we have all done this at one time or another. That’s when players like Carlsen keep pushing and get the full point!!!

    Great article, thanks Jacob!

  7. Another characteristic of simplified positions is their unforgiving nature. If you make a mistake there is no recovery, unlike complex positions where you can always hope to recover from a mistake via tactics. This implies to survive and/or win simplified positions you have to really understand them. I have seen a number of relatively high-rated players who had surprisingly little true understanding, but were great at complicating positions and calculating their way through the tactics. They maintained their ratings via this method, but when put into a simplified position they were likely to lose helplessly.

  8. @Michael
    Probably you should relax, because most positions have a tendency to require heightened concentration and accurate calculation at some point. But you should also look at the position with some clarity and make decisions based on the needs of the position, not just on “feeling”, which can often be a very random thing.

    @Paul Massie
    Not sure I agree. In this example Sam made quite a number of bad moves before he got into trouble.

  9. Gilchrist is a Legend

    Waterstones? My favourite bookstore…when browsing there I always wish there were more QC books there though.

  10. I always play badly in boring positions.

    I think ‘There is nothing to think about’, so play without thinking.

    Of course, I play ‘natural’ moves as Sam Collins did in that game – Rook to the open file , swap off pieces to reduce pressure, swap pawns to simplify the game etc.

    But my ‘natural’ moves aren’t always good ones, so I often lose.

    I’m just following superficial rules because ‘The position is equal’, and I keep expecting my opponent to realise that and draw the game.

  11. Jacob, thank you for walking us through this instructive and very interesting (!) example. Of course you made it look easy by mastering the art to answer your three questions in the proper way. For mere mortals like me it’s easy to get it all wrong by chosing the wrong worst piece (Ra8 instead of Rf8), classifying e3 as a weakness (luring me into considering Rfe8 or even worse Rae8 followed by f5) and failing to identify the opponent’s plan (e.g. aiming for a knight vs. bad bishop ending). The fact alone that you identify White’s plan as aiming for a good vs. bad bishop ending and then choose to play Ne6 just to get closer to such an ending is mind boggling. Not so easy to spot that the change in pawn structure makes the ending more acceptable for Black. In that sense your example shows clearly what kind of knowledge / experience weaker players are missing.

  12. Great post Jacob. I’ve enjoyed the whole training tips series and have not commented so far, but I suppose I ought to since I play a starring role in this post! (Still not as painful as the 4 pages in Calculation about my failure to beat Gormally from an overwhelming position).

    I think the post is perfect and complete as it is (perhaps I’m biased, but it’s the most useful post for me so far). The only addition I might suggest is that, aside from improving one’s understanding of such positions and using the 3 questions method, it is important to have the right attitude in passive positions where you are basically playing for equality. Jon Rowson discussed this in one of his books, about the “Goalkeeper’s Glory” where you should regard a draw as effectively winning a bad or passive position. And even passive positions can be won sometimes.

    When I sent my game against Williams to Jacob, I also included my game with Nick Pert from Sunningdale in April of this year (available in databases). The position after 14 moves is quite similar to my one against Williams – static symmetrical structure, slight edge for White who seems to be playing for two results. I lost that game in a similar way to my game with Simon. However, the Quality Chess office has played two interesting games from the same position. In 2001 John Shaw made an easy draw with Black against Nick Pert. And in the Turin Olympiad in 2006, Wang Yue beat Colin with Black.

    It seems to me that appreciating the complexities of simple and/or passive positions, as Jacob suggests, would lead to an understanding that these positions can even be won sometimes by the more passive side (for instance, if the opponent overpresses). A combination of viewing a draw as a good result, and keeping some faint hope for a win, ought to help a player stay more positive and less bored.

  13. I agree with the blog post. Usually when people say a position is boring, that is because they don’t understand it. However I think there is an exception. Sometimes people think a position is boring even though they understand it completely, but they get bored because they know that they have virtually no winning chances if they think their opponint is too strong to lose the current position. For example a few months ago Leko entered the most drawish line against Carlsen’s Berlin Defence and the game ended in a draw despite being a very long and drawish game. After the game they asked Carlsen why he looked so bored during the game and he said it’s because he didn’t have many choices on his moves. Positions that are too easy to draw but practically impossible to win can sometimes make even the best grandmasters get bored. If the position is bad instead of drawish, at least there’s a challenge to make a draw.

  14. @wok64
    Yes, there is a lot of that. I should say that I never thought for a second about a good knight vs bad bishop ending; because I could not imagine that White would ever be able to force this.

    It is clear that we will play better when we have seen more positions. Experience counts.

    To understand if something is a weakness, it is valid to look at if it can ever be won. e3 is weak, but only so much that the white king from its ideal squares in the d-file will defend it easily.

    @Fat Ghost Cat
    Yes, there is this as well. The difference is that Carlsen was nowhere close to losing and really had no choices. The situation in my post is of course entirely different.

  15. Some of Jeremy Silman’s books deal with these kind of positions quite well, where it looks like nothing is happening and you end up just making ‘natural’ moves without thinking too much. Sticking the rook on the open file, bringing out the bishop to a random square, just developing without a plan.
    He emphasises the need to look at the strength and weaknesses in a position, and to find a plan, even in ‘boring’ positions.

    I’ve been using ‘The Amateur’s Mind’ and ‘The Reassess your Chess Workbook’ and feel my chess understanding is improving. For me, these are some of the best books out there, up with Yusupov’s!

  16. @Niall Doran
    As long as something helps people, I am all for it. I had reservations with Jeremy’s seven or eight move formula, but obviously there is a lot of sense in there. Jeremy is a clever guy and has great experience in working with teaching chess understanding. His books have some flaws, but all books do.

  17. Good grief – Sam must have been grateful the IM title was for life after that (as we all are quite often, to be sure). If titles could be revoked for single moves …Rfe8 would have been a good candidate.

    Good article, though.

  18. Sam Collins :
    When I sent my game against Williams to Jacob, I also included my game with Nick Pert from Sunningdale in April of this year (available in databases). The position after 14 moves is quite similar to my one against Williams – static symmetrical structure, slight edge for White who seems to be playing for two results. I lost that game in a similar way to my game with Simon. However, the Quality Chess office has played two interesting games from the same position. In 2001 John Shaw made an easy draw with Black against Nick Pert. And in the Turin Olympiad in 2006, Wang Yue beat Colin with Black.

    Hi Sam,

    Many interesting general points above, but re the two games you mentioned. Against Nick, I always felt under pressure and in some trouble. It was just at the very end it turned drawish. I think Nick let me off the hook, rather than me playing the ending well.

    I was also involved in Colin’s game at the Olympiad. Colin does not normally play the White side of a Slav, but I showed him the line and talked him into playing it. I told him: “You can’t lose this with White.” Ah well.

  19. Jacob Aagaard :
    Btw. Saturday I had a discussion with a true star about Norwegian chess.
    I was so star struck I forgot to pay for my book and made it half way till the train station before I remembered.

    I love the Harry Hole books and eagerly await Cockroaches and The Police in English. His Headhunters was great too!

    Thanks for the article. It was a brilliant example of your theme.

  20. @Neil Sullivan
    Cockroaches is the weakest of the books, but Police is ok. Not my top 5 HH books, but still nice. It was out on Thursday in English.

    By the way, Neso knows Simen Agdestein personally and we had a few minutes chat about chess and so on. Finally I could impress a non-chess guy with my draw with Magnus! And of course I gave him a copy of Positional Play. I own so many of his books he deserves at least one of mine!!

  21. Apologies for sidetracking the discussion slightly Jacob, but as John has engaged re: the Pert games it’s too tempting not to respond (again, the games are all on databases for anyone who’s interested). Plus it’s a relevant digression and not just a random question about your publishing schedule!

    John, on looking at your game I agree that White had an edge (something I hadn’t appreciated when using this game as my prep against Nick). White seems to have some slight pressure right until 32.Nf4?! allowed 32…g5!, fixing your structure and equalising. This is a typical example of looking quickly at a game and being informed by the result (draw in 35 moves between two GMs) rather than the position.

    Both John and I played 15…Rfd8 rather than 15…Rfc8. I think John Cox’s tough love comments are more appropriately directed at 15…Rfd8, which is a horrible violation of the answer to the question “where are the weaknesses?” (Ultimately John’s game and mine diverged since Nick played 18.Nb5 against me, which I think is a better move than 18.b3). The move actually looks inexplicable, but I can tell you why I played it (and why I suspect John played it) – I didn’t want to have to calculate lines where White met …Ne8 and …f6 with Nd7. To be clear, I knew that 15…Rfc8 was probably the better move, but I thought my position could withstand the concession involved in 15…Rfd8. Not a moment I’m proud of.

    There are a few points in relation to this:

    1. Refusing to play a move because it leads to calculation is either unacceptable all the time (because laziness isn’t a good chess trait – See Jacob’s previous post on Bending), or only acceptable when you are sure the “easy” solution is fully adequate (because you avoid risks of miscalculating – see Nunn’s “Don’t Analyse Unnecessary Tactics”).

    2. In the Pert – Collins game, clearly the c-file is a strategic weakness (i.e. it will be important in all variations until all rooks are traded). d7 is a tactical weakness – in some lines over the next 3-4 moves, a knight landing here can win the pawn on b6. Accordingly, you need to calculate in order to determine that the d7 weakness isn’t that relevant.

    3. It turns out that the threat of a knight coming to d7 isn’t that significant. In McNab – Wang Yue, 18.Nd7 Rc6 is nothing for White, 19.Rxc8 Rxc8 20.Nd7 Rc6 is similar, and 19.Nd7? drops a pawn after 19…Rxc1+ 20.Rxc1 Rxa2.

    4. To the extent that Black wishes to cover d7, the answer should be informed by the question of the worst-placed piece. Putting the king on e7 and the rook on c8 is the natural way to solve the problem. Thus, V.Tkachiev (2650) – D.Kovalev (2512), Warsaw 2012 was equal after 15…Rfc8 16.f3 h5! (I think both John and I allowed Nick to gain kingside space too easily for no particular reason) 17.Rfc1 Kf8! 18.b3 Ke7. As it turns out in that game, the b6-pawn dropped, but Black had adequate play on the c- and a-files to get it back immediately.

  22. I think a related point is that I hear a lot fellow club players apeing the language of the IM/GMs without the understanding. For example you might hear that the exchange Slav etc are “drawish” or not dangerous. That may well be true for a GM(?) but more often than not I actually find it difficult to play this type of position where white has a small advantage of the extra move and I with black don’t have any obvious counterattacking chances. Aternately I quite often find that, as long as you keep playing, something interesting and complex comes up one way or another (personally i need to guard against doing something daft just to make it interesting prematurely ;-)). I think even at very high levels when a “drawish” position is continued under Sofia rules or because someone like Carlsen wants to fight it quite often is actually won or lost.

  23. @Michael Bartlett
    There is an important distinction between what I am trying to do and what you are talking about. The three questions are intended to focus on some very narrow permanent features. They are meant to bring out the chess understanding you already have. The lines and diagonals should be covered by this; but there could be other questions as well:

    * How could I ever lose/win this game?
    * What am I trying to do?
    * Which pieces should I exchange?
    * Why did John Lennon leave the Beatles?

    All things we think from time to time, but I really did not want a long algorithm. I wanted three questions that would focus the already informed chess mind. If the mind is not informed, then this can be used to explain ideas; but it is really not a way to understand chess. My claim is that we all understand some chess, especially those who want to read a book called Grandmaster Preparation…

  24. @JB
    The Exchange Slav drawish!? Sure, more than other openings, but Kramnik-Aronion, Istanbul 2012, 1-0. Things in chess are never this simple.

  25. @Ray
    Openings like the French are indeed counter-attack openings. You rarely get the initiative early on. But you have other things going for you…

  26. I think in the Exchange Slav white is the one playing for a win with very slightly better position and without any risks while in the Exchange French the position is completely equal but both sides can play for a win.

  27. @Fat Ghost Cat
    Luckily most white players choose the Exchange Slav because they are afraid of theory and hope to get an easy draw :-). In my experience (I play the Slav as well) black has enough chances to play for a win.

  28. Gilchrist is a Legend

    I am not sure what is in the Exchange for Plaing the French nor GM French, but I bet they recommend dynamic replies. I have not studied the Exchange for almost ten years, I almost always play the 4…Nc6 with the castling queenside line. I like solidity, but often the Exchange is the exception. True also, I have never drawn against the Exchange. Although I have lost instead unfortunately…

  29. Just to demonstrate that given a strong enough opponent almost nothing is drawish…

    For those who believe an Exchange Slav (or French, or any other opening you prefer) is a certain draw, I encourage you to try it against any of the top engines at the time control of your choice. Houdini, Komodo, Stockfish, … Assuming you play an honest game (e.g., no takebacks and so on) and your rating is below 2600 I predict the draw rate will be quite low, and the results not favorable to the human.

  30. Odd I was looking at the Kotronias KID book, and some of the positions he looks at are basically exchange Slavs reversed. But they didn’t seem that boring looking through his analysis. I have only looked at one chapter and a bit from another, but I think the Kotronias book is a keeper. But then I like his other QC book too.

  31. @John Johnson
    I think there is a misconception that symmetrical positions are inevitably boring. Take for instance the Petroff, which has a similar pawn structure as the French Exchange: it has lots of quite tactical variations. The same with Avrukh’s recommendation against the finachetto variation in the Grunfeld (…c6). White normally exchanges on d5. but again a lot of the stuff Avrukh gives is not boring at all,

  32. @ Aagaard & Bartlett

    Might I suggest an additional question: “Why do people use raisins in cooking?”

    On a more seriuos note, I really found Collins question relevant and Aagaards answer highly instructive. I have been a 2050/2100 player for many years, and suddenly half a year ago, I became seriously frustrated, that I had not progressed for ages. I believed, that I knew good chess, when I saw it, and it bothered me, that I myself, could not add quality to my own play. Motivated by a desire to improve, and helped by the coaching and advise by grandmaster friends, I started to invest some time in training, using primarily “Positional Play”. I also started playing tournaments, and within 3 months I played 28 serious games in attractive toyena

  33. Kostas Oreopoulos

    @Jacob Aagaard

    I saw that forward chess published the android version of its application. I was expecting the books available for the ipad version of the application to be available for android to (same format i guess). For the time being no books are available for the android version.

    Any info on when this will change?

  34. I get bored with chess, period. Entered 52 tournaments and resigned most games after 12 moves. the others with out making a move. use to be a 1100 rated player now 600.

  35. @Ray
    Magnus Carlsen , an experienced Berlin player as you know ?, plays ( and wins of course ) exchange French with White , mostly in rapid . I have not studied those games but there are probably interesting maneuvers to analyze , compared with the Berlin

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