The Inability to Do Nothing

I was helping a friend learn the five basic steps of a tennis forehand this morning. The first thing to get under control is the grip. It has always amazed me that our coaches in the club have not helped us punters hold the racket correctly. And as a result lots of people hold the racket more as an axe than a frying pan. It is simply too unnatural a grip (and resulting swing). Basically, we have to override the instinctive way of doing things and install a different way of doing things.

The same happens in chess over and over again. I could give a lot of examples of this phenomenon. Today’s example is one of inactivity.

Areshchenko – Inarkiev, Baku 2014

69…h3+!? 70.Kh2!

70.Kxh3? Ke2 71.Re7+ Kf3 72.Re3+ Kxf2 73.Rd3 Ke2

And Black wins.

70…Ke2 71.Re7+ Kxf2 72.Rd7 Ke1

72…Ke2 73.Re7+ Kd3 74.Rd7+ and nothing happens.

73.Re7+ Kd1 74.Rd7 Rf5 75.Re7 Rf3 76.Rd7 Rf4

White to play

We have arrived at the critical moment. With little time on the clock, we can guess that it was emotionally difficult for Areshchenko to fight the fight or flight response we all yield to naturally when we are under pressure. In a chess scenario, you can translate this into either a) playing too fast or b) feeling a desperate need to do something. In this game White chose b. Either choice is of course incorrect. Patient inactivity would have held the game.


I am sure that Areshchenko would assume that he lost the game because he missed something. But in reality he did not have to see anything in order to draw. Black does not have an active idea. For example: 77.Re7 Kc2 78.Rc7+ Kd3 79.Rd7+ would draw easily.

77…Ke2 78.Re7+ Kf3 79.Rd7 Rf6 80.Kh4 Ke3 81.Kg3


An accurate move. After 81…Rxf7 82.Rxf7 d1Q 83.Re7+ Kd2 84.Rd7+ White draws.

82.Kg2 Rxf7 83.Rxf7 d1Q 84.Re7+ Kf4 85.Rf7+ Kg5 86.Rg7+ Kf6 87.Rg3 Kf5 88.Kh2 Kf4 89.Ra3 Qc2+ 90.Kh3 Qh7+ 91.Kg2 Qb7+


What is the lesson to be learned from this game beyond what already mentioned? If you do not know how to make progress in an ending, just wait. The opponent will not feel that the pressure is pleasant and a significant number of them will do something rash and stupid. Even 2700 players, as in this game…

9 thoughts on “The Inability to Do Nothing”

  1. Thanks Jacob, very interesting ending and sound advice! A few weeks ago I played a game at my chess club, where I had a slight plus and basically just focussed on restricting counter play (I knew my opponent likes to defend actively). And indeed, my opponent lost his patience and tried to defend actively, which only made his position worse and made my task much easier.

  2. So, is your FH like Joker’s, Fed’s, or Rafa’s? The problem with the forehand is that there are several styles that are very effective, and yet are very different and highly individualized. Much like chess. Carlsen plays very different from, say, Morozevich.
    The problem for the inexperienced player (in either sport/game) is the desire to copy their hero without realizing the thousands of hours of previous training and playing involved. In my case, I began with a FH based on Federer (who is a very good model for club players) and over several years I’ve evolved to one more like Nadal’s (who, incidentally, is my favorite player). If I’d started out hitting that way, though, I probably would’ve flamed out due to issues with timing, footwork, etc.
    Likewise, in chess, I finally seem to have accepted that I’m better in quieter positions (I’m older, after all) even though I would like to play tactically. Thus, 1…e6 and more positional 1e4 lines.

  3. @Bill
    Actually those three have the same basic forehand movement. Yes, you can see individual nuances, but all of them go through the five same steps, at least some of the time. At least from the video analysis I have seen.

    I agree that you could look at it differently. You always can. Maybe there is a better way of doing things? Most likely. There always is.

    I detect from your post that you are with 99% chance a better tennis player than I, maybe 99 times better! It sort of spoils the metaphor for you, but hopefully not for many others. Most people I play with still hold the racket like an axe.

    But what we are talking about here is another principle. The thing that everyone does when they start is not suited for tennis – or chess for that matter. To understand what is wrong with it and why is a good first step to do things unnaturally – or better.

  4. @Jacob Aagaard

    Very well-written and reasoned, as usual. I do need to point out that any gap between our tennis abilities is relatively small, compared to the gulf between our chess abilities. To extend (and mix) your metaphor, due to a lack of proper instruction many years ago, I play chess like I’m wielding a hammer.

  5. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    I love to see examples where players made mistakes, these have many practical ideas because neither I nor my opponents play perfectly.

    “Patient inactivity would have held the game.” This also requires calculation. We do not take the pawn at this move for concrete reasons, we do not take the pawn at next move for concrete reasons … when we do not see any concrete reasons, we take the pawn.

    And why is this? Because a pawn is a pawn, and ceteris paribus our drawing chances are worse if our opponent has that pawn, both for material reasons (potential queen) and tactical reasons (pawn attacks squares).

    I have both won and lost many endgames where the players agree afterwards, “of course it was a simple draw after xyz”. Taking the pawn at the wrong moment is by definition wrong, but this doesn’t tell us anything. Usually the simple draw is to take the pawn at the right moment (or at one of several right moments), much less often is the simple draw to never take the pawn. So the defender plays many, many moves in anticipation of KxP, waiting, waiting for the right moment.

    In time pressure I might see black making two moves in a row …Kf3-g4 then anwering Rd7 with Rf2+ (or some other ghost variation), although Kg1 is probably still a draw it looks like progress for black. I’m pretty sure I would have missed …Rf6 as well, so just take the pawn there is “no danger”. After …Rf6 I would be crushed thinking that I took the pawn at the “wrong moment”. Only in the calm after the game would I conclude I should never have taken the pawn!

    I think “avoid time pressure” is a more generally useful idea than “avoid activity”.

  6. @An Ordinary Chessplayer
    I understand what you are saying. But can I please disagree?

    There are simply many many endgames where, to use Rowson’s terminology, you need to focus on “being” rather than on “doing”.

    The way you describe it is if calculation is all that happens in chess. The famous quote is “calculation, pattern recognition and opening preparation” or thereabouts. I really do not agree with this as being the way good chess is generally played or the way that you should play great chess. Obviously there are some that play like this, but I am not sure they have been as successful as they could have been.

    Or maybe you meant it in a different way?

  7. I must agree with Jacob. Ofc a pawn is a pawn but in endings its not about pawns but often more about goals, possible plans and piece configurations. We all know that in opposite coloured bishop endings its not the number of pawns that count but the passed pawns etc. In rook endings you are not going to defend a pawn on a2 with your rook on a1 because that is too passive in most cases. In the ending above black must be better since his king supports the free pawn while white’s king merely hides and is not active. But how is black going to escape the checks? Building a bridge here is not possible since white also has a pawn. So black’s rook must stay on the f-file. The only other hidiing place is behind the black rook, but those squares are covered by the white king. By taking the currently completely harmless since blocked pawn white gives black the much more valuable hiding place on f3. And after that a nice winning sequence exists using three threats: taking on f7 overloading the rook, threatening mates on the h file and promoting the pawn. Note that with the black pawn still on h3, there would never be a mate threat. Very instructive example of “mind over matter” so to speak.

  8. @Jacob: any chance you read ‘the inner game of tennis’ recently?
    I am reading it right now and hope to also get some valuable advice for my chess…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top