The element of surprise

We have had a nice debate between the blog readers about various lines and how to approach playing for a win for Black deep in the comments section of the looking into 2018 post. I doubt everyone makes it to comment #297, so I will make my own little point here as an independent post.

Our main strategy is to be honest with our readers, and one of these aspects include debating things freely and without thinking if it is in line with people’s perception of our company. We propose main lines in our repertoire books, because you do not want to continuously play something that is bad and because you do not need to read a full book to play something dodgy once with the element of surprise.

I have at times played risky things as a surprise weapon. And I did for a while play the Tarrasch Defence, a second-tier opening, but we were years ahead of theory because we analysed it deeply. Once the book was out, people could play against it for two results at GM level and the author would have to remember your preparation. I have the problem that I am not really interested in my own results and preparation, so I forgot things in one game and many tried to put this forward as a refutation of the opening, which was nonsense. Luckily no one did this when Avrukh forgot his own analysis against Sveshnikov in 2008. The first 1.d4 book he wrote is still our best selling opening book (no, I am not going to give out more details on sales).

It taught me not to play something you have written about again, unless you know your book inside out. Also, how lazy everyone is. The Tarrasch may be challenged, but not because of that game.

Another time, some may recall, ten years ago, there was a lot of criticism because Marin had not covered a move played in, I think, three games in the Ponziani.

Some tried to make his 1…e5 repertoire for Black unreliable or something, because of this omission. I tried to explain that you cannot cover everything in a book and some moves are just harmless looking. Then I got a chance to play it and I thought, why not? Let’s see how dangerous it really is. A few die-hards were out to get me on this point and somehow wanted us to be devious. They expressed that it was a secret I had held back, because I wanted to play it. I told every chess player who came on my path about it for a month, until I realised that I found it a bit funnier than the average chess player might…

The best way to equalise is by the way 8…Nf6! 9.Nc4 Bc5 10.b4 Qe7+! and if 11.Be2

Black has a nice drawing combination: 11…Bxf2+! 12.Kxf2 Ne4+ 13.Kf1 Ng3+ 14.Kf2 Ne4+ and so on. Black has a few ways to play on as well, while White has nothing. This is very concrete, so it would have been nice to include it in the book. But taking on d2 and playing 9…Bc5 was also absolutely fine.

We are not devious. Imperfect? Obviously. Mistaken at times. Yes, we admit it freely and usually tell you all about it, if necessary. It is a better business strategy and makes it nicer to go to work. When authors ask me how to deal with something they are not happy about in their repertoire or any other shortcomings they approach, I tell them that chess is a draw, chess is a difficult and our readers are the most sophisticated chess readers out there; if you lie to them, they will smell it. But if you are honest, you will not have a problem, because they understand you cannot present them with a repertoire that wins for White.

Anyway, so I got into a situation where I did not know what to play and thought my opponent was following Marin’s repertoire. Why not play this Nd2 move and see how easy it was to deal with in practice? Apparently, it was not that easy. I was probably wrong in dismissing its danger, although I do not think Marin can be criticized for not including it in the first place. The book had to be written in less than a decade, you see ?.

I think you can try trick lines from time to time, but it has to be lines that are hard to refute. (Maybe not the Philidor Gambit, as in the tread. Unless you are rated 1400.) They should not be repeated, and you should not make it your bread and butter. But with White, sometimes you can play some small ideas that are not that dangerous and just get a game. Again, better not repeat them!





45 thoughts on “The element of surprise”

  1. Interesting stuff Jacob. You might know, or recall this better than me, but wasn’t it Bent Larsen who said ‘I never play a line that I know has a refutation more than once in a year’?

  2. Were the Gelfand books (partially) and Chess Structures intended to bridge the gap between concrete opening theory and transitions to the middle game? It seems that the topic in the other thread of creating chances while broad can be taken concretely to specific structures and position types.

    While there is a huge amount of material available on IQP positions, there are many other pawn structures where there is very little material. Sokolov in Winning Chess Middlegames started to tackle this topic more concretely to very specific structures. This appears to be a topic that could be expanded to include many more structures in future books. Or is this simply too vague/ambitious and should just be considered part of the existing literature on early middle game play?

    King’s Indian Warfare was a fun book that rather than trying to be comprehensive about the topic, was almost an addendum to Kotronias’ tomes on the King’s Indian. I am thinking something along the lines of more structure books to more addendum type books such as Kings Indian Warfare.

  3. I have a strange habit with IQP : i generally like it with white and i generally avoid it with black . Anyone having the same symptom ?

  4. Back to the topic .
    @ Jacob : Do you consider Chaos Variation a tricky variation ( 1.d4 g6 2.c4 Bg7 3.Nc3 c5 4.d5 BxN+ 5.bc f5 ) when you need a win with black against a weaker opponent ?

  5. The best is to play “normal” chess and if you are really stronger than your opponent you will outplay him at some point.
    The best way to loose is to consider before the game that you must win because you think your opponent is weak and then you try tricky play to win a short game

  6. My two cents: I think trying to win from a good position gives you more chances than trying to do so from a suspect one. Play a good opening, like you would against a strong player, and just play on. There is no need whatsoever to change your usual approach. The only way the situation should affect your opening choice is: avoid lines where you allow the opponent easy theoretical forced draws. And that’s it.

  7. @Jacob Aagaard
    going for such position with the feeling you get something from it is not the same as deliberately playing a bad line and hope your opponent does not know and will not find the correct moves

  8. My question was in fact : Does an experienced GM ( Jacob ) consider the Chaos a tricky variation ( or if you prefer trash or 3d Tier opening ) if you are in a must-win situation ?

  9. @Pinpon
    I know some GMs who plays like this….They said most players ( even titled) dont know the refutation so they expect to get a better position ( and win) …but they also know that from time to time they will faced players with knowledge of the good variation and probably loose the game. It is a risk/bluff/ and % approach. It is more like “playing the opponent” than playing chess.

  10. @middlewave
    Depends on the level of preparation. Kasparov often played stuff no computer would recommend, because he knew he would deal with the positions better. A lot of his analysis that say unclear, could just as well say BS.

  11. @RYV
    Many openings for Black has the feeling that if the opening knows everything, life is not fun. Hector plays such stuff against me always :-). I do not think that strategy is working for him, to be honest.

  12. There was one game in the 1972 match, where they wanted to show Spassky the win if Fischer went for a certain bad line. Spassky told them to stop wasting his time, Fischer made the mistake and Spassky did not find the win. Maybe someone knows the story better than I?

  13. Tal made incorrect sacrifices all the time, and yet he won most of these games against top GMs. So to me the most important lesson is to play the type of game you like and are good at. I think generally it’s best to stay true to your style, even in a must-win situation. E.g. if you’re a positional, technical player, playing a tactical mess in a must-win situation is just gambling on a terrain which is not your strength.

  14. @Raymond
    I think that is an oversimplification of what Tal did. I think a lot of the sacrifices would be deemed correct by AlphaZero, even if they are considered wrong in the history books ;-). But he was very inaccurate. He did not calculate, he just saw endless variations in a flash and went on feeling.

  15. I think you can try trick lines from time to time, but it has to be lines that are hard to refute.

    Reading this i remember weak about one chapter in Yusupov’s training series. For now i can find the index only, it should be in “boost your chess 1” Chapter 8 “opening traps”. There he differs between good and bad traps. Its likely the same you say, just with examples and exercises.

    Seth :
    @Jacob Aagaard
    That sounds a lot like Game 6 in the QGD. I think Spassky actually “knew” the “refutation” but forgot it at the board.

    It should be that game:
    I’ve seen that game in more than one book i think. I’m sure that it is in Sadler’s queens gambit declined. The middlegame is a masterpiece of playing against hanging pawns.

    The russians had analysed that line before the fischer-spassky match and one year later geller won with black against timman:

  16. Point taken, I was exaggerating a bit – but I guess some would call some of his sacrifices ‘speculative’. But he was just very good in these kind of positions. To me chess is a sport and the question if everything was correct is not that relevant; as long as it works it is good enough!

  17. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    As opponents prepare more and more using computers, a player who wants to drag his opponent into the swamp has basically two choices.

    1. a la Kasparov – Analyze on his own and find a line where the computer evaluation is “off”, e.g a 3rd or 4th candidate shown as much worse than a 1st or 2nd candidate, but actually about the same. This is ideal because the opponent will not have prepared for this line because it is “inferior”. But it is a lot of work because it involves looking at a lot of 3rd or 4th choices as well as being strong enough to overrule the computer’s evaluation.

    2. a la Hector – Accept the computer/theoretical evaluation but purposely play 2nd or 3rd choice moves, relying on the fact that chess theory is vast and the opponent is unlikely to know it all. This is *also* a lot of work because you need to vary a lot. And you run the risk of either (a) constantly preparing new lines where you don’t really know it that much better than your opponent; or (b) repeating one of your old lines but unluckily against a prepared opponent; or (c) your opponent thinks for himself and finds a different way to play that is as good as or sometimes even better than the theoretical way to punish your opening. Computers and databases have completely changed the risk/reward ratio here, so it is becoming much more attractive to forget about the swamp and just play solidly.

  18. I think the point is to choose 2nd or 3rd best lines when there is something hidden like imbalances , sacrifices , tactical or strategical complications and possibilities for you opponent to blunder . If there are no such possibilities and your position is slightly worse , you are probably studying lines and achieving difficult draws instead of easier ones .

  19. I dont agree
    when deciding on a variation, always consider your opponent will find best move , dont play for traps . It is ok to play lines where there is hidden tactics.. but only when it is the best line whatever. I dont see any satisfaction when winning on my opponent blunder…playing good chess is much more important than the result of the game

  20. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    @RYV – It is fairly easy to see that my opponents do not always play the best move, especially in the openings which is what we are talking about. When I play 1.e4, many of them do not answer with 1…c5 or 1…e5. Would you classify 1…e6 as a trap or a blunder? When they play 1.e4 and I answer 1…e5, many of them do not play 2.Nf3. To my understanding 2.Bc4 and 2.Nc3 there are less than the best, but even GMs will play these regularly. Your guideline of always expecting the best move is more for forcing variations, and there I will agree with you. In other situations where there is more than one acceptable move, I sometimes knowingly play the second best move myself. There can be different reasons for this depending on the situation. For instance, I absolutely believe 1.d4 is a stronger first move move than 1.e4, but I prefer 1.e4 because it gives me better results and because I like it better. Those two things might be related. 🙂

  21. @ RYV

    It also depends on your goals in chess. I see chess primarily as a sport. Of course I also like to win with a brilliant combination, but if I win in a team match because my opponent blunders, I have absolutely no problem with this. If you see chess (also) as a science or an art, things might be different. That being said, I do agree with Petrosian that it’s generally easier to win from an equal position than from a worse position. By the way, I see a third option, which is not trying to drag your opponent into the swamp and play like Carlssen, ‘play quiet, solid lines such as the London and beat you opponent in the middlegame or endgame. All major openings are equal anyway, so it saves a lot of study time which one can then spend on middlegame and engame technique.

  22. Jacob Aagaard :
    There was one game in the 1972 match, where they wanted to show Spassky the win if Fischer went for a certain bad line. Spassky told them to stop wasting his time, Fischer made the mistake and Spassky did not find the win. Maybe someone knows the story better than I?

    Kasparov talks about this on his DVD about the QGD.

  23. Lev Alburt claims that he offered to show Spassky how to beat Alekhine’s Defense (an opening which Alburt knew as well as anyone), but Spassky wasn’t interested, since Fischer had never played that. However, he did play it in the match, and won the game (although this win had little or nothing to do with the opening). I wonder if that’s the “story” in question. This is from an interview with Alburt in the latest issue of “American Chess Magazine”.

  24. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    @Dennis K – Fischer played it four times in the 1970 Interzonal. Spassky must not have been interested for a different reason. Also, the first game I can find with Alburt playing Alekhine’s Defense was in 1972. (I looked at, is not accessible from this computer.) I’m not sure how impressive his credentials would have been in 1971 when Spassky was preparing in earnest.

  25. According to Karpov Spassky was very lazy when they prepared for the match against Fischer. You can read that in a interview with Karpov on the chessbase website. Title: “Karpov on Fischer”, Parts 1-3.

  26. @Ray
    obviously, i dont consider chess as a sport . To me it is between game and art and when sitting at the board i am playing with a partner not against an opponent. Winning the game is still the objective ( as it is the rule of the game) and i am fighting to give the best as i can do , but not fighting to beat someone. With this in mind, I can also play 2nd, 3th…8th choices but only because i consider they are interresting lines to play and not because they could scored better.
    maybe it sound too old-fashionned but i dont understand people who says victory is most important than playing ( the journey is more important than the destination )

  27. @An Ordinary Chessplayer
    you said it : “.. acceptable moves..” that is moves where there is no forced variation that win or loose.. just playable position.
    for example, you can start all your game with black by playing 1..a6 & 2..b5 . Best you get some kind of Benko gambit, worst you get some kind of ..Benko gambit. But all case, you get a playable position ( one pawn down !) that is interresting , not just a tricky line to confuse a patzer

  28. @RYV
    For the players on here that are interested in gaining FIDE titles, chess is a sport. Increasing playing strength requires accumulating the knowledge to save draws and squeeze wins. That requires trying to beat someone with every idea you have. That doesn’t mean you can’t play aesthetically pleasing chess.

    But, it does mean not straying too far from objectivity. Having said that, chess is different for everyone. I want nothing more than for chess to be more popular. I have encouraged many people to identify how to gain more enjoyment from the game other than just playing tournaments for results. Someone can correct me if I am wrong, but, I believe QC is showing us the way to achieve better results. At the same time, the literature can provide enjoyment from the aesthetics it also provides.

  29. i still believe people get confused between sport and competition . OK , good health and good physical training is better than nothing for competitive chess or professional chess… but this is not sport. There are also competitive cooking contest that require good health and physical strengh: is it sport ? being a professional car salesman is also very competitive and require good health and endurance : is it a sport ? is fighting for food in nature a sport ? no it is surviving instinct. … just my opinion of course.

  30. I have known a number of professional chess players for whom fighting to win was literally fighting for food, or the ability to sleep under a roof. Winning a prize in the tournament meant eating for another week. These were typically FIDE 2300 – 2500, some with IM or even GM titles. For them winning was survival – nothing about art or sport. These are the people you sometimes see take a quick draw in the last round of an open tournament to ensure “some” prize money, rather than gambling on getting a big prize and maybe getting nothing.

  31. @RYV
    I also try to play a nice game, but if I’m playing in a team match I defintely think I owe it to my teammates to go for the best result no matter how ‘ugly’, ‘boring’ etc. the game might be.

  32. @Ray
    For team match, i think the most important is trustfulness between each players of the team.
    sometimes, you dont have to play for the best result ( a win) but you must secure a draw even if you have a (probably) winning position !
    In a “must win” situation , you should avoid forced draw ( perpetual check, stalemate, easy theorical draw..) but you should also avoid to put yourself in the above situation ( opponent secure a draw from a better position) by choosing non optimal moves just because of potential winning chances. In general, you have far more winning opportunities from an equal position than from a worst one.
    that’s why rule number one in team match is “play solid & safe !” because you can always try to win later if needed.

  33. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    @Andy Burnett – “I don’t often play a move I know how to refute. Twice a year maybe, and even then a move which I think my opponent would be able to refute only in correspondence chess.” — Bent Larsen’s chapter “A Personal Approach to the Openings” in Evans et al (1974) _How to Open a Chess Game_, page 191.

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