Chances will come – they always do

I was playing tennis Monday with three friends. Two good players and a great talent, the 12-year-old son of one of them. He is a small kid, but easily has the best forehand of us all. His downside is that when he makes a mistake, he is not letting go of them easily. We played together and were up 5-4 and 15-0 in the second set. The kid’s serve. After a bit back and forth, he hit his forehand straight in the net. These things happen. He did what many kids with ambition do, shout at themselves and with their body show frustration. Basically, they have watched too much tennis on TV and have not fully realised there is no camera, and no one cares…

I kept saying to him, something I have learned from chess and which applies to almost all of sports. Chances will come. The question is if you will be ready for them. He generally wasn’t and we lost. He is young and will quickly learn, I hope. I will partner with him in the league and keep saying this to him every time he misbehaves.

In chess we have a much smaller margin for error. When Federer makes his biggest mistake ever, he is down 15-0. When I blunder a piece, I usually resign. I am not Magnus Carlsen after all. But still, when you look at grandmaster games, you will see that things almost always go wrong. Chances arise out of nothing. Those that instinctively knows this and are ready for the moment do better than those who do not.

I will show a few examples, but literally, this is 80-90% of all grandmaster games.

Let’s apply this thinking to the tournaments we are probably all following to some degree right now, Gibraltar (the graveyard of the super rated) and Wijk aan Zee for a moment.

Let us start with a game from the B-group in Wijk aan Zee, which at the moment is a big fight between Korobov from Ukraine and Vidit from India. Both have 7/10 and will play tomorrow in what may be the decisive game of the tournament.

A full point ahead, Korobov (white) squandered a great position in round 8 against the Egyptian GM Amin.

Instead of retreating to f1 with the knight, Korobov took on g4. After 31.hxg4?? hxg3 32.g5 Amin realised that things had turned and he found 32…Qg7! and took over the initiative. Korobov lost control of the position and ended up in this mess.

Amin was smelling blood and found the forced win. Can you work out the winning line for Black too?

See the full game here.

In round 9 Korobov was dead lost against Harika, but defended valiantly and held the draw. Meanwhile Vidit (white) was pressing in a dull Catalan, with no advantage on the board, but an advantage on the clock. Down to two minutes on the clock, Bluebaum blundered with 36…Ke7-f8?.

Vidit no doubt smelled blood, seeing a strong move. After two minutes he played 37.d5?, which gives some advantage, but not enough to win the game. If he instead had played 37.Qh5! he would have won a pawn. 37…Ke7 38.Nf2! and the h6-pawn goes. I think Vidit missed something very simple, such as the candidate on move one, or simply (my no 1 guess) that 37…Qxe4 is met with 38.Qxe8+!, winning. Obviously Vidit would see that tactic in a heartbeat, if he was looking in that direction. It is one of my refrains: the reason we do not see something is because we are not looking for it…

See the game here.

Finally, from a player that takes his chances when they come. American superhero Hikaru Nakamura (white), here playing against Gunina. First point in the game is at move 28.

For sure Nakamura wanted to play 28.Ng5!, but there would have been something he did not like. Black has to play 28…Rg4! to create counterplay. I analysed a variation with 29.Rd3! (ideas of Rf3 and Red1) Nxe5 30.Qh7+ Kf8. And now it is your turn.

Gunina had the chance to equalise after 28.Ned4? Nf5 29.Ng5 Re7 30.Nf5 exf5 31.Rxd5, but played 31…Rd4? Instead of 31…g6. This time Naka saw everything. If you want, you can test yourself.

A final note. On move 112 the position was practically impossible to defend, but Kg7-h6 would still have held for Black. The king has to stay close to prevent the white king from escaping checks into the corner, as I understand it.

Check the full game here.

To conclude. Chances to do not always come in chess. Sometimes you get no advantage and get no chances for an advantage. But this is the exception. If you look through the games from Gibraltar, where the players want a fight, you will see that both sides get their chances, even if it is sometimes just chances for a draw. Our opponents make mistakes and we have to be ready to think accurately, the moment we get these chances. This is what I call Critical Moments and one of the things there is to these is that you should calculate accurately. Think of it like the algebra of chess. You cannot guess the result, you have to work it out.








9 thoughts on “Chances will come – they always do”

  1. Great post and valuable lesson! Being some kind of perfectionist/maximalist myself, I tend to get discouraged when things do not go my way. At times it’s tough to pull yourself together in such situations, but realizing that chances will come (especially at my 2100 level) is quite comforting and should encourage me to keep on fighting!

  2. Undoubtedly, my biggest weakness is not finishing at the CM. In your blog on the Element of Surprise I asked about the issue of deeper strategic understanding with respect to transitioning from the opening to the middle game. Admittedly, that transition has become harder to define. The Chess Structures book is an example of the transition I have in mind. However, there is a lot more ground to cover. Is that an area that will be expanded on? Rather than focusing on surprise or a specific opening that can give winning chances as in the very long thread, my approach is do I know how to win from this type of position, or draw, if need be. Most of my wins against much higher rated players, arose from a strategic understanding of a specific type of position that my opponent underestimated. I am trying to expand my knowledge to build on that approach. Also, becoming friends with many of the strong players that have moved into St. Louis has made me aware that trying to catch one of these guys in a surprise is much more likely to land me on the wrong side of a miniature than them.

    Alternatively, your post on the element of surprise and this one seems to emphasize that chess is simply concrete. Recognize the opportunity and capitalize on it. Is that simply the answer? Therefore, Doug, go back to studying tactics until you are good at it? (I need to do that for sure anyway.)

    BTW, in the Naka game above, 28 Ng5 Rg4 29 Rd3 does Qc4!? defend? It looks like Naka was…

  3. BTW, in the Naka game above, 28 Ng5 Rg4 29 Rd3 does Qc4!? defend? It looks like Naka was calculating very deeply with 28 Ned4. It would be interesting to know if he saw 32 e6 at that point. If yes, it may be hard to back away from that combination. g6 which the computer gives as equal, also has practical issues as well. Another issue is once you are stuck on a line like that, then what?

  4. @John NS
    Thank you.

    Sometimes I make language mistakes because of slight dyslexia, but this time it is just the fingers running too fast over the keyboard, I think :-).

  5. @Doug Eckert
    I was a bit too eager to make 29.Rd3 work, because of the exercise coming up after it. Simpler seems to be 29.Qh7+ Kf8 30.Nf3 with the threat h5-h6. This is also markedly more human. Also, editing Sam’s book at the moment, I did not want to spend too much time on my own writing for fun :-).

  6. @Doug Eckert
    And you are quite right, having a deep strategic understanding of typical positions is very valuable. The thing that you want to do is beat titled players. Then the types of surprises you can spring greatly diminishes and the level of the surprise has to be greater.

    There is no overall point between talking about a few minor issues. The surprise element came up in this long thread and this is something I noticed this week. I have just finished writing down a big theory of decision making, over six volumes, which honestly took many years to work out. Opening and for that sake middlegame preparation is not something I spend time on. My students are great theoreticians in most cases and get good positions. One of them plays a lot of table tennis, but will not work on his serve. “I spend too much time on openings already…” What happens is that they do what Vidit did, which is really the central position of this post, which is that they get good positions and even feel that they have a chance (why would you otherwise play 37.d5, which is concrete), but then they approach it in a way that gives away half points.

    Because chess is really difficult.

    But the needs of my students at the GM level is different from the needs of for example the Indian women’s team that I have started working with, so it is very likely that my focus will change because of that.

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