You can’t calculate what you can’t see

I was playing online blitz early in the morning this week when my opponent fell into a well known mating trap on move 8.  The mating pattern is very pretty and always satisfying but it also occurred to me that it appeared to be one of those positions that everyone seems to fall into.  Bemused at why this would be the case I decided to look at some statistics and noticed that despite being a relatively rare line, every time I had had the position my opponent had walked into the trap.  I’ve talked about the difference between amateur and professional players before and this sequence is another lovely example.

The line in question stems from the Chigorin Defence of the Queens Gambit Declined.  After 7…Nxe5 it first appears that black is losing a knight.  However, it doesn’t take too much calculation to spot the checkmate threat on d1 should white decide to snaffle the knight on e5.

Indeed after white allows 7…Nxe5, black has equalised and discretion is the better part of valour for white with recommended moves such as Be2 or Nbd2.  However, in the four times I have had this position arise in my games, all four times I have delivered checkmate on d1 on move 8.  Now we can argue that these games are online and amongst amateur players but I do find it fascinating the confidence with which the black knight is snaffled on e5.  Sometimes the white player plays the mistake instantly, sometimes they think for a long while and still play the move. Why is this?

It is a common mantra amongst chess professionals and coaches that good players know when to start burning time in complex calculation.  Knowing when to invest time is a key skill. However, as well as knowing when to spend time calculating you also have to know what to calculate.  If you don’t see a threat or are blind to its existence then you will not calculate and obviously miss the risk resulting in losing to checkmate on move 8. The position in our line we are analysing, I believe, is a very good example of a position that the amateur mind struggles with.  There are a number of factors at play in the position, one or all of which could contribute to this very common mistake.  Lets list them out:

  • A queen less early middle game – Only two pieces are developed by either side and the queens have left the board.  Why would white necessarily be on the look out for mating threats against his own king?  Indeed, he or she has to calculate the knight capture doesn’t lose material (and it doesn’t) but an actual mate threat is not on whites radar;
  • The threat only arises from a vacated square – The checkmate is only possible by white releasing the power of the bishop onto d1 by vacating f3. Threats occurring by vacating squares are intrinsically harder to visualise when calculating;
  • The knight capture wins material – Whats not to like about winning material?! Greed is a powerful bias;
  • Its easy for white to believe black blundered – Until a move earlier the knight on f3 was pinned.  Following the exchange of queens this is no longer the case but it is easy to see how white would think black had miscalculated and blundered by grabbing the e5 pawn by telling themselves that black thought the f3 knight was pinned;
  • The capture on e5 creates nice threats on blacks king – As well as all of the above points, the white pieces start to build a lovely threat on f7 against blacks king.  Its easy to see how white could spend time calculating future threats and attacking options while simultaneously missing threats against his own king.

Having read the above list now lets look at the position side by side with the board flipped. Try looking at each board position and then running through the kind of thought process that white would be walking through.  I don’t know about you, but I actually think the threat is harder to see from the white side of the board because the position for white seems so appealing.

The same position from both white and blacks perspective.  Hard to believe that a mate in 1 threat exists and how the board can appear  so different from either side.

To be fair, I don’t know how many of the above factors contribute to the blunder 8. Nxe5 but it is highly likely some of them play a significant role (NB – Not a lot of people know that I am professionally trained in the analysis and evaluation of human error in complex environments.  A story for another time…).

Here we have a tempting position for white with many positive features such as material gain and kingside attacks combining with a very subtle, hard to see, totally unexpected terminal threat. A nasty combination for the amateur chess player to comprehend which seems to be the chess equivalent of all that glitters is not gold and bring me nicely to the title of this blog post.

You can’t calculate what you can’t see.

In our example, the amateur white player can calculate for as long as he or she likes but if they do not recognise the danger of checkmate then they will simply run analysis on the safety of their developed pieces and the opportunities for future attacks. Many stronger rated players could often laugh and scoff at such a blunder as 8.Nxe5 but I believe this would be unfair.  Human chess players (amateur and professional alike) are not computers. They do not calculate everything.  They only choose to calculate what stories they tell themselves.

“She’s just blundered that knight.  Surely she cannot take my pawn on e5?”

“If I take it then f7 looks weak”

“Queens are off.  There are no real threats at the moment.  I don’t see how he is gaining the piece back it must be a blunder”

“My f3 knight is no longer pinned!”

If your internal dialogue is spinning stories with a different narrative to the reality of the position on the board then the amateur player is in trouble.   In my games 100% of amateur players blundered and walked into checkmate on move 8.  Of the 9 Master Games in the database I looked at 0% of professionals did. Indeed the skill set  to remain completely objective when looking at any position is likely one of the key defining characteristics of weak vs. strong players.

I just loved this example as it seems to fall into that rare category of positions that really seems to befuddle the amateur mind.

Until next time…


mecircle

Jon Fisher

Jon is the Editor of The Bristol Chess Times and Publicity and Recruitment Officer for The Bristol & District Chess League. He plays for Horfield Chess Club and has been known to play 1. b3 on occasion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Anti-London System based on Chigorin’s Defence

The amateur chess world has been flooded recently with the London System, thanks in no small part I expect to GM Simon Wiliam’s excellent three part series on this opening (his three videos on “learn the London System have amassed 180,000 views on YouTube). If like me you are tired of facing this frustrating system as Black, then today I want to share an approach I have been working on based on principles taken from another of GM Simon William’s opening choices, the Chigorin Defence.

The approach I am advocating in this article is based upon the “copycat” sideline (as nicknamed by GM Williams) where Black initially mirrors White with 2…Bf5.

AL1

GM Simon William’s advocates that in this sideline of the London, Whites best response is to play 3. c4 with plans to play a quick Qb3 hitting b7.  Indeed, 2..Bf5 is the one move where GM William’s is advocating playing c4 (rather than c3).

So basically after 2…Bf5 White is left with two choices:

  1. Continue with the usual London System setup with c3, e3 and Bd3 leading to (in my opinion) a one way ticket to a boring line where Blacks moves are easy and Whites core plan is neutralised;
  2. Transpose into a Queens Gambit style position with 3. c4.

It was this “admission” to abandon the traditional London setup and enter a Queens Gambit type position that inspired me to try a response based on Chigorin’s Defence.

Chigorin Principles

The move order I am advocating involves transposing into a type of Chigorin defence with 3..Nc6 quickly followed by a later e5 break.

AL2

White is faced with four choices of which three score highly in practice for white, hmm.

From ChessBase, White scores the following:

  • Line #1 – nf3 – 77 games with a score of 67% and a computer eval of +0.20;
  • Line #2 – e3 – 49 games with a score of 71% (bare with me readers!) and a computer eval of +0.24;
  • Line #3 – cxd – 0 games (?!) with a computer eval of 0.00;
  • Line #4 – nc3 – 11 games with a score of 54% and a computer eval of +0.08;

Lets look at the main lines.

Line #1 – 4.Nf3

4…e5

AL3

Chigorin would be proud (if not slightly unsound…)

Played twice on Chessbase with a win and a draw for Black!

5. Nxe5 Nb4 6. Na3 f6?! 7. Nf3 dxc

AL4

Not exactly the nice closed systemic approach that most London players are hoping for out of the opening.

8. e3 Nd5 9. Bg3 Bb4+ 10. Nd2 c3!

AL5

The style of game and position is open and dynamic.  In the amateur chess world where the London is so pandemic at the moment, I would certainly like my chances of scoring well from here.

Line #2 – 4. e3

Again we stick to our Chigorin Principles with 4…e5

AL6

Played five times on ChessBase with a score of 60% for White:

5. dxe dxc

6. Nc3 (not 6.Bxc4 when the following equalises: 6…Qxd1 7. Kxd1 Rd8 + 8. Nd2 Be4 9. f3?! Bb4 fxe4 Rxd2+ =) 6… Bd3 7. Bxd3 cxd3 8. Nf3 Qd7 9. 0-0 Ne7

AL7

White has a pawn, and although not exactly the type of game that most London players want I’m not convinced by this line for Black. A better alternative to 5…dxc we can also look at 5… d4!

AL8

Whites best response here is 6. Nf3 followed by:

6…dxe 7. QxQ+ Rxd8 8. Bxe3 f6?! 9. exf Nxf6

AL9

A nice open board where Blacks loss of a pawn is compensated by open lines and great development.  The computer gives an evaluation 0.00 in this position.

Line #3 – cxd

Unbelievably no-one seems to have played this line.  The key seems to be the removal of the b1 knight before it gets chance to jump to c3.  As below:

4. cxd Qxd 5. Nf3 (protecting d4) Bxb1 6. Rxb1 e5!

AL10

This line appears to be the strongest so far for Black, breaking up the centre and resulting in very unlike London formations.

7. Nxe5 and the game can continue in a relatively equal position.

The mistake 7.dxe leads to advantage Black with the following two lines: 7. dxe Bb4+ 8. Bd2 Qxa2 OR the very nice line 7.dxe Qe4! 8. Qc1 Nb4 9. Ng5 Nd3+ 10. Kd1 Nxf2+ 11. Ke1 Nd3+ 12. Kd1 Qxf4 with a clear advantage to black (see below)

AL11

7. dxe appears to be a mistake as demonstrated with the resulting position above.

Line #4 – 4.Nc3

The lowest scoring line for White but it seems a sensible plan.  Lets strike again with e5 and see what happens:

4…e5 5. cxd Nb4 6. e4?! 

AL12

White is provoked into a very un-London like e4 leading to a messy position

6…exf5 7.exf4 Nxd5 8. Qb3 Bb4 9. Bc4 Nf6

AL13

In this line both sides get a game as they say with active piece development.  But at risk of sounding like a broken record, how many London System players envisage this kind of position at the start of the match?

Conclusion

Obviously there is a greater level of depth required to this analysis in all these lines. For the sake of this article I have ventured only a handful of the most obvious positions. At the time of writing I have only tried this approach in online chess with modest / good results.  However, I am excited by its potential and the reason for this is threefold:

  • In the world of amateur chess where the London System has become so prevalent, psychology and clock time play a huge part in leading to mistakes.  By forcing confrontation in the centre of the board with an early Nc6 and e5, Black is ultimately saying to white “I will not play on your terms“.  I would predict this approach to the London will leave the amateur white player atleast feeling uncomfortable, if not worse on the clock as well.
  • From move two you are forcing the player of the white pieces to make a choice.  Either accept that their conventional setup of c3, e3 and Bd3 will be immediately contested in a dry boring, drawish opening line OR go into a range of tactical lines involving high-levels of early calculation.  This choice is not one that I would predict most players of the London System are thrilled about, particularly in amateur club circles.
  • I admit that their might be some queries around theoretical soundness but even the initial analysis shown in this article indicates that white is at best only half a pawn ahead in the best lines.  Personally a cost I am prepared to pay in order to gain the psychological and time advantages mentioned above.

When you put the above three points together, you can see that here we have a potentially interesting line against the London System with strong practical chances. Just like the real Chigorin Defence, another advantage is that many of Blacks moves are thematic in nature such as nc6, e5, Nb4 and Bb4.

I hope you have enjoyed this line and if you have any thoughts, or better still, venture this line in one of your games then please let me know. I would love to develop the theory on this Anti-London System further!


mecircle

Jon Fisher

Jon is the Editor of The Bristol Chess Times and Publicity and Recruitment Officer for The Bristol & District Chess League. He plays for Horfield Chess Club and has been known to play 1. b3 on occasion.