Searching for clarity
By Joel Benjamin   
October 24, 2006
Dear Mr. Benjamin,

Hi! I'm a teenaged 2100 player, and for the first time in my life I feel I have enough mental concentration and board vision to analyze crazy, open positions over the board. It's exciting to be able to take a wild position slog through a vast maze of variations, but it's something new to me and I'm slightly unnerved about it. I have a lot of questions: for instance, whenever I reach an open, unbalanced position over the board, I have no idea how much time I can really afford to spend analyzing. (Is there any point in saving time for the endgame if the battle might be decided by a mistake in the next five moves?) And there always seems to be more reasonable candidate moves for me to consider than I could ever have time for! Should I just pick a few and analyze them deeply, or should I spend time looking at them all a little bit and then only pick one to analyze deeply? I suppose it all depends on the situation, but are there any guidelines you can offer me? Here is an example from one of my recent games to illustrate my point. I had the white pieces, and the time control was game in two hours:



1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 b6 4.Bg2 Bb7 5.0-0 Be7 6.d4 0-0 7.Nc3 d6 8.d5 exd5 9.cxd5 Nbd7 10.Nd4 a5 11.e4 Nc5 12.Re1 Re8 13.Bf1
My opponent had misplayed the opening, and I wanted to play Bf1-b5-c6 with a big edge. But better was the preventative 13.f3 first, to stop my opponent's next move! 13...Nfxe4! 14.Nxe4 Nxe4 15.Rxe4 Bxd5 16.Re1 Qd7 17.Be3 Bf6
At this moment, I saw that no matter how good I thought my position was in the opening, this game was a dogfight now. It seems extremely hard to consolidate my material advantage because, even in the endgame, a 4-2 majority on the queenside, with those bishops targeting b2 and a2, will be great compensation for Black. I felt my best chance would be to point my pieces toward the kingside somehow, and then I could use my extra piece to fuel an attack in the middlegame. With only this vague plan, however, all there was left to do was to calculate variations. My candidate moves were Bd3, Qh5, Bb5, and even h2-h4 with the idea of Kh2 and Bh3 to follow. And not to be completely left out of the question was Bg2, with the idea of trying to retake the long diagonal. (After the bishop exchange I could put my queen on f3.)

Unfortunately for me, after each one of these candidate moves for myself, there was nearly an equal number of candidate moves for Black! For instance, since my goal is a kingside attack, 17. Bd3 was my first candidate. However, I needed to calculate not only 17. ... c5 18. Bb5 (or maybe 18. Bf5 or 18. Nf5 or 18. Nb5) Qb7, seizing the long diagonal, but also 17. ... c5 Bb5 Qh3, or even just 16. ... Qh3 17. f3 (Is 17. Bf1 a draw?) Rxe3 18. Rxe3 Bxd4 and see if I had any hope of saving the pinned piece. (I concluded I didn't.) My other candidate moves could be met with even more varied responses from Black. I spent about half an hour analyzing all the different moves I could think of for myself, perhaps the most interesting of which was 17. Qh5, with the idea that I might try 18. Qh3 next move if my queen was hit with 17... Re5. Unfortunately, by the time I had given each variation a few minutes of calculation, I had no idea whether one variation was really any better than another! There was simply no way I could calculate any of them to a clear position, and I tend to feel that besides the fascination I felt while looking at the lines, my entire hour of thinking time didn't really help me that much! I saw many moves ahead in all my candidate moves, but I couldn't come to any conclusions. Finally, I picked a move that I hadn't previously considered at all, simply because it was the only line that had anything clear at all in it:
18.Rc1
I had calculated that if 18...c5 , I could play 19.Nb5 Qc6 20.Nc7 Bf3 21.Nxe8 Bxd1 22.Nxf6+ gxf6 23.Rcxd1, which looked better for White to me, anyhow. That line wasn't by any means forced, but it seemed fairly plausible. So finally I just gave up and went for it. Luckily for me, my opponent actually cashed out of the dizzying calculations and grabbed a pawn - an understandable decision, but without the complications, I was able to carry out my kingside attack.
18...Bxd4 19.Qxd4 Bxa2 20.Bd2 c5 21.Qh4 g6 22.Bc3 d5 23.Bf6 h5 24.Be5 f5 25.Qf6 Kh7 26.Bb5, and I won shortly.

Thanks so much!
Jonathan Hilton,

Let me start with the position before Black's sacrifice:



It is clear that your suggested 13.f3 would maintain White's excellent grip on the position. I don't blame Black for trying 13.Bf1 Nfxe4 because it at least allows Black to gain a bit of freedom. However, this activity is only temporary; a few accurate moves should reel in the point for White. Objectively, you should have been happy to allow the piece sacrifice, which actually brought you closer to victory. I think your assessment is clouded by going from a (very good) position that is easy to play, to a (winning) position that requires more specifics from you.

If you back up one move from your critical position, you can ease the technical process.



Your 17. Be3 Bf6 enabled Black to exert a bit of pressure with his rook and bishop on f6. Instead, 17.Qh5! c6 18.Bg5 neutralizes both those pieces while completing White's development and connecting the rooks. During the game, we can often make a move or two too many before we deeply assess the position. If our attention is diverted elsewhere, we may not even detect these missed opportunities in the post-mortem.

I don't agree with your assessments of the position after 17... Bf6. White has every reason to believe his extra piece will triumph over Black's pawn majority in an endgame because the d5-bishop will not be around anymore. That is the whole point of trading into the endgame; when you eliminate your opponent's active pieces, your extra piece really looms large. The trick is for you to enforce exchanges without allowing the Black pawns to advance. While an extra piece can be an impetus for a kingside attack, here Black has no weaknesses there, and the center is so open Black is likely to have a counterattack if White throws his pieces in that direction.

While you struggled calculating your move eighteen options, you made a practical decision and analyzed the move you chose pretty well.



18.Rc1 was a perfectly logical move, developing the rook with an eye towards controlling the c6-square. I don't think you needed to force anything. You just have to make sure any Black's attempts to increase his counterplay will be rebuffed. After 18... c5 19.Bb5 Qh3 20.Nf3 would win more material; 20... Bb7 21.Bxe8 Rxe8 22.Bf4 leaves Black short of ammunition to make use of the lovely long diagonal. Even if you saw all of that, you could well have doubts calculating that in your head. The line you intended, "sacrificing" your queen, gives you a huge advantage while simplifying the position.

Black's 18... Bxd4 is a typical error. While achieving general material equality, Black then has little chance to combat your initiative.

Very few humans feel confident calculating every position they obtain. If the nature of the position requires calculation, you do the best you can. If you think your decision may be particularly crucial to the development of the game (or may even decide the result) you may be wise to invest a lot of clock time. [Of course, the time control itself is a big issue] How many candidates you consider and how deeply you analyze them is also a factor of how critical the position is. Most of the time you can feel sure the best move is one of two or three candidates - but not always.

Don't be alarmed if you can't conclusively calculate every candidate in the position. Grandmasters often factor this murkiness into their decision process, seeking uncertainty if they are losing or need to create winning chances, and avoiding it if they are winning. If you have a choice between a potentially rewarding continuation that you are unsure about, and a worthy alternative you know you can correctly calculate, you can go for the safer route. [But don't accept a bad option simply because you are unsure of another; then you might as well take your chances]

Remember that properly assessing a position helps you calculate better (as well as knowing how much you need to calculate). If you truly understand the goals of each side, you are better equipped to know what moves to look for.

Joel Benjamin