Chess is tough, and a lot of it has to do with ratings. Personally, I find facing lower rated opponents more intimidating than higher rated players because there is an expectation that you win. Meanwhile, as you slowly chip away at your position, the lower rated player solidifies and plays for a draw. This can be frustrating (trust me, I know), but there are simple ways to prepare for these games without taking too much time. By going over games in which you are the lower rated player, try to understand how the opponent broke your position down, especially if they play a similar opening. Odds are, you take the same mentality when playing a higher rated player as the lower rated player takes against you.
Below I have two games, the first, in which I was the underdog (2153 v. 1799), and the other where I was the favored player (1941 v. 1476). Hopefully by reading this post, you too can learn how to strengthen your play against stronger players.
Franco – Steincamp (2013)
1. c4 Nf6 2. g3 g6 3. Bg2 Bg7 4. Nc3 c5 5. e3
5… e6 Already, this is a passive idea. This would make more sense if I could put a knight on e7, put preparing the d7–d5 push will likely leave me with an isolated pawn in the center.
6. Nge2 d5 7. cxd5 exd5 8. d4 cxd4 9. Nxd4 I think I would prefer taking with the pawn, but I actually used this line a month later at the Northern Virginia Open and drew a 2000+ rated player. By taking with the knight, white does not have a isolated pawn. However, in exchange he has a passive bishop on c1. If white can make this bishop active, then I have no compensation for my isolated pawn.
9…Nc6 10. O-O O-O
11. a4 This is an interesting idea. Usually this move prevents a b7–b5 push, but seeing as the position is open, this attack would not be a strong idea for me. White typically opts for Qb3, immediately putting pressure on my d5 pawn.
11…Nxd4 By exchanging the knights, White’s c1 bishop can get in the game. While White now has an isolated pawn, his g2 bishop is better than my g7 bishop since there is no knight on f3. Seeing that my opponent has more flexibility, he is definitely slightly better.
12…Be6 While it may not have been my intention, this move is not only passive, but communicates that I want a draw. 12… Qb6 may have yielded more play since 13. Nxd5 Nxd5 14. Bxd5 Qxd4 = solves my problems. White will most likely ignore the d5 pawn, but this queen move gives me some much needed development and flexibility.
13. Bf4 Nh5 14. Be3 Qd7
15. a5?! At this point I didn’t really see the idea. White is trying to open the queenside by bringing a knight to c5. This is an interesting thought, but white has plenty of time to do whatever he wants. My knight on h5 is doing very little, and my queen–bishop battery is doing nothing.
15…Rac8 16. Re1 Rfe8 17. Na4
17…Qd6 This move accomplishes nothing. For my opponent, he can take away two things. First, I don’t see his plan. Second, I don’t really know what I need to do in this position.
18. Nc5 b6 19. Nxe6 Qxe6 20. Qb3 Rc4 21. Bd2 Qd7 22. Rxe8+ Qxe8 23. Bxd5 Rc7 24. axb6 axb6
25. Ra8 White has opened this position, and has found far more active play. My passive play has resulted in an easy win for white.
25…Rc8 26. Bxf7+ 1-0
So for me, a game against such a highly rated player was rare, but my performance was extremely disappointing. However, since I play the English, I got some key take aways from this game. First, I learned that in these open isolated pawn positions, it is extremely important to activate as many pieces as possible. My opponent did a great job of rendering my pieces obsolete throughout the game, and made it hard for me to plan. Secondly, when both kingside bishops have been fianchettoed in an open position, having a knight on the f3/f6 square drastically reduces the play of the bishop. When I played this game, I should have considered this disadvantage when trying my e6–d5 pawn pushes in the opening.
These observations seem fairly basic, but in turn, I now know how to break down passive players in these kinds of pawn structures. The other thing is to keep in mind is that if I were to play a passive lower rated player as white in this kind of position. My performance in the game above is likely better than his will be. This doesn’t mean underestimate the opponent, it just means that in all likelihood that more tactical ideas will be possible in this game. After reviewing this blowout loss, I took what I learned into a game in which I was a 450+ point favorite.
Steincamp – Chen (2014)
1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. g3 d6 4. Bg2
4…Be7 This move is extremely passive. There is no plan for this bishop, and frankly should have been fianchettoed.
5. e3 O-O 6. Nge2 c6 7. O-O d5 8. cxd5 cxd5 9. d4 exd4
10. exd4 So despite starting with a different opening, we have reached the same pawn structure as the previous game. Two things I should note in this position are that a) Black wasted tempi playing d7–d6–c6–d5, when he could have tried 3… d5 line. And b) Black’s bishop is misplaced since it cannot easily attack my isolated pawn, whereas my bishop is. Already I have a better position as white as my earlier opponent had against me.
11. Nf4 Here I chose to veer away from the a–pawn push idea like in the other game. This mostly had to do with less than perfect position of the bishop on e7. Also I have a tactic if Black tries …Be6
11…Be6? 12. Re1 Qd7 13. Nxe6 fxe6
14. Bh3! The critical idea. By weakening his d5 pawn I was able to create an even bigger weakness for black.
15. Bg5? Too much finesse I should have just taken the pawn and gone ahead in material.
15…Rae8 16. Bxe6+ Qxe6 17. Rxe6 Kxe6 18. Bxf6 Bxf6
19. Qb3 While I have a substantial advantage, the general thematics in the position have not changed. The d5 pawn is still very weak.
19…Rd8 20. Re1+ Kd6 21. Nb5+ Kd7 22. Qxd5+ Kc8 23. Qe6+ Kb8 24. d5 Nd4 25. Nxd4 Bxd4 26. Re2 Rfe8 27. Qxe8 Rxe8 28. Rxe8+ Kc7 Following the simplification, I won a fairly easy ending. 1-0
In this game, I didn’t follow the exact plan that I had lost to earlier, but the core of my plan remained the same. Activate pieces, make forcing moves, and win the d5 pawn. By understanding how I lost to a higher rated player, I actually learned how to beat a passive player in that position. Don’t let the lower rated player scare you, and learn from your own games!
Feel like I missed something? Feel free to comment below!