Anatomy of a swindle (and how to avoid one)

It is often said that the first sentence of an article is the most difficult to write. I agree, so I’ll just skip it!

My name is IM Alexander Katz, probably best known for my uncanny ability to win games from massively worse positions. This is probably a quality earned by way too many hours of online bullet, but it’s a useful skill to have nonetheless; throughout my career, I’ve managed to win games with computer evalutions as low as -145. It seems logical, then, that I should write something on that subject.

Of course, it’s impossible to consistently execute these types of game-reversing swindles without help from the opponent, no matter how many practical traps and complications one manages to create. So while there is a certain art to constructing a masterful escape, there is a straightforward (but not simple!) way to avoid it: constant awareness.

The reasons for this are simple. As chess players, we are subject to certain attractions; to selection biases coming from two competing — but not unrelated — sources. The first is the pursuit of beauty; from the incredible feeling one gets when executing a beautiful sacrificial attack. Everyone loves to end a game in such a way, even to the point that some (the gambiteers among us) will structure their entire gameplan around the possibility of creating one. But it is dangerous to get attached to this desire for a simple reason: everyone remembers their beautiful sacrificial mating attacks, but nobody remembers all the times the opponent simply takes all the material and stifles a yawn.

Still, while we are attracted to the beauty of a stylish finish, we are also defined by our pursuit of simplicity: our desire to end games with as little risk and effort as possible. Sometimes this approach is justified, as there’s no reason to enter unnecessary complications when one has a safe edge. But all too often, it results in the exact opposite: by conceding something in exchange for apparently simplicity, suddenly the opponent may be in a much better position to create complicated counterplay.

Swindles are built off of these two principles: the chess player is both over- and under-confident at different points of the game. Determining which state the opponent is in — and how to best exploit it — is the hallmark of the swindler.

Let’s see some examples of these phenomena in action.


Larson – Katz, USCL 2014

Clearly Black has outplayed White from this position, and holds all the advantages one could hope for from this opening. The c5-square, normally a point of serious contention, is firmly under Black’s control. White’s pieces — especially his rooks — are staring into thin air while Black is preparing to start an assault on the White king. All in all, though the computer gives the cold-blooded 0.00 evaluation, practically speaking Black has excellent winning chances.

Unfortunately, I chose instead to lash out in the search of an aesthetic finish:

19… b5?? 20. bxc6 b4 21. cxd7 bxc3 22. Rxc3 Nxd7

and here I was forced to realize that my “combination” had resulted only a slightly worse position, where my b-file counterplay was barely sufficient to balance the pawn deficit. Shortly thereafter I overpressed and was quickly punished.

The cause for the loss here wasn’t a miscalculation, or time pressure, or any other of a number of excuses we tell ourselves to mask the true reason: the loss was due to a massive failure in judgement. One needs to retain objectivity in all positions — even the ones that are clearly in his or her favor — to maximize the score.

This last game an example of over-confidence; pressing the position too hard to force a “fun” finish. The opposite — playing too safe and allowing counterplay — is just as deadly:


Katz – Francisco, USCL 2014

In this position I found a strong combination:

15. exd6 cxd6 16. Bxe7 Nxe7 17. d5! Bg4 18. Bb5

where White is simply up the exchange for no compensation.


Katz – Francisco, USCL 2014, position after 23… Bxb2

Just a few moves, White needs to decide whether to continue with 24. Rab1 or 24. Nxf5. Both options are still winning of course, but I was afraid of the complications that might result from 24. Rab1 Nxd6 25. Rxb2 Re8. Without thinking much more, I immediately played the “safe” option

24. Nxf5? Bxa1 25. Ne3 Bd7 26. Qxa7 Be5

when suddenly Black has some very annoying compensation for the pawns due to the two bishops aimed at the white king.

Had I taken the time and effort to actually analyze the alternative line, I probably would have found

24. Rab1 Nxd6 25. Rxb2 Re8 26. Nf6+! +-

which is, of course, a very simple win. Instead, as we both drifted into time pressure, Black’s counterplay became stronger and stronger until I wasn’t able to keep my grasp on the position to the point that I almost lost. However, in an amusing display of irony, my opponent also backed out into the “safe” option and forced a perpetual check when a win was available.

That about covers the pitfalls. Now let’s see how one can avoid them!


Katz – Kacheishvili, USCL 2016

In this position, Black — a strong grandmaster — has just sacrificed the exchange to combat the center. White can certainly take a “safe” approach, playing something like 16. Qh3 and trying to make use of the extra exchange later on, but this would give Black unnecessary counterplay against the e5-pawn. In fact, it turns out that Black would be no worse if White took this approach.

Instead, it is necessary to not be lazy and instead charge forward into the complications:

16. Qh5! g6 17. Bxg6 hxg6 18. Qxg6 Qg7 19. Qe8+ Qf8 20. Qg6+ Qg7 21. Qxg7+ Kxg7 22. Rc1 Nc6 23. O-O Ndxe5 24. Rc3!

Normally I would have included a diagram somewhere in the middle of that long line, but I choose not to this time because it is necessary to see the entire variation before entering into these complications. So much for lazy play!


Katz – Kacheishvili, USCL 2016, position after 24. Rc3

The point is that Black’s pieces are simply too poorly placed despite the nominal material advantage, and Black’s king is in serious danger. White won shortly thereafter.

Now, an article about swindling wouldn’t be complete without a full-blown swindle, so let’s explore one now:


Katz – Getz, USCL 2012, position after 51… Rf8

It’s not hard to see that White is completely busted: he’s down a pawn (and a key one at that), his bishop is horribly placed, and there is no real counterplay to speak of. In fact, the position is close to resignable. Well, close.

Instead of rolling over and awaiting Black to figure out a way to crash through, it’s important to get something of one’s own going. After all, things can’t get too much worse! This motivates White’s next move:

52. g4!?

Positionally suicidal of course, but practically necessary to even hope to achieve anything.

52… hxg4 53. hxg4 g5?

The first mistake, caused by lazy play. Black’s intention is clear: to prevent White from playing g5 himself. But had Black taken a bit more time here, he would have realized that g5 is not half as dangerous as the threats Black can make with a move like 53… Qb5! (threatening Rh8 and Ne2+, d3, etc.). Of course, the game move is winning as well, but now White has a plan he can put together:

54. Kg3!?

Another seemingly silly move, but necessary to get some counterplay going. The idea is to use the h-file in conjunction with the weaknesses Black has just created (on the light squares) to at least annoy the opponent.

54… Qb5 55. Rh1


Katz – Getz, USCL 2012, position after 55. Rh1

Here, Black panics in view of the upcoming Qf5, though it is simply not dangerous. A line such as 55… Rf7 56. Qf5 Ne2+ 57. Kf3 Nf4 illustrates this well: White is simply getting mated and cannot generate real threats. But it scared Black nonetheless, causing him to prevent it with

55… Ne2?! 56. Kf3 d3??

which finally allows White to complete the swindle:

57. Qa7+ Rf7 58. Rh7+!!


Katz – Getz, USCL 2012, position after 58. Rh7+!

and Black was forced to settle for the draw.

Of course, it is impossible to perfectly avoid and execute swindles, and it is generally a fruitless pursuit to try. But there are basic principles that are immediately applicable to one’s own play: setting maximum problems for the opponent, remaining alert at all stages of the game, and so on. These help even when not hopelessly behind!

In any event, it is important to be aware of one’s own selection biases, because it applies to many more cases than a simple style of play. It is easy to ignore the real reasons behind a loss, and thus never contend with them, while remembering all the flashy victories one accumulates over a career. This is a very dangerous approach to the game, and perhaps the most prominent reason for stagnation.

Anyway, it is often said that the last sentence of an article is the most difficult to write. I agree with this one too, so I’ll just skip it as well. Thanks for reading!




2 thoughts on “Anatomy of a swindle (and how to avoid one)

  1. Pingback: The Difficulty of Reaching Master – chess^summit

  2. Pingback: Daniel Johnston on the Art of Coming from Behind in Chess – chess^summit

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