On paper, if a player is paired against a significantly higher rated player, he or she is supposed to lose. That is how the rating system is supposed to work. However, we also know that upsets occur all the time when the higher rated player fails to win. So, if they’re not supposed to occur, then why do they? More specifically, how are upsets created?
While not always the case, the higher rated player is typically a better positional player than the lower rated counterpart. Therefore, it is justified to assume that if two players are locked in a positional effort, the higher rated player will come out on top the majority of the time. This leaves the flip side of the coin, a tactical game – when it comes to a tactical game, it comes down to which player is better at tactics and calculation rather than who is higher rated. In general, it is easier to gain an advantage against a higher rated player through tactical means than it is through positional means.
We’ll investigate a case in point here with a game between a high 2300-rated IM and super-grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura.
The knight is attacked, so it has to move; the question is, where? White has three safe retreat squares, but none of them are appetizing since Black will continue with Nf6 and d5, which will seriously question White’s control of the center. In addition, White would not have a concrete plan, which comes as a consequence of losing presence in the center. Thus, White takes a chance with a tactical sacrifice, justifying the decision with the knowledge that he will probably lose if he plays passively. Let’s see how that decision held up.
A good practical decision, forcing Black on the defensive.
17. … fxe6
Forced. If 17. … Qb8, 18. Nxg7+ followed by Nh5 leaves White with a clear advantage.
The correct follow-up. Once again, playing forcing moves makes it exponentially easier to calculate variations.
18. … g6
If 18. … Kf8?? 19. fxe6+ and mate comes next move.
19. fxg6 Nf6 20. g7+
An important intermezzo that allows the queen to enter deep into Black’s position.
20. … Kd7 21. Qf7 Qe8 22. gxh8/N!
An important detail that really proves this variation worthwhile for White.
22. … Qxh8 23. Ne2!
After the recapture by the queen, White had to really think about how to continue the attack, and he delivers with this accurate move. The knight move clears the c-file for the rook, which cuts off escape squares from the king and simultaneously threatens Rc7+.
23. … b5
This move actually protects against Rc7+. The key point becomes clear after 24. Rc7+ Kxc7 25. Qxe7+ Nd7 26. Rc1+ Bc6 and the option of 27. b5 is no longer available.
24. Bg5 Qg8 25. Rxf6 Qxg5 26. Qxe6+ Kd8 27. Rc7!
White keeps mounting the pressure and creates a dual mate threat.
27. … Qe3+ 28. Kf1 Kxc7 29. Qxe7+ Kb6 30. Qxd6+ Ka7 31. Qc7 1-0
The threat of Rxa6+ followed by mate is unstoppable and Black resigned. This game was an example of when taking the risk with a tactical combination could pay off, especially against a higher rated player. While this example was purely tactical, it should be noted that an early positional miscue by the opponent can also be exploited if played correctly.
As we have seen, timid/passive play against a higher rated player is not a good idea. Although the game might last a long time, in the end, you will probably lose. In contrast, playing actively and boldly is the best approach against a higher rated player if one wishes to have a chance at beating or drawing since many tactical combinations have the possibility of ending in a perpetual check as well.
Upsets happen quite regularly in tournaments, and it goes to show how hard it can be for top seeds to beat every lower rated player that they play. Next time, we will investigate the opposite – how likely it is to beat lower rated players in a tournament. That is, how likely it is for a high rated player to finish with a perfect or near-perfect score in a tournament when playing all lower rated players. And, as always, thanks for reading!