Saving Worse Positions

The worst feeling in chess is losing a position where you were completely winning. Unfortunately (or sometimes fortunately as we will see!) this problem occurs at essentially all levels of the game from beginners to elite GrandMasters. There is a lot of literature out there on how to convert winning positions and finish off your opponent, but in this article I want to focus on the other side of the coin: When you reach a worse position and are almost lost how can you save it? Or even win?

The idea for this article topic came to me from a game I played at the recently completed Chicago Open. In round 6 I was playing a well established International Master, Michael Mulyar. After a complicated middlegame we reached the following position

Mulyar-Itkin after 29…Nb5

I (playing with the black pieces) had sacrificed two pieces for a rook and a pawn, but was quite optimistic about my chances. I thought my pieces were active and white was quite cramped. With my last move 29…Nb5 I was threatening the a3 pawn with dreams of marching my a6 pawn all the way to a1.

My opponent however was unfazed by this and played 30.Qe4! after which I realized that I had grossly misevaluated. Suddenly my pieces are far away from my king and only my lonely bishop on g7 is helping on defense. As a result there is no good way stop the immediate threat of Qe8 along with the ensuing attack.

I had a sinking feeling in my stomach as I realized that I am close to lost (the engine gives over +3 after 30.Qe4!) against a higher rated opponent and also have over half an hour less on the clock to complete the next 10 moves and reach the time control. What should I do? I immediately starting looking for lines that were murky and left counterplay for black. My opponent had played the entire game quickly rapidly and so I was hoping to find something that might require a tough decision from my opponent. I thought to myself “if I can get him frustrated he might make a mistake”. To this end I decided on 30…Be5 to  propose a trade of pieces and change the pawn structure. The ensuing moves can be found here, but eventually we reached the following position.

Mulyar-Itkin after 36…Kh8

I had reached my goal. The objective evaluation of the position has not really changed, hovering around +3 for white, but I have managed to create a tough decision for my opponent. White has a strong attack and it looks like mate is close, but there does not seem to be anything forced. On the other hand black is offering a queen trade, which if accepted will lead to an ending where white should be winning, but it would take another hour to convert and there are still some practical chances.

After the game my opponent gave the line 37.Bf4 h5 38. Qg5 Nf5 after which there is still no mate (although white maintains a healthy advantage after 39. Bc1) and so rejected it. He also likely didn’t want to trade into an ending due to the reasons explained above and started to get frustrated — white is almost mating and is certainly winning, but can’t find anything concrete.

Not wanting to trade queens and rejecting Bf4 my opponent chose the seemingly logical, 37.g4?. This was the mistake I was hoping for and after 37… Nf5! it is now black who is winning.  Suddenly white’s attack is merely an illusion while black has serious threats coming against f2. The game continued 38.Qg5 Rb2 39.Bg7+ (there is no good way to defend f2) 39…Ng7 (and not 39…Kg7?? where 40.Nh5 following by Qd8 is checkmate.) 40.Qh4 h5 where now black is up material with a strong attack. White resigned after a few more moves.

Another example of this type against a strong opponent happened at the infamous 2017 Canadian Closed (infamous due to the events described in this article). I was playing IM (now GM) Aman Hambleton with black in round 6. This was an important point in the tournament as we both had 3/5. Aman was one of the tournament favourites and needed a win to keep 1st place chances alive (1st place would include a spot on Canada’s Olympiad Team and a spot at the 2017 World Cup in addition to prize money), while I was aiming for a score of 6/9 as such a score would grant me the FM title since this was a zonal event (I finished with 5.5/9, just missing my goal). After strong positional play from White we reached the following position.

Hambleton-Itkin after 47.Rb5

White is up the exchange for a pawn and pressing, but black is well positioned to defend. He has two bishops and all of the pawns are on the kingside reducing white’s winning chances. Overall black has a tough defensive task ahead, but with accurate play should be able to hold. After a lot of triangulation we reached the following position.

Hambleton-Itkin after 61.Ra5

Although the position hasn’t change too much white has managed to pose some small problems for black. If I leave my king on f5 then white threatens to play a timely f4 putting pressure on the 5th rank. Although objectively (i.e if black is careful) this is never a serious threat, it is quite an uncomfortable position to be in especially during time trouble. The possibility of f4 needs to be checked every move and slight changes in the position of white’s rook and black bishops could make an impact. On the other hand if I play 61… Ke6 white can play 62.Bg5 where I must either avoid the bishop trade and give up pressure on h4 freeing up white’s king from its defense or trade on g5. The latter would entail me to lose my two bishops and gives white a more active pawn on g5 where black may have some trouble defending both e5 and g6.

After some thought I realized that Bg5 is not so scary and set a deep trap.  For those of you that like problem-solving now would be a good time to stop reading and try to evaluate what happens after 61…Ke6. 62 Bg5. The solution as well as the continuation of the game can be found here.

After several moves we reached the following position:

Hambleton-Itkin after 71.g7

Comparing this position to the one in the first diagram makes it hard to believe this is even the same game! From a quiet ending where white was pressing we reach a position where black has managed to promote and has a winning position. Here I was excited that I managed to trick such a strong player and relaxed a little. My opponent seemed rattled after the turn of events and after calculating a series of checks where I win his g7 pawn I thought I would have no trouble converting the Q v R. The game continued 71…Qh3+ 72.Kf2 Qf5 where after 73.Ke3 black plays 73…Qf7 and picks up the pawn. My opponent however set a trap for me as well and played 73.Kg3!!. I had completely missed this move as it leaves the rook en prix, but suddenly black has no checks and no way of stopping white from promoting. In fact a move like 73… Qc8 would lose to 74.g8=Q Qxg8 75.Rg4+. The game ended in a draw shortly after 73…Qxe4.

Black is winning, however, in the diagrammed position, but an accurate sequence of checks is needed. After 71…Qh3 which was played in the game, black may not even be winning. Better was 71…Qc1+ 72. Kd3 Qa3+ 73. Kf2 Qb2+ 74. Kf3 Qc3+ 75. Kf2 Qxg7 where we reach the theoretically winning Q v R ending. In the end a draw is not an unjust result given the position in the first diagram, but the turn of events left both sides feeling unhappy with the game.

This just goes to show that even in seemingly dry endings or even with only 5 pieces on the board it is possible to cause problems for your opponents and induce a mistake! What I have learned from these experiences (and from others that did not make this article) is that despite being a game of perfect information, chess is still a psychological and emotional game. It is precisely in situations where we are completely winning or completely losing that our emotions are hardest to control and, in my opinion, is often the reason that even strong players make serious mistakes in good positions and let games slip. As a player in a lost position the best chance to turn things around is to play on these emotions and get your opponent frustrated or needlessly excited — you have nothing to lose! On the other hand it is important for the player in the driving seat to stay as calm as possible without letting his or her emotions get in the way of objective evaluation. This is much easier said than done and in my view is the principal reason behind many “unexplainable” blunders in winning positions. I leave you with an example of a world champion being a victim of this himself. So next time you’re in a worse position dig deep and create tough choices for your opponent — you may just save the game!


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