Are you watching closely?
Every great chess game consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called, well, the opening. The players show you something ordinary: a Ruy, an English, or — in this case — a Grunfeld. Perhaps you check against the database to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. Of course… it probably is. The second act is called the middlegame. The players take the ordinary something and make it do something extraordinary. Or sometimes they don’t:
Now you’re looking for the reason I’m subjecting you to this very very forced reference… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be… fooled.
Ok, why am I showing you this nonsense? Well, every chess player has, at some point, witnessed a game that made a huge impression on them in some way. One of Kasparov’s many tactical melees, Tal’s sacrificial attacks, or Karpov’s positional dominations tend to be popular choices, as do games featuring incredible moves (e.g. Khismatullin’s brilliant 44. Kg1!! against Eljanov) or games with external importance (e.g. world championship-ending queen sacrifices). My formative game, displayed in two compelling images above, features nothing wild, nothing particularly counterintuitive, and was even a rapid (!) game. Yet the game was… magical. From one of the most boring positions you could possibly construct, Carlsen — cleanly (no blundering a rook or anything) — slowly outplayed a player (Ponomariov) known for their endgame ability over the course of 70+ moves!
Now, of course, while Carlsen is an incredible player it’s not like Ponomariov had any business losing this position. Personally, I don’t even think getting from point A to point B was a result of skill difference: rather, Carlsen just wanted to win badly enough that fate forced Ponomariov to comply. In doing so, Carlsen taught me (and us) two things: first, this Carlsen guy is just insane — at least for me, this was the first time I really realized that Carlsen was something special (and this was after he was #1 in the world). But more practically, that pretty much any position is winnable even against the best of opponents, and given that you and I aren’t exactly consistently playing against the best in the world (though if you are and you’re reading this, please sign my forehead) even the most apparently drawn positions are often very much alive.
With just this instance, you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking that the above was simply a once-in-a-lifetime fluke, but fortunately I’ve come armed with personal examples to convince you otherwise!
LADIES AND GENTLEMAN, FOR MY FIRST TRICK… let’s first set the stage a little. The event is the 2017 US Amateur Team East, one of the (if not the) largest events in the US. My opponent: FM Gregory Markzon, a local player who was about 200 points lower rated than me, but who I grew up playing against with… poor results. After some adventures in the middlegame involving both of us trying to force draws at different points for the match situation, eventually matters clarified to my team being down 2-1, forcing me to break out of a repetition into a losing position, and somehow surviving to the following almost symmetrical position with Black:
Obviously this position is very drawn, but actually things are not quite as simple as they appear. Black’s queen is slightly more centralized than its counterpart, and Black’s king is a single tempo more active than the enemy monarch. The latter is particularly important as it means many pawn endings would be winning for Black, allowing him to break out of potential perpetual checks by parrying with the queen. Thus, Black can at least hope for a situation where he slowly escorts his queen to the a-pawn, somehow corrals it while preserving the b-pawn in the process, then argues that the b-pawn is faster than the kingside connectors. In the game, White didn’t quite appreciate the danger of this idea until Black’s king had already managed to cross the halfway point, by which time some (mild) precision was actually required to survive. But psychologically speaking, going from a basically assured draw to suddenly having to find some accurate moves is often very tricky, and fortunately for us Markzon wasn’t up to the task. After well over 100 moves I managed to collect the match-tying point.
As a slight sidenote, if you take nothing else away from this article: **activate your king in queen endgames!!**. For some reason, basically all players under 2400 or so seem to be unwilling to activate their king and allow the possibility of checks, even when said checks are fairly harmless and can just be blocked. I understand the reluctance to risk blundering pawns to forks, but in general you really do need to play queen endgames like somewhat slower pawn endings (so the same principles apply: how far your pawns are is often more important than how many you have, and king activity is paramount).
Ok, this game wasn’t quite the same thing as Carlsen’s masterclass — there were some clear advantages in my position that made it reasonable to play on (even if the match situation didn’t mandate it). So let’s look at an even more blatant (and recent) example. Here, I am white against FM Arthur Guo, an 11-year-old 2300 who I fully expect to have a title by this time next year. The tournament is the Philadelphia Open, and this is late enough in the tournament that nothing but pride is on the line (we are both well out of money/norm contention. LADIES AND GENTLEMAN, FOR MY SECOND TRICK:
This is about as symmetric a position as you can get, and if anything it can be argued that Black’s pawn structure is better off. But for reasons of personal pride (and annoyance at spoiling a close-to-winning middlegame), I badly wanted to find a way to at least try to press something. Of course, the only way to even pray for this is to engineer a way to get in h4-h5 under favorable circumstances, somehow compromise Black’s pawn structure, and then figure something else out from there, so this was necessarily my plan. In the meantime, I also need to find a way to get my queen onto a safe — but active — square, avoiding queen trades while simultaneously not allowing Black to come up with winning ideas of his own. This requires some dancing: 1. Qd4 Qb6 2. Qa4 Qb4 3. Qa7 Qe7 4. Qa8 Qc5 5. Qb7 Qe7 6. Qc6 Qc7 7. Qa4! (finally a “safe” square!!). This 7-move sequence allows White the time to get in a single tempo, so the “winning” plan becomes clear: use these 7 moves to get in g3, repeat the sequence to get in Kg2, repeat the sequence to get in h4, then finally repeat the sequence to get in h5. Oh, we also have to watch for Qc1-f4 ideas in the meantime. Phew.
In the game, this is more or less what happened, allowing me a glimmer of winning chances (though of course the position is still very drawn):
Here 1… Nxh5 is impossible due to 2. Qd7!. This forces 1… gxh5, which allows a cute trick: 2. Nd4 Qg5 3. Ne6!? fxe6 4. Qa7+ Nd7 5. Qxd7 when Black’s pawn structure is ruined and there is finally something to play for. Eventually, I was able to collect some of the pawns at the cost of a queen trade, leaving me with a still-drawn N+2 vs. N+1 ending. After some trickery involving a brilliant “bluffing face” (a subject for another day…), I managed to scam a win when Black, deceived by my fake confidence, erroneously resigned in the final position:
where 1… Nxf8 2. g7 Kf7! forces the draw immediately.
Of course I don’t mean to suggest playing on in every drawn position; sometimes, saving time and energy is the correct practical choice. But what I do suggest is “watching closely”: carefully considering when a position is truly dead vs. when it’s simply not easy to make progress. In particular, even just staying alert and focused throughout these endings where “anything” draws (often, not quite anything!) can earn you an extra half point here and there when your opponent goes to sleep (which is hardly rare). Even if this happens only one in 20 games, that’s an extra 3-4 rating points per event or so on average, which really adds up! Even full point swings are more than possible with such an approach.
AND NOW, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN… FOR MY FINAL TRICK, I’LL MAKE THE LAST WORD