Winning Equal Positions: An Imperfect Job

My past few articles have all been about my tournaments, and it was about time I wrote about a different topic.

Getting an advantage out of the opening is far from guaranteed these days, especially with black. Even with white, it’s hard to get an advantage against a well-prepared opponent. Naturally, the opening isn’t the only part of the game, and it’s up to you to complicate matters and outplay your opponent. Doing this in a complex middlegame where one mistake from your opponent could seal his fate is one matter, but winning an equal endgame is another story.

Going from equal to winning in an endgame usually happens in baby steps. You put pressure on your opponent, who gives you a little bit, which then grows bigger and bigger, until you win. But how to provoke those mistakes? Playing the most primitive and forcing way usually won’t do the job, assuming there aren’t pitfalls for your opponent in the critical lines. Instead, keep the tension, improve your position, play healthy moves, and eyeball plenty of ideas without necessarily committing to any. Your job is to confuse your opponent into making mistakes. By mistakes I don’t mean blunders, I mean moves that will give you what you want.

Let me show you what I mean. I played this game a couple weeks ago against a 2250. After an early queen trade, I didn’t get anything real with black out of the opening, but it’s not like I made any mistakes. I went on to win after inaccuracies from both sides. I feel that in this game I managed to create enough pressure for my opponent to cave into my demands.

Carter 1

Both players’ positions are fairly solid. White’s rook on h1 isn’t doing anything for the moment, and his superfluous knights aren’t awe-inspiring, but he can improve his pieces. The e2-knight can get relocated to d3 via c1, and the c3-knight can support white’s center. He could also consider grabbing space in the center with f4 at the right moment. Meanwhile, black’s pieces aren’t great either. The bishop on e5 looks nice

As for moves. 17… Rd8 is what intuitively comes to my mind first (putting the rook on an open file), but it’s not really useful, since white has everything covered along the d-file. He can’t go 18.Rd1 because of the h2-pawn (yes, the bishop can get rescued here), but after a logical move like 18.Nc1, improving the knight, what does black do next? What does black have here? Nothing really.

I decided to play 17… g5!?. It’s a healthy move that secures my bishop on e5. I’m eyeing going Nh5-f4 and, more immediately, generating play on the kingside with …g4. But what if white responds to …g4 with f4? What have I accomplished? Nothing. After the strongest move 18.Nc1! here, I would not have gone 18… g4. I probably would’ve played 18… Nh5 with the idea of going Nf4 in the near future and 18… Nd7, with the idea of pulling my bishop back to f6 and taking it from there. Another reasonable option is 18.h4 g4 19.f4 Bxc3 20.Nxc3, where white should be able to hold his position together. The position is around equal in either case, though I do think black is for choice.

Instead, my opponent played 18.h3?!. This prevents …g4 and doesn’t force the white rook to stay and babysit the h2-pawn. However, it’s quite a committal move that weakens the dark squares, especially f4—a very nice outpost for my knight. My problem is that the primitive 18… Nh5 is met with 19.h4!, ruining everything. Here’s where I played a tricky move: 18… Rg8!

Carter 2

My idea is simple: I want to play 19… Nh5 and meet 20.h4 with either 20… gxh4 21.Rxh4 Rxg2 or 20… g4 (importantly there’s no f4). White will most likely have to allow the black knight to land on f4, and in case of a trade, I’ll recapture with the g-pawn, highlighting another advantage of having the rook on g8. Though it already looks suspect for white, it isn’t bad for him. After 19.b4 Nh5 20.g4!, followed by a quick h4, is actually equal despite appearing to be antipositional.

Fortunately, my opponent let me get what I wanted. He played 19.Nc1 Nh5 20.Nd3 Bc7 21.Re1 (21.g4 is now met with 21… Ng3!) 21… Nf4 22.Nxf4 gxf4 23.Re2

Carter 3

White’s rook is now tied up to the g2-pawn and doesn’t have any future prospects. Looking at the first diagram, getting this far is quite an accomplishment. My plan was to:

  • Solidify my bind with …e5
  • Improve my king, most likely by putting it on e6
  • Improve my bishop (a square like d4 looks nice)
  • Open up the queenside at the right moment

At least I have a concrete plan here! Unfortunately, I got a little ahead of myself by playing 23… e5?!, to which my opponent correctly responded with 24.b4!. White grabs territory on the queenside and will likely generate counterplay. Oops! I quickly realized I should’ve gone 23… a5! to prevent white from playing b4. What to do now? I decided to improve my king and act like nothing was happening. After 24… Kd7 25.a5 Ke6 26.Na4, I decided to prevent Nc5 once and for all with 26… b6

Cater 4

Again, I’m back to not having any advantage. After 27.axb6 axb6 28.Kb3, white’s position is fairly compact, and he has everything under control. Where’s my advantage there? More unnerving was the idea of 27.axb6 axb6 28.b5!?, temporarily sacrificing a pawn with the idea of breaking black’s position up and securing the d5-square. What to do after that? Looking at it right now, I’m genuinely stumped.

My opponent played 27.a6?!, keeping the queenside closed. This looks perfectly reasonable, but there’s the drawback that the a6-pawn could become vulnerable in an endgame. For that reason, his main idea is to still play b5. That’s why I should’ve played 27… b5 myself, no matter how counterintuitive it looks. After 28.Nc5+ Ke7, white’s knight is nice but is eyeing empty squares. Instead, I played 27… Rd8?!. White should have gone 28.b5! cxb5 29.Nc3 here. Yes, black does get to keep his pawn after 29… b4 30.Nb5 Bb8, but white has plenty of play after 31.Kb3. My rook will infiltrate, but white’s position will hold together.

My opponent played right into my hands by playing 28.Rd2? Rxd2+ 29.Kxd2. After 29… Kd7 (29… b5! is more accurate, but what I played shouldn’t blow anything) 30.Kd3 b5 31.Nc5+ Ke7, I got exactly what I wanted.

Carter 5

I’ll go Bd6, kicking the white knight out of c5, and will then march with my king to b6 and win the a6-pawn. White’s only counterplay is on the kingside, but for that he’ll have to pull his knight back to f1/e2 and play g3. That is what my opponent ended up doing, but it’s way too slow. I went on to win without any further adventures.

Conclusion

This is not a model game by any means, but I thought it was instructive. Here are my takeaways:

  • Try to complicate matters with ideas that actually may not be that good (17… g5 with the “idea” of …g4). You don’t have to follow through if it doesn’t work out, but who knows which your opponent may not want to allow.
  • Don’t cave in to your opponent’s demands (letting me get pressure on the g2-pawn for free).
  • Once you get a bind, make sure your opponent doesn’t get counterplay (me allowing him to play).
  • Don’t give your opponent second chances (me allowing him to play b5 twice, even if he chose not to do it either time).
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