Beating Lower Rated Opponents Part II

We will continue to look at common unpleasant situations that arise when facing lower rated opponents and how to overcome them. In part I we examined what to do when your opponent plays for a draw — in this article we will look at how to beat your lower rated opponent when they play better than expected and when you shoot yourself in the foot.

2.Opponent Plays Better Than Expected

We all know the feeling; you are playing down expecting an easy game, but to your surprise your opponent finds all the right moves and even finds strong ideas you didn’t  see yourself. You start getting nervous and asking yourself “How is this possible? He/she is not that good, how could I have let them outplay me?”, start psyching yourself out and only make your opponents task of beating you easier.

The truth is that this is not just possible, but actually expected to happen occasionally! What people often forget is that the ELO system assigns just one number to a person to determine their strength and so should be interpreted as an average estimate for a players overall chess ability. That is, in one particular game your opponent could easily play at a level of 100 points or more above their rating (and some games 100 points below their rating). For those who are numerically inclined consider the following experiment: I took 10 samples from a normal distribution with mean 2000 and standard deviation 100 to represent the lower rated player’s playing strength for 10 given games and another 10 samples from a normal distribution with mean 2100 and standard deviation 100 to represent the higher rated player as shown below:

simulation
Rating simulation

As you can see in 3 of the 10 games the lower rated player actually has a higher “game rating” when matching up against the higher rated player.

This is just to show that it is actually quite natural for the weaker player to sometimes play at a high level (and of course the reverse is true for high rated players!), but on an even smaller scale it is quite possible that your opponent can play certain moves or part of a game at a level above their rating and another part of that same game at a much lower level — exploiting this to your advantage will be the main focus of this section.

At World Open 2019 in Round 3 I was paired down with the White pieces against a lower rated (2070 FIDE, 2231 USCF) and elderly opponent. Considering these factors I was expecting a fairly easy win going into the game and was already thinking about where I wanted to go for dinner after (this game was actually played on my birthday!). To my surprise the win was by no means easy. After playing out an uncommon line of the French defence we reached the following position:

Game2Pic1
White to move

The position is probably close to balanced, where white has some pressure on the king-side, but black has the long term advantage of the e4 square for his knight; I was comfortable with this dynamic as the higher rated player. The critical and probably best continuation for White is 14.f5! Bxh2+ 15.Kh1 Nbd7 16.fxg fxg 17.Bxg6 Ne4 with a very sharp and unclear position.

I didn’t even seriously consider f5 seeing that h2 would hang and instead opted for 14. Ng3?! to help prepare f5. My opponent responded in the best way playing 14…Nh7! ⩱, a move I had not seen. My bishop on g5 is now problematically placed, as black has the B+Q battery looking down the b8-h2 diagonal. I cannot play 15.Bh4 due to the hanging pawn on f4. 15.h4 fails to 15…Nxg5! (not 15… f6? 16.Bxg6 fxg 17.hxg! with Qh5 and a dominating attack coming) 16.hxg Bxf4 -+

Instead I chose 15.Qg4 which happens to be the engine’s top choice and keeps the game complicated, which was my main goal. Just because my lower rated opponent found a few moves I did not and got a better position does not mean that this trend will continue, especially if the position remains complicated and he has to make tough decisions every move. The game continued

15…f5 16.Qh4 (The engines recommendation is 16.Nxf5 gxf 17. Bxf5 Rxf5 18.Qxf5 Qd7! with an approximately equal position as I have 2 pawns and a Rook for two pieces, but with the permanent weakness of the e4 square I think it would be hard to play for a win once Black consolidates White’s initiative)  16…Nd7 17.Rael Rae8 where we reached the following position.

Game2Pic2
Move 18, White to move

Black maintains an advantage and now White must make an important decision. I could have played a neutral move like 18.c3 and tried to sit tight and hold (which maybe I would have opted for against a higher rated player), but instead continued looking for ways to complicate the position. As mentioned earlier, players can often play phases of a game very well and other phases very poorly so when facing a lower rated opponent who is playing better than expected it is important to keep the position complicated and try to force tough decisions. With this in mind I eventually settled on the move 18.Be7!

This move is tricky and has some venom; after first glance it looks like White is losing after 18…Bxe7 19.Rxe7 g5, but after 20.Rxg7+!! Kxg7 fxg, the threat of Nxf5 and a full attack on Black’s defenceless king leaves Black in trouble. The best continuation for Black was 18… Bxe7 19.Rxe7 Nhf6 20.Rfe1 Rxe7 21.Rxe7 Qb6! threatening both d4 and b2, but this subtle continuation is not so easy to find when there are a myriad of possibilities (I did not see it during the game an evidently neither did my opponent).

My opponent spent a lot of time calculating the different variations and eventually chose a safe continuation as the game continued 18.Rxe7 19.Rxe7 Bxe7 20.Qxe7 Rf7 21.Qe8+ Nhf8 22.c3 Nf5 23. Qe5 Qd8! (23…Qxe5 leaves Black with an unfavourable bishop vs knight ending after 24.fxe Ne4 25.Nxe4 fxe (25… dxe Bc4 +-) 26. Rxf7 Kxf7 27.Be2 with Bg4 to follow) 24. Re1 Ne4 25.Bxe4 fxe (25…Re7 hoping to trap the queen fails to 26.Bxd5+!)

Game2Pic3
Position after 25…fxe

My opponent has played well all game and managed to navigate his way through a complicated middlegame to keep his advantage. I realized that for most of the game we had played through a pretty closed position, which is a type of position that French players typically excel at and in fact I would consider the diagrammed position above to be a pretty closed one still. Hence I started looking for a way to open up the position; one can often induce mistakes from an opponent (especially one lower rated) by changing the character of the position. This forces your opponent to quickly adapt to the new position and nuances that come with it, forgoing the ideas they had previously planned — a difficult task for most.

With this in mind I continued with 26.f5! gxf 27.Nxf5 Qg5 28.Rf1 opening up the position quite a bit. My opponent told me after the game that on this move he was originally planning to play 28…g6 which he thought was winning the knight, but this fails to 29.h4! If 29… Qh5 then Ne7+ wins an exchange, whereas 29…Qd8 is refuted by Nh6+. As a result the position is about equal after a quiet move like 28…Qf6 or 28…Kh7, but my opponent who moments ago thought he was winning and was still adjusting to the new ideas available in this more open position decided to play the active move 28…Ng6? 

After 29.Qe6! it is now White who is taking over as the pin on the rook is extremely unpleasant. The game finished with a nice tactical blow: 29…Nf4 (the ugly looking 29…Nh8 was Black’s only chance, but still white maintains a sizeable advantage) 30.Rxf4! Qxf4 31. Ne7+ Kh7 (31…Kf8/h8 loses the queen to 32.Ng6+) 32.Qg6+ Kh8 33.Qh5+ and Black resigned in view of 33…Qh6 34.Qxf7 where White is up a piece and has a devastating attack 1-0.

In the end my lower rated opponent outplayed me for most of the game, but in just a few moves threw it all away. In my opinion the pressure to make tough decisions (such as after 18.Be7) and the sudden change in the pawn structure (via 26.f5) caused my opponent difficulties and he wasn’t able to successfully adapt to the subtleties of the position — these are important things to look out for when you find yourself in such a situation.

3. You Shoot Yourself in the Foot

Many chess players have had the feeling that they lost a game more than their opponent won it; that is they made an obvious mistake (or mistakes) that just handed over the victory without the opponent having to do anything special. In this section we will look at how to recover from a (non-lethal) mistake made against a lower rated player.

To demonstrate these ideas we will look at a game from a local (i.e in Pittsburgh) G30/d5 event where I was playing someone around 300 points lower rated with the Black pieces. We played out the four pawns attack of the King’s Indian and reached the following position with Black to move

Game3PIc1
Black to Move

I felt very comfortable here and in fact the engine evaluates this position as -1.4 after a quiet developing move like 19…Bd7. I had also noticed that I could give up my sacred dark squared bishop by taking on c3 to win the pawn on e4. I calculated the line 19…Bxc3 20.Bxc3 Rxe4 21. Bd4 b5! where Black is winning a piece and so happily played 19…Bxc3?

My opponent of course replied 20.Qxc3!  a move I had forgot to even look at! Irrespective of why I missed this pretty obvious recapture (lack of focus, mental lapse or whatever else it could have been), I had managed to not only lose my advantage, but actually hand it over to White (i.e. White is now better); I shot myself in the foot.

The game continued 20…Rxe4 21.Bf3 Re8 22.f5

Game3Pic2
Position after 22.f5

Black is up a pawn, but White has a tremendous initiative along the dark squares. Threats of mate via Bh6 are in the air and my knight pinned on the c-file restricts my defensive resources. The line I considered “safest” (and the engine agrees) is 22…Qd8, but after 23.Bh6 Re5 White remains better and can continue pressuring with say 24.Qd4 or even force a draw by repetition with 24.Bf4 Re8 25.Bh6. Now it is unlikely my opponent would take a draw in this position, but when playing against someone 300 points lower rated that was a possibility and one I wanted to avoid — despite being in a worse position I wanted to continue playing for a win!

Ideally Black would like to meet Bh6 with Ne5, which is a much more natural piece to have on e5 than the rook, but the immediate Nd7 is impossible due to the pin against my Queen. This led me to play the move 22… Qb6!?. I had seen the line 23.a5 (of course not 23.Bh6?? Nxa4 -+) Qa7 24.Kh1 Nd7 25.Rael Ne5 26.Be3 where Black is forced to play 26…Qb8 and have a more passive position than after 22…Qd8. Despite seeing this, since I was playing a lower rated opponent I reminded myself that just because I was able to find this line does not mean that they will. This can be a dangerous maxim to follow blindly; one should not solely play for tricks and play objectively bad moves hoping their opponent makes a mistake. However, when one is in a worse position against someone lower rated and has to chose between two somewhat similar miserable lines, I think it makes sense to play the one where a mistake can offer you a way out.

My opponent replied with the immediate 22.Kh1?!, forgoing the intermediate move a5,  and after 22…Nd7 things are looking a little better for Black. White still has an advantage, but Black will play his knight to e5 next move, have the open c-file to fight for and also have the luxury of retreating the queen to d8 (instead of b8) if attacked where it can remain an active offensive and defensive piece along the d8-h4 diagonal. The game continued

24.Rael Ne5 25.Bg2 Bd7 26.f6? 

An inaccuracy from White, playing the immediate 26.Qg3 (with the idea of going Qh4-h6) offered more flexibility as the possibility of playing Bc3 later on to continue the attack remains available (whereas now the f6 pawn blocks the a1-h8 diagonal for White’s bishop).

26…Rac8 27.Qg3 Rc2 (this rook penetration was only possible due to White allowing the b8 square to be vacated and for the knight to have moved off of c5 so that the maneuver  Ra8-c8-c2 could be executed — if we compare this to the line 22.a5 we see that this would not be possible) 28. Qh4 Kh8

Game3Pic3
Position after 28…Kh8

The diagrammed position is equal (engine gives it 0.00 and gives some drawing lines that end in perpetual), but here my opponent played a critical mistake. When a player has had a clear advantage for a large part of the game it is often difficult for them to mentally adjust to the fact that they may no longer be better, which can provoke a mistake. Here my opponent, who previously had a strong attack along the dark squares went “all-in” with 29.Bh6?, but after 29…Qd4! -+Black’s activity (along the same dark squares!) is more than enough to defend against White’s threats and consolidate the extra pawn advantage. The game continued

30.Bg7+ Kg8 31.Rd1 (the immediate 31.Qh6 fails to 31…Qd2 where Black forces a queen trade) Qe3 32.Qh6 Qxh6 33.Bxh6 Rxb2 and white resigned a few moves later as Black has a commanding material lead and White has no attack to show for it 0-1.

Even though I caused myself a lot of problems in this game with 19…Bxc3 I still managed to fight back and win. The key moment came with the move 22…Qb6 where I managed to exploit my understanding of the position to garner some activity and extra defensive resources. With said activity I ended up outplaying my lower rated opponent and got the full point! This just goes to show that even if you shoot yourself in the foot, you can still fight back and make decisions that can induce mistakes from your opponent.

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Beating Lower Rated Opponents Part I

Introduction

One often measures his or her chess improvement by results against stronger players; many players (I was a victim of this type of thinking myself) when they beat someone say 200 points higher rated feel like they are improving and not too far from reaching that rating themselves, but when they lose to someone 200 rating points lower feel like it was just a fluke and nothing to worry about. The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that consistency is the key to long-term improvement. Being able to consistently beat lower rated players can have as big of a positive effect on your rating (as my recent results show) as upsets against higher rated players. Moreover, this consistency can also help your psychological well-being by avoiding mood swings that come from losing to lower rated players. Despite these benefits, the subject is sometimes neglected and many improving players tend to focus on their results when “playing up” and not seriously reflecting on their games when they “play down” regardless of the result.

The idea for this article came to me from my recent (somewhat unusual for me) tournament performances. Quite often when playing an event I will manage to upset a higher rated player, often even an IM or GM, only to later lose to a lower rated player and squander any rating gains I had — a recent example of this is my performance at Cherry Blossom in May. Since that tournament, however, the opposite has been true; in 22 USCF rated games since then I managed to score 14/15 against lower rated opponents (without losing a game) and (unfortunately) only 1.5/7 against higher rated opponents. What surprised me was that in the process I gained 17 FIDE rating points and 37 USCF points (not all the games were FIDE rated) despite feeling like I didn’t do anything special; I just beat those lower rated and lost to those higher rated. Upon some reflection I came to the conclusion that consistently beating lower rated opponents is something special!

When playing someone lower rated there seems to be an expectation about how the game will go: I will get a comfortable position from the opening, then outplay my opponent in the middlegame as the superior player that I am and then (if necessary) convert the endgame, easily winning without even breaking a sweat. Sometimes the script may indeed play out this way, but more often than not things won’t be so simple!   In fact this was most pronounced by my performance at the 2019 World Open in July where I scored 5.5/6 against lower rated opponents, but only had one “smooth” game. In another three games I stood worse, but managed to win two and draw one, and in the remaining two games I managed to win completely drawn positions. It was certainly not the case that I easily crushed my opponents; to quote Drake it instead felt like most of my wins were “willed into existence” (video for reference). In this article and its sequel we will examine some of the typical cases of how this idealistic script may not play out (and how to win anyway!) using examples from my recent games.

We will look at the three common types of “alternative scripts” that occur when playing down:

  1. Opponent plays for a draw. This most often happens when your opponent has the white pieces and decides to play very solidly, take no risks, trade as many pieces as possible and try to crawl his or her way to a draw.
  2. Opponent plays better than expected. Sometimes you expect that your lower rated opponent will slip up somewhere, and you will be able to punish their mistakes, but to your surprise they keep finding the best moves and even some strong moves you didn’t see yourself.
  3.  You shoot yourself in the foot.  Quite often your weaker opponent may get a good position not because of their strong play, but because you overlooked something and made a mistake that leaves you in trouble.

In this article we will look at the 1st case and will examine the 2nd and 3rd cases in part II.

1. Opponent Plays for a Draw

This sometimes happens and is mostly unavoidable; after all what can you do if your opponent (typically with the white pieces) shows no interest in playing for a win, but instead tries to remain super solid and trade off as many pieces as possible? Though it may be frustrating when your opponent plays this way, it does not mean that a draw is certain! When your opponent takes such an approach to the game they will often avoid the most principled, and often objectively best, variations. The main thing to remember about this type of play is that although each such decision is only a small concession, over the course of the game these concessions can accumulate to a sizeable advantage for you.

This is nicely illustrated in my round 8 game from the 2019 World Open. I was playing a young opponent rated 2050 FIDE (around 200 points lower rated than me) with the black pieces and pretty early on I realized that my opponent had no intention of trying to beat me. After playing out the Panov variation in the Caro-Kann we reached the following interesting position:

Game1Pic1

White has an IQP which can be a long term weakness, highlighted by Black’s knight on d5, but on the other hand he has an initiative with all of his pieces pointed towards the Black king; I would consider this position dynamically balanced. A sample line of how the game could have continued is 17.Bh6 Nxc3 18.bxc3 Qd5 19.f3 Rfe8 where the position remains balanced with lots of play for both sides. Instead my opponent surprised me with

17.Bxe7? Qxe7 18.Nxd5 Bxd5 19.b4?! Nc4 20.Nxc4 Bxc4

In the last 4 moves my opponent traded off 3 minor pieces avoiding the most critical (and probably best) line in favour of a “safer” position, but where white stands clearly worse. The d4 pawn is now a permanent weakness and white has no initiative to compensate for it. On the other hand with only major pieces and a pair of same coloured bishops (which will likely get traded soon too) left on the board it is no simple task for Black to exploit this weakness (as far as I know one of the best versions of the IQP to have for black is R+N vs R+B, which isn’t possible here). The game continued

21.Qe3 Rfd8 22.Rd2 Rc7 23.Rad1 Rcd7 24.h3 Qh4!? 25.Be4

Game1Pic2
Position after 25.Be4

As before the game revolves around the weakness of the d4 pawn and as a result White’s major pieces are passively placed defending it, but is not so clear how Black can break through. I chose to play the move 25…Bd5!

At first this move seems paradoxical — I had just mentioned how white is trying to trade pieces and simplify the position so why would I willingly go along with this plan? The reason is twofold; a concrete chess reason and a psychological reason as well. From a chess perspective it is clear that the bishop is White’s most active piece and so trading it off will leave White with only his very passive major pieces. Moreover, this will permanently stop my opponent from being able to play d5 himself and trading off the weakness. Black can then attempt to triple up on the d-file and play e5 at the right moment to try and win the pawn.

But the psychological effect of this move should not be underestimated. Throughout the game it has been my opponent who has been initiating trades to try and neutralize the higher rated opponent. All of a sudden, I reversed the flow of events and offered a piece trade myself; this probably left my opponent fairly uncomfortable and possibly even doubting his own understanding and assessment of the position. Although I cannot speak with confidence about what exactly my opponent was thinking, the reaction this move drew was definitely a positive one for Black as my opponent played 26.f3? 

Clearly White is hoping for the line 26…Bxe4? 27.fxe where he no longer has an IQP, but of course Black will not oblige. The bottom line is that f3 unnecessarily creates extra weaknesses around White’s king that (spoiler alert) may play a factor later on; another small concession that slowly increases Black’s advantage. The game continued

26…Qg3 27.Rc1 Bxe4 28.Qxe4 Rd5

where we reached a similar position to what would have happened if my opponent played 26.Bxd5, but where White inexplicably played f3.

The critical point in the game was reached on move 38 with black to move in the following position

Game1Pic3
Position on move 38 with Black to move

The engine’s evaluation is similar to the previous diagram (hovering around -0.5), but the position has opened up a bit with each side having one less pawn on the queenside. White has all his forces aimed at the b6 pawn, while Black is still eyeing the IQP on d4. There are many different ways to try and trade off these pawns, but when playing a lower rated player we want to pick the one where it is easiest to err. As my old chess coach used to say “give your opponent a chance to screw up”.  

I played 38…b5! enticing my opponent to take the pawn.  If he doesn’t (and he shouldn’t) the character of the position changes a little bit — the g1-a7 diagonal now becomes accessible to Black’s queen (which can be dangerous due to the pawn having moved off of f2), White’s rooks become more passive staring at a pawn on the 5th rank rather than the 6th and ideas of Ra4 putting more pressure on d4 become available in some lines. None of these threats are extremely serious, but after playing the entire game trying to force a draw it is hard for White to decline a simplification especially when it involves trading the problematic d4 pawn for another one.

My opponent cracked under the pressure and accepted the trade playing 39.Rxb5?, but after 39…Rxd4 (of course not 39…Rxb5? 40.Rxb5 Qxa3 41.Qxa3 Rxa3 =) White’s king is in serious danger. The game continued

40.Rb6 Qc5! exploiting the weakness created by 26.f3; 41.Rxa6 fails to 41…Rd1+ 42.Kh2 h4! where mate via Qg1 is unavoidable.

41.R6b5 Rd1+ 42.Kh2 Qg1+ 43.Kg3 Qe1+ 44.Kh2 h4! 45.Rh5+ gxh5 46.Qc2+ f5 47.Rb7+ Kg6 and White resigned 0-1.

Overall this was not an easy win, but White’s goal of holding a draw backfired; he made seemingly small concessions throughout the game (trading minor pieces, 26. f3 and  taking the pawn on b5 being the main ones) which accumulated into a problematic position that he was unable to defend. As the higher rated player in such a situation the goal should be to create psychologically difficult decisions for your opponent and exploit to the maximum the minor concessions he or she makes along the way. Even though this may not feel like the most elegant way to win, I believe it is the most effective approach when facing an opponent who stubbornly plays for a draw. For now I leave you with a recent (unannotated) example of this at the most elite level in chess.

Part II of this article is now published here.