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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
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
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
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.