How to avoid bad chess positions and what to do next when you find yourself in one

September 21, 2015

Tudor Rickards This post was prepared for a chess talk to members of East Cheshire Chess Club. It may be of interest to club-level players or parents who are increasingly being beaten up by their children at the game of chess. With a little ‘translation’, it may also have value as a guide to strategy and leadership as has been indicated in earlier posts

Anyone who wanders around our chess club during a match will know I get into bad positions, and sometimes get out of trouble. It’s not because I don’t know how to avoid bad positions, it is more that I break rules I was taught as a schoolboy.

Here are the rules I break, and why that is usually a bad thing. I also suggest what to try if you still break them, and find yourself in a bad position.

Rule 1.  Do not fall behind in development

This means do not move the same piece frequently, when other pieces remain in their original positions.

Rule 2. Don’t move pawns without thinking about where the opponent will attack the pawns

Pawns can’t move backwards.  When you move a pawn try to visualize your ‘chain’ of pawns, how the structure may persist, and how it may be broken.  The great Nimzowich teaches us how to attack pawn chains at the weakest point.

Rule 3. Beware of simplifying moves

Unless you are winning, you should avoid simplifying exchanges. More  often than not, exchanges favour the second player.  (Check this out on your games with a Search Engine. See how the advantage swings.)

Rule 4. Calculate most carefully when you think the position has become complicated

Some positions do not need a lot of calculations. For example, if your opponent has been playing the moves you expected. These are balanced positions, with pawns defended,  pieces coordinated.  Decide on how to strengthen the position.  Coordinate pieces to avoid under-protection, and over-burdened pieces. These are where tactics come in.

Rule 5. Practice Plan B

A plan B might be a change of strategy. If you have made a mistake you may need to find a plan that you hadn’t thought of. For example, sometimes if you lose  a pawn it leaves your opponent’s position slightly weakened. Look how to exploit it as if you made a pawn sacrifice.

Remember most games have chances for the player with an inferior position.  A losing game is different from a lost game. Your opponents may relax waiting for the game to be over in their favour

Rule 6.  Avoid time trouble

Try To make safe and simple ‘holding’ moves when you are in a familiar position, to keep up with your opponent’s time.  If you do get into time trouble, try to anticipate your opponent’s move and use your opponent’s time.  If you have guessed his or her move, reply quickly.

Rule 7.  Move quickly, but not too quickly

However careful you are, you will sometimes move too quickly. There are various bits of advice that can help. I found this on avoiding blunders useful not just for beginners.

Other things worth thinking about

In a series of exchanges, watch out for zwischenzug moves (intermediate moves that can ruin a combination).

If you have no obvious move, then you need to see what  candidate moves you can think of.  If you are thinking of breaking principles, be more careful.

There are many useful suggestions about avoiding blunders.  This article is worth studying.

Comments welcomed for other tips about blunders and how to avoid them.

Andy Murray v Yuri Bhambri : Cave-man tactics and their limitations in sport and maybe in business

January 19, 2015


When a qualifier meets a top seeded tennis player, sometimes caveman tactics result. We review Andy Murray’s march with Yuri Bhambri, and consider the implications of all-out aggression in other sports and in business

The start of the Australian Open, the first major of the season. Somewhat against my better judgment, I get up in the small hours in the UK to see how Andy Murray is doing. His opponent, Yuki Bhambri, is a qualifier and ranked 317 in the world.

1st set

Half an hour into the match. Bhambri’s aggression is impressive. Murray breaks Bhambri’s serve but failed to capitalise, being broken himself, ringing the first set to a tense four games all. Murray then breaks and holds to take the set 6-4.

Both players are making excellent winners, but both are rather prone to unforced errors..

2nd set

Bhambri serves first and holds. A discordant but enthusiastic chant rises up from tee-shirted Murray supporters. In the next game, good defense from the Indian draws errors from Murray, but the Scot’s resolve helps him survive; 1-1.

Bhambri continues with his aggressive style of play and wins service after more winners and errors. Murray replies with a love game bringing it to 2-2. Bhambri is still the aggressor and seems to be benefiting from winning though three rounds of qualifiers Murray breaks, then holds, making it 5-3.

Take out the errors…

Minus a few errors from each game, the quality of the match is more suited to be a second week tie. An edited film would be misleading. The commentators suggest Bhambri is playing like a top fifty player.

Defend Rally Attack

Murray continues to plays rather defensively with flashes of brilliance. I remember the coaching maxim: Defend Rally Attack. Murray too inclined to defend and Rally; Bhambri too inclined to go from defend to attack. This is evident again as Murray moves to 40-15. In returning, the all out attack opens up court, higher risk [one attacking return forces Murray to attack not rally, and he hits winner down the line. Murray wins serve reasonably easily and takes the set.

0nce the pattern is seen, it becomes clearer. Bhambri does not rally enough. I think of chess. All-out attack is the weaker player’s weapon which too often accelerates defeat, although the infrequent wins reinforces the pattern of ‘cave man’ play. [which suggests another idea: the infrequent upsets against seeds more obvious in first rounds, more chances for the cave man play to succeed.

Third set

A good example in first game of third set, when Bhambri grabs an ad point then a net point for him wins game and a break. Murray continues to rally and wait for errors. The pattern for me seems to persist but Bhambri wins and extends lead to 4-1. Murray wins own serve. 4-2. Pattern persists, and Murray breaks back. 4-4 and eventually into tie break.

Prediction for tie break

My prediction is that failure to Defend Rally Attack more dangerous in the tie break Murray goes to 5-2 then 6-2 and 6-3 but two then Murray closes it out as Bahmrhi ballons out a return.

Murray’s verdict

Opponent is a junior world champion, but injury explains his low ranking.


Caveman chess was a popular term among British chess players to refer to violent attacks often unsound but always unsettling.

Rather than show an image of one ‘caveman’ chess player I had in mind, I choose the image from Wikipedia Commons.

Also thanks to Conor for helping in the editing process.

In Pawn Sacrifice, Bobby Fischer takes on the world again

November 24, 2014

Pawn Sacrifice is a dramatized version produced by Edward Zwick of Bobby Fischer’s iconic chess match with Boris Spassky in 1972

Pawn Sacrifice was previewed at the recent Toronto film festival

It is a more fictionalized version than the earlier film Bobby Fischer takes on the world, and confirms the relative normality of protagonists Carlsen and Anand who are currently slugging it out for the World Chess Championship in Sochi.

Mostly positive reviews

Reviews on Pawn Sacrifice have been mostly positive. The most negative one I found was from The Guardian, and even that whetted my appetite for watching the film.

Must see?

Probably a must see for chess players of a certain age, although a possible unsound sacrifice of two hours viewing time for the wider public.

In Chess, Carlsen keeps mum. In Cricket, Cook tells all?

November 14, 2013

In the build-up to the chess world championships Magnus Carlsen refuses to reveal who his support staff are. In Cricket, Australian captain Clarke says England’s captain kindly revealed his Cricket team to him. What’s all that about?

Two little stories about leadership, one from Chess, one from Cricket.

In India there are two sports stories this week about all-time greats. Sachin Tendulkar is playing his last international cricket match; and Viswanathan [‘Vishy’] Anand is defending his chess crown against the new chess prodigy and Norwegian ‘pawn star’ Magnus Carlsen.

Chess trends on Twitter

Yesterday, the official website of FIDE, the international chess organization, announced that chess had become the number one news item of all stories trending on Twitter. The rise of Indian chess owes much to Anand, who has help five world championships (if you include rapid play ones). Carlsen is being hailed as a mega-star who is bringing attention to chess globally .

Magnus keeps mum

At a pre-match press conference, the players were asked out their support teams. Vishy spoke glowingly of his back-up team who help in preparing openings and in studying the play of his opponent. The twenty two year old Magnus thanked him for the information but politely declined the invitation to respond.

Cook tells all

Half way around the world, Australia is hosting their fiercest cricket rivals England. In a remarkable press conference Australia captain Michael Clarke says England’s captain Alistair Cook has revealed the England team to him a week in advance of the test.

What’s all that about?

Vishy says that the players ‘exchanged information’ only after playing the first game. The rest could be no more than mis-information. The same might be true of whatever Cook did or did not say to Clarke.

Was Cook [or Clarke] being a silly billy?

We seem to be entering the region of mind games. Chess is the more obvious mind game, but more many athletes and sporting coaches have gone in for psychological warfare. I have trouble believing the headline that Cook told Clarke the names of the team for the forthcoming test.

Maybe Clarke is trying to make Cook look like a silly billy.

Chess provides excellent leadership lessons in the 2013 Candidates Tournament

April 6, 2013

The qualifying battles to become world chess champion in London this year showed why chess is considered an excellent metaphor for the processes of strategic decision-making

Magnus CarlsenI have often blogged about the merits of chess as a metaphor for strategic thinking. The last three weeks [March 14th – April 1st 2013] reinforced my beliefs.

The Candidates Tourney

London hosted the qualifying competition, with the winner going to a one-on-one shootout with current world champion Vishy Anand of India. In the UK, news coverage prior to the tournament was extremely limited. In contrast, chess enthusiasts had excellent live streaming of all games on specialized sites.

Watching live

For those with time to spend, you could watch the battles live in the afternoons (starting time 2pm local time). The format was our matches each day played simultaneously, with all eight contenders in action. This made it easy for the expert commentators (mostly grand-masters) to chat happily about moves played and about to be played, working their way from match to match. The technology did not quite work, but the commentators coped with the gliches well, particularly in the last hour of the last day, when the result still depended on the remaining two games. It seems an estimated million chess players world- wide had seized up the servers.

The Chess Federation [FIDE} website captured the tension of the last round of matches:

Magnus Carlsen [image above from wikipedia: Ed] won the FIDE Candidates’ Tournament in London on Monday after a bizarre finish of what has become a historic event for chess. Both the Norwegian and the other leader, Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, unexpectedly lost their game in the final round, and so they remained tied for first place and Carlsen won on the second tie-break rule: higher number of wins. This means that in the next title match, World Champion Viswanathan Anand will face Carlsen.


The few popular news stories concentrated on Carlsen’s extreme youth, and marketability for himself and the game of Chess. “No problem with finding a sponsor for the World Championship” one commentator chortled.

Bizarre end

When the technology was restored, the rest of the chess world learned that Carlson had lost a game in which he had played weakly his standards as the highest rated player in the World. He could still be overtaken by former World Champion Kramnik who also seemed to be losing. After a nervous wait, Kramnik resigned, and Carlsen was declared winner.

Chess lesson

I am still reflecting on the lessons for strategic leaders offered by the players and their commentators. Carlsen, utterly fatigued at the press conference immediately after he had learned of Kramnik’s loss added one new lesson [for me, anyway]. “We were all tiring in the last rounds. My sense of danger weakened.” Worth remembering by business leaders needing to deal with their dilemmas…

Don’t Miss “The Queen of Katwe”

February 13, 2013

The Queen of Katwe jacket image

Book alert: The Queen of Katwe is a must-read for chess players and all who wonder at human triumph against adversity

Top of my reading list this week is a story of a little girl who wants to become a chess champion. As sports writer and author Tim Crother puts it bluntly and contentiously in his book:

“Phiona Mutesi is the ultimate underdog… to be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. To be a girl is to be an underdog in Katwe.”

More to follow

Review comments welcomed from any LWD subscriber

Andy Murray: Advice from a chess trainer

March 4, 2012

After his change of coach and some evidence of strengthening his mental game, Andy Murray may be may be interested in advice from Stewart Reuben, a chess trainer who used to play odds games with Bobby Fischer

This week [March 2012], Andy Murray avoided a slump in form after a good performance in the opening grand slam of the season. His play in the tournament has been consistently strong. Even his serve percentage held up well until the final. LWD has commented for some while on his potential, and on recurring patterns in his play. Our observations are not backed up with any direct experience of competitive play. For this I draw on a shared platform of understanding of more experienced commentators which seemed pretty well summed up in the Guardian’s analysis of his Dubai performances:

Murray ought to be able to lose a final without forensic examination of his disappointments in big matches …[although] he is getting closer with a sound, improving game and an on-court demeanour that is noticeably calmer since he took on Ivan Lendl as his coach in January. He beat [world No 1] Djokovic on Friday with as good a service game as he has produced in a long time but it let him down against Federer, even though the winner’s 50% first-serve rate was only two points better. It is tough for Murray to overcome the ingrained instinct that he has a better chance of winning from the back of the court, even on his own serve. These fine calculations are often split-second ones and it is more comfortable for him to rely on trusted strategies.

Leaning from a Chess master

Stuart Reuben is a distinguished English chess administrator and teacher. One of his valued pieces of advice to young chess players is that weaker players tend to choose the cautious move against stronger players. This is a strategy which favours the stronger player. I can confirm from personal experience of playing as one of a hoard of amateurs against a visiting grandmaster taking us all on simultaneously. Too often, the chess bunnies play passively as their games drift away.

Reuben (a world-class poker player, by the way) encourages us bunnies to seek dynamic positions, avoiding trying to keep it simple as a primary factor in selecting each move. Not quite simple. The weaker player has also to avoid recklessness. In my case, this often shows itself as a futile attempt to break out of the passivity trap by being foolishly aggressive, a dilemma facing the chess player.

Over to you Andy

So there you go, Andy. If snooker players like Steve Davis and boxers like Lennox Lewis have found the value of chess as a metaphor for strategy in another sport, why not add it to your training regime. You may find ways of adding these vital percentage points to your play at crucial moments of important matches.


Image of Stewart Reuben from the Atticus website


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