Strategies At the Board

Welcome to my article on strategies at the chessboard. Today, I want to go through some strategies that you can use over-the-board.

Battling Fatigue and Blunders

Tiredness is the most common cause of mistakes, particularly one-move blunders. Mental exhaustion affects everyone. It is said that well known English GM Michael Adams once fell asleep at the chessboard for 15 minutes and simply woke up and started playing again as if nothing had happened. So how should you combat fatigue? A grandmaster once said that “a brain without sugar is not a brain”. My personal opinion is that eating or drinking something is the best option. Going to the bathroom to wash your face has a short-term affect, but I find that I quickly become tired again. I like to drink something at the board, like fruit juice or a milk product.

American IM Jeremy Silman gave a number of suggestions including chocolate (following Serbian GM Svetozar Gligorić), apple juice (in the footsteps of American GM Robert James “Bobby” Fischer), bananas and ginseng (or ginseng tea). Of course, chocolate may be too sugary for some people and Silman also warns against dried fruit.

Of course, you’re going to find yourself in plenty of situations where you make a major blunder. It is often a human tendency to immediate realise that your previous move was a blunder only after you have played it. This is because the mind resurfaces and re-evaluates after you make your move. It’s impossible to avoid this in all situations, but you can probably predict the type of position where this might happen and think extra carefully before you play your move.

If you have made a blunder, try not to dwell on it too much. The best way to continue, in my opinion, is to keep a “poker face” – look as if nothing has happened. Kasparov is an exception to my suggestion – he was known to have openly shown his disgust when he realised that he had made a very bad move. Of course, showing this sort of emotion immediately communicates to the opponent that he may have a good move, which is why, for the vast majority of players, I recommend the poker face approach.

If I know I am losing, I always resort to optimistic defence. This has saved me countless points and has every allowed me to score some unlikely wins (I once came from a complete rook down in a very simplified position to win against a 1500). Opponents are likely to play less accurately when they are winning, often giving you a chance back into the game. It was once said that the player who wins a chess game is the player who makes the “second-last mistake”. If you are much worse and a draw is the best you can hope for, a good way to look at it is that, for all practical purposes, “a loss is worth a loss, but a draw is equivalent to a win”. I always fight on until I have no practical hope left.

Offering a Draw

You must offer a draw in the correct way. The FIDE regulations for offering a draw is to first make your move on the board, then verbally offer a draw or put tap your fingers in an ‘X’ shape, and then press your clock. When should you offer a draw? Personally, I only like to offer draws if the position is easily drawn and I think my opponent basically cannot go wrong. In all other cases, I like to play on until the end of the game, in the spirit of Bulgarian GM and currently the highest rated active player in the world (at the time of writing) Veselin Topalov (FIDE: 2813). Topalov always plays for the win and rarely accepts early draws. There’s just so much that a player misses out on if he offers early draws. All the learning potential for that game is immediately cut short.

However, if you are running a hectic schedule, then I do recommend offering a few early draws. Offering early draws, particularly for grandmasters, is a good way to conserve energy. Note that the ideal situation where an early draw would work is when you are playing white against a lower-rated player. Play into the early middlegame and offer the draw. In some tournaments now, the arbiter won’t allow early draws, watch out for these!

If your opponent offers a draw, it is legal simply to not respond, but it is more polite to say “I’ll think about it.” Do not decline straight away, unless you know that your position is easily better; since you may find that your opponent has the upper hand and decide to accept the draw. Conversely, do not accept a draw straight away, in case you suddenly find that you are winning.

Be wary that sometimes higher rated players will offer you a draw when they feel that they are worse. In this case, you really should consider playing on as you do technically have a good chance to obtain good winning chances.

Claiming Threefold Repetition

If you are sure the same position has occurred on the board on three different occasions (it doesn’t matter if it was White to move or Black to move), then here’s the correct way to claim the draw according to the FIDE Handbook:

The game is drawn upon a correct claim by the player having the move, when the same position, for at least the third time (not necessarily by a repetition of moves):

a. is about to appear, if he first writes his move on his scoresheet and declares to the arbiter his intention to make this move, or

b. has just appeared, and the player claiming the draw has the move.

Positions as in (a) and (b) are considered the same, if the same player has the move, pieces of the same kind and colour occupy the same squares, and the possible moves of all the pieces of both players are the same.Positions are not the same if a pawn that could have been captured en passant can no longer be captured in this manner. When a king or a rook is forced to move, it will lose its castling rights, if any, only after it is moved.

Be sure not to make a move which will forgo your ability to claim a draw! Most players are normally good sports and will “accept the draw” after you offer one or simply state that it is threefold repetition. If not, you may have to stop the clock and call the arbiter over. Note that writing your move on your scoresheet before you make your move is now illegal in almost all situations excluding the claiming of threefold repetition.

Time Trouble

Often you will find many players at your local chess club who perennially get into time trouble. Time trouble is not a good thing and should be avoided. My recommendation is to stay out of time trouble whenever possible. You can save time by playing forced moves immediately and obvious moves reasonably quickly (e.g. playing Re1 to control the only open file). Make sure the time you invest for a particular move is worth the importance of the move.

One good way of saving time is avoid what GM John Emms calls “high risk/low reward tactics”. This is practical case where you should not take on a risky move that only earns a small reward. Staying practical has good rewards!

Doing opening preparation before the game is also a good way to conserve time. You can play the opening moves relatively quickly and then you will have more time to think in the other phases of the game.

If your opponent is in time trouble, I recommend taking your time. Many players will often play very fast to try to make their opponents react fast, but in that case, you’re just playing as if you have no time either. Your opponent is on high adrenaline, and if you play fast, you will likely make a mistake which your alert opponent could exploit. But think about it – if your opponent is playing fast, obviously he is not playing the best moves. You should think carefully about how to take advantage of his inaccuracies.

Analysing Chess Tactics

If you are analysing a concrete position, a good way to analyse a combination is through the “check every move” or CEM method. The technique is pretty self-explanatory. For example, you are considering the sacrifice 10.Nxf7 which would be devastating immediately if it works. Now literally look at every move your opponent can make. Once you have peace of mind that your opponent doesn’t have some brilliant defence, you can play the move with confidence.

The Staring Opponent

To cap things off, I’m going to talk about a rather obscure topic. Sometimes you get the impolite and disrespectful opponent who tries to stare you down while it is your thinking time. Unless you have a pair of reflective sunglasses handy, immediately notify the arbiter that this player is distracting you. I believe it says somewhere in the FIDE Handbook that distraction is an offence in chess.

Playing Against Stronger Players NEW

I have discussed this matter with many of my chess friends. The most preferred method when playing against stronger players is to simply play for an opening or early middlegame advantage and try to convert it. An alternative strategy (and I have no idea how well this works, although it has worked for me a couple of times) is to play somewhat drawishly. Your stronger opponent will become frustrated and may over-commit or over-extend, allowing you to seize the advantage. I highly recommend the former strategy, unless you wish to do some experimentation with my latter theory. Be warned however – once I saw a 2000-rated player get up from the board and angrily yell at his opponent for “playing for a draw ever since the start of the game” and then storm out of the playing hall. Of course, such reactions are unjust, since a player may play however he wishes, but be aware that players can get annoyed at drawish play.

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