Friday, May 06, 2005

Stopping the slide

One of the hardest things to do in chess is to realize that your position is becoming bad.

Tell me this hasn't happend to you: at some point in the game, you feel that you have a small advantage, or at least comfortable equality, and you try to improve your position. Your attempts don't lead anywhere, and you start to feel that you're under a little pressure. But you haven't made any mistakes that you can see, so you just keep playing normal chess. You still don't get anywhere, and suddenly you realize that you're worse. Your opponent has all the play, and you can only sit there and defend. Eventualy you crack, and rack up another loss.

Sometimes, you don't ever realize that you were adrift, and you blame the loss on the final tactical mistake, the one you made when you cracked. The only way you're going to realize what really happened is by carefully analysing the game afterward.

I can't give you any advice about how to spot when you're starting such a slide. If I knew that, I'd be a much stronger player than I am. I can, however, make a suggestion about stopping the slide if you notice it in time: consider disrupting the material balance. A well-timed positional sacrifice can take the pressure off, and give your opponent the problem of trying to use the extra material.

Here's a correspondence game I recently finished against a very experienced Belgian master. I realized while thinking about my 28th move that I was in danger of slipping into a passive, prospectless position, so I sacrificed a Pawn to weaken my opponent's Pawn structure and give my minor pieces--especially my Knight--squares to occupy and targets to attack. I could see that in some cases, I could force my opponent to either give back the Pawn or exchange pieces in a way that let me block all his ways of making progress. And that's how it worked out!

Now, if I can start doing this in over-the-board games, I'll be getting somewhere.

Nice decision to sac that pawn, remianing on autopilot it would indeed have been esay to slip into a prospectless and passive position.

On a related note, these gradual changes in edge can work to your disadvantage in more ways. I have found this in some games where I was in trouble early on, but then by some trick or just inaccurate play of my opponents managed to more than equalize. In such situation, I have difficulty ridding myself of the mindset that tells me "you are loosing" and it is temptting to take a draw if it is offered to you. In reality I might be a little better, and if nothing else me opponent is likely a bit shaken by the fact that he messed up a winning position.

I've never taken up correspondence chess. Can playing correspondence chess improve OTB performance?
Jens, thanks for the comments. I agree that a player can trick himself into accepting a draw in a suddenly-better position. There's some interesting stuff about "trend-sensitivity" in Yermolinsky's _Road to Chess Improvement_ and Rowson's _Seven Deadly Chess Sins_, but I find it hard to apply.

CelticDeath, That's a good question. I can give a number of reasons why correspondence chess _should_ improve your OTB play. (The most important is that it forces you to carefully analyse more-or-less typical positions arising from your opening repertoire; analyising typical positions is a very important part of developing opening understanding.)

But, I can't say that I've seen a definite improvement in my OTB play because of playing CC. Given the time commitment involved in playing CC well, that means to me that you should play CC only if you enjoy it for its own sake.

If you want to give it a try, I think a good place to start might be a six-game email tournament in the Internet Email Chess Group. It will take a little time to get your first playing assignment, but it's entirely volunteer-run and free.
Thanks for the tip, Ed!
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