16 Sep 2016

Decision making in critical positions


IM Sagar Shah and myself (GM Igor Smirnov)
critical thinkingLet me start off with a conversation I had with an experienced Grandmaster friend of mine a few days ago.

Me: According to you, what is a critical position?

GM friend: It is a position where you need to spend a good amount of time in order to make an important decision during a game.

Me: Ok. You’ve told me what to do during a critical position, but what about how to recognize whether or not it is a critical position?

GM friend: (after a long time thinking) I think a player can understand whether or not it is a critical position, based on his feel and understanding of the game.

Me: But then, how do you explain whether or not it is a critical position to players who do not have a highly developed understanding of the game like you?

GM friend: (again, after a long period of thought!) I don’t really know!! :)

The above conversation sparks off a few very interesting points about critical positions, the first being that a critical position is one where you must put in a lot of thought and make an important decision; second, great players, thanks to their endless hours of chess practice, have developed a feel for what a critical position is.

But for mere mortals who are taking their initial steps in the game of chess, it is important to understand what exactly a critical position is.

Why is a critical position so important?

whyThe point is that if you do not understand that a given position is critical and do not spend time on it, you will miss the opportunity either to gain an advantage or to equalize the game (if you are in a worse position). Hence, it becomes extremely important to understand what a critical position is and how to identify one.

Of course, you could work for hours and hours on chess, see top level games of GMs, analyze them, play in strong tournaments, analyze your own games, solve combinations, work on positional chess, etc., and you too would have a keen sense of knowing what a critical position is.

While there is no substitute for all of the above activities, by reading this article you can get an initial idea as to how to identify a critical position.

But, first of all, let me start off with an example from the 1979 USSR championship game between Gutman and Vitolinsh.

Gutman-Vitolinsh 1979 USSR
critical chessIt’s Black to play. How should Black defend?

{The answer to the above position can be found in something like this. Suppose I play Qe7, White will give Qh6+ and I cannot interpose Qh7 because my f8-rook hangs. Next, his rook comes to g1 and it’s all over. Hence, I must somehow bring the White king to d3, where the interposing Qh7 will be a check. Hence, the right move is Bd3!! And after Kxd3 Qe7 Qh6+ Qh7+! is a counter-check. Black wins.}

No matter how difficult the answer to this position is, and even if it takes you a while to find it, I am sure each one of you understands that Black is in trouble. We can safely conclude that White has very dangerous threats here and that Black has to have a long think – hence, this is a critical position.

Even a beginner can understand this. We shall not be dealing with such positions in this article because the threat is quite obvious and any person will devote a lot of time to finding a solution to it rather than getting mated.

Suggestion: you may like to study our article “How to evaluate a position in chess?”.

Instead, we will be dealing with positions where the opponent’s threat is not so easy to understand.

Let’s kick off with an easy position.

Kasparov – Dubiel, Katowice 1993
critical chessWhat should White play?

First of all, let us understand why this position is so critical? Most of the time, in order to understand the importance of your move, you must give your opponent’s move some consideration. Think here as if it’s Black to play. What would he do?

Of course, if it were Black to play, his choice would be very easy. He would simply play 13…c5! and activate his b7-bishop. Once you are aware of what your opponent wants, you become aware of why the position is so critical.

If you don’t think this way and just play a natural developing move, like 13.Bf4, Black will react with 13…c5! and the position becomes equal. The problem here is that you are not paying enough attention to your opponent’s idea.

If you do ask yourself the question about what the opponent wants to do, you will immediately come up with the move 13.c5! for White, clamping down on the b7-bishop forever. It’s a very typical positional idea to keep your opponent’s bishop passive. Therefore, an awareness of what the opponent wants to do can make your decision very easy.
connect the dots steve jobsKasparov might have found this move within five seconds because such patterns are firmly engraved in his mind. But for us, we must constantly train our mind to be prophylactic.

Prophylactic?! What exactly does this mean? Prophylaxis is the art of understanding what your opponent wants to do and then preventing it.

Very strong players, like Kasparov, Karpov, Anand, and Carlsen, are very quick to spot the opponent’s ideas and prevent them. The first step in recognizing critical positions is quickly to understand what the opponent wants to do.

Here is a little more complicated example from a game of mine.

Sagar – Vinay, Bhopal 2013
critical chessWhat should White play?

As we already know, the first thing we must do when we get a position in front of us is “give the move to the opponent”. In this way, we will know what he is intending to play. So what would Black play if it were his move? He would go for 13…c6-c5 and then bring his knight back into the game with 14…Na5-c6. Once that is achieved, White will have no advantage. Hence, once you realize what Black’s plan is, you must try your best to prevent it.

I played the move 13.c5!, hitting the Black center, and after 13…e5 14.Bg5 Black’s central position is falling apart. He has to take 14…Bxf3 15.Bxf3 d5. It seems as if Black has an extremely strong center but you need to look a little further …
critical chessBlack’s center is strong and he threatens the move e5-e4. What should White do?

16.e4! is a powerful move; and after 16…d4 17.Na4, with the idea of Be2-c4 later, White has a dominant position with the two bishops, as well as a target to attack on a6, to say nothing of Black’s peripheral knight on a5.

Suggestion: you may also like to read our article “How to approach a position from a different angle?”.

The way to think in such positions is as follows:

  • What is my opponent’s idea?
  • Is it dangerous?
  • If yes, how can I prevent it?

Once you know that you must prevent your opponent’s idea, you must give it your all. This is the key. You cannot stop half-way through the above position, thinking that Black has a strong center. You have to look a bit further and find the move16.e4!, then assess the position.

This is how you must approach critical positionsStrong willpower is the key to preventing the opponent’s ideas and making your own ideas work.

All the games discussed above are in PGN format and can be downloaded from here.

P.S. Now that you know what a critical position is, have you ever played some game(s) which involved a critical position and grasped its importance? If so, how did you react to it? Feel free to share your game(s) with us – I’ll be glad to see them. :)


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