Bored to Death?
What can you do? Sometimes chess is just not interesting. – IM Yochanan Afek
IM Sam Collins had a question about “boring positions” and why he scores so poorly in them. He had read a blog post by a GM who used to be 2600, but has now dipped below 2500. This GM claimed that the loss of strength was to a great extent because he became bored in simple positions and lost them seemingly effortlessly. Sam felt he had the same problem and thus asked me if I could maybe have a look at a few of his games and explain why he lost these equal positions so reliably.
I certainly have limited talents in all directions (which is maybe a reason why I do not like the idea of talent a lot) but I do pride myself on having a reasonable bullshit-detector. Well, the red light was on high alert when I read this. Not what Sam said, but what the GM said.
Because what is boredom in chess? It is not a question of style or taste, as some would like to think. I have personally never heard that anyone found complicated tactical battles boring. Difficult, unpleasant and so on, yes, but boring, no.
The only boring things I have heard attached to chess (with the exception of studying opening theory or the game itself) are technical positions; especially those of a fixed symmetrical nature.
But why would some find these positions boring? Sure, I understand that these positions are not the most fascinating, but they certainly hold plenty of challenges, as Sam’s and other strong players’ record shows.
My theory is that things in general are boring when you look on their surface only. There are a few exceptions to this rule, of course, but in general being bored is (as I see it) a symptom of a lack of understanding.
I could expand this rule to a lot of things, but why not debate so-called tedious chess positions?
As I see it (we are really talking about a working theory here) the reason people find simple positions boring is because they frustrate them. They frustrate them because they are not able to see what is happening in them; mainly because they do not know what to look for. If you do not understand the positional and strategic goals you should be pursuing then you would get frustrated. Why your brain comes to the rescue and supplies you with the emotion of boredom, I do not know. I only know that the way to get past this is to learn to work your way through it. Here I find the three questions very useful – they were specifically constructed to deal with teaching problem-solving in positions where there is nothing to calculate, for players who approach all chess problems with calculation.
But let’s move from theory to practice so I can get on with my proper work!
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Be7 5.Bf4 0–0 6.e3 Nbd7 7.a3 c5 8.cxd5 Nxd5 9.Nxd5 exd5 10.dxc5 Nxc5 11.Be5 Bf6 12.Bxf6 Qxf6 13.Qd4 Qxd4 14.Nxd4 Bd7 15.f3
Let’s have a three-questions-based strategic look at this position:
a) the weaknesses are the d5-pawn and the c-file. The e3-pawn and the b3-squares might look a bit weak, but it is unrealistic that you can attack the with the pieces left on the board. So, all the weaknesses are on the black side of the board.
b) The worst-placed piece is probably the rook on f8, which is not only without a function, but is in the way of the rook on g8. (From this follows the logical question of where the rooks actually belong. A deeper look at weaknesses would suggest that one rook needs to be on the c-file, which includes the weak c7-square.)
c) The opponent’s idea. White wants to get his king to d4 and exchange into a bishop ending, if possible. He would also like to expand slowly on the kingside and create a second weakness. I believe there are several acceptable ways for Black to play this position and eliminate the very minimal pressure he might feel at the moment.
Kramnik did a good job in the following game:
15…Rfc8! 16.Kd2 Ne6
This is by no means the only way to play, but the thinking is easy to follow. Black wants to take the d4-square away from White, by putting a white pawn there.
17.Nxe6 fxe6 18.Bd3 e5 leaves Black with three pawn islands against two. But the pawns are no longer weak and the bishop is no longer bad. White could try ideas with f3-f4, but I doubt they will really work in practice. It is not full equality, but it is very close…
White’s advantage is very marginal. Good bishop vs. bad bishop, but with no real targets.
Preparing …Kf7 to cover the e7-square.
19.h4 g6 20.Rac1 Kf7 21.Rc5 b6 22.Rxc8 Rxc8 23.h5 Kg7 24.f4 Bf5!
A draw was agreed in Kasparov – Kramnik, Moscow 2001.
Let’s see how Sam did with the same diagram position…
Simon Williams – Sam Collins
Cork Masters 2013
What is the rook doing here? This is what I call an aesthetic move; it looks right (rook to the open file and so on) but it is not actually achieving anything. The e-file is not an arena of combat; the c-file is. It is thus no surprise that the correct way to prove equality is to take the rook to the c-file.
Again this looks logical. Rook to the centre! But again, what is the function of this move? Isn’t the c-file still the place where it should happen?
16…a5!? 17.Bd3 a4 is an interesting idea. Basically Black would decide not to exchange the knights after all and simply protect it with …b6 and hold the position like this. Does White have an advantage with a slow kingside expansion? Perhaps, but it should not be too dramatic.
17.Bd3 Ne6 18.Rac1 Nxd4 19.exd4 Rc8
This position might look quite harmless to the untrained eye, but actually it is starting to get rather unpleasant for Black. White can fight for the c-file, he has a better bishop and the black king is still on g8, far away from the action.
From this moment I would say that White has an advantage.
But it is only after this move that the advantage is really significant. With a pawn majority on the queenside and the ability to attack the d5-pawn from d4 with the king sometime in the future, Black is structurally struggling. And his pieces are inferior as well.
Black should have played 20…Be6, when White can try to annoy Black with 21.Bb5!? or 21.Rhc1, though Black is not seriously worse after 21…Kf8! 22.Rc7 Rxc7 23.Rxc7 Re7, when the bishop ending is a draw and the pressure after 24.Rc5 is minimal.
In order to meet 22.Kc3 with 22…d4+. Not that this is clearly the wrong track for White, but at least it offers a bit of resistance from Black.
22.b4 Kf8 23.Re1!
Simple chess: keep the king away. Black cannot exchange the rooks anymore as White would march the king to d4 and win the bishop ending with his outside majority.
White’s advantage is significant and it is really hard to suggest a move for Black. But this does not justify:
A famous strategic concept goes: “Don’t move pawns on the side of the board where you are weaker.” True, these are not universal rules (even though people at times have presented them as such; before explaining how naive they are…) but still they are valid for a reason. Here Black opens the c-file for White to come in and attack the weak a-pawn.
25…Rc8 26.Ba6 does not improve things, but Black should maybe have tried 25…Ke7!?, though his position is very suspicious.
White’s advantage is quite substantial now. All his pieces are preferable, the a7-pawn is weak and White will make a passed pawn on the queenside at some point.
26…Be8 27.Rc7 Ra8 28.Kc3
28.b5! fixing the a-pawn would have been even stronger, but White wins all the same.
28…a6 29.Kd4 Bb5 30.Bf5 a5!?
Desperation. But Black is lost after 30…Re8 31.Rc8! as well.
Winning a piece is of course attractive and I am sure that Simon checked that this won. But a more technical player would have played 31.Rc8+ and won the bishop ending easily.
31…axb4 32.Rxb5 bxa3 33.Rb1 Ra4+ 34.Ke5 a2 35.Ra1 f6+ 36.Ke6 d4 37.Bd3 g5 38.fxg5 fxg5 39.Kd5 Kg7 40.Bc4 h5 41.Kxd4 g4 42.Rxa2 Rb4 43.Kc3 Rb1 44.g3 Rg1 45.Kd4 h4 46.gxh4 g3 47.hxg3 Rxg3 48.Be2 Rb3 49.h5 Rb6 50.Ke5 Rc6 51.Bf3 Rb6 52.Kf4 Rb4+ 53.Be4
Thanks to Sam for a good question. Sorry to use one of your losses again. I promise that if you ever play a good game, I will use it as well .