Kavinayan Sivakumar

PhD Student at Duke University studying multi-agent AI and decision making

Pressuring in Chess: An Introduction

17 Dec 2021 » chess

Since quarantine started, I’ve had a couple of friends ask me to train them in chess. Apart from the usual tactics exercises and ingraining of fundamentals (control the center, develop your pieces, castle your king), they were finding it tough to figure out an actual plan on how to carry the game forward once they took care of the beginning stages of the game. Of course, I could say something straightforward like “go attack the king”, but even this is too specific. There’s nothing wrong with this by the way, as at any level attacking the opponent’s king can help win the game. But this advice is just an example of a much larger principle I try to convey.

Winning a chess game is dependent on two things: how well you play, but also how well the opponent plays. The latter is important to keep in mind, as in today’s world of technology and chess engines, one can forget that chess is not played perfectly by humans. But by definition, your chess strength is based off beating other humans, not machines. As a result, it’s important to pause for a moment and better understand the possible opposition.

Why is Magnus Carlsen the best player in the world? Is it because he’s incredible at opening preparation? Or maybe because he can play endgames almost flawlessly? Or can he find combinations that are double-digit moves deep? All these things may help him win more games, but ultimately he can’t win unless someone else loses. By this I mean that even if he found incredible moves, if his opponent did the same, then the game would teeter into a draw. As a result, Magnus winning games is dependent both on him finding incredible moves, but also his opponent missing ways to counter them.

In the first five games of the recent world chess championship, Nepo was playing great chess and not conceding much to Magnus. But the moment he made some errors, Magnus was able to pounce. Many around the world had the same question as to why Nepo could play brilliant chess for the first leg of the match, but then made silly blunders for the next few games. The answer that everyone seemingly agreed on was that losing the sixth game of the match, one that took a record 136 moves, put so much pressure and mental toll on him that he collapsed quite easily in subsequent games. In fact, Magnus and his team imply that one of their unspoken strategies was to prolong the match as much as they could, because they knew Magnus could deal with pressure and problems better than Nepo.

This is the heart at which I teach my students: chess is about creating problems for your opponent. All the tactics, endgames, openings, strategy you learn mean nothing if your opponent can just sit there and relax during the game because you show no threats against him. Now what constitutes a problem? This is where defining different chess strengths of players is needed. A 2200 player might experience little difficulty with dealing with the problems a 1300 player poses them. However, the same 2200 player may have a tough time dealing with the problems a grandmaster poses them. One way to think about this is in the form of buckets.

Imagine a player’s capability of handling problems on the chess board as a bucket of size relative to their playing strength, where water represents problems. We can also define a player “breaking” under the weight of problems posed when their bucket overfills - in other words, they’ve been posed so many problems or problems that are too challenging to solve. As players solve problems, they can empty out the water in the bucket that is filling up. But harder problems take longer to empty out. And the more problems you faced with, the more effort you’ll need in emptying out the bucket so it doesn’t overflow.

It doesn’t matter if you have the strength of a supercomputer, everyone has a bucket. Of course if you are a super GM your bucket will be massive compared to everyone else. But it still has a finite space. And even if you have the strength of a supercomputer, you’re still human. Which means that some days, your bucket might be smaller if you have external stress from work, family, etc.

Causing problems has a direct connection to exploiting weaknesses in your opponent’s position but that is for a separate discussion. The reason being that our goal here is to just create problems, no matter how small they might be. Developing this habit will help shape our attitude towards one that is more attack-oriented and initiative seeking. Execution is a different skill entirely, but being able to cause meaningful problems will build the foundation upon which execution can be learnt.

To give some concrete ideas of how to create problems, here are some examples below. Pause at each critical position to think about how best you can pose problems for the opponent. Once you’ve thought about it, click on the “” button below each position to check your answer. It’s a good idea to try the moves on the interactive boards below as you go through the rest of the article. Don’t be afraid to try out different variations on your own as well!

Attacking the enemy king

As mentioned earlier, this is always a good idea if the enemy king is weak enough. But sometimes we can just probe around the opponent’s defenses and keep asking questions until they cannot find an answer. In this position below, Black has just played 13. …h6 in response to white bringing his knight closer to the black king. How can white create some problems for black?

14. Nxf7! Exposing the light square diagonal for the black king. Kxf7 15. Bc4+ Kf8 Now how should white continue to pose problems?

16. Bxh6! Blowing up black’s kingside pawn structure and further exposing his king. Black attempted to solve his problems by removing White’s light squared bishop after 16. …Nf3+ 17. Rxf3 Qd4+ 18. Kh1 Qxc4. But does this solve everything?

19. Bxg7+! An emphatic response, letting black know his troubles are just beginning. 19. …Kxg7 20. Qg5+ Kf7 21. Qg6+ Kf8 22. Nd5 White brings in more pieces around black’s king. After 22. …Nxd5 23. Rg3, white now threatens mate on both g7 and g8. 23. …Bf6 protects g7 and gives the black king the e7 square to escape to. But white keeps up the attack with 24. exd5 Qh4 25. Rh3 Qg5 26. Rh8+! Distracting black’s bishop 26. …Bxh8 27. Qxg5+- White is completely winning with black’s king exposed, all of his pieces stuck on his back rank, and white’s other rook ready to swing into the attack in a few moves.

Cramping the opponent for space

Space is important because it defines the activity of our pieces. Many low rated players underestimate how vital space is to maintaining equality at the bare minimum, and we can keep posing problems with our space advantage. Black has chosen to not attack white’s center yet, opting to develop his pieces quickly. How should white continue to build his space advantage?

8. b4 White decides to double down on taking space on the queenside, asking black if he is really ok with conceding so much space on that side of the board. Black decides to hit back with 8. …a5 but white can start benefiting from the amount of open squares he can operate his pieces on the queenside. 9. Bb2 axb4 10. axb4 Ne4 11. Qc2 Rxa1 12. Bxa1 Qe7 Black removes white’s rook from potentially using the open a-file and it seems like he is looking to push c5 at some point to challenge white’s pawn mass.

13. c5 White doesn’t give black the chance, pushing forward first to grab more space. 13. …f5 Because white is pushing on the queenside, black aims to create some threats of his own on the kingside. 14. Be2 Nc6 15. Bc3 bxc5 16. dxc5 Ra8 17. O-O Nxc3 18. Qxc3 Qf6 19. Qd2 Rd8 It looks like black is solid and might even be planning …d6 next move.

20. b5 It is important to cause problems before our opponent can cause them for us! Here the black knight has a tough decision to make: if it moves to the edge of the board it will be severely poor. As a result, black goes 20. …Ne5 21. Nxe5 Qxe5 White continues with 22. c6! and black cannot take the pawn as the black rook is pinned. Black must move the bishop back with 22. …Bc8 and white soon gets himself into a winning endgame after 23. Rd1 d5 24. Qd4 Qxd4 25. exd4 Kf8

6. f4!, locking in black’s light squared bishop for good and white can set about winning an advantageous endgame.

Attacking an isolated pawn

Isolated pawns may allow a player semi open files to play on but are also a target for their opponent to apply pressure on. The player with the isolated pawn may find themselves using the majority of their pieces for defensive duties, thereby limiting their potential elsewhere. Here, black is down a pawn but white’s doubled d pawns are juicy targets. How should black continue to pose problems for white?

9. …Qb6. This looks peculiar, as we’re giving ourselves double isolated pawns as well. But the difference here is that while white’s d pawns can be targeted easily, black’s pawns are a bit out of reach for white’s pieces. Moreover, black’s rook on a8 is already developed once the a6 knight moves away. The game continued 10. Qxb6 axb6 11. Bf4

11. …Nb4 Remember, keep creating problems for your opponent, no matter how small they may be. Here we threaten a simple fork on c2 but also add pressure to the d5 pawn. White defends with 12. Kd2 and black does not give him a chance to consolidate, continuing with 12. …Rd8. White tries to get some play with 13. Bc7 Rd7 14. Bxb6 Nfxd5 15. Nxd5 Nxd5 16. Bxd5 Rxd5 17. Nf3 Rb5! The attack now shifts to white’s weak b2 pawn and second rank. 18. Bc5 Rxb2+ 19. Ke3

19. …Bh6+ Finish the game! White’s king is in the open and now the initial weakness of white’s doubled isolated d-pawns have turned into a weak king which can be harassed. 20. Kd3 Rxf2 21. Bxe7 Black finished off the game with 21. …Bf5+ 22. Kc3 Rc8+ 23. Kb3 Be6+ 0-1

Although we’ve only seen three examples of presenting problems to your opponent, there are plenty of others. A good way to denote if you are asking good questions is if they are making your opponent’s position uncomfortable or annoying to play. Remember, the more unsettled you can make your opponent during the game with their position, the more likely it is they will misstep and you can take advantage of a mistake.