Monday, March 25, 2013

Episode VI - How to Analyze a Position and Formulate a Plan

A critical skill for any chess player to have is the ability to accurately and systematically analyze positions. During a chess game it is very tempting to just look at "interesting" moves or randomly start calculating variations. This approach however, will almost always neglect the deeper positional characteristics of a position. And unless you're playing blitz, this will also make it hard to make good use of the time allotted to you.

Therefore, now that we have covered some of the basic tactical elements in chess, in our last lesson I taught Pyre a more systematic way to analyze a position, and form a plan based on the results of the analysis.

There are many good books about this topic. I think eventually I'll post a list of useful resources for beginners and novices. The approach I was taught many years ago by my first chess coach is based on Karpov and Mazukevich's recommendations in their book "Find the Right Plan". By the way I think this is a book that does not get the attention it deserves.

The basic idea is that in order to choose the right course of action, a chess player must first have a good understanding of the current position. This will not only make it easier to select a good plan, it will also help identifying candidate moves.

According to Karpov and Mazukevich, to get a good understanding of any given position, a player must look at each of the following 7 evaluation criteria:

1. Material Balance
2. Immediate Threats
3. King Safety
4. Open Files
5. Pawn Structure, Strong and Weak Squares
6. Center and Space
7. Development and Coordination among minor and major pieces

This analysis does not need to be performed after every move, but it has to be done regularly. For example, a player could form the habit of doing this after move 10, 20, 30, 40 etc. This analysis should also be done whenever the position on the board changes dramatically, for example after a player sacrifices material.

After discussing these principles in general terms, Pyre and I looked at an example to practice this approach. We analyzed the game between Boris Gelfand and Vassily Ivanchuk from the 2013 Canadidates Tournament in London, which had been played earlier the same day. The players reached the following position after Gelfand's 17th move Ng5:

Gelfand-Ivanchuk at the 2013 FIDE Candidates Tournament in London 2013; position after 17. Ng5
We tried to to come up with a good plan for Black. As the first step, we analyzed the position through the lens of the 7 evaluation criteria:

1. Material Balance: the material balance is even. The only difference is that White has the bishop pair and a knight while Black has two knights an a bishop.
2. Immediate Threats: neither side has any immediate tactical or positional threats.
3. King Safety: Both kings are fairly safe. Black and White have castled queenside which means that neither side can easily launch a pawn storm on the opponent. Due to the missing c-pawn, White's king is a little bit more exposed, but this will probably not have a significant impact on the game.
4. Open Files: There are no open files in this position. White has the half-open c- and g-files available to him and could potentially double up rooks on either of them. Black currently controls the half-open d-file.
5. Pawn Structure, Strong and Weak Squares: Despite the double pawn on the f-file, White has the better pawn structure. He doesn't have any potentially weak pawns. At the same time his pawns control many important central squares.
White has strong squares on e5 and g5, and possibly c5 even though Black can control that square with a pawn if necessary. F3 is a weak square though it is currently not easy for Black to place a piece there. White's pawn structure also does not have any real weaknesses.
Black on the other hand has (somewhat) strong squares on e4 and d5, but also several weak squares: e5, g5 and g6 are permanently weak, and c5 can only be controlled if Black is willing to compromise his queenside pawn structure. The backward pawn on g7 is weak and in an endgame the pawns on e6 and h4 are potential weaknesses as well.
6. Center and Space: The center is closed. White has a slightly more solid pawn mass in the center while Black's minor pieces better control the central squares. Neither side has an obvious space advantage. Both Black and White have more mobility on the queen side than the king side.
7. Development and Coordination among minor and major pieces: Both sides have completed their development. The white knight on the strong square g5 looks impressive, but it is unclear what role it serves there. This in fact may be a good example that a "strong" square isn't necessarily also a "useful" square. White also has the bishop pair.  The bishop on c4 is very strong indeed, indirectly targeting the Black's weak pawn on e6. The bishop could also pin Black's knight on c6, which could be very unpleasant for Black indeed, especially if White doubles up in the half-open c-file. However, White's main problem and in fact the defining characteristic of this position is the bad bishop on h2. The bishop doesn't contribute anything to White's game, and activating or exchanging it will require a lot of time.

Formulating a Plan:
After this in-depth analysis of the position, we started formulating a plan for Black. In my opinion assessing the 7 evaluation criteria is the easier part. It is more difficult to come to the right conclusion what the analysis of these criteria means, and which of the criteria are more important than others in any given position. For example, is it more important that White has the better pawn structure in this position, or that Black has two knights, which in a closed position such as this one should be favorable? It takes a lot of skill and experience to draw the right conclusions from the analysis. However, for Pyre's purposes it isn't important to get it right 100% all the time. In fact, even grandmasters regularly get this kind of analysis wrong. The point is that if Pyre learns to do this analysis regularly and systematically, he'll be able to take his chess to the next level.
In this example the critical point is to realize that White's bad bishop on h2 is the single most important characteristic of the position.
Basic chess strategy recommends that when one of your opponent's pieces is - temporarily or permanently - locked out of the game, the right course of action is typically opening up the game on the other side of the board because that is where in essence your opponent will be a piece down.
In this position Black can achieve that by playing c7-c5, ideally after bringing the rooks over to the c-file. The thrust c7-c5 opens the position without exposing Black's king too much.

And this is pretty much what Ivanchuk did in the game. The entire game can be found here:

The game ended in a draw because as so often Ivanchuk ended up in time trouble and couldn't convert the very promising position he achieved after opening the game on the queenside.
However, for the purpose of this exercise it isn't necessary to analyze the remainder of the game. The important point was to do an in-depth analysis of a given position with Pyre, which is something we'll keep doing going forward.

Vassily Ivanchuk and MarineKingPrime
A Word about Vassily Ivanchuk:

To me, Vassily Ivanchuk is the MarineKingPrime of the chess world. "Chucky" as he's called is one of the most brilliant players on the chess circuit, and has been a dominant force at the top level for many years. However, his inability to keep his nerves under control has prevented him from ever being a serious contender for the world championship title, or win more top level tournaments. In the 2013 Candidates tournament alone he's already lost 3 games on time.

Despite his volatile performance, Ivanchuk is one of the very few players who, on a good day, can beat anybody, including Carlsen, Anand, and the rock-solid Kramnik.

All of this is very reminiscent of MarineKingPrime who clearly has the skills to win MLGs but rarely does so because - among other things - it seems he is a little too emotional and nervous.

The following clip is from a chess olympiad match between Ivanchuk and Kramnik:

I'd be nervous too if I was playing Vladimir Kramnik, though 2700 ELO Super GMs typically play their moves a little more confidently than Ivanchuk does here.

Nevertheless, Ivanchuk is a fan favorite, and I have great admiration and respect for his creative chess, too!


  1. Greatly written. Needless to say, I think the analysis is spot on. Doing all those mental steps may seem a lot intimidating to the new players, but with practice, it becomes second nature and one does all this as a part of general evaluation, without actually thinking about it (another ~2200 fide player speaking here).

    Also, yay forChucky, he won a very nice positional game yesterday - textbook material.

    1. Thank you for your nice comment. I picked the position from the Gelfand-Ivanchuk game because I thought the analysis was reasonably simple and straightforward due to the bad bishop on h2. I find it a lot harder to come to the right conclusion when a position does not have such a unique characteristic.
      And yes, it was great to see Chucky finally win a game, and in such great style. In fact I may go through the rook ending with Pyre at some point.

  2. Hey Rev.. i hope you remember me!

    Although I am kinda late at reading this.. you have no idea how much you just taught me. Although I can't do this calculation on (time, casual etc..) I'm 100% sure that i'll be doing this in club games and tournaments when I have 1hr time. Seriously man.. I wish I had a tutor like you. Also, I am 100% sure that this method in the mid-game is probably going to help me a ton when I seem to have no moves in a locked position!

    Overall, THANK YOU! and I'm looking forward to the next episode! :D <3

    1. Thanks for your comment! It's great to know that my articles are being appreciated by the community. If you analyze positions like I suggested I'm sure your results will improve noticeably, especially in serious games. Practice makes perfect, and the sooner you start doing this, the better for you in the long run. I'll also keep posting positional analyses like this one

  3. Simple but but brilliant, this is what chess is all about, judging the position to the best of your ability then forming a plan based on this. It certainly beats calculating mini combos from start to finish which is how most amateurs play. With this structured way of thinking, finding stronger moves in any position is within the grasp of all players as long as they practice using this system. Thank you Rev, great work indeed.