Chess Improvement: Playing with a Plan

The following game I recently played at the chess club I organize in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We are in the middle of our club championship and with several strong players in the field every round matters. In the game featured below I am playing against my friend Isaac Zylstra. Isaac has been a strong player in Michigan for many years. I always enjoy my battles with him as we always have complex and interesting battles. Much of this is due to our differences in style and approach.

This game lacks some of the complexity of our other games but illustrates well a concept many newer players have trouble grasping and executing. In chess, each move matters. More than that, what you do with each move and having a sense of the bigger picture is even more important. In this article I would like to help illuminate a difficult and slippery idea in chess-planning.

Planning. Being skilled in forming a good plan, executing that plan, adjusting that plan, and changing plans is key to consistent and effective play. This skill is difficult to master but if you are to improve in chess this is an important area to grow in.

Building Blocks of a Plan

Before we dive headlong into the game I will briefly introduce key aspects that form the foundation of a good plan. A good plan has three foundational elements, 1) Understanding the key features of a position. 2) Understanding how best your pieces may be used in the position. 3) Using 1 and 2 to know how to move against your opponent’s weaknesses, thus obtaining the upper-hand.

The first point is key to almost every chess decision you make. You must evaluate the position correctly. You need to try to identify key features like space, who has the better pieces, which piece your opponent will try to improve, obvious and less obvious weaknesses, pawn structure and a variety of other concrete and abstract measurements. Jeremy Silman has written some great material on understanding these features. His books Reassess Your Chess (3rd Edition) and The Amateurs Mind (less rigorous as the former) are a great place to start in your quest to master your understanding of chess. In good planning, you must know what the position is telling you.

The second point flows directly from your understanding of the first. If you correctly identify some of the important themes in the position, you can then move toward understanding how best to take advantage of them with your own pieces. This will be illustrated well in the game we will examine.

The final point is about execution. You don’t make all of the moves so you must look at what your opponent is attempting or how they may stop you. You need to know if you have prepared well enough for your plan to move into operation. You need to know if something goes awry how you may adjust. You need to know what is happening in the whole position instead of just your own ideas or one side of the board. You must be prepared to do the nitty-gritty task of calculating moves you and your opponent will make to see if you can force an advantage or if your plan of foolish. Good calculation is the best test for the effectiveness of your plan.

All of this will take a lifetime to master but maybe we can take a couple important steps here, together.

Brooks, Michael – Zylstra, Isaac
SSCC 2019 Club Championship (3)

1 d4 d5 2 Bg5

This is an opening I have been playing for years which has two main goals. First, get black out of his own opening preparation into unfamiliar structures. Second, to hopefully capture an eventual knight on f6 and compromise black’s pawn structure. If not, the Bishop can be an annoyance located here this early.

2…h6 3 Bh4 g5!? 4 Bg3 Bg7 (Diagram Below)

After 5…Bg7

Black has chosen a bold strategy. Black has used a couple of tempo on the white bishop to gain space on the king side. This is a risky venture as it may weaken his own king someday, but for his trouble he is able to quickly develop his bishop and cramp white on that side of the board.

White, for his loss of time, has gained a few things. First, his own dark-squared bishop will be outside of his pawns on e3 (eventually) and d4 avoiding the “bad bishop” stuck at c1 or d2. Second, he may be able to take advantage of the h6 and g5 moves in the future as they could make the black king unsafe. Finally, the bishop of g3 will be very effective in supporting a queen side action and will be largely unopposed by his enemy counterpart.

5 e3 Nf6 6 Nd2

Here I wanted to avoid black playing Ne4 exchanging off my bishop for his knight, an exchange that would only be good for black.

6…Bf5 7 Bd3!

Familiarity in positions/openings is vital. With my experience, I knew that this exchange would be good despite the resulting doubled pawns. First, I trade his best bishop and will seek to ensure his g7 bishop is dismal. Second, I control c4 and e4 with the d3 pawn which are squares he would like to have for his knight. Finally, I open up the c-file which will only accelerate my queen side plans.

7…BxBd3 (Bg6 is an interesting idea!) 8 cxBd3 Nbd7

Here we evaluate the position (first point in the foundation for a plan). Look at the diagram below and try to imagine what the important themes are and look for key ideas each side may try.

Here are just some basic observations that should lead you in the right direction. White has more space on the queen side while black has more space on the king side. White will control the half-open c-file. White has the potential for more active pieces on the queen side. Black has the better pawn structure. Black will have a slightly weaker king position.

Here white could go two directions. He could go for a slower build up on the queen side and utilize his unopposed bishop, his half-open c-file, and the mobility of his queen and knight to put pressure on the black queen side. The other plan is that he could look for breaks like f4 and h4 once black has castled king side.

The first plan is the best plan as it is drawn from the position itself. The king side plan is lacking in a clear follow-up and white already has allowed a trade of his light squared bishop (and a compromised pawn structure) which would aid in the attack of the black king. White should follow his pawns and play where he has more space. This very general plan would look like: Qb3 or a4, Rc1, Nb3-c5, b4-b5 and look to win a pawn or crash through in some other way.

9 Rc1 c5?!

A creative, although probably not objectively good, idea. Black seeks to break open the diagonal of the g7 bishop (h8-a1) by forcing an exchange and temporarily sacraficing a pawn. White’s overall objective (queen side action and pressure) is only helped by this plan. Black could have opted for a slower approach which would have led to much bigger buildup on white’s part.

Other options would be 9…c6 or 9…0-0.

10. dxc5 Qa5 (the point)

Here I have an important decision. If I don’t play d4 right now I will lose the c5 pawn. If I do play d4, it allows 11…Ne4 forcing a trade of my bishop or some pressure on my d2 knight. I elected to play d4 because the cost of not would be a position that had attained nothing. If I did lose my g3 bishop, I had estimated that the extra space on the queen side I had gained would be enough compensation for it.

11 d4 Qxa2 (I think Ne4 is an improvement). 12 b4

I could have played 12 Ra1 Qxb2 13. Rb1 Qa3 14 Rxb7 with a nice advantage but elected on the slower plan. I didn’t want to squander the advantage I had gotten. I wasn’t sure if the forcing action led to a clear enough position. Post-game analysis informed me it wa the slightly better route, but practically did not make a difference.

Now, we shall revisit the plan. How do we adjust the plan? We now focus it on developing our queen side pressure with tempo against the black queen and a focused attempt to crush the black position with a timely c6-break. The same plan, now focused, because of the unique position we have at the board.

12…Qa6 13 Qb3

A plan showing it’s teeth!

With Qb3 I state my intentions clearly, but it is hard for black to meet them. My bishop works together with my queen side pieces to make a harmonious position. Black’s pieces begin to feel out of position for the oncoming attack.

13…Qb5 (stopping b5) 14 Ra1 0-0 15 Ra5 Qc6 16 b5 Qc8

Here I find an important patient move. Black is threatening to breakup my own plan. At least, this was my impression. It seemed to me that if black could play b6 and attack my Rook, my own plans would be thwarted as it would force an exchange of c5xb6 and of course, I want to play c6! So…

17 Ra2 (intending to go to c2) e6?

This was a key moment for black. He had to play e5 or play Nh5. In our post game examination this idea was consistently needed. Black must break up the pawn chain e3-d4-c5 and e5 is the only way. It also hopes to liberate his own miserable bishop. Not playing e5 or Nh5 to get rid of my bishop made his position that much more difficult to play. This move did intend to support Nh5 by protecting d5, but it was too slow.

18 Ne2 a6 19 bxa6 Rxa6 20 RxR bxRa6

Can white convert his advantage?

It is important not to become distracted when you find yourself in these positions. You are close to the breakthrough, keep searching for it, keep applying pressure.

21 0-0 Getting my Rook into the game is a key part of converting this advantage. 21…Qc6

Here I believe an improvement would be to play Nb8-c6. Looking to blockade the passed pawn with a knight rather than a queen. A sample line: 21…Nb8 22 Rb1 Qa8 23 Qa4 Rc8 24 Rb6 a5. Things are unpleasant but this would be one way to avoid the issues black would encounter later. This may be a way to put up steeper resistance than the game continuation.

22 Nc3 Ra8 24 Rb1

Looking at the position you now see why white would pound on the queen side like a hammer against a nail. White’s pieces are much more effectively placed for a battle on the queen side than black’s. White has all the advantages on the queen side which is why he demands the battleground happen on that side of the board.

Rb1 presents multiple threats as it coordinates it’s two strongest pieces with his strong bishop. White now completely dominates (and has for some moves now) the most important file on the board, the b-file.

24…Ra7 Things are getting messy for black. 25 Qa4 White wants to remove the blockade and blast through with his pawn! 25…QxQ 26 NxQ

Black’s misery becomes obvious.

Now we can see why white is so clearly dominating. It is also evident why, earlier in the game, it was vital for black to play for the e5 break. All of white’s pieces have been ushered to support the crushing breakthrough of his passed pawn. Black’s position, without e5, is ill-equipped to deal with these threats and is now completely lost.

The break c6 is coming and black’s rook may be lost. His knights are unable to stop it as the b8 square is completely covered by white. The black bishop is entombed with no hope of ever getting out. It wraps up quickly, but it would be a good exercise for you to set up the board and try to find the winning sequence for white.

25…Ne8 26 c6 Nf8 27 Rb7 Ra8 28 Nb6 Rd8 29 c7 1-0

What did we learn? To summarize: play with a plan. Understand the important themes in the position. Reevaluation after a couple of exchanges is always a good idea. In the game above after black initiated combat on the queen side and white recognized some important ideas in response to that. 1) Black’s bishop is bad and white’s bishop is very strong. Therefore limit black’s and utilize white’s. 2) A queen side brawl favors white as he can pressure black’s queen side looking for a passed pawn to win the game or a win of material. 3) Use initiative and the piece advantages he has to gain the upper-hand and accelerate the plan.

This is of course a very general overview of the game. Inside of the game calculation is very important. Every move must be made expecting the best response, planning for it, and seeing if you can still make it work. General ideas are good only to a point, at some point you must do the hard work of calculation.

I hope you have learned from this game that you should play with a good plan and continue to follow through with that plan until it stops bearing fruit. In this game the position remained static, therefore the plan was more static than in other cases. This made the elements of planning and follow-through more obvious. In other instances it may be much more complicated, and such is chess.

Keep trying to get better and enjoy the game!

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