Alternate title: the difference between high-rated players and lower rated players.
I’m involved in a tournament on chess.com, and I got randomly paired against a 1400 and a 1500-rated player. I won all four games, one with each colour, and I noticed similarities in all the games. I won rather easily in all four, as I should, being nearly 500 rating points higher, but how did I do it?
The lazy answer is I outplayed them positionally, but that’s a vague assessment. What does it mean to be positionally outplayed? In a nutshell, I did two things better than my opponents: I made a plan, whereas they did not, and I consistently improved my pieces, whereas they made many more backwards moves.
Let’s look at two games that show this in detail.
This game very well shows both of my points in action. White never has a plan; he simply moves his pieces around. By contrast, Black gets far superior pieces very quickly.
1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Nf6 3.d3 c6 4.Bg5 h6 5.Bh4 Bc5
It’s been five moves and the position is fairly standard. White has developed his dark-square Bishop a little too early, but it’s not bad. Obviously there’s a lot of play to go.
6.Nf3 d6 7.h3 Nbd7 8.Nc3 b5 9.Bxf6 Nxf6 10.Bb3 0-0
Five moves later and we reach this position. White has exchanged his Bishop without provocation, which gives Black the two Bishops. I want to open the position to use them, and we can see that happening on the Queenside, where I’m about to advance my pawns. White can White do? What is his plan?
In truth, White needs to think long and hard in this position. If he cannot find a good plan, then his position is on the verge of disaster. GM Smirnov has discussed this point vividly in Your Winning Plan. In the game, White didn’t know how to plan, didn’t know what to do and fell apart quickly.
11.a3 a5 12.Ne2 a4 13.Ba2 Qb6 14.Rf1? b4 15.axb4 Qxb4+
Five moves later and White has played bizaarly, especially not castling. We could say it’s because he is a weak player, but 1500 is still decent. Simply put, White doesn’t know what to do, and his random-looking moves reflect that. In contrast, Black has completely finished his plan of opening the Queenside and he is about to win a pawn for his efforts.
16.Nd2 Qxb2 17.Nc4 Bb4+ 18.c3 Bxc3+ 19.Nxc3 Qxc3+ 20.Ke2 Qd5
Here’s five more moves. Fun fact: my last move, 20…Qd5, is the only time I move a piece backwards in the entire game. By contrast, White ends up moving a piece backwards 8 times in a 34 move game. Ultimately, that’s how I outplayed him. He let me push his pieces back, and I kept pushing my pieces forward. When you get right down to it, that’s the story of the game.
21.Rb1 Be6 22.Qc2 d5 23.exd5 cxd5 24.Ne3 Rfc8 25.Qd1 Nh5
Another five moves. My Knight is heading to f4, where it will be a monster and hit all of White’s weaknesses. Every piece is better than the White counterpart. White has nothing to do, no plan. The game ends swiftly.
26.Ke1 Nf4 27.Rg1 Nxd3+ 28.Kf1 f5!? 29.Qe2 f4
Only four moves this time, White’s pieces can barely move. A sample line is 30.Ng4 Bxg4 31.hxg4 Qxf2+! 32.Qxf2 Nxf2 33.Kxf2 Rc2+ and I pick up the useless White Bishop and emerge up four (!) pawns. White chose a different path, but the game still ended quickly.
30.Rd1 fxe3 31.Bb1 e4 32.fxe3 Rf8+ 33.Qf3 Qxe3 34.Rxd3 exd3 0-1
Conclusion: White lost because he never moved his pieces forward. After move five, a White piece never moved onto Black’s half of the board, with the exception of one dubious exchange. White moved a piece backwards eight times, whereas Black did it once. Move your pieces forward, not backwards, and good things happen.
In this game, White moves a piece backwards only two times, and one of those was a capture. Black moved backwards six times in the first 24 moves. This explains 95% of the game. It really is that simple.
1.e4 e6 2.d4 Bb4+?! 3.c3 Ba5
Already we are in strange territory. In what follows, you might assume that Black simply didn’t know opening theory and lost because of that. No, that’s lazy analysis. Black lost because, surprise, he moved his pieces backwards and never composed an active plan.
In this position, the best move is likely Qg4, like in the Winnamer Poisoned Pawn variation. However, that seemed messy, and Black would gain some counterplay. If I kept the game quiet and positional, I could take advantage of Black’s misplaced Bishop. That’s what happened.
4.Nf3 d5 5.Qa4+!? c6 6.Nbd2 Bd7?! 7.Qc2
I’m not going to lie, when I played 5.Qa4+, I thought Black had to play Nc6 as the only move. I completed missed c6, so even 1900-rated players can miss simply things!
Anyway, White still has a very good position here. Black needs to think long and hard to find a good plan here. For instance, it’s hard to develop the Knights, especially the Queen’s Knight. Ideally Black plays c5 and Nc6, but that would be a pawn sacrifice because of the misplaced Bishop. Again, if Black cannot find an active plan now, on move 7, he is doomed to passive defence and an almost strategically losing position.
Instead, he played …
7… dxe4? 8.Nxe4 Nf6 9.Nd6+ Kf8 10.Nxb7 Qc7 11.Nxa5 Qxa5
The lazy answer is that Black missed Nd6+ and that cost him the game. Nope. The real mistake was one move earlier. Black took a pawn, which simply opened the game up for White’s more active pieces. Even if Black saw the threat, he would need to play something awkward like Qe7 or Bc7 to defend against, both passive moves.
Black’s carelessness cost him a pawn, but more fundamentally, it cost him any chance of finding an active plan. From this point on he never has an active threat. Also, coming back to our themes, White never makes another backward move in this game. White gets more and more active while Black stands still and gets swept away.
12.Bd3 g6? 13.Bh6+ Kg8 14.Ne5! Be8 15.0-0 Nd5
Compared to the last diagram White has improved the position of two pieces and castled. White has a clear plan of attacking the Kingside … or in the center and Queenside. White can do anything. Black has done nothing to improve his worst pieces and has no active plan.
16.Qe2 Qc7 17.Rfe1 Nd7 18.Nxd7 Bxd7 19.Qe5 Qxe5 20.dxe5
Exchanging pieces has made Black’s problem worse. His Rook can never move with his King stuck on g8 and his Bishop is pathetic. White has an easy plan of advancing in the center whereas Black can do … nothing. To see the true power of planning, just compare this diagram to the next one.
20…Rb8 21.Re2 Ne7 22.Rd1 Be8 23.Be4 Nd5 24.c4 Ne7 25.Rd6
In five moves White has made tremendous progress, now threatening to win the c-pawn as well as double Rooks and invade on the weak back rank. Black has … done nothing. His position has barely changed, because he has no plan.
It’s not just that Black has no plan, it’s that he never thought about planning when it mattered, back near the opening. That lack of planning then has haunted him forever. In all honestly, once I saw his seventh move, dxe4?, I knew I would not lose.
The game soon ends with a rather pretty final position.
25…Rc8 26.Red2 f6 27.Rxe6! f5 28.Rxe7! fxe4 29.e6!
Black currently cannot move a single piece. He is so restricted he cannot avoid mate.
29…c5 30.Rg7+ Kf8 31.Rf7+ Kg8 32.Rf8#
Conclusion: From move 12 to 32, so 20 moves, White never made a piece move backwards. I always went forward, or prepared myself to go forward, or I pushed my opponent backwards. I had an active plan. Black never thought about planning, and it cost him. Yes, poor openings and an oversight didn’t help, but fundamentally, he lost because he didn’t have a plan and had no way to move his pieces forward.
The Takeaway Lesson
When I played these relatively weaker opponents, at least compared to my own rating, I couldn’t help but notice how easy it was to move forward. My opponents put up little resistance. They made backward moves unprovoked, and that let me waltz forward.
Also, I saw little elements of planning. When I was an 1800 player, I didn’t plan either, not in any real sense. It’s only in the last few months, honestly, that I’ve looked at this particular skill in detail. I studied the aforementioned course Your Winning Plan, but the eureka moment occurred while reading A Promoted Pawn, GM Smirnov’s book. Once I read the chapter on planning, something clicked, and my results and my board vision have gone way up.
If you don’t have the book, you are still in luck, because half of the chapter is on Youtube. I have linked it at the bottom.
Again, I didn’t do anything too clever in these games. I like to think I did, because that makes my ego feel good, but really I just constantly created positions where I could move pieces forward instead of backwards.
Chess is a complicated game, but sometimes it’s as easy as that. Move your pieces forward as much as you can. Ultimately, that’s the difference between these two games, between a 1900-rated player and a 1500-rated one.