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Last night I played two OTB games with a friend of mine and in both games I reached decent, even winning positions. At some moment though I overlooked my king safety and blundered horribly, which lead to losing both games.

Going back further it occurred to me that I do this almost on a regular basis! I reviewed few games in which I had a great position and then I made a bad move which lead to either the position being equal or even being worse. In these games the problem was not the king safety in particular, but some other positional or tactical error.

I've identified the problem as being too focused on attacking, trying to checkmate my opponent, then I relax a bit too much, thinking I'm winning, and make a bad move. Obviously, I need to work on avoiding blunders and improving my OTB analytical skills, but in this question I would like to focus on improving purely defensive skills, especially when under pressure.

One very important aspect of defense, as defined as Nimzowitsch, is the term of prophylaxis. The thing is that I'm not certain when I should make a prophylactic move that doesn't throw my advantage away as well.

One way for improvement in finding prophylactic moves would be studying the games of world class players, famous for their defensive skills and strong positional understanding. The name of Tigran Petrosian immediately comes to mind, but where would I be able to find some of his annotated games so I can really understand and appreciate the strength of his moves?

What other players would you recommend to study in order to improve in this particular area?

Maybe the most crucial question would be the following:

How to deal with the psychological pressure of having a great position and having it collapse over the next few moves?

What other ways for improvement would you recommend?

  • By "How to deal with the psychological pressure of having a great position and having it collapse over the next few moves?" do you mean "what to think when your position has just collapsed" or "what to think to make sure your position does not to collapse over the next few moves"? – JiK Aug 19 '14 at 11:59
  • Answers to both questions would be greatly appreciated! – Tomislav Dyulgerov Aug 19 '14 at 12:40
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    Personally, I think there's a rather significant difference between defense and prophylaxis: the former implies actively defending against the opponent's aggression, whereas the latter is characterized by denying your opponent the ability to attack at all! Of course, some of the best defensive minds were also great prophylactics (e.g. Petrosian), but the two characteristics are distinct. – Henry Keiter Aug 19 '14 at 14:56
  • Yes, I agree, the two are quite different. The thing is I would like to improve both aspects of my game. That's why I mentioned prophylaxis as a term, which could potentialy lead to better defense. – Tomislav Dyulgerov Aug 19 '14 at 17:07
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    It's more than a +3 advantage according to the computer analysis. So it seems I'm not being confused or something. You make a fair point though. – Tomislav Dyulgerov Aug 19 '14 at 19:53
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Vas's answer is pretty good, so I will just suggest things that are orthogonal to his. I don't really like to talk about chess in abstract ways without having concrete positions to discuss, but here we go:

From what I see in your description, you tend to blunder away your advantages, now a blunder can occur at many different levels, if it's about material loss, then the sad truth is simply that you have to calculate your plans/moves more accurately and not assume "things will work out" too often.

Instead if you find yourself blundering your positional advantage, like losing control of open files, losing activity of your pieces, getting your pieces pushed back by opponent's pawn advances, or finally finding your king being ambushed without getting the chance to do something about it anymore. In all these cases, there are multiple defensive ways one can rely on, or simply try.

  1. Holding: most passive form of a defense, just trying to hold your position after you've blundered away your attack e.g. Now in order to improve in this area, you should definitely look into Carlsen or Anand's games (personal opinion), Carlsen because he is extremely resourceful and Anand because he has a lot of experience in playing solid, of course you should look for the games where these two have been under pressure, and see what ideas they found to hold their positions. Finally the difficulty in passively holding a position, is that it often turns out to require a lot of calculations from your side, as all the tactics planned by your opponent have to be refuted. So for this type of defenses, you should just play a lot of blitz/rapid games online, (5 min up to 15 min games) and analyse your games afterwards. Why blitz? because in quick modes we find ourselves a lot of the time under pressure, so you have to come up with a plan to defend almost in each game.

  2. Renew your plans: as soon as you realize you may be losing the initiative, you need to start looking for alternative offensive plans that may help in keeping some of your edge, often such plans can be found and when you do you avoid having to play very defensive positions. For this kind of plays, you need to know about transpositions, i.e. noticing similarities to the other games you've played or rather still have in mind, and remember "ah! I once had this queen-side structure, and pushing my pawns (just an example) did help me win some time". Furthermore think of huge shifts in your position like queen moves from kingside to queenside and vice versa, or abrupt rook activities, like some Benko positions, king side pawn pushes that he/she may not have expected, etc.

  3. Tactics: Always keep in mind that despite the computers and chess engines of today, we are still playing vs humans all the time. Point being, you should always keep trying new tactics, the opponent may fall for one of them eventually. So start looking for tricky plans that may lead to forks or checks by discovery, or pins etc. Often they force your opponent to have to deal with it in a forced manner and your pieces get to breath again. In order to improve your tactics, you don't need to watch only top players, as in their games the tactics are way too sophisticated and are often not directly useful to us. So you should rather keep solving puzzles (online preferably), more and more and more... on a daily basis, this will in time give a very rich tactics tool-box.

  4. Prophylaxis moves: Since you were confused about this, I explain in a few words: In general you should consider playing them in two cases: First when both sides are absolutely stuck and don't know how to make progress in their positions, this is a good time to find key prophylactic moves that make your position even more robust and less vulnerable to future attacks. Second case, is when the prophylaxis move you have in mind goes hand in hand with your attacking plans, where you want to avoid losing tempo by checks or having to retreat unprotected pieces. That's when it's perfectly fine to take the time and play them. But of course chess is too specific to allow for such generalizations, so never forget calculating to some extent the necessity of a prophylactic move and its implications.

  5. Last but not least, if you lack in general defensive plans in middle games and end games, then watching top players is a really good advice, but I wouldn't focus on one single player, rather make the list of players you watch as diverse as possible, because we are watching them to absorb new ideas, from situations where they had to defend their positions, and try to incorporate those ideas in your own games. The more diverse the players you study the more chances you have in discovering new ideas. Most difficult task in watching top games is being able to calculate the real plans or variations those players had in mind, because what we see by replaying their games only shows roughly 1% of what they had really calculated, so you need to take your time, your coffee and keep studying these games for as long as you need until you find their reasons. Looking at annotated games isn't always a good idea as it won't allow you to think and find out things on your own, after all that's the pleasure we take in playing chess.

As for the psychological question, you may find useful elements in my reply to this post.

  • I would also suggest to train tactics as a way to minimize material loss blunders, another thing that has helped me is to play against a chess engine where the position is slightly inferior for myself (the engine has a small advantage). Engines tend to be relentless and I think this has helped me to develop defensive skills – Purefan Sep 8 '14 at 11:32
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"...where would I be able to find some of his annotated games so I can really understand and appreciate the strength of his moves?"

Although you can find annotated games of Petrosian all over YouTube and some chess-related websites, I would recommend purchasing these books if you are interested in his style.

What other players would you recommend to study in order to improve in this particular area?

Karpov, Korchnoi, Ulf Andersson, Kramnik, Carlsen, Fischer.

How to deal with the psychological pressure of having a great position and having it collapse over the next few moves?

From personal experience, during the game just train yourself to not get too excited during the attack and before making the next attacking move spend time analysing how much of your defence get's hindered and how critical can that be in the long run. If the position is already collapsing, then either continue attacking if you are fully sure you will be able to checkmate faster than your opponent, or come back to defend and hope for a blunder or draw. After the game, analyse the game, just as you did.

What other ways for improvement would you recommend?

I would recommend playing as much games against higher rated opponents as possible. Thats the way I personally improve.

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How to deal with the psychological pressure of having a great position and having it collapse over the next few moves?

I'd recommend reviewing Dan Heisman's articles, books, and/or videos if you can get hold of them.

http://www.danheisman.com/

Heisman's basic instructions provide a framework you can use to be more systematic in evaluating your chess positions while under pressure. Having a way to assess the situation will reduce your stress and reduce the chances that you will blunder.

In essence, Heisman's advice is to review a position for checks, captures, and threats. Or as Hesiman posted to Twitter:

I always say "Checks, captures & threats" cause it's catchy, but the order is really "Checks, mate threats, captures & other threats"

https://twitter.com/danheisman/status/425647419762548737

I have mostly learned from Heisman's videos, wherein he goes into more detail on the method above. In essence, he emphasizes not rushing, but rather taking a little time to review choices that might result in blunders. Of course there are many other things to cover in a chess game, but what I found most helpful in Heisman's advice is that he repeatedly underscores how many times players move quickly or think their next move is "obvious," only to realize with dread a second later that it contained a huge mistake because they overlooked the consequences of an opponent's check, capture, or threat.

What other ways for improvement would you recommend?

  1. Study many games with players around your rating, but also some annotated games of higher rated players. Personally I try to set up a real board and review all of the sidelines contained in the annotations. But if reviewing games on a screen works for you, great.

  2. Try to keep copies of your own games and review them, including running them through an engine to see what it says. I use the import game feature on lichess.org then request a computer analysis. I always learn something from seeing what the computer says I did wrong.

Good luck!

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Your question involves several topics:

  1. Attacking successfully, instead of failing and being forced onto the defensive
  2. Being resourceful in defense (whether you had an attack going prior to that or not

For a general guide to attacking, I'd recommend Vladimir Vukovic's Art of Attack. It addresses how to combine the pieces effectively, standard attacks on castled positions of different kinds, use of pawns or pieces or both in an attack on the king, and so on. Get the edition revised by John Nunn in algebraic notation with corrections, of course, not the original in English descriptive notation.

As for learning defensive concepts, I recommend Andrew Soltis' New Art of Defence in Chess. It covers a lot of aspects of defense, and in particular how defensive technique has changed since Petrosian's time. Today, defenders are a lot more enterprising in how they coordinate their pieces, cover focal squares, overprotect, and generate counterplay. Note that there's an older edition of this book also, but the newer one is more than an update, it is a rewrite to account for this sea change in technique; it makes the older edition completely obsolete.

Both are available at Amazon in Kindle editions, which you can read on pretty much any device. This has the advantage of making it easy to bookmark important sections, review, etc. The Art of Attack is also available from Everyman Publishing in a PGN or Chessbase format, making it easy to review the variations, and annotate them, as well as tag them for later reference with whatever scheme you like.

All of that said, you will get surprised by your opponent with a counterattack from time to time, and it may well trump whatever you were doing. Or, he may simply refute a sacrifice you made. Just follow Steinitz' dictum: If you have the advantage, you must attack. If not, you must not. It's that simple. And just get decent at defending and look for counterplay. Most games contain errors by both players; when your opponent makes one in his attack (and he most probably will), be ready to punish it.

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I think it might be worthwhile for you to focus on the subject of exchanging pieces.

One way to reduce checkmating potential against your king is to exchange off your opponent's attacking pieces. However, doing that can often have the disadvantage of allowing your opponent to develop with tempo when recapturing.

So ideally you want your opponent to have to spend time exchanging their attacking pieces for your defensively placed pieces so you recapture with tempo instead.

If your king safety is sound in the initial position, then usually after a series of exchanges the opponent's initiative will peter out leaving a position where endgame factors (superior pawn strucure, outside passed pawn, etc.) often determine the result of the game.

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It's impossible to say for sure without seeing games, but what you're describing sounds like a problem with blundering, which really isn't the same thing as prophylaxis or defensive play. You talk about defense under pressure, but it sounds like you're encountering problems when you have a comfortable advantage, i.e., when you're not under pressure.

As a coach, I've found it's very common for players to misdiagnose their own problems, which makes sense if you think about it: if you really knew what was holding you back you'd likely have solved it already! I would strongly suggest getting some coaching if possible. It sounds like you could really benefit from another pair of eyes.

Having said all that, let me recommend a simple technique that's very helpful for prophylaxis, defensive play, and avoiding blunders! Get in the habit of asking yourself, "What is my opponent's next move?" This is one of the best questions to direct your attention to what's important in the position. Keep in mind, you don't need to react to your opponent's ideas defensively. In some cases it's best to ignore them or render them irrelevant with a powerful aggressive move. But awareness of the opponent's ideas is extremely important.

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