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Introduction - What is this Book

About?

Chess, with all its philosophical depth, its aesthetic appeal, isfirst of all a game in the best sense of
the word, a game in which are revealed your intellect, character, will.
B ORIS SPASSKY

This is a book about chess improvement. It examines how I developed from a kid with a keen inter
est in chess into a mature grandmaster. Along the way I had to learn a few lessons the hard way, as I
never had a chess trainer (except for the first few years where I attended a school chess club every
Friday). I had to do everything myself - choose my openings, analyse my own games and those of
others, decide which books to study to improve, and so on. There was nothing extraordinary about
this - that was (and still is) the basic condition for a young talent growing up in a small Western
country like Denmark without much of a chess culture.
I learned the game of chess from my father around the age of 9 or 10 - quite late by modem stan
dards - and my first recollection of being really interested in the game was the 1 978 World Cham
pionship match in Baguio City between Karpov and Korchnoi, which I followed enthusiastically in
the media. At the time I was 1 0, and from then on I started reading as much chess literature as I
could find, played as many tournaments as school holidays would allow me, and studied with great
interest the games of the great masters of the past. These activities led to rapid progress. Over the
next decade I won the Danish Scholastic Championship 6 times, the Nordic Scholastic Champion
ship once, the Under-20 Danish Junior Championship twice, made IM at the age of 1 9, and Grand
master at 22 in 1 990. After becoming a GM my progress slowed for a few years at slightly above
2500 Elo, until I made a new leap in 1 993-4 to j ust below 2600, where I have been ever since. Al
though I haven 't been a chess professional for many years now - in 1 995 I quit professional life to
go to business school - I have still managed to maintain my playing strength close to my former
level, if you look at the rating (although of course you may say that my playing strength is declining
slowly at the rate of inflation in the rating system ! ) .
The story told in this book i s therefore a story o f self training, where I shall reveal what I have
learned during the development process from young talent to seasoned grandmaster. This book is
therefore more personal than my previous Gambit books, Foundations of Chess Strategy and Se
crets of Chess Endgame Strategy. Not surprisingly, I made quite a few mistakes along the way in
my career, but these have subsequently helped me to shape my views on how chess-players should
work to improve their game. It is these insights that I wish to present to the reader, discussing the
paths to improvement and the pitfalls to avoid. I have experienced both in my career, and I shall
share good and bad memories with the reader. And more importantly: try to explore the reasons for
the successes and failures.
That explains the title of the book, How Chess Games are Won and Lost. My son jokingly sug
gested that a more appropriate title was How Chess Games are Drawn, and it is true that I do make a
certain number of draws against strong opposition. Out of my self-development process evolved a
solid positional style with a focus on safety first, especially as Black. I believe this style derives
from two sources. First, it fits my basic personality traits, in the sense that I am not the kind of
JO How CHESS GAMES ARE WON AND LOST

player or person who would rather have a win and a loss on the scoreboard as opposed to two
draws. I resent losing more than I enjoy winning; in other words, I do not like taking unnecessary
risks. I fundamentally see chess as a game in which a draw is a natural and fair result between two
equally strong players. When I draw a game, I usually feel that I have won half a point, not that I
have lost it. Second, the old masters whose games I first studied in detail as a child came from the
so-called 'Scientific School' -players like Rubinstein, Tarrasch, Steinitz and later Botvinnik, who
emphasized the approach to chess as a game where Black should first attempt to neutralize White's
initiative, and where you have to play 'obj ecti ve chess. I was also inspired by Nimzowitsch -the
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leader of the 'Hypermodem School' together with Reti, Griinfeld and others - and his system.
Based on these early influences, I wanted to play 'real chess', and real chess for me at that point in
time meant a solid, systematic, positional and objective style. Presumably, had I had a personal
trainer in the years when my style formed, he would have 'forced' me to play sharper openings,
take more risks and rej ect any draw offers, in order to develop the sharper side of my game. How
ever, it remains an open question whether this would have made me a better player in the long run. I
doubt it, but it is a question which I shall leave to the reader to judge for himself after reading this
book.

How to Improve in Chess


Many excellent books and articles have been written about how to improve in chess. When review
ing these writings, two insights stand out. First, even the experts do not agree on what the right ap
proach to chess improvement is - different experts emphasize different aspects of chess training.
For example, in a recent article in the American monthly Chess Life, six leading American coaches
were asked to offer their opinions on chess coaching. They gave six very distinct and very different
answers -there was certainly no consensus on either the process or the content of chess training.
Chess is a rich and complex game, and so is the process of chess improvement. Second, it is possi
ble to improve in chess. That is the one thing that all experts agree on. Lasker once said that he
would be able to coach any chess-player into a first-class player. That's the good news . The bad
news is that it takes an awful lot of time and work. There are no shortcuts.
Botvinnik, the Patriarch of Soviet chess, argued that chess success - and consequently improve
ment -is a function of four factors (my italics):
Natural talent
Good health and reserves of energy
Iron will and competitive character
Chess preparation

Notice that Botvinnik does not speak only of chess skills. The former World Champion (1948-
1957, 1958- 1960 and 1 96 1 - 1 963) was famous for working with two Systems: Nimzowitsch's
system in chess, and Miill er' s system for exercise - from the book by Jens Peter Millier from
1904 of the same name as Nimzowitsch 's classic -which he practised every morning throughout
his life. Botvinnik realized that there are several other components responsible for obtaining suc
cess in ches s. Some people are by their nature more talented than others 1 nothing to do about
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that. But the greatest talent does not always make it to the top. In the heat of the battle, you need
strong nerves, psychological toughness to absorb setbacks, and physical strength to endure long
games and tournaments . Anyone who has seen players like Tai , Kasparov or Topalov in action
will feel awed by the effort that these players put into the game - you can almost feel the energy
flowing. And then there is the work ethic at home between tournaments. You must work hard and

I know that cognitive psychologists claim that there is no such thing as talent; it is all hard work. But at the
risk of arguing against established science, I believe they are wrong...
INTRODUCTION - WHA T IS THIS BOOK ABOUT? 11

systematically o n your game. In h i s interesting book How Life Imitates Chess, Kasparov de
scribes this character trait as a talent, and I agree with him. During my career I have seen several
talented players wasting their chess talent through laziness off the board - and conversely many
less talented players achieving great successes through a systematic work ethic. In a recent inter
view in New In Chess, Topalov stated that "chess theory has reached a point where words like
'understanding' and 'talent' will be soon be replaced by 'perfect analysis' and 'good memory ' . "
The former World Champion has a point, but I do not entirely agree with the word 'replaced ' . I
believe that understanding and talent should be complemented by perfect analysis and good
memory, and that understanding is best developed through analysis. In other words, it is best to
be both talented and hard-working, but in any case hard work is a prerequisite for developing tal
ent to its fullest potential.

The Structure of this Book: the Five Phases of a Chess Game


This book focuses on the last of Botvinnik' s four points, chess preparation. I recommend that prep
aration and training are approached by systematically studying the various phases of a chess game.
This has been my approach throughout my career. In some periods I have focused mainly on im
proving my openings, in others my middlegame, and in still others my endgame technique. I feel
this approach has worked well for me. It allows you to penetrate deeply into a specific problem
field, and often the benefits of the hard work have soon become clearly apparent in my play. This is
the approach that I shall use as the structure for this book as well.
Commonly, a game of chess is divided into three distinct phases: the opening, the middlegame,
and the endgame. Most books on chess improvement address one or more of these three phases.
However, in my experience a chess game has more than three distinct phases. I view it in terms of
five phases, and each phase demands specific skills of the players. The five phases are:
1) The opening
2) The transition from the opening to the middlegame
3) The middlegame
4) The transition from middlegame to endgame - also known as strategic endgames
5) Technical endgames

These five phases - together with a final concluding chapter consisting of cross-relevant factors
- will form the structure of this book, and I shall discuss each of them in lengthy chapters. How
ever, at this point I shall briefly introduce them to the reader as a small appetizer of what is to come.

In the opening the lines are drawn for battle. The choice of opening is vital for a game of chess,
and the necessary competences in this phase of the game are knowledge of the concrete variations
of the opening system, understanding of the principles underlying the opening, and a good memory
to make sure that the variations can in fact be remembered at the board. The choice of which open
ings to play is not a trivial one. It is crucial that a player manages to match his particular skills to the
right openings. A key point in building an opening repertoire is therefore understanding your own
style, in order to be able to select the openings that fit this style. In my first book for Gambit, Foun
dations of Chess Strategy, I proposed a framework for identifying personal chess style. I divided
chess-players into four distinct types - pragmatics, activists, reflectors and theorists. That book
was mainly about the middlegame, but it certainly makes sense to include personal style as a pa
rameter in choosing openings, and I shall discuss which openings I believe best fit each of the four
styles.

The transition from the opening to the middlegame is in my experience a vastly underesti
mated phase in a chess game. This is the point where the players have left the comfort of opening
12 How CHESS GAMES ARE WON AND LOST

theory and by themselves conceive plans for the early middlegame - a crucial decision for the
course of the game. Botvinnik once remarked that Bronstein, the creative genius that almost took
the title from The Patriarch in 1 95 1 , was "World Champion of this phase of the game". Botvinnik
was very impressed by his young challenger's ability to conceive creative plans out of the opening.
In this phase of the game, the key competences are a good grasp of typical pawn-structures, ma
noeuvres and middlegame plans -in short, chess strategy. A good way of building a knowledge
base of these things is studying well-annotated grandmaster games, both contemporary games and
those of the old masters. In this way, you can improve your feeling for the particular structures and
positions of the early middlegame - you build your capacity for pattern recognition -an essential
tool for strategic planning. However, this knowledge is not sufficient in itself. It must be put into
context -the specific game between two specific players with distinct styles. In post-mortem anal
ysis, one can often hear one player telling the other: "Here I am slightly better according to Grand
master X in book Y" or, more and more often in recent years, "Fritz gives me 0. 1 8 advantage in this
position". This may be correct from a pure chess point of view but from a competitive perspective
some crucial information is lacking. Is this the kind of position that I like and which I know how to
handle? And what about my opponent, how does the position fit him? One plan of action may be
the right one against one opponent but flawed against another, as it plays into his trumps. After all,
competitive chess is about beating the opponent. Sometimes it is better to be '-0. 1 8 ' out of the
opening if you know what you are doing in that type of position, and your opponent doesn't. Com
petitive chess is not an objective game where one can simply rely on 'objective evaluations' by
computer programs or strong grandmasters. Therefore we shall also consider the impact of per
sonal style in the chapter related to this phase, by relating style to pawn-structure, an essential issue
in the transition from opening to middlegame. To be successful in chess, you must know yourself
and your strengths and weaknesses. Kasparov repeatedly emphasizes this point in How Life Imi
tates Chess. The best situation to be in is both to be '+0. 1 8' and to know what you are doing!

The middlegame is the phase of the game where the conceived plans and strategies are imple
mented. Obviously we are not talking about one strategy here but rather multiple strategies. The
two players continuously try to thwart each other's plans, and therefore plans and strategies must
be continuously adjusted to the changing circumstances. Often this is a point which distinguishes
strong players from less experienced ones - the latter may conceive of a plan and then stick to it,
while the former are always ready to change the plan and to trade one advantage for another. Play
often becomes very concrete in this phase of the game, and most important competences are there
fore concrete calculations and tactical skills. Strategy implementation is often about tactics! Cool
defence is also a characteristic feature of this phase, and the progress in defensive skills is certainly
one of the key developments in chess since the romantic period of Morphy and Anderssen. We shall
discuss how to develop skills for defence as well as for attack.

The fourth phase is the transition from middlegame to endgame. Another term for this phase
is strategic endgames. I distinguish between strategic endgames and technical ones. While in
technical endgames the result is already known from theory (although the result in practice may
differ), strategic endgames are positions where the players trade their way from the midd legame
into the endgame, and where the result is still in doubt. One player may possess the advantage of
the two bishops or have the better pawn-structure, but the opponent is still defending stubbornly
and may be in the range of a draw. This is the phase that I discussed extensively in my earlier Gam
bit book Secrets of Chess Endgame Strategy. In that book I identified 15 key principles of play in
strategic endgames. The underlying feature of these principles is to build understanding of the posi
tion and its characteristics, so that the player grasps which pieces to exchange and which to keep on
the board, whether to hurry or not, or if the pawn-structure should be altered.
INTRODUCTION - WHA T IS THIS BOOK ABOUT? 13

And then finally - the technical endgames. As mentioned above, these are positions in which
the result with best play is already known from theory. With ever-shortening time-limits in practi
cal play, concrete endgame knowledge is more important than ever. You simply do not have the
time to delve into the position, and the depth of your knowledge of technical endgames may be the
deciding factor between a win, draw or loss. Often this phase is referred to as 'technique' , and it is
sometimes assumed that some players from nature's hand possess good technique while others
don't. Partially this is true, but technique must be developed, nurtured and maintained. It is not
enough to go over a standard endgame text (such as Dvoretsky 's endgame manual or - as in my
case as a teenager - Fine's Basic Chess Endings) once, and then think 'that was that' . Nobody can
remember everything, and it is necessary once in a while to return to these or other endgame books
to keep your technical skills up to date. This is especially important since more and more endgames
become 'technical' - that is, known. Endgame databases exist - often referred to as 'tablebases' -
that cover all positions with 6 pieces or fewer on the board, and more and more men will be added
over time. Some of this new knowledge is incomprehensible to the human mind, but a number of
good books exist that summarize the key patterns of various types of endgames. We shall discuss
some of the most important ones, drawing on examples mainly from my own career.

In the last chapter of the book - entitled Practical Tips I shall discuss a number of issues that
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are essential to the competitive player but which fall outside the structure of the five phases. These
include use of computers, preparation for specific opponents, and time management.

How to Distribute Your Time in Chess Training


Obviously, the preceding discussion begs one crucial question: how should you distribute your
time in training among the five phases? There is no clear answer to that question, but one general
piece of advice can be given: do not spend too much time on the opening at the expense of the other
phases ! From my experience I would say that there is a tendency, especially for younger players, to
emphasize the opening too much. As soon as they get 'out of the book' , they are in trouble. I cer
tainly don't argue against the value or importance of having good and well-prepared openings - far
from it - but I believe that until you reach perhaps 2300-2400 in rating, the games are rarely de
cided in the opening. If you build a good and solid opening repertoire based on your particular
strengths - and we shall discuss how to do that in Chapter 1 - you should be safe even if you do not
know all the details of contemporary opening theory, or the latest games from around the globe
from last week. So until that level, I would suggest an about equal distribution of training time on
the five phases. Above 2400 the openings rise in importance, but even IMs and GMs should in my
opinion be wary of the trap of neglecting other phases than the opening. For example, in recent
years we have seen quite a number of theoretically drawn endings being lost even at 2700 level. The
faster time-controls are certainly to blame for this, but ttie logical consequence for the competitive
player would then be to devote extra time to the study of such endgames, so as to be able to play
them faster and more confidently under time-pressure.
During a long career, a chess-player inevitably faces both success and failure. Certainly I have
had my share of both, and in this book I shall present positive as well as negative experiences - this
is in keeping with the title of the book, after all ! Hopefully my experiences will help you develop
your game, so that you can learn from my successes while avoiding the mistakes that I have made
over the years, and that led to the failures.

Let's get started with the first phase - the opening !

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.


S0REN KIERKEGAARD