The Gazette - February 2018

Edited by Julie Leonard
The views expressed in the Gazette do not necessarily reflect the policies or views of the BCA, nor those of the editor.

Reflections after Solihull

Sub-titled “Any plan is better than no plan”

David Mabbs writes:

Oh dear - Julie's November editorial about changing fashions in chess struck a chord with me!

I am living history: my chess heyday (such as it was) ran from 1955 to 1964, with a brief revival in the early 1970s. Since then, I've dipped in and out of chess, always on a highly casual basis, such that just a couple of months ago the “Chess Improver” remarked that David Mabbs has “made more come-backs than Frank Sinatra”.

I confess to never having had a chess engine. My opening repertoire is fifty years out of date, my memories are vague, and many lines have probably now been refuted. So I tend to play random openings. Against Ernie McElroy I played 1 e3. He was so startled that he said “I've never seen that before” to which I replied, truthfully, “Neither have I.”

In the 1950s, we were pretty unsophisticated. Seat-of-the-pants merchants. What mattered much more than openings theory was to have a plan within each game. This article explains and illustrates what I mean by this.

If you want to see plans in action, just study the games of Chris Ross. He is a supreme strategist. From the earliest stages of a game, Chris has the ability to determine what White and Black should each be doing. We mere mortals are proud if we can analyse (say) five or six moves ahead - Chris analyses thirty or more moves ahead! As his plan unfurls, there's almost an inevitability about it, a bit like meeting an oncoming steam-roller. His opponent may squirm and wriggle and conjure up some attempted counter-play – but this is anticipated and brushed aside. I know this first-hand, I've fallen victim to Chris twice this year.

The ’50s and ’60s were innocent times. I quite often played the Dutch Defence (1... f5 against 1 d4 or against 1 Nf3). Assume, if you will, that White plays d4, Nf3, fianchettoes his King's Bishop, castles kingside and also plays c4. (These were standard manoeuvres.) Black had a plan, and it was delightfully simple. The sort of thing that you did as Black, in no particular order, was … f5, ...e6, ...d5 and ...c6. You would throw your King's Knight into e4, your Bishop to e7, castle kingside, … Qe8, ...Qh5, … QN to ...f6, or perhaps ...Rf6 with ...Rh6 in the air. Then at a suitable moment you would sacrifice your f-pawn at f4, maybe your e-pawn too, at e5 …. White's pawn structure was ruined, and then your QB would sweep down to g4 or to h3 and White would be dead in the water.

White really would be destroyed, time after time, and in spectacular fashion, if he were to simply stand around haplessly and watch on. He could not possibly find enough defenders within reach. Resistance was futile. Lots of opponents went to their end in this sort of manner. What they had been doing was simply reacting, move by move, to each thrust by Black. “What shall I do now ?” A series of still picture decisions. Doomed. Totally doomed.

What every player must do is have a plan. Any plan. A plan for what you are going to do. Having no plan is usually catastrophic. You may not find the best available plan – you're not the world champion. But neither is your opponent. Your motto should be “any plan is better than no plan”.

In the case in point, the Dutch Defence in the 1950s, White's plan was well known among the stronger players. Yes, you keep a weather-eye on Black's manoeuvres, and when merited you digress from your own plan just to annoy Black and slow his attack down. But what you are doing, your plan, your bit of the board, is on the queenside. You mass pieces there, you throw pawns down the board, you open files and you win material (Black, after all, is away on the kingside). Then you come in behind Black on the seventh or eighth ranks. Easier said than done, but that's what you have to do. That's your plan. There's absolutely no point in trying to defend Black's own attack – you won't succeed. You have to slug it out, plan against plan, and try to strike your blows first and strike decisively. Sometimes you'll win, sometimes you won't. It's fun.

Fast forward to Solihull, 2017. I had a very nasty shock when I resurrected my Dutch Defence against Bill Armstrong in Round Five. 1 Nf3 f5 2 d4 Nf6 3 d5! Well – this wasn't part of the deal!! Nobody plays this against the Dutch, surely? (Not having a chess engine, I have to suppose that the answer is “Oh yes they do!” or “Look behind you … !”)

My trouble is, you see, that I'm still marooned in the 1950s.

The more that I looked at the position, the more my incredulity turned to despair. 3 d5 is an arrow in my heart. Bill's plan is strong. In order to develop my queenside pieces I'm going to have to bite the bullet and play … d6. Ugh – my e6 square is dreadfully weak and likely to be colonised by a Knight – how I would love to have my f-pawn back on f7 to challenge at e6 and to shield my King. However remote the prospect may seem, I have simply got to find a plan of my own. Otherwise Bill will have an absolute field-day on the White squares. His Bishop is murderous on the long diagonal, and at some stage he'll own the a2-g8 diagonal with his queen. His Knights can dominate via d4 or g5. The d-file will belong to him. And at a time of his choosing, when my uncoordinated pieces are shuffling around aimlessly on ranks six to eight, he will play a timely e4 and just roll through my defences uncontested.

“Gotta find a plan.” (This is quite unlike any Dutch Defence I've ever known.) “Gotta find a plan.” (Any plan is better than no plan – the words echoed in my ear.) I need something vigorous that will delay Bill from executing his own plan while he attends to my own threats.

As an aside, I can't stress strongly enough, that players should invest their time and their efforts, at these early stages of a game, in deciding on their long term strategies and plans. And then try to stick to the plan. You'll get your time back during later moves, because you won't have to keep thinking afresh, at each move, “What shall I do next?” You'll know, within fairly defined limits, what you'll be doing next – you'll be following your plan, which – all being well – may be better than your opponent's plan, especially if he doesn't have one!

I'm not going to commentate closely on my game with Bill. I want readers to concentrate on Bill's plan and my plan as totalities. If I confuse the issues with too much detail, readers might not see the wood for the trees. So, before I give the score, I'll just outline the plan that I decided upon. I shall open the c-file: that will be mine. Both my Rooks will head there. I'll park my White squared Bishop at d7, and develop the QN at a6, probably headed for c5 – or in some lines b4. I'm setting up queenside counter-play – this is my arena. My Queen will go to b6 (or, in some lines, to a5). My black-squared Bishop will be trained on the long diagonal. Everything will be targeted at the c2, b2 sort of area. I can foresee pins, forks, pseudo-sacrifices, all sorts of possible fun. All being well, a moment may come when I can make the freeing move, e5. This may not be a winning plan, or even a drawing plan – but it is a plan, and it seems my best hope.

As for Bill, his plan is clear, and his plan is strong.

I suggest that you play through our game at high speed, concentrating on recognising the execution of our plans. Don't get obsessed by the detail – trace the bigger picture. Next time, you can go through more slowly, and discover the twists and turns, the detailed threats and counters, and so on. (There's a lot there to be discovered, but – maybe – for another time.)

Autumn Open, Solihull. Round 5. October 30th 2017.

White: Bill Armstrong

Black: David Mabbs

1. Nf3 f5 2. d4 Nf6 3. d5 g6 4. c4 Bg7 5. Nc3 0-0 6. g3 c6 7. Bg2 d6 8. 0-0 cxd5 9. cxd5 Na6 10. Nd2 Bd7

11. Re1 Rc8 12. Rb1 Ng4 13. h3 Ne5 14. f4 Qb6+ 15. Kh2 Nc4 16. Nxc4 Rxc4 17. Bd2 Rfc8 18. e3 Rb4

19. Qc2 e5 20. b3 e4 21. Bf1 Bb5 22. Bxb5 Rxb5 23. Rbc1 Rxd5 24. Nxd5 Rxc2 25. Nxb6 Rxd2+ 26. Kg1 axb6

27. Rc8+ Kf7 28. Rec1 Bb2 29. R1c4 b5 30. Rc2 Rxc2 31. Rxc2 Ba3 32. Kf2 Bc5 33. Ke2 Nb4 34. Rd2 Ke6

35. a3 Nd5 36. b4 Bxe3 37. Rxd5 Kxd5 38. Kxe3 Kc4 39. g4 Kc3 40 White resigns.

Remember, folks – remember well, “Any plan is better than no plan”. Go to it! “Enjoy.” And, last but not least, a big thank you to everyone for welcoming me and my wife Jenny among you. For us it's a very great privilege.