The importance of queen side counterplay

Back in 1994 when I was still playing competitive chess (I practically retired in a year’s time after a series of blunders under pressure), I had played in this one special tournament that was played to “prepare Karnataka youngsters for national events”. Though I wasn’t travelling to any of these events, being a “promising youngster” I had received an invitation to play.

It was a weird kind of tournament, for apart from us “youngsters”, there were these senior players from the state who participated in the tournament on and off. Their scores weren’t tallied – all they did was to make sure each “youngster” played an equal number of games against a “senior player” and only youngsters’ scores counted.

In the first round of the tournament, I faced off against a senior named Nagesh (if I remember correctly). Nagesh played white and played a King’s Indian Attack against my Sicilian Defence (part of this special tournament was to expose us to non-standard openings and plays). It was a hard fought middle and end game where experience ultimately prevailed, and I lost.

In the analysis after the game, Nagesh pointed out that while he had an established centre and strong kind side attack, I had managed to build up a fairly expansive position on the queen side, and that I should have “pushed harder on the queenside for counterplay” rather than simply defending. While I took his point, I didn’t see the point of expanding on the queen side to grab a couple of pawns and (with a remote chance) threaten to queen one of my pawns there when my king was under heavy attack.

This bewilderment continued through the next year, as I studied openings for which the stated strategy was to “get counterplay on the queenside”. Not being a particularly great endgame player (though I did show some promise in that in my brief career), the advantage that could be gained by the gain of a pawn was lost to me, and I would prefer to go for a more tactical game (which usually didn’t go too well).

As an adult, while I don’t play competitively any more, I continue to follow chess and watch videos from time to time for entertainment. I’ve developed more nuance on strategy, and in playing a positional game. I’ve seen how small advantages (like space, or even a pawn) can be turned into decisive victories, and given myself shit for not learning to play endgames better back during my playing career. It’s a more holistic view of chess than the one I had formed as a schoolboy having mugged up all the moves of Morphy’s 17-move win against the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard (I still remember that game by heart).

Though it doesn’t take much convincing now for me to appreciate the joys of positional play, and going for queen side counterplay when your king is under attack, I found the game played by Viswanathan Anand against Veselin Topalov in the first round of the ongoing Candidates tournament rather¬†interesting.

The two players go for different strategies – while Topalov builds up for an attack against Anand’s king, Anand goes for queen side counterplay (the bit I didn’t get back when I was a young player) and goes pawn grabbing. It was a rather complex game and both players played rather inaccurately under time pressure, but it is an excellent example of how queen side counterplay can help defuse an attack.

Anand’s queen nearly gets trapped (in the press conference after the game, he said he was reconciled to giving it up if attacked). There is a massive piledriver of pieces Topalov stacks up on the king side to attack Anand’s king. There is absolutely no threat of danger on Topalov’s king.

Yet, from time to time, Anand’s pawn grabbing strategy means Topalov has to move back some pieces to the queen side for its defence, blunting the attack.¬†Then, Topalov needs to recover lost material, and moves his rooks to the queen side for that purpose. There is a mad scramble around the time control (both players got into time trouble) when the position gets liquidated with a lot of pieces exchanged.

After the dust settles, we find that Topalov’s remaining pieces are horribly misplaced on the queenside (on a pawn recovery campaign), while Anand’s are now trained towards an attack on Topalov’s king. As Topalov scrambles to defuse this attack, he loses material, and ultimately resigns.

It was a fascinating game to get a potentially fascinating tournament underway. I hope to follow it as best as I can, though that might not be so trivial given the holiday I’m taking later this month. Watching GM Daniel King’s analysis of Anand’s game (linked above) started making me wonder if I’d have played differently had I had access to such high quality commentary when I was still a competitive player two decades ago.

As for that tournament, I ended up beating the other senior player I played against. He blundered his queen in a typical tactical Sicilian Dragon Yugoslav Attack position (I was white). I placed second among all the “youngsters” there, and got my only prize money from chess after that game – a princely Rs. 80 (which wasn’t that bad for a schoolboy in 1994)!