Sunday, January 04, 2009

What is a "Better" Position?

(UPDATED 01/05/09 with correction and additional material)

I've written previously about Jonathon Rowson's book Chess for Zebras, and one of the things that I recall him stating there is something like, "All positions are either won for White, won for Black or drawn." While this may seem like the merest tautology, his point is that, objectively, there is really no such thing in a chess game as being "better."

And yet, and yet...all of us feel like we're better, or worse, or have an "edge," or a "pull," etc. all the time. This is because we're human beings, we're never fully objective about our positions, and as Rowson also notes and explores, our feelings and emotions affect our decisions continuously.

Here's a position that I think illustrates what being "better" is all about, from Joe Gallagher's excellent book Play the King's Indian:

A superficial look might lead one to think that White has the advantage because of Black's weak pawns, but as Gallagher writes: "The white knights are passive and it is much easier for Black to improve his position than White. For example, he can move his queen to e7 or e6, double rooks on the f-file, advance his h-pawn, activate his bishop on g7 and bring his knight on a6 to the tasty outposts in the centre and on the kingside. White, meanwhile, has no easy plan."

Seven moves later, after 24. Rd7, (NOTE: 01/05/08 - diagram fixed):

Gallagher missed 24. ...Re8!, playing instead Bxc5+? when he says that 25. Nbxc5! Nxc5 26. b3 Qc1+ 27. Rd1 Qc2 28. Rf1! "leads to a roughly level game." But after 25. Naxc5? he went on to win (0-1, 36).

(In the comments, tanc says 25. Naxc5 Nxc5 If 26. Nxc5 Qxc5+. If not Black threatens to knock out the central pawn with 27.... Nxe4 or Qxe4. Position to me looks very unclear and appears equal. The problem is, I originally had the diagram wrong [Black K at h8. Sorry, tanc!]). In the real game position, Black had 26. ...Rf8! ("the point"):

with a won game (27. Qd1 Qxc5+ 28. Kh1 Qc2!).

One more line worth looking at, not easy for us class players to see all the way through, is the one Gallagher gives after his suggestion 24. Re8! in the second diagram above: 25. Qg4 Qxa4 26. Qe6+ Kf8 27. Qxe5...

Now, find the killah for Black!

Play the King's Indian is one of the few chess books I have on my shelf right now; the rest are in storage until May. I will be posting some other intriguing positions from it as time permits.


tanc (happyhippo) said...

25. Naxc5 Nxc5
26. Nxc5 Qxc5+
If not Black threatens to knock out the central pawn with 27.... Nxe4 or Qxe4.

Position to me looks very unclear and appears equal. Some openings like the KID are very difficult to analyse with a computer. Oh, and take Gallagher's optimism with a pinch of salt. :)

Wahrheit said...

tanc-sorry, i had the diagram wrong, the Black K should be on g8. See current updated post. Will fix and add some lines tonight.

wang said...

Bah, looks about equal to me. But I think almost everything looks equal, so there's that.

But I agree with tanc, always take the authors optimism with a grain of salt when it's a discussion of his position in a line.

Dennis Monokroussos said...

Hi Rob,

Long time no correspond. I came across this post semi-accidentally, but it's nice that I did - it brought to mind a subject I addressed on my own blog several years ago. (Here.)

Btw, I agree with Gallagher's evaluation - it doesn't seem to me a matter of feeling, emotion or taste. (But even if it is, there are plenty of positions where that's not the case.) He is pointing to objective factors in the position, factors that are relevant to any competent human player. I think Gallagher believes that if it were God vs. God rather than Jackelen-Gallagher, it would be a draw, but given human abilities, it makes sense to say that Black has a pull. It can be understood as claiming that between two competent human players of equal strength, Black can be expected to outscore his opponent over the course of multiple games. Another interpretation is that White is fewer inaccuracies away from a loss than Black.

Either way, it's an objective evaluation based on the combination of the position and human abilities. It isn't (or at least doesn't have to be) an expression of (purely) subjective preference.