How to win a won game!

How to win a won game?

Some of the most common searches online are for how to win a chess game in X moves or how to win quickly. We will dedicate some time to those topics in other articles but let's focus on how to win from a position that's winning!

Firstly, we should clarify there is a strong warning here: a theoretically winning position and a simple winning position are two very different things!

Secondly, even the very best players have fallen under the pressure: Nakamura - Carlsen, Zurich 2014

In the position below, white is winning easily, he has a devastating attack on the h file and a simple move can win the game:

Before we reveal the solution, let's appreciate just how other factors could have influenced Hikaru Nakamura here - let's face it, he's pretty good and unlikely to not convert a position like this normally!

  • He's playing Magnus Carlsen - the modern day "Fischer Fear" - he knows if he slips up, Magnus will pounce (and he did!)
  • It's a high profile event, the world was watching live
  • The position is sharp - as is shown, one inaccuracy and the tables can turn fast
Won to lost!

Losing a won position can feel even worse than dropping ice cream

So what should Nakamura have done?

White has great spatial control and dominance of the first 5 ranks of the board. His pawn centre prevents any counter-play.

Black has some LPDO (loose pieces (ready to) drop off) - the Knight on c4 is undefended.

Thinking about ideal squares, the knight is where it should be and if he could put a rook on h6, black is in big trouble.

[Event "Zurich Chess Challenge"] [Site "Zurich SUI"] [Date "2014.02.01"] [EventDate "2014.01.29"] [Round "3"] [Result "0-1"] [White "Nakamura, Hikaru"] [Black "Carlsen, Magnus"] [ECO "E20"] [WhiteElo "?"] [BlackElo "?"] [PlyCount "122"] 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.f3 d5 5.a3 Be7 6.e4 dxe4 7.fxe4 e5 8.d5 Bc5 9.Bg5 O-O 10.Nf3 Bg4 11.h3 Bxf3 12.Qxf3 Nbd7 13.O-O-O Bd4 14.Ne2 c5 15.g4 a5 16.Kb1 Ra6 17.Ng3 g6 18.h4 a4 19.Rh2 Qa5 20.Bd2 Qc7 21.g5 Ne8 22.h5 Rb6 23.Bc1 Rb3 24.Qg4 Nb6 25.Be2 Nd6 26.Rdh1 Bxb2 27.Bxb2 Nbxc4 28.Bxc4 Nxc4 29.hxg6 Qb6 30.g7 Rd8 31.Qh4 Rxb2+ 32.Ka1 Rxh2 33.Rxh2 Qg6 34.Nf5 Re8 35.Qg4 Qb6 36.Qh3 Qg6 {here is our study position} 37.d6 (37. Qf1 {would combine our ideas perfectly -hitting the knight on c4 and threatening Rh6 - black then really is lost!} b5 (37...Qg5 38. Rg2 {is curtains}) 38. Qc1 Nd6 39. Rh6 {and white has a massive material advantage}) Nxd6 38.Nxd6 Rd8 39.Nc4 Qxe4 40.Qh5 Rd3 41.Rh4 Qf5 42.Qe2 b5 43.Nd2 Qxg5 44.Qxd3 Qxh4 45.Ne4 Kxg7 46.Qf3 Qf4 47.Qg2+ Kf8 48.Kb2 h5 49.Nd2 h4 50.Kc2 b4 51.axb4 cxb4 52.Qa8+ Kg7 53.Qxa4 h3 54.Qb3 h2 55.Qd5 e4 56.Qh5 e3 57.Nf3 e2 58.Kb3 f6 59.Ne1 Qg3+ 60.Ka4 Qg1 61.Qxe2 Qa7+ 0-1

What can we learn from this?

Following this game we can see complexity plays a huge factor and Carlsen did superbly in converting a lost position into a win.

The defender should always create complications to unsettle the ship - an easy ride to victory playing through a well-rehearsed ending is unlikely to go wrong - having a niggle and some doubt is enough to unsettle even the very best!

Therefore we need a plan to handle complexity and it's simple - stick to chess basics:

  1. Develop your pieces to their best squares - a lot of positions can be broken down into which pieces belong where and what's the best order to get them there!
  2. Great positional moves often work tactically - Qf1 is a good positional move but looks dubious as g5 could drop...or can it? Rg2 as a follow up is very convincing!
  3. Exploit weaknesses further - forcing your opponent to make further concessions in his defence will only kill off any counter-attack
  4. Basic Housekeeping - a piece in the corner won't be effective - get it involved and for goodness sake, make your king safe - it is worth the investment of one move, especially when you're winning!

What else can go wrong?

As well as complexity, which we expect, the most common reason for losing an advantage is time pressure.
Win Time

Time can behave strangely if you're under pressure to win

Without the need for extensive examples (Kasparov missed a Karpov tactic in their World Championship match due to time for one), many players have played the game of their lives only to be undone by a mediocre set of moves with seconds on the clock.

How can we avoid this?

Critical aspects of time management

Some top tips to help you avoid and manage time trouble:
  1. Become an endgame expert - despite millions and billions of chess positions, standard endings come up regularly. If you know how to win them routinely and quickly, you'll gain valuable seconds. We have lots of good endgame articles to help you here!
  2. TOP TIP - Don't get into time trouble! This sounds almost illogical but you start the game with a set time and you should manage it well, as an integral part of the game. Being down on time with seconds to go is worse than material deficit
  3. Don't spend too long on obvious (e.g. forced moves) but do commit good and valuable time to understand complex positions - investing the time upfront to get familiar with what is truly going on will help you work through the complications

Want to learn more?