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Puzzel van de dag

Picking up the pieces

As champions for the previous two seasons we're more used to savouring our successes than reflecting on our defeats. Losing, either as individuals or a team isn't fun, and we don't want to make it a habit. I think there are certainly some positives we can take from our first match back in the promotieklasse. The final scoreline was close, and with a few small improvements in our approach, I'm sure we can bounce back. First, a brief impression of the games.
Judging by the clock, Gerard on board 1 ran into some difficulty relatively early on. At the point I first focused on the game, his opponent was a pawn up, but Gerard's position looked reasonable, and he'd just played Qc1 to support his bishop in targeting the h6 square, perhaps with a view to harassing black's fianchettoed bishop on g7. When I returned to the board, black had managed to trade a rook for two minor pieces, and appeared to have a significant advantage. I didn't see how the game ended, but the result was a rare defeat for our number 1 player.
Rik on board 2 encountered an opponent in an attacking mood, and after allowing white to exchange his dark-squared bishop for the f6-knight soon found himself under pressure on the kingside. Castling short, with a half open g-file, looked like an optimistic attempt to hold the position together. Rik used what few opportunities were available to him to generate some activity, but white seemed to have a strong edge and the eventual outcome was another win for our opponents.
Freek on board 3 was the first to finish. Earlier, when I first saw the position, I thought we were in trouble on this board also. Three minor pieces had been traded, and Freek's opponent was two pawns up, albeit with a broken pawn structure. A lot seemed to depend on whether Freek's advanced but isolated d-pawn would prove to be an asset or a liability. Within a few moves it was clearly the former and after Freek placed his rook on a7 black's pawn weaknesses were exposed. Despite spending perhaps 45 minutes over his reply, black was unable to come up with an adequate defense and soon the first result of the evening went in our favour.
Gerard played solidly as black and came out of the opening looking confident, and perhaps with a slight edge. When I returned to the game much later in the evening, something had clearly gone wrong, as Gerard was now a pawn down and under pressure in a rook and minor piece endgame. I'm not sure whether white's advantage was winning, but in the time scramble Gerard lost a piece (and the game) to a knight fork.
On board 5, my opponent played a variation of the Dutch defense and soon had an initiative both on the board and the clock. To press home his advantage black really needed to open up the center with e5, but instead allowed me time to manoeuvre my minor pieces into a more coordinated formation. Under increasing pressure on the clock, my opponent misplayed his kingside advance, blundered material, and conceded.
Sitting next to me on board 6, Peter quickly found himself in an unfamiliar but not particularly critical position, and perhaps invested too much time trying to formulate a plan. As the game evolved, neither side appeared to have a decisive advantage and Peter was able to reel in a large portion of the time deficit. In the end, time trouble was apparently the deciding factor as our opponents scored another point.
Jan on board 7 came out of the opening with good control of the centre and a promising position. Returning to the game towards the end of the match, Jan was on the losing side of a rook, knight and pawns versus rook and pawns endgame. How the piece was lost, I don't know.
Our final point was earned by Vincent on board 8 whose opponent lost on time having expected an increment after his 40th move. When I looked at the game earlier in the evening, Vincent had an active position, and was putting his opponent under pressure on the queenside.
So, what can we do to increase our chances of winning in the matches to come? I think psychology plays an important role here. For example, one of the things that struck me was the preference that some of us hold for playing black. At our level, having the first move doesn't provide a significant advantage, but it's interesting to explore what the reasons might be for actively favouring black. If the issue is repertoire (e.g., wanting to play 1... c5), you can aim for a similar position with white (e.g., 1. c4 or even 1. c3!). And if you prefer to play a defensive game or to counter attack, both those approaches are available to white too. A preference for the black pieces therefore seems somewhat illogical, and perhaps reflects an underlying lack of confidence.
A more tangible issue, but one that's easy to address, is time (mis)management. Obviously, finding a good move requires calculation, but it's important to ensure that we have enough time in hand to successfully navigate the rest of the game.
Sometimes we find ourselves in a critical position where an investment of time is warranted, either in the expectation of finding a winning move, or the hope of avoiding a losing one. But at other times, and especially in the opening, it's difficult to justify spending more than 15 minutes on a move when good candidates are not difficult to find. The time saved by playing a "good enough" (and strategically sound) move, and the increased pressure your opponent will feel through having to think on his own time, will likely more than compensate for failing to play like Fritz.
As a final point, although the result in team chess is purely the sum of the individual encounters, we can all play a collective role in putting our opponents under pressure. When scanning other boards, if the opposition see that several teammates have serious time deficits or weak positions, they'll feel less confident and more intimidated than when the reverse is true.
Winning the championship in our first season was never a likely a result, but it's still in our own hands, and on a good day, and with the right approach we can outplay any team at this level.