Background to the sessionChris mentioned often having difficulty settling on a plan in a good (or at least sound) position. I asked for some examples, and Chris duly provided them, and also explained at what point he had that feeling, and what he came up with to play, and why.
I thought these would be good examples to look at to explore the issue of planning in chess, which we have looked at a few times already over the years. However, the positions Chris wanted to look at were much chewier than I had anticipated. They were all in the late opening/early middlegame, and they were all from Chris' favoured hypermodern opening systems. We're going to need to collect together quite a little list of ideas to tackle these positions.
A chess planning toolkitI'm going to assume that you all already know how to decide on a plan in a position where the features of the position are clear. If not, have a look at these earlier sessions:
Hypermodern openingsWe've talked about these before, but just a quick recap. One way of handling the opening is not to occupy the centre, but keep it under observation, tempting the opponent to grab more space than they can comfortably defend, and perhaps hoping that they fall behind in development in the process.
The Polish OpeningThe Polish invites Black to take a stand in the centre, but is not going to allow Black to swamp the centre with pawns. The Bb2 will keep an eye on e5, and the pawn on b4 will restrain c7-c5. If Black advances in the centre, White might end up with an extra central pawn after bxc5 and/or c4xd5.
White can play a queen's-side advance (Paulden-Thompson), or take over the centre, or attack along the long dark diagonal... flexible! The Bf1 usually comes out after e2-e3, but g2-g3 is another option.
The four dimensions of chess study and their overlapWhen studying or teaching chess, it is useful to divide the game of chess up into three phases, opening, middlegame and endgame. I often carve up middlegame ideas into tactical ideas and strategical ideas. However logical this division may be, there is a lot of overlap between them - any given position may contain ideas from all quarters of the map. Our study must also incorporate whole games, which should help us understand the links and flow between the phases.
Here be dragonsSo, we are at the point of transition from the opening to the middlegame, in a hypermodern opening, and I think the difficulty of the position is at its height. All the ideas we know about both the opening and the middlegame are around, and some of these ideas are quite advanced. The pawn structure has not settled down at all, which means we cannot happily settle on a plan. So as we paddle our way from the opening towards the middlegame, we are in deep waters, and there are dangers lurking in the currents.
So, I think we're now fully equipped to tackle Chris' positions.
Position 1 - White to move
A brief run through the elements of positional assessment turns up a weak c6 square, a potential outpost on c5 for Black, and not much else of note. White's natural arena of play is the Queen's-side, while Black will look for chances on the King's-side - perhaps by pushing e5-e4 or f7-f5 or both. White can't invade on c6 yet but can hope to play c4-c5 after a move like d4. d2-d4 might provoke e5-e4, when Black will have a bridgehead, and perhaps some better hopes of a King's-side attack. The position starts to look a bit like a King's Indian, or even the King's Indian Attack against the French. White might prefer d2-d3, holding back a commitment in the centre, and also holding back e5-e4.
Once d2-d4 and e5-e4 have been played, we have some more definite things to say:
1. d4 becomes available for a white Knight and c5 for a black one
2. the e4 pawn is a target which can be attacked by moves like Nd2 and Qc2 and defended by moves like Re8, Qe7, Bb7. Qe7 can be hit by Nd5.
Position 2 - Black to move
White holds back in the centre and gives us the choice of trying to find the most accurate developing move or going for some central space ourselves. Among the advanced pawns are Black's c-pawn and b-pawn, and so, rather than attacking White's central pawns, Black might have to defend his own pawns against ideas like a2-a4 and Qb3.
Is it a good idea to show these positions to a computer?I don't usually get a lot out of showing complex positions to a computer. They're great at tactics but if they come up with a move I want to understand why it's better than the alternatives. I suspect the answer has to do with how many squares each side will control after another 10 moves... I usually need an answer phrased in different language, like, Black's plan in this position is to bash the White centre.
Why are these positions so hard?In part, it's because they are from a difficult phase of the game, and in a difficult opening. But the main confusing factor is the lack of commitment from both sides, and therefore the range of plans and moves we must consider is larger. The moves we play must support the variety of plans that we wish to have available, and must also be able to meet anything the opponent comes up with. That's always true, but is more difficult in these positions, because we're not sure what our opponent is up to. Did you notice in the first game, once we had seen d2-d4 and e5-e4, plans and ideas just flowed? You are trying to draw your opponent into making a commitment that they are not prepared to defend, or allowing you to make a commitment that they cannot counter.
Why play like this?Be it ever so swampy, there's no place like home. Yes, these positions are difficult, but you can say to yourself, they are positions I have met before. My opponent is going to be less familiar with the problems and may come up with a passive set-up or an incorrect plan.
Why not play like this?The range of pawn structures that might emerge is broad, and so the range of positions you may be called on to play is broad. This is probably good for your chess, but may also be asking you to run before you can walk -- particularly as Black. I used to play a hypermodern defence myself, but gave it up in disgust - White had so many different systems, and Black couldn't trot out the same moves against each of them, but instead had to think things through in each case. I gave up the Modern for the French, so on move 10 I'm usually still inside my theory and/or still in a position that I think I understand, and the range of options is smaller and simpler. In the Modern, I was forever debating whether to hit back with ...e5 and/or ...c5 and/or ...b5 and even ...d5. In the French, it's ...d5 and then ...c5. Complete games and analysis: http://exeterchessclub.org.uk/content/what-are-we-going-do-now-12-0