The Winning Academy 4: Handcuff your opponent

What is domination? Well, have you ever experienced an intense sense of helplessness in a match against a much stronger opponent? The material was the same, but you could barely move. This is it: you are dominated.

Dominance is the ability to put handcuffs on your opponent’s hands, immobilizing him and rendering him totally helpless. This is how the strong players like to win the games: with a tied opponent, victory is easy. Compare that with, for example, positions in which the opponents have strongholds on both sides. One mistake in a sharp position, and a won position can easily turn into a lost one. On the contrary, when you dominate your poor opponent, you can do almost anything, and your advantage will not evaporate.

Let’s start with a simple example:

Vachier-Lagrave – Aronian, London Chess Classic 2016

The position is roughly balanced. Nominally, white has a small material advantage, but black’s queen+rook duo is potentially very powerful and can cause a lot of trouble for the weakened white king.

After 34…Kh7 or 34…Qd7, keeping an eye on the important e5 square, Aronian is okay. However, he played the careless 34…Rd1? (perhaps with the intent…Rd1-d3) and enabled Vachier-Lagrave to achieve dominance. The Frenchman did not hesitate. After 35.Qe5! the game was practically over. The black queen is now tied on g7 and the only rook cannot stop the advance of white’s queenside pawns.

And here’s the full game:

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How do we achieve dominance? Quite often domination is the result of prophylaxis. There is a logical explanation for this: with prophylaxis you gradually deprive your opponent of active possibilities. Once you’ve done this thoroughly, he’s completely tied up and dominates the board.

Of course, you should combine prophylaxis with gradual improvement of your own stretches. Let’s look at a very compelling example. How would you evaluate the position in the chart below?

Caruana-Shankland, Saint Louis 2016

Many of my students tend to see this position as roughly equal. After all, Black has a nice pawn on b3 and two large pieces are dangerously linked on the f file. In fact, black – objectively speaking – is already lost. It is very difficult to imagine a bright future for his small pieces. On the other hand, Caruana has a long-term plan in store.

He played 25. Bc1!. This formally “bad” bishop will come to d6, where his strength will grow exponentially. The poor e8 bishop has no comparable career in sight.

Now let’s push “fast forward” and see the position of the same game after the next seven moves:

Caruana-Shankland, Saint Louis 2016

Now White’s advantage has become clear. Caruana manages the a-true and both the bishop and knight limit Shankland’s forces. But what to do now?

Well, white must continue with the same strategy on the queenside. Caruana played 32.Qc1!, allowing the strongest piece to participate.

Let’s push “fast forward” again and see the final position of the game:

Caruana-Shankland, Saint Louis 2016

White’s dominance is now fully visible. Black pieces have been relegated to mere objects, hunted by the white army. Note that Caruana has placed all of his pieces on the queenside, including the king and knight.

And here’s the full game:

There is also another way to achieve domination. As surprising as it may be, domination is often the goal of a sacrificial combination, or of a direct attack. Let’s look at an interesting example:

Nakamura-Iturizzaga Bonelli, Gibraltar Masters 2019

Again, it may seem that black is okay. His pieces exert considerable pressure, the c4 pawn hangs. However, not all of his pieces are well placed. The b8 knight and a8 rook are fast asleep. And this is the crucial aspect of the position that Nakamura masterfully uses.

He played:

16.Nd2! Be5

Black must play this. After the withdrawal of the e4-bishop, White pushes e2-e4 and dominates the position for free.

17.Nxe4 Bxa1 18.Nd6

The knight has reached the key space. Without …d7-d6 Black’s queenside will remain inactive for a long time.

18… Rf8 19.e4 Be5 20.Bf4 Bxd6 21.Bxd6 Re8 22.e5

Nakamura has achieved his goal. For a small material investment (an active bishop pair is often equal to rook + knight) he gained complete dominance over the center of the board. In the ensuing fight, White attacked the abandoned black king and won effortlessly.

Please remember: Domination is a legitimate aim of combination or attack. Usually in our calculations we try to find a partner or material gain. Often, however, we are unable to achieve these goals directly. In these cases, check if you can achieve dominance instead.

And here’s the full game:

Very often domination can be achieved in endgames. Let’s look at a classic example:

Marshall-Maroczy, Ostend Masters 1905

Again, the first impression here is deceiving. The position appears to be the same. And with white to move, it really would be. However, it is Maroczy to convert and he will show convincingly that white is indeed lost.

31…Qd1+ 32.Qe1 Qd3+ 33.Kg1 (33.De2 Qb1+ loses a pawn) Qc2 34.Qa1

What a tragicomic sight! Black queen bullies both white pieces and cannot be dislodged from his dominant position. Maroczy played carefully 34…a5! and after that 35.g3 (35. b4 loses a pawn after 35…axb4 36.axb4 Qe4) a4 White was almost in a zugzwang.

And here’s the full game:

Every grandmaster knows what a strong weapon dominance is. That’s why professionals try to avoid being dominated at all costs.

Jobava-Georgiev, European Championship 2009

Black is worse because of his inferior pawn structure. Moreover, Jobava threatens to transfer his bishop to d5. After that, Black’s hopes of any activity would be futile. Therefore, Georgiev pulled an emergency brake.

He played 24…d5!? 25.Rxd5 e4! 26.Qxe4 Qxc3.

Admittedly, black is even worse. However, the situation became more colorful. For the price of a single pawn, Georgiev got a strong passer on the c-file. And, most importantly, he avoided positional suffocation.

And here’s the full game:

Many club chess players see chess as a specific type of race. White has a plan, black has a plan and whoever implements his idea first wins. The reality, however, is very different. You don’t want our opponent to get into a race with you.

You don’t want him to have a plan at all! You want to handcuff his hands, tie a large metal orb to his leg, and then — slowly and comfortably — proceed with your plan.

This is how grandmasters win in chess. If you want to win in the same way, please focus on mastering the noble art of domination.

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