GM Sam Shankland: Restricting Counterplay in a Superior Strategic Position Part 1


My name is Sam Shankland, and I’ll be writing some articles in the coming months. In general, I think the most reliable route to chess improvement is learning to delve into complicated positions very deeply- as such, I generally will only be presenting one or two examples, but going into as much detail about the proper thought process toward solving them as possible.
For my first article, I’d like to discuss the theme of containing counterplay with a superior strategic position. This is a relatively simple concept- if one has a static positional advantage, restricting counterplay makes a lot more sense then trying to pursue your own goals. However, simple is not a synonym for easy! For my first example, I’d like to discuss a recent game I played with one of America’s Top Juniors, Sam Sevian.

Diagram 1

I had been hit by some nasty preparation in this Berlin Ending, and up till now my opponent had blitzed out all of his moves, only starting to think here. Black’s position is a strategic trainwreck- the knight on b6 will be a total moron once white plays b3, the rook on a8 seems permanently passive, black’s 4 on 3 queenside majority is doubled and not useful, and white is opening the kingside to make use of his own pawns. All of this speaks in white’s favor, but there is more to the position than that- black has some concrete ideas.

First and foremost, the g5 bishop is hanging and white has to do something about it. Secondly, black has the h7-h5 advance at his disposal, ready to open some lines on the kingside and pressure the weak pawns. Finally, c6-c5 could be in the air, targeting the a4 pawn. I’d suggest to my readers to set this position up on their board, give themselves 30 minutes to try to find white’s best move, and see if they can shut the door on all counterplay.
The game quickly spun out of control for white after

17. exf6? gxf6

18. Bh6 Rg8!, when I already prefer black:

Diagram 2: Position After 18…Rg8!


(presumably white missed black’s next move, though black should still be for choice after something like 19. Kf1 f5)

19…   Bf5! 20. Re3 Bc5  

21. Re2  (21. Nd4 would be well met by Bxg4!) Nxc4

And black was already simply a pawn up. White’s initial play made perfect sense- he stopped the h5 advance- but opening the g-file was clearly not in his favor.

To solve this position, one has to think logically, make a comparison, and calculate concretely. On a basic level, black has two threats- fxg5 and h5. Obviously fxg5 is the bigger threat, so white must move his bishop. But one should notice that h5 is not a crushing idea or winning material or anything like this, and after the retreat 17. Be3, the threat of 18. Bxb6 compels black to play 17. … c5. This advance in turn now threatens 18. … Bxa4, so white must play b3. And here, black’s only source of counterplay left if h5. Let’s take a look at two positions side by side:

Diagram 3

Diagram 4

These are identical positions, one in which white has included the move 17. exf6 before retreating the bishop to e3, and one where he has not. There is a very big difference here- can you spot it? Give yourself some time to think this one over, and avoid reading the next paragraph if you want to try to solve it on your own first.

The difference is that in the second position, black is unable to make the freeing advance 18. … h5? Since 19. Nh4! would win the game on the spot. Black’s inability to prevent Ng6 is due to the fact that exf6 has not been included. By comparison, in the first diagram, 19. … h5! Is indeed correct since black can meet 20. Nh4 with Rg8. Returning to the second diagram, black is not compelled to play the losing 18. … h5?, but what else is there to do? He simply has a lousy position with no counterplay.
Quite a complex example! It’s notable that Sevian, a near-2600 player, spent a fair amount of time here and still misplayed the position. Containing counterplay with a good position is anything but easy, but a very critical skill when striving for chess excellence.

Samuel L. Shankland (born October 1, 1991) is an American chess grandmaster (2011). He was California State champion in 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012, Champion of State Champions in 2009, World U18 championship bronze medallist in 2008, and US Junior Champion in 2010. As a member of the United States team, Shankland won the gold medal for the best individual result at the reserve board at the 41st Chess Olympiad in 2014. He also was member of the US team at the 42nd Chess Olympiad in 2016 where the United States won gold for the first time in forty years.  In September 2016, he was ranked 57th in the world.

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