IM Arthur Shen: Defense-An Overlooked Skill Part 1 

chesslessons Arthur Shen

We all know “that” player. The guy who always seems to have a terrible position, who gets more comfortable the worse the position gets, and then somehow manages to wriggle away. If you’re like most chess players, you look down on these “lucky” players. However, as I’ve continued my chess career, I’ve come to realize that these players that we disparage are not lucky – defense is a real, tangible skill that can be taught. I can’t take all the credit for my enlightenment – my coach GM Daniel Naroditsky noticed that I was not a tenacious defender, and devoted a study session to defense. A lot of the ideas presented in this article are his. Defense is not discussed a lot in chess literature (I’ve never seen a book written on defense), and I believe that it has been unfairly neglected. Defense is not difficult to master, and you’d be surprised how poor people’s technique is – even Grandmasters and International Masters often blow winning positions with surprising frequency.

The most important rule about defense is a simple one:
it’s all about effort. When you get a bad position, it’s easy to get upset and give up. If you want to be a good defender, the first and most important step is to not give up. If you haven’t resigned or been mated, you have to give 100% for every move. With that said, let’s get into the technique of defense. In my opinion, there are 2 different types of defense. There are certain positions where all you have to do is find the best/accurate move (which I define as a move that the computer approves of), which is what most people associate with defense. The other case is when the position is so unpleasant that normal moves will not suffice, or the position is so bad that if you play normal moves, your opponent will win easily. In this article, we will discuss the second case, positions that require creative solutions that are not necessarily the best objective move, where you have to find creative ways to create counter play. This is not to say that you should play for tricks if you have a losing position – rather, you must find ways to make things more difficult and uncomfortable for your opponent by changing the nature of the position. If your opponent has some sort of advantage, for instance, a risk free squeeze or a strong attack, often times it is best to change the nature of the position. This can often be accomplished by a concession to change the nature of your opponent’s advantage. For instance, you can give up material to change the nature of an advantage from a strong attack to the conversion of extra material. The shift can often be uncomfortable for a player to deal with. Of course, this does not mean that you should give up material every time your opponent attacks your king. You have to look at your chances of surviving the status quo, and compare that to your chances of surviving a different kind of position.

 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. g3 d5 4. Nf3 Bb4+ 5. Bd2 Bd6 6. Bg2 c6 7. Qc2 Nbd7 8. O-O O-O 9. Bg5 h6 10. Bxf6 Nxf6 11. Nbd2 b6 12. e4 Be7 13. e5 Nd7 14. cxd5 cxd5 15. Rfc1 a5 16. Bf1 Nb8 17. Bd3 Bd7 18. Qd1 Nc6 19. Qe2 Qb8 20. Nb1 b5 21. Nbd2 Qb6 22. Qe3 a4 23. Bb1 a3
Diagram 1

Clearly something has gone wrong here. White’s pieces are very uncoordinated, and black has lots of pressure, space, and activity on the queenside. White’s center is also very vulnerable, with pressure on d4.
24. b4!!

Diagram 2

One of the most fantastic moves I’ve ever seen.
(24.Qd3 This changes nothing 24… g6 Black still has the same threats on the queenside )

(24. b3 This is the obvious move. However, b3, white has absolutely no hope of any future activity. 24… Nb4 Black has a huge advantage here – the black rooks will take control over the c file and there are permanent targets on d4 and a2.)

(24… f6!? Black can also consider playing in the center. White’s uncoordinated pieces will not be able to take advantage of the weaknesses created by f6. )


(24. bxa3 White can’t to the the knight to b3 and not sacrifice a pawn 24… Bxa3 25. Re1 Bb2 White loses material )

24… Nxb4  25. Nb3

Diagram 3

This is the whole idea – white gives up a pawn, but gains the b3 sqaure for the knight. The white knight is headed for the c5 square.
25… Rfc8  26. Nc5 Be8  27. Nd2 Nc6  28. Ndb3 b4

Diagram 4

I feel as though this position perfectly summarizes white’s concept. Black hasn’t made any real mistakes, and still has a very large advantage. However, the nature of the position has changed completely – white’s pieces are active and black’s queenside pressure is now completely blocked up. White ended up holding this game after further complications ( read: errors from both sides in time trouble ) against a strong Grandmaster.
29. Bd3 Na5 30. Be2 Nxb3 31. Nxb3 Bb5 32. h4 Qa6 33. Bxb5 Qxb5 34. Kg2 h5 35. Rab1 g6 36. Kf3 Bf8 37. g4 hxg4+ 38. Kxg4 Rc3 39. Rxc3 bxc3 40. h5 c2 41. Rh1 Rc8 42. Qf3 Qe8 43. Qh3 Bh6 44. f4 Bg7 45. hxg6 fxg6 46. Nc5 Qf7 47. Kf3 g5 48. Ke2 gxf4 49. Qh7+ Kf8 50. Qxc2 f3+ 51. Kf2 Rb8 52. Rb1 Rxb1 53. Qxb1 Kg8 54. Qb8+ Kh7 55. Qb1+ Kg8 56. Qb8+ Kh7 57. Qb1+ 1/2-1/2

So what happened in this game? Naroditsky quickly got a poor position out of the opening, and recognized that he would be subject to a very unpleasant passive defense if he played the normal move 24. b3. Therefore, he found a brilliant idea – 24. b4!!, which completely changed the nature of the position. Changing the nature of the position is very important – think back to every winning position you’ve blown. I’m willing to bet that in quite a few of those games, you were expecting to cruise to an easy win, and your opponent did something unexpected. If you are able to make your opponent uncomfortable, you’ve won half the battle.

We’ve looked at defending positions where normal moves are not satisfactory. Obviously, Naroditsky’s idea was incredible, and if you weren’t able to solve this exercise, that’s nothing to worry about – in fact, when I was given this exercise, I wasn’t able to find b4. What is important to get from this exercise is the concept of changing the nature of the position and creating an uncomfortable situation for your opponent, even if the move you play is not necessarily objectively the “best” move. Next week we’ll take a look at defending positions where only accurate, precise moves will save you.



Arthur Shen, from in Edison, New Jersey was born in 1997.  Shen became a FIDE master in 2009 and he currently is a International Master. Shen was the winner of 2011 U.S. Cadet Championship and tied for second in both the Liberty Bell Open (2015) and the 2015 High School Nationals. He has been a member of the USCF All-American Chess Team from 2010 – 2015. He has also been recognized by the U.S. Chess Trust as a 2014 Scholar Chess Player Award winner.

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