This thought occurred to me when reviewing my most recent game – a loss to FM Clement Sreeves a few nights ago in the Edinburgh League – in which I failed to find the best (perhaps only) way to prove my previous play viable.
Before we look at the game, however, let’s just quickly review what I mean by
STANDARD and NON-STANDARD POSITIONS
Typically, the difference is between opening variations/ middlegame positions, endings, etc which have been seen before, or studied, or had strategies outlined for them to the extent that we can find out how to play them from books/dvd’s/master lessons, etc. and those positions which are removed from main-line theory, haven’t been formally analysed or don’t correspond to the ‘rules’ of chess that we have learned.
So, to give a very basic example, look at the following 2 similar-looking positions….
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6
1.d4 g6 2.c4 Bg7 3.Nc3 c5 4.d5 Bxc3+ 5.bxc3 d6
The Black pawn structure in the centre (d6 and c5) denotes that both of these positions belong to the Benoni family of openings, but whereas the 1st position is the starting point of many thousands of games, and the resulting variations and development plans are well-rehearsed, and can be called ‘standard’, the 2nd position is quite different – Black has already given up his Benoni bishop on g7 and in return white’s pawn structure is compromised.
Although it is not a ‘new’ position, players would have much less ‘history’ to rely on to play the 2nd position from either side, so we can safely label it a non-standard position.
Moving on to my game with Clement, let’s take a look at the critical position…
Burnett,Andrew (2221) – Sreeves,Clement (2265) [D85]
ELCA vs Edinburgh A, 11.03.2015
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.Bb5+ c6 8.Ba4 0-0 9.Ne2 c5 10.0-0 Nc6 11.Be3 Na5 12.Qd3 a6 13.Bc2 b5 14.a4 Bd7 15.dxc5 Qc7 16.Nf4 e6
So this is the position which I ‘failed to solve’ over the board. How should it be labelled; ‘standard’ or ‘non-standard’? Well here’s the thing- for Black it is a standard Gruenfeld, but for white it isn’t!
Black’s development has been perfectly natural for a ‘Gruenfeld Defence’. His bishop on g7 is working well, his knight manouevre from c6 to a5, aiming for the c4 square is standard, his queen is on a decent ‘normal’ square and he has already put in motion his queenside pawns (should c3 fall he has a majority there which could quickly become a very strong passed pawn). What does Black plan next? Probably the simple …Bc6 and …Rfd8 – this will put white’s centre under great strain, and the white queen will be very awkwardly placed.
What about white? Well, I have played a bit contrary to ‘standard white play’ against the Gruenfeld. Usually white would seek to hold his central pawn structure (d4 and e4) and use the space it affords to attack on the kingside (f4-f5 perhaps with Qd2 and Bh6 to remove the black bishop on g7.
Instead, I have challenged Black on the queenside and disrupted my own pawns by taking on c5. In addition, my Bc2 and Qd3 are somewhat strangely placed. In essence, I am playing a ‘non-standard’ position and can no longer expect to follow the normal strategies white employs in Gruenfeld middle-games.
So, what to do? What should my plan be? I have to justify my piece placement, and deny Black the easy plan he has available (remember, he will play …Bc6 and R(f)d8. with …Nc4 – I can’t just let him put all his pieces on great squares!)
Let’s see a few variations where white plays ‘standard-looking moves’ and work out why it’s not great for him
a) 17.Bd4 Qxf4 (17…e5? is just plain bad, giving away the d5-square 18.Nd5) 18.Bxg7 Kxg7 19.Qxd7 Rfd8 20.Qe7 Rd2 and black’s activity is worrying;
b) 17.Ne2 doesn’t seem to challenge Black enough; simple moves are enough to achieve a better position 17…Nc4 18.Rfd1 Rad8 (this rook is better in this specific variation as it doesn’t allow the awkward Qf7 in the following line 18…Rfd8 19.Bg5 f6 20.Bc1 e5 21.Qd5+ Kh8 22.Qf7! and the pin on the bishop d7 makes life difficult for Black) 19.Bg5 (19.Nd4) 19…f6 20.Bc1 e5 21.Qf3 (21.Qd5+ Kh8 22.Qf7??) 21…Qxc5 22.axb5 Bxb5]
So if standard moves aren’t so great for white, what can he play? I’d love to control f6 some more, so that any Bg5 hitting a rook on d8 couldn’t be met by the simple …f6, so…
What on earth is this? Quite simply, it is a non-standard solution to a non-standard problem!!
The cheeky knight turns out to be immune because if 17…gxh5 then 18.e5! and suddenly the strange looking Bc2/Qd3 combination springs to life 18…Rfd8 19.Qxh7+ Kf8 20.c6!!
and so does the bishop, now aiming at c5 20…Qxc6 21.Be4! and now the tactics work in white’s favour!
What if Black simply declines the knight offer? Well then all of white’s pieces find useful roles, the following variation being the most thematic. 17…Bh8 18.Rfd1 the rook joins the game 18…Bc6 19.Bf4! and now the dark-squared bishop 19…e5 20.Bg5 f6 and this standard defensive idea is now deeply flawed because the black king is hemmed in, so 21.axb5! axb5 (21…fxg5 22.Rxa5 gxh5 (22…Qxa5 23.Bb3+) 23.Bb3+ Kg7 24.Qd2 and with the position opened white has to be better – check some of the tactical variations for yourself if it’s not clear to you!) 22.Rxa5 Rxa5 23.Bb3+
If Black is on the ball, he should prefer 17…Be5 because, although it allows f4 with tempo, White won’t have such an easy time activating his dark-squared bishop after it 18.f4 Bh8 19.Ng3 Bc6 20.e5
but this move shows up the gains White has made by getting in f4 for free – Black’s bishop on h8 is out of the game, c3 is no longer attacked, the white queen can simply drop back when attacked, and then the e4-square can become a base of operations. 20…Rfd8 21.Qe2 Nc4 22.Ne4 Nxe3 white can allow this exchange when Black’s ‘Dragon’ bishop is under control! 23.Qxe3 and white can be happy here; Nd6 and Rfb1 are coming next.
In all these variations after 17.Nh5!! we can see that white’s pieces spring to life and everything starts to ‘make sense’ in his position. If you find yourself in similar positions where you feel you haven’t done anything ‘wrong’, but every move you consider doesn’t seem to be working out, ask yourself if there is a ‘non-standard’ way of continuing which justifies your previous play!
Let’s see how the actual game finished, and then I’ll set some puzzles for you to solve based on the theme of standard/non-standard positions.
17.Rfd1 Bc6 18.axb5 [18.Ne2!? I had simply miscalculated the main variation variations arising from this move, which would have kept me in the game 18…Rad8 (18…Rfd8 19.Nd4 bxa4 (19…e5 20.axb5 exd4 21.b6! this is the specific move I had over-looked 21…Qb7 22.Bxd4) 20.Bg5 Rd7 (20…f6 21.Nxe6 Rxd3 22.Nxc7 Rxd1+ 23.Rxd1 fxg5 24.Nxa8 Bxa8 25.Rd8+) ) 19.Nd4] 18…axb5 19.Qd6 Qb7 20.Nd5?! Clement now went into a long think 20…Rfd8! [20…exd5 21.exd5 Be8 (21…Bd7 22.Rxa5 Rxa5 23.c6) 22.Ra3 Nc4 23.c6 Nxd6 24.cxb7 Rd8 (24…Rb8 25.Bf4) 25.Bb6 Nxb7 26.Bxd8 Nxd8 27.Rb1 Bd7 28.Bd3 Nb7 29.Bxb5÷] 21.Ne7+ Kf8! and found this idea which I had thought impossible
however it turns out that white doesn’t really have a good discovered check available 22.Rxa5 [22.Nxg6+ Ke8 and white’s position falls apart as the knight is lost] 22…Rxd6 23.Rxa8+ Qxa8 24.cxd6 Bd7 25.Bd4 Qa2 26.Bd3 Bxd4 27.cxd4 Qa4 28.Be2 b4 29.Rb1 Qc2 and here I lost on time in a completely lost position! 0-1
Just before you ‘sit your test’, how difficult is it to think along these lines? Well this example is a high-level one I would say, probably IM-standard or above to be honest.
Much will depend on your standard of knowledge (you have to know certain things about openings/middlegames/endings to appreciate what is standard/non-standard in the first place!) and of course actually finding solutions requires tactical acumen and positional understanding, which will vary from player-to-player.
In addition, certain positions will retain elements of the familiar, where strategies from a more standard version can be utilised, whereas other positions will be so ‘non-standard’ that we will have little, if anything, to guide us towards the answer. Others still may be ‘solvable’ by using general understandings and rules…
Thankfully, there are ways to improve all these factors, and the following test positions will hopefully help to make the main ideas of this article both clearer, and more useful in the practical arena.