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Kostya’s Blueprint: Team Strategy

Posted: 6 years, 4 months ago

Kostya’s Blueprint: Team Strategy

Case in point: focus on the board! With the U.S. Amateur Team West taking place this weekend, I figured it’s a good time to discuss some fundamental match strategy for team events. This is one of the most exciting events of the year because all of the usual emotions of competitive tournaments are quadrupled--and since people typically play alongside friends, losing can be a real heartbreaker. There are a lot of factors to keep in mind during team events, so I hope this guide will be useful for players to navigate the pressure of team events!


Something to keep in mind is that there is always a lot of tension in this event, and that typically leads to strange things! Blunders, forfeits, flagging, etc. all happen more frequently and of course can dramatically alter the score of any match. The reason for this (in my opinion) is that there is simply higher pressure when one plays as part of team, and when others are relying on you to do well in a chess game, strange things happen!


In my experience, the teams that can keep their cool under pressure are often the most successful. If you can forget about what’s at stake and focus on the game as much as possible, you’ll likely do well. My estimate is that 95% of your energy should be spent on trying to find the best possible moves in your game, and you can allocate the other 5% of your energy to looking at your teammates’ games and figuring out whether you’re ahead or behind in the match.


General strategy is as follows: all teammates should give their full effort in each game, but they should also be aware of what’s going on on everyone else’s board, and then occasionally use that info when making critical decisions in their game (such as whether to play for a draw or the win). With that, here are some bullet points to keep in mind:


  • Give your full effort. That means stay at your board/match as much as possible and show your teammates that you are using up every last bit of your energy trying to win/hold your game. Strong effort always boosts team morale, and even if you end up doing poorly--you tried your best, you know that, and you will have nothing to be ashamed of. Lastly, warm-up before each day with 15-20 minutes of solving tactics!

  • Keep the match score in mind, but wait until the final result is confirmed! If two of your teammates have bad positions, it likely means that you’ll have to win your game in order to save the match. But here’s the thing - chess is unpredictable, and even a game between two strong players can have lots of swings in terms of who’s winning (especially in a high-pressure team event!). That means that even if your teammate is losing, you shouldn’t panic and immediately sacrifice all your pieces trying desperately to win.


What often happens to inexperienced teams is that Board 3 (for example) will blunder a pawn in the opening and get a lost position. Noticing this, Boards 1, 2, and 4 go all out trying to win their game, throwing pawns forward, sacrificing pieces, and so on. 30 minutes later, Board 3 has found a way to completely turn things around and is now winning! But Boards 1, 2, and 4 have already spoiled their positions trying to win and are now dead lost in their games! So the moral of the story is, don’t panic. The result of the game is not fixed until the clocks are stopped, and you never know what can happen. If you think it’s likely that your teammate is losing, then you should continue to play on in your usual style, but how you should play for a win is not all that dramatic, and I’d like to briefly outline that here:


Playing for a Win

If you need to win, this does not mean you have to all of a sudden play hyper-aggressively. You should look for winning tactics (obviously) and promising attacks but if the position is quiet, there’s no need to rush. Calmly improve your pieces and look for a good plan to target a weakness in your opponent’s position. Keep the game going. Of course, make sure to avoid perpetuals, three-move-repetitions, and trading off all the pieces into an easily drawn endgame. But this doesn’t mean no trades--in many cases, trading off a key enemy piece will increase your winning chances.


When your team is down 2-1, a draw on your board is equal to a loss as far as the team is concerned, so you are fully justified to take more and more risk as the game goes on. I would suggest again not to rush, but at a certain point (which is up to you to decide) you’ll have to throw caution to the wind and try to break through.


Playing for a Draw

If the score is 2-1 in your favor (or very likely 2-1), it means a draw on your board will be enough to win the match. Does this mean you should immediately look for a way to trade queens, no matter what the cost? Of course not! Stay objective and try to play the best move, whether you think it’s “solid” or “aggressive”. In fact, don’t think about how your moves will be classified--don’t think about what your teammates are thinking about your game--don’t think about what you’re going to order from Jack-in-the-Box later, just focus on the board. Now if you see a chance to *force* a draw (perpetual for example), then you should take it, but again, don’t panic, don’t rush, keep playing your usual chess and look for opportunities to grab the initiative. Your opponent will be playing for a win and likely taking a lot of risks. Don’t go passive, look for ways to counterattack!


In case a match is tied 1.5-1.5, the result of your game determines the match as well. You’d like to win your game as much as possible but you should also minimize the risk of losing. As the saying goes, “playing for a win also means playing for the loss” :). But keep in mind: how much risk you decide to take in a chess game should depend almost exclusively on the game position. Trying to win at all costs gives you much better chances of losing. If the score is 2-1, however, then a draw is equal to a loss, so of course you should play for win. If you’re worse but holding, then playing for the win is akin to suicide, as you’ll create weaknesses in your position that the opponent will surely take advantage of.


Draw Offers
According to the rules, each player is responsible for their own game. Ultimately, it’s up to you whether you should offer/accept a draw or not. In a team event, you’re allow to ask your Captain for advice--and they’re allowed to advise you only on whether to play on or accept/offer a draw (no chess advice/moves, obviously). The Team Captain is not allowed to make any mention of the position on the boards, just the team situation. So if you’re behind in the match, the Captain will likely tell you to keep playing. If you’re ahead, you may be asked to accept/offer a draw. But again, it’s up to you!


Here’s the advice I give to my students: thinking about offering or accepting draws is usually just a drain on your energy and only increases your nerves/stress. It’s better to just play the game without bothering yourself thinking about draw offers.

When your opponent offers you a draw, it usually means they’re unhappy with their position. So by default, I lean towards continuing the game! But in a team event, things change. If you feel like your teammates are doing well, you should consider accepting the draw as this is favorable for the match.


But here’s one very crucial strategy that you must be aware of: after being offered a draw, USE. YOUR. TIME. Once your opponent offers a draw, they cannot take it back--it expires only when you make your next move. So if you are offered a draw and you still have time on your clock--let it run, and see how things develop on other boards. Maybe your friend blunders a queen and all of a sudden you need to play for a win, or maybe your friend swindles a win and suddenly a draw will clinch the match. Players will often spend 45 minutes or more (!) just waiting to see what happens on other boards and then deciding whether they should play on or not. This strategy is important, but there’s an obvious drawback: if you end up playing on, you’ve just drained a lot of time! That’s why you should spend most of this time actually thinking about your position and how you should proceed. Then, in case you need to play on, that time will not have been wasted.


And lastly, you know, have fun! Chess is typically an individual and sometimes lonesome game--team events are rare but extremely interesting to participate in. Even if you don’t win a prize, the joy of playing on a team should not be taken for granted. The event will likely be stressful for all, but afterwards, the experience of competing will be worth its weight in gold.


IM Kostya Kavutskiy is the coach of BAC’s A-Team and member of the San Jose Hackers. To keep up with Kostya, check out his official Website, Facebook, & Twitter. Make sure to also check out BAC’s new online classes taught by Kostya via Chess University!