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Simplification in Chess

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One topic that is difficult for many new players to understand is that of simplification. In chess, simplification refers to the process of eliminating pieces from the board to reach an easily won position. Ideally, it’s a process that is taken by a player who is in a winning position, and one that is fiercely avoided by a player that’s behind.

Why Simplify?

The main goal of any simplification is to remove the presence of counterplay – the chances that the other player has of reversing the current situation through tactics. For instance, it is well-known even to many novice players that when you are way ahead, it’s okay to trade queens, while this is a bad idea when you are losing badly. This is due to the fact that queens vastly complicate the game of chess; even alone, they can prove extremely dangerous, and one wrong move when the opponent has a queen on the board could lead to a checkmate or the loss of material.

When the Best Move isn’t the Best Move

One of the puzzling aspects of simplification for beginners is the fact that the process often involves making moves that aren’t theoretically best. If you are far ahead in a game, many moves that any human grandmaster would recommend in a heartbeat will be rejected as not being best by a strong computer program. So who is right: the humans or the computers?

In this case, the answer is actually both. Computers have little use for simplification. Sure, they can’t see every possibility (at least until they reach an endgame with few pieces on the board, with the help of a tablebase), but they also will avoid any obvious blunders. Thus, when a computer has a winning position, they can safely continue playing the best moves even if they are quite sharp, confident that they will find their way out on the other side with a victory.

Humans don’t work in quite the same way. We can make mistakes at any time, and are much more likely to make such mistakes when a position is complicated. That means it’s usually better for a human player to simplify things into an easily winning position, even if that means they aren’t winning by as much material or they give up the chance for an uncertain mating attack that could end the game immediately.

Here’s an analogy that may help make the reasoning behind simplification make more sense to you. Imagine you are coaching an American football team. Early in the game, you’ll want to choose strategies that help your offense score the most points possible and stop your opponents from scoring. As the game winds to a close and you have the lead, however, your play will get more conservative. Up a couple touchdowns with just a few minutes to play, you’ll run safe plays with your offense in the hopes of avoiding turnovers and running out the clock. In the last minute or two, it makes sense simply to kneel on the ball rather than running any play, simply to allow the game to end with minimal risk. There’s no bonus for scoring more points and winning by a larger margin; trying to do so by throwing deep passes or running fancy trick plays will only risk allowing the other team to get the ball back and beat you.

In chess, simplification works much the same way. Sure, you could try to continue pressing your advantage and win with style, but by simplifying, you take away any risk of allowing your opponent to get back into a game they have no business winning. Just be sure you only do this when you are certain the simplified position you’ll reach still gives you a big enough advantage to win the game – there’s nothing worse than simplifying into a drawn (or even losing!) position when you had the advantage.

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