Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Steinitz's Chess Strategy


Books on Chess Strategy often refer to the “Four Rules of Chess Strategy” formulated by former World Chess Champion Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900) in explaining this very important concept:

“1. The right to attack belongs to the side that has a positional advantage, and that side not only has the right to attack but also has the obligation to do so, or else his advantage may evaporate. The attack should be concentrated on the weakest square in the opponent’s position.

2. If in an inferior position, the defender should be ready to defend and make compromises, or take other measures, such as a desperate counterattack;

3. In an equal position, the opponents should maneuver, trying to achieve a position in which they have an advantage. If both sides play correctly, an equal position will remain equal;

4. The advantage may be big, indivisible one (for example, a rook on the seventh rank), or it may be a whole series of small advantages. The goal of the stronger side is to store up the advantages, and to convert temporary advantages into permanent ones.”

While Steinitz miserably lost to Lasker during their chess championship encounters, the foregoing principles on chess strategy remained relevant to this day. The said rules have not been refuted and it is considered to be a very good guide in properly evaluating a position. If a player achieves positional advantage, the right to attack is earned and it becomes, not only as a matter of right but an obligation to launch an attack on the opponent’s weakest square. The difficulty however lies in determining that a particular player has already achieved that “positional advantage” which obligates the player to attack. What particularly is that “positional advantage” that Steinitz is referring to? Steinitz is referring to a positional advantage which is permanent in nature rather than that is considered as only temporary. Yet, the difficulty lies in determining and distinguishing which position is considered permanent as opposed to that which is merely temporary.

Once the small and temporary advantages are slowly but methodically stored by the player and is converted into a permanent one, the obligation to attack arises and if the player fails to strike while the iron is hot, so to speak, the advantage would immediately disappear. Usually, the player who at the moment has built up a permanent advantage and fails or reluctantly launches an attack ends up losing the game as the “initiative” is immediately shifted to the defending player. 

If the player is faced with an inferior position, Steinitz’s advise is to make compromises or launch a counterattack no matter how desperate it may be. But, what is this “inferior position” that the great Steinitz is referring to? At first thought, I can think of a position that is described as “cramped” where the movement of the pieces are very limited making it a good strategy to make compromises such as exchanging pieces with the attacking ones. The inactive pieces should be exchanged with the active and attacking pieces to soften, if not neutralize, the attack. However, if the player is a piece down, exchanging pieces is not an option.  The resulting simplification would necessarily result to an endgame play that is very disadvantageous to a player with a lacking piece. A counterattack is usually the best option. There are times when a “desperado” move can rattle the opponent resulting in a win or a draw particularly during “blitz games”.

Without time pressure however the success rate of a desperate counterattack is lower. Thus, it may be better to make compromises with the main objective of achieving equality. Once equality is achieved, the player with an inferior position can now maneuver and slowly store up advantages. The advantages that have been accumulated have to be converted into something permanent and tangible. The perceived advantages, however, have to be evaluated to ensure the success of attack. Any mistake in evaluating the position may result to a loss. Perhaps, this is what separates grandmasters from the rest of the chess players – the ability to accurately evaluate a particular position. It is always crucial in a chess game that a player should be able to correctly evaluate the position to determine the most effective strategy for a particular position. A wrong and ineffective chess strategy on the part of the player who has the advantage usually results to a frustrating draw or a heart-breaking defeat.

Steinitz v. Chigorin (After 13. g4)
According to chess historians and experts, Steinitz also formulated the following chess elements: (1) Development; (2) Mobility; (3) Control of the center; (4) The positions of the kings; (5) Weak and strong squares in both camps; (6) Pawn structure; (7) Queenside pawn majority; (8) Open files and (9) Two bishops against bishop and knight or against two knights.

Familiarity with these chess elements as espoused by Steinitz is essential in  ensuring that the most precise and effective strategy is employed by the chess player.  The immediate development of the pieces is necessary to ensure the accumulation of advantages and convert it into something permanent. Without a clear understanding of the elements of chess strategy, a chess player is often lost in complications.

Here is a game where Steinitz waived the very important act of castling for purposes of quick development and to launch an attack. But since Chigorin failed to appreciate the strategical intent of the move (13.g4), he himself castled on the kingside that eventually caused him defeat. With the move 13. g4, Steinitz made a conclusion that, strategically, castling is no longer relevant given the present position. He is risking the kingside for purposes of achieving the objective of employing an attack on the black's kingside. When Chigorin castled on the 23rd move he, unknowingly helped Steinitz

The more pertinent question, however, at the 13th move, can it be said that Steinitz already achieved a "permanent" advantage? If so, is he already obligated to launch an attack and technically "risk it"? In this time and specially in high level play, the move "g4" during the early stages of the game is often considered to be "incorrect" or "premature". But of course, this depends on the prevailing position on the chess board which is on a case to case basis.

Wilhelm Steinitz vs. Mikhail Chigorin (1889, Havana)

1. Nf3 d5 2. d4 Bg4 3. Ne5 Bh5 4. Qd3 Qc8 5. c4 f6 6. Nf3 e6 7. Nc3 Bg6 8. Qd1 c6 9. e3 Bd6 10. Bd2 Ne7 11. Rc1 Nd7 12. Nh4 f5 13. g4 Nf6 14. h3 Ne4 15. Bd3 fxg4 16. Nxg6 Nxg6 17. Bxe4 dxe4 18. Nxe4 Be7 19. hxg4 e5 20. d5 Qd7 21. Bc3 Rd8 22. Rh5 cxd5 23. cxd5 O-O 24. d6 Qe6 25. Qb3 Qxb3 26. axb3 Bxd6 27. Nxd6 Rxd6 28. Bb4 Rb6 29. Bxf8 Kxf8 30. Rc8+ Kf7 31. Rc7+ Kf6 32. Rf5+ Ke6 33. Rff7 Rb4 34. Rxb7 Rxg4 35. Rxg7 h5 36. Rxa7 Kf5 37. f3 Rg2 38. Ra6 1-0

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