Thursday, August 31, 2017

Strategy and the Mastery of Imbalances: Part 1

Many of us should be familiar with the term "Chess Strategy". It is the art of planning, based on what is happening on the battlefield. This is especially important when there are no immediate threats on the board for tactics to occur.

Image from

Unfortunately, many beginners fantasize their plans according to their emotions and preferences. They want to attack the enemy king, never mind that the position is cramped with no space to maneuver the pieces. Or maybe they just love trading pieces, not aware that a weak pawn structure will leave them crippled in the endgame.

A plan should be based not according to what you like, but what the situation on the battlefield calls for. In his work "Encyclopedia of Chess", Harry Golombek gives an accurate description of this:

"Planning is the process by which a player utilizes the advantages and minimizes the drawbacks of his position. In order to promise success, planning is thus always based on a diagnosis of the existing characteristics of a position; it is therefore most difficult when the position is evenly balanced, and easiest when there is only one plan to satisfy the demands of the position."

To analyze a position, one needs to understand the concept of imbalances, which are simply a difference between both sides in any position. They may or may not be in your favour; it is the player’s responsibility to maximize the imbalances that work for them, and reduce the effect of those against them. One can then work out a plan based on these imbalances, and adapt accordingly if the situation calls for it.

Imbalances: Tipping the scales in your favour

In our Positional Sacrifice article, we saw Jeremy Silman classifying material as an imbalance, to be analyzed alongside other positional factors. Now, we shall broaden our perspective to view other imbalances in the same picture.

Here is a breakdown of what strategic ideas one should consider when planning:
  • Material (how many troops you have)
  • Development (how many troops you have mobilized)
  • King safety (self-explanatory)
  • Centre and Space (the occupation of territory on the board)
  • Open files and diagonals (invading pathways for your pieces)
  • Piece activity (whose pieces exert greater control on the board)
  • Pawn structure (whether a system of pawns contains any weak points, or control key squares)
Some of these have been gone through in detail before, and the rest will be covered eventually. For now, let us see a brief overview of each one:


Everyone should know this by now... the side with more material has an advantage, since he can simplify to a better endgame.

But this doesn't mean material advantage is the holy grail of chess. We have seen many prime examples of this from our Positional Sacrifice article: If material is outweighed by other imbalances, then the advantage is not worth it!


There are many classical games which illustrate how a lead in development allows you to launch a decisive attack, even when down in material. Nimzowitsch gives a good example in the first illustrated game of "My System":

King Safety

Like material, King Safety is one of the more important imbalances: If your king is about to be mated in 3, then all other positional factors become useless, be it is your passed pawn on the 7th rank, your queen-rook battery on the open-file, or the enemy's hanging pawns.

Take a look at the following diagram, taken from one of my games played last year:

Checkerboard 5 vs Opponent
Queenstown Club 2016 (Round 4)
Position 1 after 15. Ne5

The imbalance is clear: White's king has castled, while Black's king is stuck in the centre. His knight is pinned and he cannot castle without hanging the knight. White threatens Bb2 and Rad1 increasing the pressure on e7.

The full game is shown below:

Centre and Space

Control of the centre is a common topic when beginners are introduced to the opening. The essence is that the side with more space has more freedom to maneuver his pieces and proceed with their plans. The following game gives a good explanation:

Open Files and Diagonals

Open files are a natural home for the rooks. They form the valleys through which our major pieces blast their way into the enemy position, with the goal of occupying the seventh rank.

"The main Objective of any operation in an open file is the eventual occupation of the seventh or eighth Rank."
-Aaron Nimzowitsch

In Position 3, White has occupied the open c-file, and prepares to advance his queen into Black's position. Black cannot mount an effective defense along the file, since his knight is cutting the bishop off from the c8 square.

Capablanca vs Horowitz
New York 1931
Position 2 after 24... Re8

White's plan is to play Ne1 defending his weakness on e3, followed by Qc7 invading Black's position.

Similarly, open diagonals are bishop territory. When not blocked by pawns, these diagonals form inroads into the enemy position. We witnessed a striking example of this not long ago, in Rubinstein's Immortal Game.

Piece Activity

Each piece has their own strengths and weaknesses, and it is up to the player to unleash their potential. More specifically:

  • Rooks and Queens:
    • Work best on open files, as covered earlier
  • Bishops:
    • Powerful in an open position, where the long-range bishop has an edge over the short-range knight
  • Knights
    • Excellent in closed positions
    • Stronger in the centre as compared to the side

Rubinstein's Immortal Game was a prime example of the bishops triumphing on open diagonals. Here is a counter-example revealing the dark side of the bishops: When they are blocked by pawns!

We have focused most of our attention on bishops. Next is a showcase of knights winning the day:

Pawn Structure

This is a broad topic, as there are many types of pawn structures that can arise from different openings. But the main thing to know is: The pawn structure dictates the terrain of the battlefield. This can mean anything from the presence of open files, to central pawns controlling key squares in the enemy camp.

Key things to take note of a pawn structure are:

  • The presence of weak pawns which can be targeted
  • Strong squares controlled by pawns that can be occupied by pieces
  • Whether the pawn structure creates an open or closed position

Common themes on pawn structures include:

  • Passed Pawn: A pawn which cannot be captured/stopped by enemy pawns. They can be extremely powerful if well supported by friendly pieces.
  • Isolated Pawn: A pawn which cannot be protected by friendly pawns. If not supported by friendly pieces, they can be weak and easily blockaded. But with sufficient support, they can control important central squares, and threaten to advance and become passed pawns.
  • Doubled Pawns: We have gone through this in our Doubled Pawns articles. Doubled pawns are a double-edged sword (pun not intended); they lack mobility, but help to strengthen square control in their immediate vicinity. 
  • Backward Pawns: Pawns that cannot be advanced or risk being captured. These pawns are often weak as they can be easily targeted by enemy pieces.

The study of pawn structures is too broad to be covered in a single article; I will just leave a couple of examples here. Our first game demonstrates the power that a passed pawn can have when advancing under strong support:

The next example explains how isolated pawns become targets of attack:

Opponent vs Checkerboard 5
Thomson Chess Fiesta 2017 (Round 7)
Position 3

Both sides have isolated pawns on opposite wings, but there is a difference: The proximity of Black's pieces to White's h5 pawn means they can easily pressurize it. Moreover, the h5 pawn is stuck on a light square, so White's dark-squared bishop cannot defend it.

With insufficient protection, White's isolated pawn is helpless. Black's plan would be to march their king to the pawn and pick it off. This will leave Black with connected passed pawns on the kingside, and a lasting endgame advantage.

In the actual game, Black did employ the above-mentioned plan, but blundered away his advantage later on. See the full game here.


When working out a plan, here are the following factors that should be taken into consideration:

  • Material
  • Development
  • King safety
  • Centre and Space
  • Open files and diagonals
  • Piece activity
  • Pawn structure

Now we know what type of imbalances are there, but how do we create, identify and convert them to our advantage? That will be covered in Part 2!

To be continued…

Part 2:

"How to Re-Assess your Chess" by Jeremy Silman
"My System: 21st Century Edition" by Aaron Nimzowitsch
"Understanding the Gruenfeld" by Jonathon Rowson

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Term 3 Tactics Part 3

Since NST is round the corner, here's 4 more simple puzzles to train your tactical vision.

Have fun!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Rubinstein's Immortal Game

Today we will look at a game showcasing the power of bishops on open diagonals. Our hero of the day is Polish chess master Akiba Rubinstein, who was considered one of the strongest players to never become world champion.

Rubinstein (right) vs Lasker, 1909

In this game, Rubinstein took advantage of his opponent's exposed king to execute a well-planned queen sacrifice, opening the diagonals for his bishop pair to swoop in for the kill. The resulting combination was called "perhaps the most magnificient... of all time" by Carl Schlechter (Wikipedia).

Rotlwei, George vs Rubinstein, Akiba
Łódź 1907

1. d4 d5
2. Nf3 e6
3. e3 c5
4. c4 Nc6
5. Nc3 Nf6
6. dxc5?!

Helping Black develop his bishop. More accurate was 6. cxd5 exd5 (6... Nxd5 7. Bc4) 7. Bb5 (7. dxc5 Bxc5 Black has an isolated pawn but has the possibility of pushing ... d4 creating problems for White.)

6... Bxc5
7. a3 a6
8. b4 Bd6
9. Bb2 O-O
10. Qd2?

Tatakower criticised this move as a "loss of time". Indeed, this is not the best square for the queen, as it does not exert any useful control over the centre. Better would have been 10. Qc2.

11... Qe7! (D)

Position after 11... Qe7

Giving up a pawn. The idea is to play ... Rd8 creating an indirect attack on White's queen.

11. Bd3

White was wise not to go for 11. cxd5 exd5 12. Nxd5 Nxd5 13. Qxd5 Rd8! gaining tempo with a strong attack.

11... dxc4
12. Bxc4 b5
13. Bd3 Rd8
14. Qe2 Bb7
15. O-O Ne5

Exchanging off the defender of h2.

16. Nxe5 Bxe5
17. f4

Black was threatening the following tactical combination after for example 17. Rab1? Bxh2+! 18. Kxh2 Qd6+ 19. Kg1 Qxd3 winning a pawn and forcing their way into White's camp.

17... Bc7
18. e4?!

White is planning for an e5 push, restricting the squares of Black's dark-squared bishop. But this exposes the king.

18... Rac8
19. e5 Bb6+

Alas, after all that effort in denying Black the h2-b8 diagonal, the bishop simply switches to another diagonal! White's king is in a precarious position now.

20. Kh1 Ng4!

Rubinstein wastes no time and goes straight for the attack. 20... Ne4 was possible too.

21. Be4

At last, Rotlewi realizes the danger his pawn pushes have created, and hurries to exchange off the bishop pair.

21... Qh4

Of course, Black is not going to exchange! He must press on the assault before White's king can find any safety.

22. g3 (D)

Position after 22. g3

A critical moment. Can you find Rubinstein's next move?


A stunning queen sacrifice, banked on the fact that that two bishops are strong enough to fence in White's king. Black's plan is to remove the two defenders of e4 so that he can capture White's light-squared bishop with check.

23. gxh4 Rd2!

Continuing with the plan, removing White's last defender of e4 with another sacrifice.

24. Qxd2 Bxe4+

White's king has no escape.

25. Qg2 Rh3 (D)

Position after 25... Rh3

There is no defense to ... Rxh2#. 25... Rc2 would have finished the game off in a similar manner.

This game was known as Rubinstein's Immortal and rightfully so; it is a spectacular demonstration of the power that two bishops possess on open diagonals.


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

National Day Presents 2017: Test your Trivia!

In case you're too bored during your National Day Holidays, here are 15 questions (+1 bonus puzzle) to test your trivia. How well do you know your chess history?

Image from

Q1: Which year did Kasparov first defeat Karpov to emerge as the World Champion?

(a)    1984
(b)    1985
(c)    1986
(d)    1987

Q2: What was Kasparov’s age at the mentioned year in Q1?

(a)    20
(b)    21
(c)    22
(d)    23

Q3: Fischer had a 20 consecutive win streak in 1971. Which player put an end to that streak?

(a)    Tigran Petrosian
(b)    Boris Spassky
(c)    Mark Taimanov
(d)    Bent Larsen

Q4: How many years was Emanuel Lasker World Champion for?

(a)    24
(b)    25
(c)    26
(d)    27

Q5: “Always put the rook behind the pawn… Except when it is incorrect to do so”. Who is credited for this famous saying?

(a)    Aaron Nimzowitsch
(b)    Wilhelm Steinitz
(c)    Siegbert Tarrasch
(d)    Saveilly Tatakower

Q6: How about this one? “The tactician must know what to do whenever something needs doing; the strategist must know what to do when nothing needs doing.”

(a)    Aaron Nimzowitsch
(b)    Wilhelm Steinitz
(c)    Siegbert Tarrasch
(d)    Saveilly Tatakower

Q7: Which event did the following position originate from?

White to move

(a)    Botvinnik vs Capablanca, AVRO 1938
(b)    Carlsen vs Karjakin, World Chess Championship 2016
(c)    Anand vs Caruana, Sinquefeld Cup 2017
(d)    Fischer vs Taimanov, Candidates Match 1971

Q8: What was White’s move in the above position?

Q9: Who is the famous chess master in the following photo?

Image from Wikipedia

(a)    Joseph Henry Blackburne
(b)    Wilhelm Steinitz
(c)    Johannes Zukertort
(d)    Paul Morphy

Q10: Mikhail Botvinnik held the title of World Champion from most of 1948 to 1963. But his reign was interrupted briefly by two other grandmasters. Who were they?

(a)    Robert Fischer and Bent Larsen
(b)    Tigran Petrosian and Boris Spassky
(c)    Alexander Alekhine and Anatoly Karpov
(d)    Vasily Smyslov and Mikhail Tal

Q11: In 2017, Teimour Radjabov won his first major tournament in more than a decade. What was this tournament?

(a)    Sinquefeld Cup 2017
(b)    Geneva Grand Prix 2017
(c)    TATA Steel Chess 207
(d)    FIDE World Cup 2017

Q12: Who is the oldest living former world champion at the time of writing?

(a)    Tigran Petrosian
(b)    Anatoly Karpov
(c)    Boris Spassky
(d)    Garry Kasparov

Q13: Boris Gelfand currently plays for Israel. But which country was he born in?

(a)    France
(b)    Soviet Union
(c)    Poland
(d)    Hungary

Q14: What was unique about the World Chess Championship 2007?

(a)    It was tied all the way till the Armageddon game
(b)    It was suspended halfway without any result
(c)    The winner won the match by a large margin of 3 points
(d)    It was a double round-robin tournament, rather than the usual match format

Q15: Which of the following is usually classified as a strategic rather than a tactical concept?

(a)    Passed Pawn
(b)    Interference
(c)    X-Ray
(d)    Skewer

Q16: Bonus Question: White to move and win

Enjoy your holidays!

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Positional Sacrifice

Many of us are happy to give up material if it means an unstoppable attack. How about sacrificing for the position? That’s where many players hesitate. For some reason it is particularly painful for us to part with a pawn or the exchange for some long-term positional gain.

That’s because by nature, we humans prefer immediate results. By sacrificing something that has been drilled into beginners as one of the most important assets of the game, of course we want something good to justify it. An unstoppable mate or an irresistible king hunt looks tangible enough. But something more abstract, like superior piece activity or a passed pawn, doesn’t look convincing enough to amateurs. So when it comes to sacrificing for the position, the verdict stands: We can’t do it!

Just take the leap, they said

Obviously we have to remove this rigor mortis, if we want to win more games. In his classic work “How to Reassess Your Chess (4th Edition)”, Jeremy Silman takes the bull by the horns by removing material advantage from its holy seat, and placing it alongside other positional factors known as “imbalances”. He explains the way to overcome this mental reluctance to part with material as follows:

“(The player) has to train himself to view each imbalance as something wonderful, and he has to view material as just another imbalance to be collected or rejected, depending on the nature of the individual position.”

 That means that while material advantage is important, you shouldn’t place it on a pedestal and lose sight of all other positional imbalances. Rather, it should be weighed alongside other factors such as the centre, pawn structure and piece activity, and treated equally.

Here is a simple example of how material can be given up for a huge positional advantage, again taken from Silman’s book:

White to move

White enjoys more space, and would love to put a piece on that inviting e6 square. But the only access point, the e-file, is contested by both sides, and Black has no intention of giving it up! So if White tries something like 1. Rxe7 Rxe7 2. Re1 Rxe1 Black trades off the rooks and White can never exploit his spatial advantage.

But now, armed with the knowledge that material is just an imbalance like any other positional factor, you might not take long to find the positional sacrifice:

1. Re6!!

And the reason for giving up the material becomes clear: After 1… Bxe6 2. dxe6, Black’s position is totally hopeless! True, he may be an exchange up, but if we analyze the imbalances of both sides we see a very different picture:

Position after 2. dxe6

  1. Up an exchange

  1. Enormous central space, giving White’s pieces far more activity as compared to Black’s
  2. A strong, protected passed pawn
  3. Weak enemy pawns on d6 and f6 to attack
  4. An outpost on d5 for the knight
  5. Uncontested light-squares along the h1-a8 diagonal that can be used as an invasion route for the light-squared bishop.
  6. Superior minor pieces compared to Black’s rooks: Without any open files, the Black rooks are in fact worse off than any of White’s pieces!

From the assessment of the imbalances it is not difficult to tell that White is winning despite his material deficit. After something like Nd5 and Re1, the weight of White’s forces will crush Black underfoot.

A less extreme example can be seen in the following game, between Petrosian and Spassky in the 1969 World Championship. I must digress for a bit to talk about Tigran Petrosian, who was remembered not only for his impenetrable defensive style, but also his fondness for giving up the exchange to get a superior position. So if there is any role model to look for while studying the idea of the positional sacrifice… look no further than Iron Tigran!

Iron Tigran, the master of positional play

Spassky, Boris vs Petrosian, Tigran V
World Chess Championship 1969 (Round 11)
Position after 30. Nd2

Black has a position similar to our first example: More space on the queenside, and control over the c-file. But Petrosian is unable to use the c-file to invade Spassky’s position, since all the invasion points have been covered by White. 30… Rc7 followed by Rac8 doubling rooks on the file comes to mind, but White can simply reply Rdc1 and Rac1 trading off all the rooks, resulting in a drawish, closed position. Is there a way for Black to push forth his agenda of advancing on the queenside? Turns out there is, and if we remember what White did in our first example, the candidate move here shouldn’t be hard to find:

30… Rc4!

If White accepts the sacrifice with 31. Nxc4 dxc4, we see that Black gets excellent compensation after laying out the imbalances:

  1. Up an exchange

  1. Two strong, protected passed pawns on the queenside
  2. An open diagonal for his light-squared bishop
  3. A backward e3 pawn to attack

This isn’t as clear as the first example where Black was totally cramped up, but the monster passed pawns on the queenside are more than enough to make White think twice about grabbing the material. Spassky wisely declined the sacrifice, instead finding other ways to keep the game complicated:

No article on the positional sacrifice would be complete without Petrosian’s classical defence sacrifice example. The next position is a famous one that some of you might find familiar, but such masterpieces never get too old to be shared:

Position after 25. Rfe1

Things are going badly for Black: White threatens Bf3 followed by d5, setting the central pawn mass in motion and wreaking havoc in Black's camp. If only Black could get his knight to d5 via e7, but moves like … Ra7 or ... Red7 don't work because of the pawn advance e6. This means Petrosian must find a move that can help set up a blockade on both d5 AND e6, which seems impossible unless some concessions can be made...

We have seen two fine works of art by Petrosian, but I cannot resist showing another one. I will cap off this article with another of his masterpieces, where he sacrificed the exchange to set loose a rampaging pawn army, eventually overrunning the enemy with its numbers:

Through these games we can see how material, at the end of the day, is just another positional imbalance. Weighed against other positional elements it definitely carries more advantage, but one must be prepared to let it go when you see an even better opportunity coming your way.

So don’t be afraid to make that positional sacrifice; even if it doesn’t work, at least you have overcome your mental block and learned much from it!

“How to Re-assess your Chess: 4th Edition” by Jeremy Silman