MASTERING THE ELEMENTS OF CHESS THEORY:
Concise Instructions from Patzer to Master
Modern Chess Theory
Modern chess theory grew to its present splendor from the seeds planted by early master theorist such as Ruy López de Segura and Francois-André Philidor. Their principles, proven by their sound play, spread quickly throughout the chess world. In time these seeds of thought would be nurtured to maturity by such great theorists and grandmasters as Wilhelm Steinitz, Siegbert Tarrasch, Emanuel Lasker, Aaron Nimzovich, Max Euwe, José Raúl Capablanca, and Alexander Alekhine. Later, other great players such as Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky, Robert (Bobby) Fischer and Anatoly Karpov (just to name a few) continued to build upon these thoughts as the mature complex systems of modern chess continued to thrive.
Their innovative play based upon sound theories brought chess to an entirely new level by masterfully blending a requisite precise logic with an equally requisite creative artistic brilliance. But chess theory was not exhausted even by these grandmasters; so that, today’s grandmasters such as Gary Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik, Veselin Topalov, Vaswanathan Anand and others continue to push the envelope. They continue to break new ground; to find improved variations and lines of play, all while continuing to build upon these already established theories.
By early master theorists such as Ruy López de Segura and Francois-André Philidor, I do not mean to imply that chess started with these individuals or even in their era. Primitive forms of the game have been traced to 3000 B.C. Asia; and the prototype from which our modern game is conceived has existed in India since the 6th century. The game as we know it today has been around since the late 15th century Europe where and when certain changes to the Indian game provided the current popular format. But it was not until 1749, when François-André Danican Philidor published his book “Analyse du jeu des Échecs” that modern chess theory began to take root. Philidor, who was considered the best player of his day and generally deemed unbeatable, analyzed nine types of game openings. It was he who introduced the strategic concept of strong center pawns: “Pawns,” he said, “are the soul of chess.”
A century later Wilhelm Steinitz made his mark. No individual (with purhaps the exception of Aaron Nimzovich) has had such a far-reaching and profound affect on chess theory. Steinitz’ peers immediately understood the importance of his ideas. His theories on position play, space advantage and controlling the center with pawns brought a dramatic and universal change to the game.
Virtually on his heels three other theorists — younger contemporaries each of which held Steinitz in great esteem — made significant contributions of their own: Siegbert Tarrasch, Emmanuel Lasker and Aaron Nimzovich. From Steinitz’s ideas, Tarrasch formulated a ridged system that emphasized the advantage of mobility and the inherent weakness of cramped positions, which he argued “had the germ of defeat.” He especially emphasized the importance of the Bishop pair.
Meanwhile, Lasker introduced his psychological method of play in which he would resort to mind games with his opponents, often playing the inferior move if he thought it would make his opponent uncomfortable. But just as the Steinitz/Tarrasch system was settling in as the standard, Nimzovich introduced an advanced system that boldly deviated from certain aspects of what had been set forth by Steinitz, popularized by Tarrasch, and widely accepted as convention.
Nimzovich on the other hand spoke of such concepts as overprotecting key points and playing prophylactic positional moves that prevented the opponent’s anticipated moves. He demonstrated the ability to control the center from long-range with pieces versus pawns — a practice that has become the mainstay of hypermodern chess theory. At first many chess journalists and enthusiast scoffed at his ideas, arguing that Nimzovich simply did not understand correct theory and made up for it by inventing his own. However, his fellow grandmasters and young upcoming masters were not so quick to dismiss the ideas of this competitor whom they themselves had such trouble beating. Almost overnight Nimzovich had a substantial following, and before he died at the young age of 49 he had become the undisputed master chess theorists of his time; arguably even rivaling Steinitz as the most influential theorists of modern chess. He wrote several books on chess theory and to this day his book “My System” is still a must read for every chess enthusiast.
Grandmaster Alexander Kotov explained that before the introduction of these systematic approaches players merely played by a rule of thumb, assessing positions based solely on their own experience and methods of comparison. But when Steinitz and his successors introduced the concepts of open lines, pawn structure, weak points, piece position, space and the control of the center, the world of chess changed forever. Thus chess is ever evolving so that even the lines of play set forth by the most influential master theorists are subject to modification. The evolution of chess theory has been so dramatic that the renowned games of genius in the 18th century, played by such greats as Paul Morphy, Howard Staunton and Adolf Anderssen no doubt seem relatively elementary to modern grandmasters. Not that their tactics were inferior or even erroneous; indeed in their day these maneuvers were revolutionary and brilliant. But as subsequent masters painstakingly dissected and thoroughly analyzed these legendary games of genius they soon discovered counter-play and strategies that took the game to a whole new level. This forced competitive players to stay abreast of their opponents’ innovations.
The innovations and detailed analyses also forced theorists to change their thinking about certain aspects of the game. For example, Nimzovich introduced the tactical maneuver of attacking the enemy pawn chain at its base as soon as possible. However, today’s theorists seem less captivated by this approach than when it was popularized. The concept of attacking the pawn chain at its base has not been discarded, but it is no longer employed obsessively, no longer considered a target that must be pursued as soon as possible. Then there is the long accepted idea of developing the Knights before the Bishops. Many modern grandmasters no longer hold to this practice with the same vigor endorsed by previous theorists. Yet another example of how competitive play and theory has changed is the demise of the once popular King’s Gambit Opening. After losing badly in 1960 to the King’s Gambit Opening in his first ever game against Boris Spassky (who was nicknamed the “Knight of the King’s Gambit”), Bobby Fischer went home and worked out a winning defense. After he published the defense in an article titled “A Bust to the King’s Gambit,” no one, including Spassky, ever played it against Fischer again in tournament play. Indeed, the King’s Gambit Opening has disappeared entirely from grandmaster play. Nor did Fischer’s influence stop here. His innovative methods for playing the Najdorf Sicilian, the Nimzo-Indian and other systems are still unsurpassed.
Grandmaster José Raúl Capablanca, who died in 1942, observed that just as the Knight seems more terrible to the weaker player until he increases in strength and learns the value of the Bishop, so too, “the masters of today are far ahead of the masters of former generations.” Three-time World Champion Grandmaster Mikhail Botvinnik, who retired in 1970, admitted that modern players are more familiar with a growing number of typical positions and the new methods of play being developed; everything, he explained, including the technique of positional play is improving. And just as either of these would have predicted, this upward trend has continued till the present; so that modern grandmasters such as Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik, Viswanathan Anand, Peter Leko, et al, doubtless know even more than past, albeit legendary, World Champions.
Thus, because innovation and deep analyses continue current chess theory is always in flux, vulnerable to change and growth every time some master introduces a proven, more effective strategy or line of play for a given position. With each generation certain theorems or lines of play are modified, refined and perfected so that today’s players have a virtual encyclopedia of advanced chess theory and complicated strategies at their fingertips. And would be young theorists must not neglect these proven theories which necessarily predicate all innovation, even the innovations of the greatest of players.
This is not to say that the totality of chess theory is a target for new theorist. The great majority of concepts and theories continue to survive scrutiny and the occasional assault from new creative thinkers. For example, although many other perfectly sound openings have been introduced, the King’s pawn opening of e2-e4 still wins the popularity contest, even among top players. It was a favorite of Philidor — an unofficial world champion of the 1700’s. And a century later it was a favorite of Staunton — an unofficial world champion in the 1800’s. Staunton argued that, “When the men are first arranged in battle order, it is seen that the only pieces which have the power of moving are the Knights, and that to liberate the others it is indispensably necessary to move a pawn. Now as the King’s pawn, on being moved, gives freedom both to the Queen and to the King’s Bishop, it is more frequently played at the beginning of the game than any other.” A century after Staunton, it was still the favorite opening of Bobby Fischer — an official world champion in the 1900’s; “Best by test” he would say. To this day it continues to be a favorite of players at all levels.
Likewise, several fundamentals have stood the test of time: a rapid development, gaining space, controlling the center, playing open lines, protecting key squares, etc. But occasionally someone still comes up with an innovative idea or a move in a certain situation that makes the world take note. For example, although castling has long been accepted as a necessary part of development, it has been shown that in some games (such as certain versions of the Caro-Kann, see Appendix C) castling for Black is not a real priority. These games are rife with rapid exchanges so that the endgame often comes about even before development is complete. Black takes advantage of this by forgoing the castle, advancing the center pawns and the King for the endgame.
The Apology for this Work
As is the goal of most books on chess theory, it is not the purpose of this book to suggest an improved line of play for a particular game or position. The objective of this work is to present the time tested fundamentals and theories that pertain to the essential elements of chess. For upon these elements rest all proven lines of play. If one does not have a clear understanding and command of these elements one can never seriously expect to advance far in the world of chess.
That being said, it must be understood that I lay no claim to any of the theories set forth in this work. This however is not a disclaimer as to the veracity of these theories but a bold disclaimer to any notion that I have formulated any of them; for they have long been established by numerous renowned chess theorists and grandmasters. If I must claim anything it is merely that of organization and presentation; and (as depicted the figure), perhaps the detection of a heretofore never-mentioned simultaneous complex and serial-cyclical relationship between certain fundamental elements of the game. For my part, I have merely collated and presented these elements in a learner-friendly format designed to instruct both the average player up to the master level.
It is my belief that beyond the master level a certain creative genius for the game is requisite. That is to say; despite the mastery of theory — a truly necessary enterprise in and of itself — the complicated nature of executing this theory in advanced chess is such that without an intuitive brilliance for the game one is necessarily limited to a certain level. But facing the realization that we are not likely to compete with the world’s greatest players should not discourage our pursuit to master the game to the best of our ability, any more than coming to the realization that we are no likely to compete with the world’s greatest golfers or tennis players would stop us from mastering these sports, if such was our interest.
Being, I suspect, like most chess players — having a superior but not photographic memory — I realized that if average and even good players are to really improve their game they must learn advanced theory as it pertains to the various elements of chess. For void of the photographic memory, embarking on the laborious journey of memorization in which we attempt to remember every likely variation of certain battles played by either ourselves or renowned grandmasters is necessarily fruitless. Besides, even if one had the capacity, what fun (or even challenge for that matter) is a game played by rote. I have heard that some grandmasters actually have photographic memories and thus the capacity to recall countless variations at will. Perhaps this is why they retire so young. Such rote play must be extremely boring.
This is not to discount the value of remembering familiar positions; but in reality — barring the photographic memory — how many of these countless variations can even the above average intellect recall? There are 400 possible positions which could be established after the very first move for each opponent, and this grows exponentially. Mathematicians have determined there are 318, 979, 564,000 different ways for players to play the first four moves. No, that is not a misprint; there are 318 billion, 979 million, 564 thousand possible positions in the first four moves. And there are roughly 169,518,829,100,544, 000,000,000,000,000 (what ever that number is) different ways to play the first ten moves. The possible moves for a typical game have been estimated to be 10 x 1050; a simply incomprehensible figure, for which we have no name. Nor would the zeros fit in this book, or in any book. In fact, the zeros necessary to express this figure would not fit in volume after volume of such books filling even the largest library you can imagine. Granted, relatively few of these moves for any given position are actually considered tenable; nevertheless the possibilities are still daunting. Consequently, I have reasoned that players need to master the theory of chess so they can apply it impromptu. As Capablanca said, “Never be content simply to learn a series of moves by heart, in the opening or elsewhere, but strive to find the reason for each move in the series.”
But finding books that present these advanced theories is no easy task. At fist I had trouble finding such books. At least I had trouble finding instructional books beyond the beginner’s level that clearly set forth advance theories in a concise, succinct and cohesive learner-friendly format. Perhaps this is because, as Capablanca acknowledged, “leading players have seldom shown an inclination to discuss their methods.” I do not mean to imply there are no good books on chess theory; indeed there are scores of them. But I say concise, succinct and cohesive for a reason. What I mostly found was a passel of works that although instructive they were something other than learner-friendly. I was looking for lessons that plainly set forth the grand principles of the game in a crisp and systematic fashion; something that both average and advanced players could easily understand and immediately apply to any game situation. What I found for the most part were works mired in the detail of annotation — most discussing a particular game and its multiple variations at certain critical junctures.
While I certainly learned from them and I greatly enjoyed knowing what the grandmasters where thinking during the game and how they analyzed the game postmortem, this did not satisfy my desire for succinct, comprehensive, cohesive systematic lessons on theory. Repeatedly, I found that in order to unearth a particular theorem I had to dig through numerous pages of these annotated games, which illustrated the cryptic and almost unspoken point I sought. I was looking for the arching principles by which I could guide my game, but largely what I found were exhaustive detailed annotations of a player’s thoughts during a given line of play. Although some works did make strides in this direction, most were either too simplistic for my purposes or, like many advanced works, soon bogged down in the minutia of detailed annotated explanations of critical variations in select games of comment. Again, although very helpful still they were not the type of lessons I sought, for as Capablana admitted, generally such books, “do not teach the general laws and principles which govern the game of chess.’
Unable at first to find what I looked for, I decided to write it myself. Then, about twenty books into my research I began finding works more along the line of instruction I desired. But by then I was well on my way and I had already devised my theory of the complex and circular association of the elements. Thus, the following lessons are designed to capture the essential strategic and tactical philosophies by which master chess players guide their play. My goal then has been to present master level chess theory in a learner-friendly format, outlining these elements as they pertain to the three phases of the game — the opening, the middle and the endgame. This alone I believe is a novel addition to the game.
Because it is important to see these theories in action, I have also included annotated appendices that (like the other books) detail the minutia and provide critical variations in select games of comment. However, I have relegated such commentary to appendices so they do not interfere with the concise lessons on the elements of the game, which is the topic at hand. Furthermore, to make the appendage commentaries more learner-friendly I have included entire games in pictorial format so readers can concentrate on the concept being discussed without the burden and distraction of having to imagine and reconstruct the play in one’s mind from a series of algebraic notations. Not that reconstructing lines of play in one’s mind by merely reading the notation is useless — indeed it is a very helpful exercise; but it simply is not the object of these lessons and its employment merely confuses the issue at hand, which is theory. For such advanced exercises, I have included a separate appendix of certain tactical problems to solve; and for the beginner I have included appendices that discuss certain popular opening book moves, some basic endgame situations, and a glossary of terms.
Although I have played chess for so long that I literally cannot remember having ever learned to play, it was only within the last several years that I decided to truly study it as a discipline — to master it if you will. What I quickly realized is that despite how proficient I become, I am far too old (now in my 50’s) to ever become a world-class champion. But this is not to imply that I do not understand the game, or that I cannot teach it. What it does imply, and indeed mean, is that today’s competitive chess is a young person’s game.
The advanced, sophisticated nature of today’s competition is far more intense than it used to be; and tomorrows will be even more so. The simple mastery of chess theory, or even the more difficult proper execution of this theory, is simply not enough. The well-published and easily accessible proven-lines-of-play (resolved by both man and machine) for nearly countless variations of the most likely positions, make attaining and retaining top competitive status in the modern world of chess a most demanding occupation. To stay ahead or even abreast of their peers modern competitive players must learn a dreadful amount of material — continuously studying their competitors’ games, mastering their competitors’ techniques and lines of play, and familiarizing themselves with even more.
Then too, like any grueling competition, chess at its highest level is very much a matter of determination and focus. It takes — if I may reference Mickey’s explanation to Rocky — “the eye of the tiger;” again, a facility of the young. I remember having “the eye of the tiger.” I would not loose (not that I never lost, but this was my mind-set), I would not give up at any competition I was passionate about: baseball, trap shooting, golf, pocket billiards, even table tennis. But through the years this need to win has waned so that now I even take pleasure in losing to young, hungry competitors. Somehow I enjoy watching them mature more than beating them. Somewhere along the way I have lost the “eye of the tiger.” With few exceptions, the older mind, no matter how intelligent or how well it understands the game, simply no longer has the requisite capacity of devotion for such a demanding task. It is not a matter of mastering theory — understanding the complexities of position, strategy, weaknesses, strengths, best lines of play, etc — this can be learned even by the old; but it is very much a matter of the requisite desire or even energy to take it to the next level with the intensity necessary to compete effectively in today’s world.
To those aging die-hards who would argue that many years of study and experience at high-level play along with that certain innate necessity are the vital components to compete effectively and that age has nothing to do with it; I merely point to the numerous grandmasters who are yet in their twenties, some still in their teens, and to the number of grandmasters who retire from competitive play by their mid-forties, perhaps — and I merely speculate — because they are unable to maintain “the eye of the tiger” at the level of intensity necessary to keep up with these youngsters. Such was the case with the renowned grandmasters facing the young Bobby Fischer after his unprecedented winning streak in which he had beaten grandmasters Mark Tiamanov, Brent Larsen and Tigran Petrosian on his march to defeating Boris Spassky for the 1971 World Championship. As this drama unfolded a German chess expert commented that, “No master has such a terrific will to win. At the board he radiates danger, and even the strongest opponents tend to freeze, like rabbits, when they smell a panther. Even his weaknesses are dangerous. As White, his opening is predictable — you can make plans against it — but so strong that your plans almost never work. In middle game his precision and invention are fabulous, and in the end game you simply cannot beat him.”
Returning to my own situation; that I no longer have the physical or mental energy, or the passion — “the eye of the tiger” — to use what I have learned with the necessary intensity to compete in today’s world does not negate my ability as a trained educator to teach; as the adage goes, “those who can, do; those who cannot, teach.” Thus, as a trained researcher and educator with a respectable knowledge of chess, what I bring to the table are succinct, cohesive, learner-friendly lessons that are based upon the teachings of the great master theorists of the game. These lessons are designed for those players who lie somewhere between beginner and master. While the lessons may be beyond the stark beginner, at the same time I seriously doubt any master will get much out of them. But these lessons will improve the game of the average and even the very advanced player up to the master level.
Finally, I would like to make a comment concerning the spelling of two common chess terms: “centre and defence.” Although these older British versions are still quite common in the world of chess, I simply could not refrain from using the modern forms: “center and defense.” No doubt this will infuriate purists but the remaining readers will likely appreciate it.
Desmond Allen, PhD
 GM 104LB
 (Capablanca p 104)
 (GM p90)
 (The Chess-Player’s Handbook)
 (My 60 Memorable Games)
 Capablanca p 80.
 Capablanca p 78
 Capablanca p.152)
 (Bobby Fisher Teaches Chess.)
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