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Don't be deceived by the title—chess is not a simple game—such a claim would be misleading to say the least—but that does not mean that we must bear the full brunt of its difficulty. When faced with any problem too large to cope with as a single entity, common sense tells us to break it down into smaller fragments of manageable proportions. For example, the arithmetical problem of dividing one number by another is not one that can in general be solved in one step, but primary school taught us to find the answer by a series of simple division processes (namely long division). So, how can we break down the 'problem' of playing chess?
Give two of the uninitiated a chessboard, a set of chessmen, a list of rules and a lot of time, and you may well observe the following process: the brighter of the two will quickly understand the idea of checkmate and win some games by 1. e4 2. Bc4 3. Qh5 4. Qxf7 mate. When the less observant of our brethren learns how to defend his f7 square in time, the games will grow longer and it will gradually occur to the players that the side with more pieces will generally per se be able to force an eventual checkmate. This is the first important 'reduction' in the problem of playing chess—the numerically superior force will win. So now our two novices will no longer look to construct direct mates, these threats are too easy to parry, but will begin to learn the tricks of the trade for winning material (forks, skewers, pins, etc.), confident that this smaller objective is sufficient. Time passes and each player becomes sufficiently competent not to shed material without reason. Now they begin to realize the importance of developing quickly and harmoniously and of castling the king into safety.
So what next? Where are their new objectives? How can the problem be further reduced? If each player is capable of quick development, castling and of not blundering any pieces away, what is there to separate the two sides? This is the starting-point of Simple Chess. It tries to reduce the problem still further by recommending various positional goals which you can work towards, other things (i.e. material, development, security of king position) being equal. Just as our two fictitious friends discovered that the one with more pieces can expect to win if he avoids any mating traps, Simple Chess will provide him with some equally elementary objectives which if attained should eventually decide the game in his favor, subject to the strengthened proviso that he neither allows any mating tricks, nor loses any material en route.
Essentially, Simple Chess aims to give you some of the basic ideas for forming a long- term campaign. It also shows you how to recognize and accumulate small, sometimes almost insignificant-looking advantages which may well have little or no short-term effect, but are permanent features of the position. As the game progresses, the cumulative effect begins to make itself felt more and more, leading eventually to more tangible gains. This style of play is simple and economical both in its conception and execution. Combinations and attacks are shelved for their proper time and place as the culmination of an overall strategy. Given the right kind of position it is not so difficult to overwhelm the opposition with an avalanche of sacrifices. The real problem is how to obtain such positions. This is the objective of Simple Chess.
Undoubtedly the best way to improve your chess is by studying master and grandmaster games. For this reason I have used a selection of such games as a medium through which to put across the fundamental principles of simple chess. These games are mostly not of the type to capture the limelight of chess literature because they are too simple and unsensational, but for this very reason they are suitable for showing off clearly the basic ideas I want to convey.
As a preliminary to splitting the elements of simple chess into an array of recognizable objectives, as will occur in the ensuing chapters, I want to give you something of the flavor of what is to come in the form of three introductory games containing most of the concepts and strategies to be elaborated later on. The first is a victory by ex-World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik over the Hungarian International Master Szilagyi in Amsterdam, 1966. One of the truly great masters of strategy, Botvinnik gives a typically powerful and very instructive display. We pick up the play in diagram 1 with Botvinnik (White) to move:
The position may at first sight seem quite good for Black. His pieces occupy good squares in the center, his king is very safe and he has a lead in development having already connected his rooks on the back rank while White is a long way from doing so. However, positionally he has problems arising from the exchange of his Queen's Bishop for a Knight. In the long run he will find difficulty in defending his White squares. We shall see what this means in more tangible terms as the game progresses.
A space-gaining move. The center is fixed and White does not want to advance on the Kingside for fear of exposing his own monarch, so the logical zone for expansion is on the Queenside.
12. ... Bb6
13. a 4 Rfd8
Black dare not hit back with 13 ... a5 because of 14. Ba3 followed by Nc4 or Nb3 with lots of dangerous possibilities on the a3-f8 diagonal.
14. Qc2 Rac8
Black already finds himself lacking a good plan. A better idea has 14 ... Nf8 followed by Ne6 and a5 trying to get a grip on c5 or d4. Black's difficulties stem from the fact that he has no good outpost for his pieces.
In contrast Botvinnik's advance has given him a nice square on c4 which he can occupy with either a Knight or a Bishop.
15. ... c5??
Two question marks for a move which does not actually lose any material may seem a bit harsh, but I want to emphasize the point that before 15 ... C5 Black merely had problems, but now he is lost.
16. b 5!
Why is Black lost? Material is equal and White hasn't got a piece beyond the second rate. The answer lies in the Pawns. White has two beautiful squares on c4 and d5, plus a mobile Pawn roller on the left flank, whereas Black's Pawns constrict his own pieces terribly, particularly the Bishop. Botvinnik now treats us to a vigorous exhibition of technical chess as he converts these advantages into a win.
16. ... Ne8
17. Nc4 Nd6
A surprise tactical shot, but its aims are positional.
18. ... f6
The point of the combination. Black is forced to weaken yet another White square (e6) in the heart of his position. Refusal to fall in with White's plans is even more unpalatable:
(i) 18 ... Qxg5 19. Nxd6 Rb8 20. Bc4
(ii) 18 ... Nf6 19 Ne3 followed by Nd5
19. Be3 Nxc4
21. a5 Bc7
22. Rfd1 Nf8
An exchange of Rooks will not heal Black's wounds. On the other hand, neither will anything else.
23. Qa2 Rxd1+
24. Rxd1 Rd8
25. Rxd8 Bxd8
Conquering yet another White square (c6) and simultaneously releasing the Queen from her defense of the a Pawn in preparation for more active service.
26. ... b6
White's control of the position is so great that he could inscribe his initials on the board with his King if he wanted. Being rather less self-indulgent, Botvinnik contents himself with one preparatory King move before embarking on the winning process On general principles, his King will feel safer on a White square.
27. ... Qd7
28. Qe2 Ng6
At last an attack, but there's no need for any excitement. The outcome is a mere formality. With a Bishop having the mobility of a tortoise with rheumatism, Black is in no position to offer any real resistance.
29. ... Ne7
30. Qc4 h6
31. Qf7! Kh7
31 ... Qxb5 loses a piece to 32. Qf8+ Kh7 33. Qxd8 Qxb3 34. Qxe7.
32. Bc4 Qd6
Botvinnik now weaves a mating net on the White squares.
33. ... Qd1
With the threat of Bf7, h5, followed by Bg6+, etc. There's no defense.
34. ... f5
35. exf5 Nxf5
36. Bg8+ Kh8
37. Bf 7 + and mates next move.
A perfect illustration of what is known as a White square strategy, something we will explore in more depth later on. For the moment, however, I merely want to draw your attention to the effortless simplicity with which Botvinnik established and drove home his advantage. With the possible exception of 18. Bg5!, none of his moves could in any way be described as surprising or difficult to visualize. They were all really rather obvious. So why cannot everybody play like that? Well, they can providing they recognize and understand the importance of structure. The most important single feature of a chess position is the activity of the pieces. This is absolutely fundamental in all phases of the game (opening, middlegame and especially endgame), a theme which I hope will become increasingly apparent as the book progresses. The primary constraint on piece's activity is the Pawn structure. Just as a building is constructed around a framework of iron girders, a chess game is built around an underlying structure of pawns. The difference lies in the fact that the iron framework is fixed, whereas the chessplayer has a certain amount of flexibility with his Pawns.
The job of the chessplayer must therefore be to use his skill to create a Pawn set-up which will allow his own pieces the optimum freedom and stability, while denying his opponent's similar scope. This is the problem of structure, which will be dealt with in some depth.
To take an example, let us go back to the position of Diagram 2 and examine it from a structural point of view. Removing the pieces from the board, but leaving the pawns, we have Diagram 3. From this we see very strong squares or outposts for his pieces on c4 and d5. They are strong because neither can be challenged by a Black Pawn. In contrast, Black has no outposts at all. So arithmetically speaking White had a 2-0 lead in outposts, a very healthy state of affairs. Bearing this in mind, notice the vital role played by the White Pawn on c3 guarding Black's natural outpost on d4. If White were ever to play the positionally abysmal c4? he would not only give Black his long awaited outpost, but would also smother his own c4 square, thus equalizing the outpost score to 1-1 at a stroke. Moreover the damage would be irreversible. Pawns cannot move backwards. If you inadvertently put a piece on a bad square, you can always retract it at the cost of some time (and face), but in the case of a Pawn you are lumbered with it for the rest of the game. Think twice about Pawn moves, especially in the center.
Returning to Diagram 3, is there any way for Black to improve matters, structurally speaking? Certainly. If he could advance c5-c4, the world would suddenly be a much happier place for him. Look at Diagram 4. Black now has three excellent squares c5, d3, and b3, while White has to be content with one (d5). So we see that White's c4 square is strategically the focal point of the position. Just as the outcome of a real battle may depend on control of a high point or mountain dominating the surrounding terrain, a chess game can hinge around the struggle for control of one key square. In this case it is the square c4. Do you recall Botvinnik's 15th move Be2? It may not have seemed terribly significant at the time, but in fact shows that he had already fully recognized the strategic importance of the c4 square. Clever fellows these Russians!
We now turn our attention to an even more striking demonstration of the power and importance of structure, this time given by the great master of defence Tigran Petrosian. The ninth game of his Candidates' Match with Lajos Portisch (Black) started 1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. b3 Bg7 4. Bb2 c5 5. g3 d6 6. Bg2 e5 7. 0-0 Nc6 8. Nc3 0-0 9. d3 Nh5 10. Nd2 Bg4 11. a3 Bh6 reaching the position of Diagram 5.
At a glance the Black pieces may seem to be menacingly poised for a Kingside attack. On the other hand a quick look at the Pawn structure reveals that White has an excellent outpost on d5, but how does that help? It certainly has no immediate value, as 12. Nd5 Nd4! 13. Bxd4 exd4 would allow Black to develop a lot of pressure on the e-file. However, the d5 square is there to stay and if it cannot be profitably utilized at present, it is nevertheless a good investment for the future. With this in mind Petrosian chose.
The classical way to exploit a structural advantage in the center is with a thrust on the flank, but here accurate calculation is also required. In the event of 12 ... cxb4 13. axb4 Nxb4 White plays 14. Ba3! (but not 14. Bxb7 Nxd3!) with three possibilities:
(i) 14 ... Nxd3? 15. h3 now wins a piece.
(ii) 14 ... Nc6 15. N(d2) e4 winning the d pawn.
(iii) 14 ... a5 15. Rb1 regaining the Pawn with advantage as 15 ... Nxd3? still fails to 16. h3.
One might reasonably ask if it was not similar to drive away Black's Bishop with 12. h3 before playing b4 so as to avoid all the above complications based on the pin on White's e Pawn. The answer is that White does not want to make any Pawn move in front of his own King until it is absolutely necessary, as it merely provides Black with a ready-made target to attack. For instance, 12. h3 Bd7 13. b4 f5 and ... f4 could well be dangerous for White.
12. ... Nd4
Black has some very dangerous threats. Not only is 13 ... Bxd2 and 14 ... Nb3 winning the exchange in the cards, but the Tal-like sacrifice 13 ... Nf4! 14 gxf4 Bxf4 followed by Qh4 is also in the air.
A sense of timing is the key to good defensive play. Here Petrosian accepts the weakening of his Kingside Pawns as he realizes that he can thereby completely repulse the attack.
13. ... Be6
14. e3 cxb4
An anti-positional capture, but he has no alternative. After 14 ... Nc6 15. bxc5 dxc5 16. Nb3 Qe7 17. Na4 he simply loses a Pawn for nothing.
15. axb4 Nc6
16. b5 Ne7
Another well-calculated little venture which increases White's positional advantage still further.
17. ... Bxh3
18. Bxa8 Bxf1
18 ... Qxa8 19. Qf3 is very much the same as the game.
19. Kxf1 Qxa8
A very strong move, if an equally obvious one. After 20 ... Qxf3 21. Nxf3 not only is Black structurally quite lost, but he has not even enough time to defend his a Pawn in view of the threatened g4 and g5 winning a piece.
20. ... Qb8
This leads to the immediate and rather quaint loss of a piece, but there is nothing better to recommend. If you are wondering why Black is so abjectly lost, compare the Pawn structures.
21. g4 Ng7
The double threat of Qxe7 and Qh4! is decisive. After the further moves 22 ... N(g7)f5 23. gxf5 Nxf5 24. e4 Ng7 25. Ke1 Nh5 26. Qh4 f5 27. Nd5 Black resigned.
A resoundingly decisive game to win again a World Championship contender, but Petrosian didn't have to work all that hard. His Pawns in their own quiet way did all the work for him.
In both of the preceding games, Black's structural deficiency has taken the form of weak squares rather than the Pawns themselves being weak. In most cases these two effects (weak squares, weak Pawns) go hand in hand, as we shall see. For the moment, here is a game in which White uses the presence of weak Pawns in the enemy camp to tie down the Black pieces and so launch a mating attack, despite the absence of Queens.
Adorjan-Mukhin, Luhacovice, 1973
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Bxc6 dxc6 5. 0-0 f6 6. d4 Bg4 7. dxe5 Qxd1 8. Rxd1 fxe5 9. Rd3 Bd6 10. Nbd2 Nf6 11. Nc4 Bxf3 12. gxf3 0-0-0
The position is tense. Black's Pawn on e5 is weak, but that is his only weakness. The doubled c Pawns are not weak, not yet at any rate. On the other hand, White's double Pawns could well become weak as they are on an open file. Moreover, Black has an outpost on f4 and if given time for Nh5 and Rhf8 could easily seize the advantage, so ...
Immobilizing the Knight and threatening Rad1, which wins a Pawn.
Excerpted from SIMPLE CHESS by Michael Stean, Fred Wilson. Copyright © 2002 Michael Stean. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted October 20, 2007
I am a 1500 rated player hoping to improve to the next level, and while many of the ideas in this book were in the back of my head, I did not truly understand them until Stean directed me to those ideas through the choice of important games and great commentary. Most importantly, the author shows you how the players set out in the early part of the game to achieve a strategic goal, such as a 'knight outpost' and how that advantage won the game. I love this book.
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Posted January 2, 2010
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