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The Policemen of the Chessboard

GM Ján Markoš | August 11, 2011 – 11:40One Comment | 667 views
The Policemen of the Chessboard

What roles can be taken on by a chess piece? It can assist in the attack, or assist in the defense. However, that is not everything. What role have we missed?

Translated by: Dusan Turcer

If you are unable to answer this question, let’s have a look at the example. Let’s raise the question: “What attitude can one take to his health?” He can be treated if sick. He can ignore diseases which exist if healthy. However, these two attitudes are not the only ones when it comes to the question of the human health…

In fact, one usually doesn’t ignore the disease, even when healthy. He tries to not become ill instead. He tries to do some sports, to eat healthy, to sleep good and washes his hands before eating. He preventative strengthens his body, so it proves to resist disease someday.

And prevention (usually called prophylaxis on the chessboard) is the third most typical role of the chess piece. Such piece neither attacks, nor defends, but “patrols”, so as to prevent something unpleasant from happening. It is therefore a kind of policeman of the board.

Let’s take a look at the well known position of Catalan Opening, which is (also) arising after the moves 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.g3 Bb4+ 5.Bd2 Be7 6.Bg2 0–0 7.0–0 c6.

What is the role of the light-squared bishop? It is not defending for sure – there is not any attack against his king within reach. But we can also hardly say that it is attacking – the trio of pawns b7-c6-d5 would break the teeth of every bishop.

The role of the Bg2 is preventive. This bishop keeps an eye on the breakthroughs …c6-c5 and …e6-e5, so Black doesn’t have it too easy. Especially in the case of the breakthrough …c6-c5, the radius of Bg2 would be significantly increased, he would probably become the strongest minor piece on the chessboard.

So Black has a dilemma: if he resigns on the breakthroughs, he will have to tolerate an uneasy position; but if he plays one of the liberating moves, the Bg2 will get stronger.

In principle, White is splitting the risk: he either remains with a space dominance or with the strong bishop. Win-win situation.

Another, slightly more complex example is the basic position in the classical line of the King’s Indian Defense: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 0–0 5.Nf3 d6 6.Be2 e5 7.0–0 Nc6 8.d5 Ne7.

What is the role of black Bg7? It is certainly not defending; there are tons of pieces around the black king. It is certainly not attacking; it would have to be a cannibal if wanted his own e5-pawn. So what it actually does?

You certainly have at least some experience with this position. How is the game usually developing here? Well, White is playing on the queenside, Black is attacking on the opposite side, almost always through the use of the advance … f7-f5-f4. But how it is possible that White allows the advance of the black pawn from f7 to f4 instead of exchanging it on f5, or playing f2-f4 himself?

The answer to that question is black Bg7. If the black e5-pawn somehow disappeared from its place, this bishop would suddenly become a very active piece. And thus White neither plays e4xf5 nor f2-f4. He rather tolerates the loss of space on the kingside and the risk that the king will face a dangerous attack.

The role of the dark-squared bishop is to protect the advance of black infantry by sort of “back covering” from a backup. If the black f7-pawn makes it to the f4, it will be mainly because of this bishop.

No breakthroughs! Okay?

No breakthroughs! Okay?


Also a rook has the role of “policeman” on the board very often – it is being preventative placed on the file that the opponent needs to open in order to free his position. Since the times of Nimzowitsch, such moves with the rook are called “mysterious”, because they seem to be missing any logic. You will however see, that for someone who understands the prophylaxis, it is not difficult to understand to these moves at all.

Let’s take a look at the classic and often cited example of the mysterious move of the rook:

Dolmatov – Beliavsky, Odessa 1989, White to move:

I this position Dolmatov played 18.Rab1! Seemingly senseless move, right? Dvoretsky is hovewer explaining (I am quoting as I remember, not literaly): “All the black pieces are set for the breakthrough …d6-d5. So the role of White is to prepare for it, or to prevent it completely. But he must be able to imagine how will the situation develop. Therefore, let us give Black the right of the turn in the position on the diagram again. We find that after 18…d5 19.Bxf8 Rxf8! 20.b4! Black does not equalize because his Bb7 remained buried under its own pawns. The real threat therefore is …b5xa4 and only after b3xa4 …d6-d5; in that case it will not be possible to prevent the breakthrough …c6-c5 in the long term. Dolmatov’s move 18.Rab1! is exactly fighting against this threat. If Black had exchanged on a4 now, his bishop on b7 would have been exposed to a gunfire of the rook.”

As nicely illustrated by this example, a precondition for effective prophylaxis is a proper understanding of your opponent’s threats. In vain will our policemen patrol in a safe residential area, if all aggression and house-breaking will take place in the completely different part of town.

In the following example, the role of the lawman was taken over by the queen. Kasparov – Fedorowicz, Graz 1981, White to move:

In this position, future World Champion played 15.Qa4 Bb7 16.Qh4. He explained his decision as follows: “White is not launching the immediate attack by this transfer of the queen to the kingside. He however counts with the fact that Black will try to develop activities on the queenside and thus he will begin to transfer his pieces. After black pieces leave the kingside, White has a good chance for attack.”

Again, it is the kind of risk diversification. Either Black transfers the pieces to the queenside, in which case we attack, or the transfer never happens, in which case the initiative is not so dangerous. Win-win situation.

Sometimes it is not so important, what positions our pieces have. Most importantly, they are still on the chessboard. The presence of queens often complicates the realization of material advantage; when these pieces are exchanged, kings suddenly rush into the center and their pawn shelters can advance without fear.

An important role of guarding may be also performed by a bishops pair. On the diagram, we can see the position of the Slav Defense, which is arising after the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e3 g6 5.Nf3 Bg7 6.Bd3 0–0 7.0–0 Bg4 8.h3 Bxf3 9.Qxf3 e6 10.Rd1 Nbd7:

White takes pleasure in the bishop pair. However, the position is so much blocked at this point, that two bishops are not presenting any real advantage. So what is their force? Well, just that they exist.

Because Black has to count with the fact that if he opens the position too much in the next part of the game, he can make the two bishops a pair of killers. But – alas! – any action in the center carries the risk of exchanges and thus the risk of opening the position. Black, therefore, stays more careful, more passive than he would have been if White had only one bishop.

A bishop pair thus indirectly gains the advantage in the center for White.

I hope that today’s story will help you to pay attention to the prophylaxis behind the board as deserved. As Nimzowitsch wrote in his book called My system, the prophylaxis is the heart of positional play.

So, let the prophylaxis become both automatic and obvious, as it is obvious for you to wash your hands before eating so as not to unnecessarily expose yourself to the danger of infection.

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Comments (1)

  • Chandan says:

    I would have to agree with you on that one Murphy. I’ve been linanerg now for two yrs (back again after 25 yrs.) and just last yr. I changed my right hand position. which was a big mistake. (every thing was woking fine til then) , after that I got caught up in all the hipe on the BHO and thought it would be good to try and have PROPER HAND POSITION .It would help me to play better, well I can tell ya it put me right back to the first yr. had to just about learn everything all over again. I’m just now getting back to where I was before I changed. And let me tell ya once you change it is stuck in your mind there is no going back..The relaxing part is hard as well So like Murphy said DON T DO IT .It will set ya way back. I’ll tell ya too Murphy your right the beer and the rye whiskey, does make it harder to think, I’m 54 now maybe when youth was abond me I could have done alright but not no more.By the way Red I have been reading your blogs on the BHO, about Flying and music. Very good stuff, I too have takin’ flying lessons in the past but had to give em up (cost and all). Anyway thanks for all you do Murphy, and all the great DVD’s I have them all now (banjo ones) I also have all your cassetts you put out back in the 80 s I think thats when it was, great suff I just learn John Henry off one of your old cassett tapes. There is a lot real good stuff on them. I notice you don’t put on your DVD’sAny way I have ranted to much. But you can find on the BHO zeke_w15 my real name is Dave Davenport In Savanna Il.

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