I want to discuss today a subject that is crucial to the chess player who wants to improve – this is “defensive thinking” – also known as “prophylaxis”. It is strange that this subject is sometimes presented as a small but important area of chess theory, when in fact I would think it should be half of all chess thought. There are your plans, threats, and ideas; and there are those of your opponent.
Instead, prophylactic thinking is often presented as something that is a very elite method, perhaps something that only Karpov is capable of and is certainly not for players under 2200. You would guess that defensive thinking is only applicable to positions where you are… defending, or perhaps trying to shut down counterplay in a position with a quiet edge. In fact, defensive thinking – thinking from your opponent’s point of view – is something that everyone should do (and probably already does, sometimes), and is equally applicable to positions where you are attacking your opponent as when you are defending or engaging in a maneuvering struggle.
Thinking “what does my opponent want to do?” should occupy your mind at least half of the time when you are playing, in any position. Every single move you should ask yourself that question. Yet many players do not, and I think it is one of the major areas where amateur chess players could easily improve. By simply remembering to put yourself in your opponent’s shoes each and every move, many players could gain hundreds of rating points. Personally, as a player rated around 2500 Elo, I sometimes even forget – particularly when I am playing badly. It is very easy, when you are nervous, or in a bad place psychologically, to get wrapped up in your own plans and ideas and problems (not only in chess!), and forget that you even have an opponent. At that point you totally miss the boat.
Specifically I want to discuss the importance of prophylactic thinking when you are on the attack. We all naturally think defensively when we are defending – after all, your opponent is making threats and has ideas that you have to meet, otherwise you will lose. But it is no less important when you are attacking. Imagine you have invested a large amount of material in trying to checkmate your opponent. It is just as crucial that you foresee any possibilities of escape by the king, because if he escapes you will lose just the same as if you overlook a knight fork.
For example, earlier I showed a game against GM Larry Kaufman where I sacrificed a piece to expose my opponent’s king and open some lines for my pieces. In order to make such a decision, my thinking was focused not so much on my own active possibilities, but rather on what chances my opponent had to defend. If he had some good possibility to spirit his king away, or to bring up defensive pieces, that would be just as much a danger to me as a threat to my queen, and would prevent me from being able to play the sacrifice. Only once I was able to determine that he did not have enough time to carry out such “threats” was I able to decide on it.
I had just sacrificed a knight on g3, by playing ...Ng3+ hxg3 fxg3. After that the moves Kg2 and ...Bf4 followed, reaching the above position. In order to decide on this large investment of material, the main calculation consisted in looking at White's possibilities, rather than my own. Most crucial was to see that he could not get a rook to h1. If that were possible, the sacrifice would probably be incorrect. Additionally, I needed to see that he would not have time to move the Be2 out of the way and run with the king by Kg2-f1-e2 etc. Finally, the possibility of him bringing the knights over had to be considered. Only after I was convinced that my own play would be faster than any of these defensive possibilities could I make the sacrifice.
And now a great illustration of prophylactic thinking by one of my opponents in a recent game. This was in the Croatian team championship. I played against GM Czaba Horvath.
I was much too ambitious, hoping to crush my opponent with the black pieces (despite him being a GM!). This is usually a recipe for disaster – as black you need to first equalize before trying to win. Just prior to the diagram position, I had lost two tempi (…Nf6-h5-f6) in order to induce the move g2-g4. My plan was to cause him to weaken his king position, then to open the queenside and center, causing some complications and finally around move 36 and under time pressure his king would fall into the firing line... Another point of view, however, was that g2-g4 is a normal move for white in this structure, preventing black’s main play by …f7-f5; and it was lunacy to waste time provoking it, the more so because I had already seen the position before. I had prepared for the game and had looked at the exact position which occurred, without considering ...Nh5, which I "invented" over the board.
It is important that you understand that the technique of prophylactic thinking is crucial for every chess player, in all positions, even when you are attacking. A chess game between someone who only thinks about his own plans and someone who considers his opponent’s ideas is like a fight between someone who knows jiu-jitsu and someone who doesn’t. When a master plays against an amateur, far from ignoring the ideas of his weaker opponent, the master actually spends most of the time thinking what his opponent might try and preventing it.