| 26 | Middlegame

Initiative in chess means activity that allows enforcing a certain style and tempo on the game, and making your opponent play reactively. This is a very dangerous weapon in the hands of chess masters who enjoy active play and know how to attack. If you have the initiative, you are free to choose the course of the game and have your opponent on the ropes. Few people enjoy being on the other side of this confrontation.

Initiative may be short-term (e.g. having more active pieces), when you should try to take advantage of it as soon as possible. Or it can be long-term (e.g. associated with a certain static pawn structure), when you can keep exploiting it, while the opponent won’t be able to do much about it.

There are a few ways in which the initiative can evolve:

1)      Transform into a decisive positional or material advantage

A strong initiative may lead to a serious advantage. It may eventually disappear, but in return you will be left with a decisive advantage – extra material and/or an overwhelming position.

2)      Lead to a decisive attack

Sometimes one can sacrifice material for the initiative and deliver checkmate.

3)      Disappear

Yes, sometimes that happens. Initiative is like a bonfire – you need to keep adding fuel to support its burning. To develop the initiative, one should play actively and keep making the best moves. Just a single mistake may result in losing the initiative forever. The defensive resources of most modern chess positions are very high, so, if the opponent is a skillful player, you can easily lose the initiative when facing a stubborn defense.

In many cases the initiative can be obtained by sacrificing (usually a pawn). Its aims can be different: rapid development of the pieces, attacking a king, creating more space or a nice outpost for one’s pieces, putting pressure on the opponent’s position, etc. In other situations one may seize the initiative due to the passive play of the opponent.

A very tricky rule: when you have the initiative, don’t rush to regain the sacrificed material or win something minor. First you should evaluate the consequences: in many cases keeping the initiative promises more winning chances than snatching a pawn or an exchange only to (sometimes) become the prey instead of remaining a hunter! Knowing when and how to play down material, and still win, are signs of a true chess maestro.

All the top players know how essential it is to own the initiative. Seizing and exploiting the initiative is a trait every chess player, from novice to grandmaster, should try to develop and improve. To do that, you can study games of the best tacticians in the history of chess (Alekhine, Tal, Kasparov, Shirov, etc.), and play training games where you can sacrifice material for initiative without being afraid of losing rating points.

Now let me show you a recent game of mine vs IM Alisa Galliamova from the second round of the Russian Superfinal, which served as an inspiration for this article. At some point I had a decent initiative, but then lost it due to a few mistakes.

Please pay special attention to a few moments. At move 10 White has the initiative. My opponent could either keep developing pieces, or head to a better endgame. Alisa made the wrong choice and decided to win some material. As a result, Black then seized the initiative. On move 19 it was my turn to misstep (I wanted to develop my bishop asap, but non-standard play was called for at that point), and almost lost the initiative (while after 19…ed it would have been growing). After 20…0-0?, another dubious decision, White even got a considerable advantage.

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