"The Art of Defense in Chess" by Andrew Soltis

"The Art of Defense in Chess" by Andrew Soltis

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This week, as the holiday vacation draws near, I will be reviewing the book The Art of Defense in Chess by Grandmaster Andrew Soltis. Consider settling down in a soft and comfortable chair and reading this book during those snowy afternoons of your vacation from work or school. That is, if you don't have something better to do.

The Art of Defense in Chess is a very instructive middlegame manual which outlines all of the defensive methods and themes, as well as the spirit and psychology of defense in chess. Each concept is illustrated with excellently-chosen examples, and at the end of each chapter are a few illustrative games.

The book includes the following chapters: 1. The Spirit of Defense; 2. Defensive Weapons and Themes; 3. Threats and Restraint; 4. Counterplay; 5. Sacrifice; 6. Further Questions About Material; 7. Avoiding Loss. In addition there is an introduction. Within each chapter there are separate sections which flow together naturally. Overall the book is excellently organized. It deals in generalities, but with specific examples of all points.



Soltis won the Reggio Emilia tournament in 1972 and the New York Open in 1977. He became a grandmaster in 1980. He has not played in years, but is a very prolific and well-regarded author. He was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in 2011.

Where I got it

I think I probably ordered this book from a catalogue or maybe got it at Title Wave Books in Anchorage. I believe I have owned it since I was fourteen or fifteen.

What's good about it

As I said above, this book deals with generalities, but uses specific examples to illustrate them. In order to actually learn to play chess better, you have to learn how to evaluate positions, how to analyze, and what kind of tools (methods) are at your disposal. Too many chess books deal only with specifics - especially opening books.

There is a real sense of mystery in this book. Soltis uses some fantastic examples of attack and defense, and sets the tone well. It is a pleasant book to read. The overall emphasis is on the spirit of defense, of fighting for survival. The book deals with both positions where the defender is actually losing (or stands worse) and positions where the "defender" is objectively winning (i.e. how to fight off an unsound attack).

It seems to me that many of Soltis' books are for lower-rated players. This book can definitely be read by very low-rated players. However, it also has its charms and instruction value for very strong players. There are many books about attack, about technique in better positions, about obtaining a better positions; however, learning how to play inferior positions or to defend against an attack is equally important.

How it impacted me

A very important skill for a chess player is to know when an attack is really dangerous, and when it is unsound. When teaching chess I constantly find that students fear something which is not dangerous at all, but underestimate the real threats. You need to calibrate your "danger-barometer" and I think this book can help you do that. I believe it helped me in this regard.

Additionally, it is crucial to learn the methods of defense. Soltis outlines all of them quite well. Specific examples form a pattern in your mind and allow you to apply the same methods in your own games, without having to think consciously about it. Soltis' excellent writing style really helps the concepts to stick in your mind.

As I said above, the book is very pleasant to read and has a feeling of mystery and fantasy about it. The games and examples are somehow both fantastic and typical at the same time. I think this book increased my enjoyment of chess when I was young, which is the number one cause of improvement.

An Excerpt

I have chosen to include part of the introduction and a section from the beginning of the first chapter "The Spirit of Defense" which revisits the same position (as usual, I have changed the descriptive notation to algebraic):


            What is Defense?

            "Chess first of all is art." - Mikhail Tal

            "Chess is a struggle." - Emanuel Lasker

A relatively obscure game from a relatively obscure event:

It doesn't take long to conclude that White has a very strong game. He has developed nearly all of his pieces while Black's only developed piece, his dark-squared bishop, bites on granite. Black's queenside is full of holes on black squares and he has just locked in his light-squared bishop. A quick mating attack is assured, you might conclude. And you would be right:

Yes, Black delivered the mate. And in less than 20 moves from the diagram. Actually with a good understanding of defensive play the game's result is not at all surprising. But that understanding is the most difficult chess knowledge to acquire.

Now I will skip ahead to the first chapter "The Spirit of Defense":


Look back at that bizarre Latvian game in the Introduction. Who really stands better?

The tendency to pronounce White confidently in the lead is based on his advantage in development and the weakness of Black's queenside and center. However, development is a value that varies in significance with the openness of a position. In the Morphy era of 1.e4 e5 games, development took on great importance because every position was crosscut by open lines. But in the diagram we have a closed position with no open files and several stifled diagonals.

Both players, in fact, must redevelop their pieces on new squares because their original development doesn't jell with the middlegame pawn structure. Black, who is about to redevelop his dark-squared bishop by moving it from a blocked line at g7 to an excellent vista at f8, stands quite well in terms of development!

More important is the nature of the weaknesses on both sides of the board. Black has "holes" on his weakened black squares such as d6, c5, f6, and b6. They are weak because they've lost all or part of their pawn protection. Remember that we defined defense in the Introduction as the protection of weaknesses. With the closed nature of the position and the misplacement of the White minor pieces, these weaknesses are unexploitable.

True, if he could just get the White dark-squared bishop to d6, or open the e-file or somehow bring a knight to c5, White would have a terrific game. But as it is, many moves must be made before White will be able to exploit the obvious weaknesses.

Now look at the game from Black's chair. White has made no pawn weaknesses on the queenside where his king is housed, and none of his central or kingside squares is beyond pawn protection. His pieces appear well placed. But actually White's queenside is easily attackable by way of N-d7-b6-c4 and the recapture with the b-pawn if the knight is taken on c4. In the meanwhile White has to take several preparatory steps to make his minor pieces work. He needs f4 and g4 in preparation for f5 before he can release the pent-up, potential energy of his pieces.

Now, does this seem fair to White who ostensibly hasn't made a single mistake while Back has been losing time and retreating his pieces behind weaknesses? But White has made a mistake, a bad one: 10.0-0-0??. If he had castled kingside and begun to exploit the queenside with a2-a4, the shoe would be on the other foot. This simple difference - plus the series of mindless attacking moves that followed - is what cost White the game.

Any Downsides?

I was going to suggest that there was not enough examples of defensive methods in more balanced positions, but actually that is not really true. Soltis doesn't just deal with methods of defense after someone has sacrificed a piece or in desperate positions, but also spends a great deal of time on the typical defensive methods in equal positions. So it is hard for me to give criticism. The book (at least my version of it) is in descriptive notation, which could be a downside for some. I can suggest that it would be better if the actual game moves in the examples were bold, so it would be easier to differentiate them from variations in the notes. But it isn't such a big problem.

What you should eat/drink while reading this book

Kielbasa and mashed potatoes.

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