"The Art of Defense in Chess" by Andrew Soltis

  • GM BryanSmith
  • | Dec 20, 2012

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.


  • 12 months ago


    There is an updated version of this book. New Defense in Chess

  • 3 years ago


    @golgo-13 - you asked;

    Hello guys! Could you please help me to understand this quote form Soltis. I read this in the introduction of his book "The Art of Defense in Chess"
    "The only thing close in personal satisfaction to a brilliant sacrificial attack sustained against a strong opponent is a finely conceived, multi-faceted defensive win over such an opponent." ~ Andrew Soltis

    I know this is a reply 15 months after you asked an interesting question, but it is a reply nevertheless. First, a correct defense is difficult. For not only  you have to figure out what your opponent is threatening and conceive a successful plan in neutralizing the opponent’s attack, but ideally also be able to demonstrate an advantage or at least equality. So for instance if your opponent goes all out on an attack and you fend off all his threats, often his pieces will be disharmoniously placed. You will often be able to counter-attack and stand better as a result. Soltis states that most games in chess are not won but lost. A correct defense often proves the attacker was wrong. Later if you win the game after the smoke has cleared on the battlefield – you will be very satisfied while the opponent will be displeased his strategy was wrong. Soltis informs us; many chess players wrongly assume positional players are defensive in style; tactical players are aggressive. He then shows by game examples that a defense is not a choice but an obligation should the position demand it. In other words, even the great attacking genius Tal played beautiful defending games when the position called for it

  • 3 years ago


    @GmPrice, where's that 3300 rating? Do you know someone behind quarantine at Area 51?

  • 3 years ago


    I bought this book in New York when I was younger but a friend borrowed it and never gave it back :(

    I'm tempted to buy it used playing wait and see.

  • 4 years ago


    Hello guys! Could you please help me to understand this quote form Soltis. I read this in the introduction of his book "The Art of Defense in Chess"
    "The only thing close in personal satisfaction to a brilliant sacrificial attack sustained against a strong opponent is a finely conceived, multi-faceted defensive win over such an opponent." ~ Andrew Soltis
  • 4 years ago


    For those saying "the position" is winning for white, is this before or after queenside castling? That's what Soltis considered to be white's first mistake. He stated that if white had castled kingside he would have been better.

    If in fact you are saying it is winning for white after Q-side castling could you show some of the lines for those of us who don't have Houdini? Thanks.

  • 4 years ago


    @BleedDoddgerBlue I'm not downplaying anything based on a 3300 rated player. I'm just saying that the position, is certainly lost, but more so, I am able to maintain equality throughout the position, AGAINST that 3300 rated opponent and I am rated under 2000. It's not a big threat. I agree with studying the position, that is important.--I think it's a bad idea to get into the habit of ignoring the computer because it's so strong. an outright winning position rated 1.00 Or more can be found by a person as well, it's the positions that are rated .23 that are going to be hard to find a win or advantage with.

  • 4 years ago


    Soltis' books are good overall but some of his books are filled with typos. Besides the typos the content is great.

  • 4 years ago


    @ cubis,

    Art of Attack is a VERY good book! Probably in my top 10 list.

  • 4 years ago


    ur recommendation is a good book.it will indeed make one a better equipped chess player.how can i order one?  for the best. thanks.

  • 4 years ago


    the art of defense,something i hope to master,must get that book

  • 4 years ago


    How does this compare to "The Art of Attack in Chess" by Vladimir Vukovic? I'm sure they are quite different books with different intended audiences, but the obvious correlation between the two titles makes me wonder.

  • 4 years ago


    Bryan it appears you understand how Petrosians mind worked. The back rank can be a fine place for pieces to live. What an instructive piece.

  • 4 years ago


    White IS better in that position and should win. White lost because he played poorly after achieving a superior position from the opening.

  • 4 years ago


    good game

    real high level

  • 4 years ago


    Having examined the position more closely, I do think it is pretty close to equal. But listen to Soltis: "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."

    It's not surprising that black mated in less than 20 moves? Give me a break. If Soltis had merely said that black had hidden resources, it would be accurate. But he over-dramatizes things.

    By the way, I've read Soltis a good bit and find him quite helpful. You just need to learn when he's playing the magician and filter out the hyperbole. 

  • 4 years ago


    I think engines are better in closed positions than one might think. Sometimes houdini really does suggest a large advantage for someone and has them move back and forth constantly; in that case the engine is wrong. However, a lot of times an engine will eventually play a pawn break anyway, even if it's simply because it sees that 10 moves later mobility for the pieces and threats would be enhanced.

    However, in this case I would certainly agree that this is not something for white to be excited about. Now, at the same time, I think if white stopped here and tried to play more productive moves, maybe even move his king back to the kingside, or just insist on his f4 break with 14 Ne1 or something (and this knight might go to d3 for the defense), white's probably not actually in trouble. After all, it's one thing to make a few threats on the king, and quite another to actually overcome a strong defense of these threats.

    It's hard for me to say who's better, but although white doesn't necessarily have a great position, perhaps more purposeful play would have allowed him to get some reasonable counterplay. I might slightly prefer white because if he can get coordination, e.g., with Bd3, f4-f5, his developed pieces will finally be doing something. It is true though that the d4 pawn was a problem, so white should have kept his bishop on e3. Then perhaps ...Nc4 followed by ...Qb6 wouldn't prove to be as disruptive.

    However, it's a very interesting paradox, and certainly the position is not as simple as it looks. I think if you forced Carlsen to play a game of chess as white from that starting position, he'd find a way to coordinate appropriately.

    By the way, it does seem like Soltis is at least arguing that black is better, because he talks about black's queenside play being easy to execute, and when he compares it to white's plan, everything he says about white's needed preparation for him to get counterplay seems to imply, at least to me, that black's prospects are better, and thus his position is better (though no claim of a win). Maybe he didn't say what he thought, but from what he said, it's hard to interpret otherwise, frankly.

  • 4 years ago


    @BleedDodgerBlue:  He actually has edited his comment to correct his mistake and apologize. Wow, who would have thought that a 37 year old instructional book by Soltis could kick up such debate? Fun stuff. :)

  • 4 years ago


    @Kingssac: I think you misunderstand BleedDodgerblue.  He is agreeing with you that engine evaluation is not the most important factor here.

  • 4 years ago


    Since the book was published in 1975 we can give Soltis a break for not checking his work with an engine!

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