Retreat To Win In Chess

Retreat To Win In Chess

| 21 | Strategy

Many years ago, GM Alexander Ivanov made his famous statement "Russians do not retreat!" As one of our readers, Osokor, correctly pointed out, this is not historically accurate. Indeed, in the Great Patriotic War of 1812, the Russian army had to retreat for months. Of course, as everyone knows, that retreat was a part of a well-thought-out strategy to beat the powerful Grande Armee of Napoleon.

Since chess is a perfect model of a war, would the same strategy of avoiding direct confrontation and waiting for the best moment to pounce work? 

The following game made a profound impression when I first saw it:

When I was a kid, our coach liked to ask, "Are you setting up your pieces for a new game?" when he saw us retreating our pieces to the initial position. So, how can you explain Petrosian's 10th and 11th moves? Well, while the move 10...Ng8 was practically forced, the outrageous-looking move 11...Bf8 helps to bring the knight on g8 back into the game.

Petrosian: master retreater.

Surprisingly, moving pieces back to the initial position in the opening happens more frequently than you might guess.  Here are some examples:

The French Winawer:

The Breyer Variation of the Ruy Lopez:

And of course there's the double bishop's retreat in the Four Knights which we analyzed recently:

I remember how proud young Boris Gelfand was when he showed me the game that helped him win the Soviet Junior Championship.

A young Boris Gelfand. Photo from

Two years later, it was my turn to be proud of a strategic retreat:

Notice the maneuver Nf6-d7-b8 that actually won the game! Yes, it is a well known fact that chess players frequently miss backward moves. Here is a fresh example. Trying to grab the initiative, GM Peter Leko played a bunch of suspicious-looking moves in the opening. After an unexpected bishop's retreat, Black's position started falling apart.

In conclusion, I want to emphasize that the strategic retreat of your pieces is an exception to the rules.

In the vast majority of games, you want to move forward and attack your opponent. The goal of this article is just to demonstrate that once in a blue moon you can win a game by moving your pieces backward, so keep your eyes open!

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