Rules, Homes, and a Big Decision

  • IM Silman
  • | Jun 26, 2012


luke-duke (1206) - bagpiper123456 (1198), (14 days per move), 2012

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6

Here White usually plays 4.Ba4, keeping the tension. However, the Exchange Variation (4.Bxc6) also had/has many devotees – Emanuel Lasker won many fine games on the white side, Fischer brought it back to life in the 60s, and after that just about everyone gave it a go. 

4.Bxc6 bxc6

This seems natural since it follows the age-old rule, “Always capture towards the center.” So, to his credit, bagpiper (rated 1198) followed the rule and was most likely sure that this was the correct decision. But, it’s not! How can that be? Why is 4...bxc6 virtually ignored by chess professionals?

Let’s first answer with a very basic, philosophical perspective: When White chops on c6 he is relinquishing the two Bishops, and as we all know, Bishops needs open diagonals to be effective.

On the other hand (if Black recaptures with the d-pawn), White creates a structural advantage since if he can exchange his d-pawn for black’s e-pawn (e.g., 5.d4 exd4 6.Qxd4 Qxd4 7.Nxd4), he’ll enjoy a nice 4 healthy pawns vs. 3 on the kingside/center, while black’s 4 vs. 3 majority on the queenside is crippled.


The most common move is the flexible 5.0-0 d6 (5…Qf6!? tries to avoid the tempo down transposition) 6.d4, which isn’t a surprise. Why not get the King to safety and the Rook primed and ready for battle before opening up the center? Another nice thing about 5.0-0 d6 6.d4 is it leads to a popular position in the Steinitz Variation, but with White enjoying a full extra tempo over that line: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 d6 5.Bxc6+ bxc6 6.d4. Here’s a visual comparison: 

This alone is a compelling argument against 4...bxc6. Why would anyone want to enter a known line (which is considered to be a little better for White) a full move down?

After 5.Nxe5 Black really needs to get his pawn back. The only good ways to try and do this are 5…Qe7 and 5…Qg5 (though both probably give White some advantage): 



In our amateur game ( luke-duke (1206) - bagpiper123456 (1198), (14 days per move), 2012), the correct moves were nowhere to be seen, and soon things became a mess:



In the chess puzzle that follows, Black's played a poor opening and now has to move his Knight. But where?


Should White take on f5 with his Knight, his Bishop, or should he just leave black’s f5-Knight alone?

Lessons From These Examples

* Though the rule “Always capture towards the center” is useful, it’s certainly not something you should blindly follow.

*  If you manage to create an early imbalance (in the case of our first example, Two Bishops and Knight vs. Bishop and Two Knights), Make the Pawn Structure Conform to (and hopefully complement) the Imbalances!

* Just because your lizard brain is telling you to move something doesn’t mean you should do it!

* A Knight on the 6th rank (if it can remain there) is usually better than a Bishop, and is sometimes as good as a Rook!


If you want me to look over your game, send it to

I need your name (real or handle), your OPPONENT’S name (real or handle), both player's ratings, where the game was played, and date. If you don’t give me this information, I won’t use your game! BTW: I’ve noticed that many people are reluctant to give me their opponent’s name. This is very strange! Showing the names of both players is the way chess games are presented in databases, books, magazines… everywhere! Permission from the opponent isn’t necessary. If permission was necessary, everyone who ever lost a game wouldn’t allow their name to be on it!


  • 4 years ago


    Thanks for the article!

  • 4 years ago


    good explantion of game & rules

  • 4 years ago


    useful.. i feel im learning moreCool tricks.. 

  • 4 years ago


    Mr. Silman, if I wanted to send you a game to present, should I add my own thoughts, i.e my own analysis of the game, or is that not necessary?

  • 4 years ago


    Mr Silman.  Thanks for the article.  About one example given; EastLimbo vs N.N.  You say to take with the white Bishop because the Knight is an octopus --- by the way I am reading your Reassess Your Chess book ---  After the exchange the position opens and the black Bishop is potentially activated together with a center that will open sooner than later making the black bishop even more valuable.  At this point white lost its Bishop (good for open positions) and is left only with super Knight at d6.  Of course you know better so could you justify the exchange in light of allowing the black Bishop becoming a beast in itself by opening the center?  Thanks.

  • 4 years ago


    Thanks for another very useful article.

    I understand the qualities of this new format, but I really miss the old "long" article. Do you think would be possible to occasionally produce one of them?

  • 4 years ago


    good article

  • 4 years ago

    IM Silman

    Mr. Stophon, I just explained (thanks to your question) why ...c5-c4 was better than ...cxd4 in the notes to the puzzle. Hope it proves helpful.

  • 4 years ago


    I really enjoy reading your articles. You do a great job of pointing out the mistakes that we non-masters make. Your books are great too, just wanted to say thanks.

    One question that maybe someone could answer, in the move-the-knight-puzzle game, wouldn't cxd4 be stronger than c4? It seems to me that c4 just becomes a weakness for black to defend, and the after the d4 pawn is gone white has less control over the center. Although I suppose that that white's pieces become more active with the bishop on d3 and the knight on d4. For me the hardest thing in evaluating a position like this is deciding which imbalances are more important.

  • 4 years ago

    IM Silman

    Thanks for catching the typo! It's fixed.

  • 4 years ago


    When you say "it leads to a popular position in the Steinitz Variation, but with White enjoying a full extra tempo over that line: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 d6 5.Bxc6+ dxc6 6.d4", I think you actually mean: 5.Bxc6+ bxc6.

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