Chapter 1 - How to Reassess Your Chess (4th edition) by IM Silman (Part 1)

Aug 27, 2014, 2:15 PM |

Part 1 - The Concept of Imbalances

"A sound plan makes us all heroes, the absence of a plan, idiots." -G.M. Kotov


Imbalances - Learning the ABCs

  • Just about everyone has problems with planning.
  • The typical player does what he feels like doing rather than what the board is telling him to do.

Important Concept - If you want to be successful, you have to base your moves and plans on the specific imbalance-oriented criteria that exists in the given position, not on your own mood, tastes, and/or fears! -- Do what the chess board tells you to do!

Definition of an Imbalance - An imbalance is any significant difference in the two respective positions. -- Imbalances deconstruct positions in a way that makes it look user friendly.

ExampleIf one side has more queenside space while the other side is staring at his opponent's weak pawn, those are the imbalances that delineate the moves and plans that both players would follow.

The List of Imbalances


Superior Minor PieceBishops vs. Knights


Diagram 1 - White to move

  1. White's minor piece is better than Black's minor piece.
  2. White has an advantage in both central and queenside space.
  3. A target on a7 (which can be gobbled up by Ra1-> b1-> b7).
  4. Chances to mate (after Bc3 followed by Qd4) Black's vulnerable King.


Diagram 2 - White to move


  1. Black's Bishop, which is caged and useless, is no match for White's Knight, which is ruling the position.
  2. White has central, queenside, and kingside space.
  3. White has control of the hole on e6, and (after Ra1-b1-b7) pressure against a7 and c7.

Pawn StructureWeak Pawns, Passed Pawns, etc


Diagram 3 - White to move


Black is a pawn up and he has two passed pawns to white's one passer. Yet, Black can resign! The reason? White's passed pawn is further advanced and all his pieces are working with the pawn to make sure it scores a touchdown on b8:

Diagram 4 - White to move

Black has a weak, isolated pawn on e6. Naturally, White dedicated his game plan to going after it. Thus far, white's Queen and Rooks are piling on the pressure. but, since chess is a team game, he's not done yet!


SpaceThe Annexation of Territory


Diagram 5 - White to move

White has claimed an appreciable advantage in space in virtually every sector. Note how black's lack of wiggle room leaves his pieces in a tight little box, while white's are happy free range pieces. In such positions the side with this much extra space will almost certainly win if he can find a way to break into enemy territory. Here White, who enjoys a wealth of riches, can accomplish this by preparing a queenside entry via c4-c5, or a kingside slaughter via g4-g5 (both pawn advances dare to demand even more space!). Thus, logical moves would be 1.c5, 1.g5, 1.Rcg1, or 1.Rh1.


MaterialThe Philosophy of Greed


Diagram 6 - White to move

White is solid, but Black seems to have a nice, active position. If black's c-pawn was on c6 he wouldn't have any problems at all, but it's still on c7 and that gives White the chance to embrace his inner greed and claim a material imbalance.


Control of a Key FileMaking Roads for Rooks


  1. White is doubled on the e-file (important, since it's the only open file on the board).
  2. He has more central and queenside space.
  3. His bishop is controlling the h1-a8 diagonal.

Black intends to swap Rooks along the e-file with ...Rde8. Fortunately for White, there's 1.Bc6! permanently laying claim to the e-file.


Control of a Hole/Weak SquareHomes for Horses


 Diagram 8 - White to move

  1. d5 and e6 are perfect houses for White's Knight.
  2. Black's bishop is locked in, and White's Knight needs to get off its c1 side square.
  3. Once the Knight reaches its dream square, a well-timed g4-g5 advance will finish Black off.


Lead in DevelopmentYou're Outnumbered!


 Diagram 9 - White to move


InitiativeCalling the Shots

I consider the initiative to be a physical manifestation of a psychological battle - both sides champion their view of things in the hope that the opponent will have to eventually forgo his own plans and react to yours. Thus, I usually refer to it as "Pushing Your Own Agenda", since that clarifies what the initiative is and, at the same time, it tells you how to get it!

 Diagram 10 - White to move

White has just played l.Nh4, intending 2.Ng6 (and, once g6 is covered, an eventual Nf5). Other than this obvious threat, White would like to swing his other Knight over to e3 and, from there, to d5. On the other hand, Black would like to take advantage of the somewhat loose Knight on c4 and the undefended pawn on a2.

King SafetyDragging Down the Enemy Monarch


Diagram 11 - White to move


In the position, White has sacrificed a pawn but enjoys a lead in development and a safe King. Black's King, though, is still in the center and White punishes it before it can get castled.


Statics vs. Dynamics -- The Battle Between Short Term and Long Term Imbalances


Dynamic plus = something that needs to be used in a reasonably quick manner (either to score a knockout, or to create a long-lasting static advantage of your own).

Static Imbalance = A static imbalance gives its owner something that will be around for a long time.

Diagram 12 - White to move

White has an isolated d-pawn. Black views the pawn as a static weakness: quite a few of his pieces can gang up on it, and the fine d5-square is also a feather in black's cap.

White views the pawn as a dynamic strength: it gains central space, controls the two important squares on c5 and e5, and allows White (whose extra space makes his pieces more active than their black counterparts) to build up a nasty kingside attack in many lines.

PlanningCreating Your Own Future


  • Master and understand the imbalances.
  • Understand what each imbalance offer and know how to make use of it or diffuse it.
  • The imbalances alone will often ''tell'' you what to do toward making a plan. ''Adherence to the dictates of the imbalances''.
  • IN A NUTSHELL: The imbalances alone will lead you to the right move(s) in most positions, or even help you create a detailed plan.


Examples of games where imbalance-basics and impressive plans join together as one:

V. Topalov - K. Sasikiran, Sofia 2007

Diagram 13 - White to move



  1. White has an advantage in queenside space.
  2. Black has a potentially weak pawn on c7.
  3. If Black pushes the c7-pawn to c6 or c5, bxc6 will leave Black with a weak pawn on b6 and a hole on b5.
  4. Black's d5-pawn is weak since it can't be defended by another pawn.
  5. Black's only source of counterplay is on the kingside - his d6-Bishop, e6-Rook, e4-Knight, and Queen are all eyeing that area.
  6. Black's b7-Bishop, which is defending d5 is playing a purely defensive role.
  7. Black's dark-squared Bishop is giving firm support to the c7-pawn while also playing a key role in any kingside attack.
  8. White's  b2-Bishop is inactive.
Armed with this imbalance breakdown, it might strike you that exchanging white's worst piece for one of black's best would be a great idea (without calculating, planning, or further rumination).
Diagram 14 - White to move

 N. Short - J. Timman, Tillburg 1991

It's clear that White is in complete control of this position-he owns the d-file (thus turning black's Rooks into passive spectators) and his Queen is firmly ensconced on one of black's weakened kingside dark squares. Here you may be faced with a limited amount of options upon how to further penetrate the kingside dark squares.

  1. Ng5 is the obvious candidate-it leaps to a dark square and threatens to chop on f7. Unfortunately, 1...Qxg2+ would put a damper on white's celebrations.
  2. Rf4 takes up residence on f4 and intends to follow up with Rxf7, but 1...Qxd7 would be embarrassing.
  3. And this leaves only one other white piece that can drive down the dark-square highway-white's King!

Diagram 15 - White to move




Machine (Mach) MaterialAndThreats (Mat) vs. Imbalances (Imba)

Here Silman ends the chapter with a fun and insightful game through the eyes of three different types of players. Mach is the type of person who dreams of thinking like a machine. Mat is a guy who knows nothing of imbalances, but seeks to live and die by the "Chess is about material and threats" mind-stream. Imba, however, is an imbalance aficionado.

Note: Mach and Mat will be better at calculation, while Imba will have a superior knowledge of opening theory. Also, this game is text heavy!! 


The point of that example was that they represent three real human types:


In an age where every serious player has a powerful chess engine, I've (Silman) watched a chess pandemic appear that's unlike anything ever seen before. While following live grandmaster games, the masses of chess fans all suffer from a shared chess psychosis - they think they know exactly what's going on. Topalov plays some extremely complex move and thousands write in eerie unison, "Topalov is 1.02 up! He's going to win!" They are parroting their engine's assessment, but they seem to mistake it for their own. They stare at their machine's rapid-fire burst of moves, but do they understand why it's recommending them? One might think that a chess player would see beyond the illusion and not confuse his own strengths with those of his computer. Sadly, this is often not the case. And this same "illness" carries over to postal chess and analysis. 

Of course, once these computer-enhanced fans take part in an over-the-board tournament, their false reality quickly crashes and burns. But they can also be brought down to Earth by a few words from a good chess teacher. All he needs to ask (once an interesting position appears) is, "What's going on here?" And suddenly an honest student will realize that he's deceived himself! Since he hasn't mastered the imbalances, he can't answer the question in any deep and penetrating manner. And telling the teacher that so-and-so is 0.43 ahead borders on the insane. A chess engine can be very useful, but it can also turn into a crutch that actually prevents you from improving.

Mach was created to show how nobody thinks like a computer, nor would we want to. Chess is a game rich in emotion, art, the rush of competition, and the joy of creation. Streams of variations and displayed numbers (0.21) turn a warm, extremely human game into something cold and unknowable.


When you don't have a grasp of the imbalances, you're left with absolutely nothing, or (as in the case of Mat) with caveman basics like attack, defend, threats, and calculation. These are good things -everyone needs them. But is this simplistic ABC approach all you want for yourself?



Though Imba couldn't calculate quite as deeply as his opponents, he saw far more than either of his foes. The imbalances gave him a well-rounded positional education that offered him a solid understanding of both quiet static positions and sharper dynamic ones.

Go back and look at all the comments. It's clear that Imba was the only one that had any idea about the position's secrets and ultimate worth. Now we turn to you, the reader of this book. You might not calculate very well, or you might calculate better than Imba, but wouldn't you rather be in Imba's shoes? If so, you're on your way to acquiring the knowledge that most players simply don't have. 

Note: It's always a good thing if you have the ability to calculate quickly and deeply, but knowledge of the imbalances will often get you by, even if your absolute limit is a two-or-three move sequence.


Talk to the Board and It Will Talk to You

Everyone has some sort of internal dialogue when it's their turn to move. Most players stare blankly at the board and think, "I go there and he goes there and I go there and he goes there!" It's pure calculation, usually based on fear, aggression, or simply the desire to find something -any thing- that seems reasonable. However, if I stopped you from calculating and asked,

"Can you verbally break this position down for me?"

...the odds are that your answer wouldn't be lecture-worthy. Make no mistake about this: at any given moment, you should be able to lecture other players about the pros and cons of any position you reach! And, if you can't put your thumb on the pulse of the position, if you don't know what both sides need to accomplish, then how are you going to find the right move? It's like asking for driving directions to an unknown place.

This is why most players feel lost at sea. They feel they don't know what's going on, and so try to patch up the cracks by looking for threats and/or looking for ways to create them. They know something's wrong - something's missing. But they don't know what to do about it, and this creates a feeling of powerlessness.

Trust me when I tell you that it doesn't have to be this way.

It's time to get a bit crazy - Once you master the imbalances (and if you read this book from beginning to end, you will master the imbalances!), it will be time to get up close and personal with the board. In general, you can figure out a good deal about any position by doing the following:

The Armageddon Discourse

  1. Make sure you are aware of any crude threats by the opponent and also do a quick search for any basic tactical themes that might be present. 
  2. Ascertain the imbalances for both sides.
  3. Then ask the board (in an internal dialogue), "What move or series of moves tries to take advantage of these factors?"

Note: Silman stresses that you should not be after plans per se, but rather moves that cater to the imbalances.

Let's see how the imbalances dictate the course that both players take in the following game:

G. Kamsky - V. Topalov, Sofia 2009

Indeed, the game ended in a draw in 43 moves. Note how all the ruminations were centered on the imbalances, and all the variations were also dedicated to the imbalances. This kind of logical breakdown of a position works for grandmasters and it will work for you too!
...Continued in part 2..