Understanding Overprotection in Chess
"Lastly, overprotection. Simply garbage. I can think of no recent master game that was won by overprotection. Not one." - GM Yasser Seirawan

Understanding Overprotection in Chess

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"Each time I leaf through the Chess Praxis, the book that I literally kept under my pillow and read in my childhood like fairytales, I rediscover Nimzowitsch's maxims that, as I understand now, had become the basis for my chess views a long time ago." - GM Tigran Petrosian (World Champion, 1963-1969)

Overprotection is a controversial topic. GM Daniel Naroditsky and IM Jeremy Silman praised it while GM Yasser Serawain was critical. There is even a composed parody game making fun of overprotection! In my opinion, Nimzowitsch was not clear enough regarding overprotection and under which contexts it should be applied, confusing many. However, overprotection is a valuable strategic concept that is used at GM level today. To understand overprotection, we should start with Nimzowitsch's writings. Below is a sample of Nimzowitsch's text, focusing on what I believe to be some of the most relevant examples.

"The rule concerning overprotection is only valid for strong points." (My System)

"The contact between one's own strong square and the pieces which are overprotective must be to the benefit of both parties. It suits the square, which receives from the prophylactic measures the greatest possible security against possible attacks. And it also suits the overprotective pieces, because the square becomes for them a source of energy from which they continually draw new strength." (Chess Praxis)

Many people might dismiss these games due to the eccentric openings, but Nimzowitsch's point of overprotecting the e5-point has value. Before I show more example games, I would like to define how I believe overprotection should be used.

Overprotection is a form of prophylaxis used by the side who has a space advantage. As GM Axel Smith made clear in his excellent book Pump Up Your Rating (Chapter 1: No Pawn Lever - No Plan), slightly better positions that are based on a space advantage or other long-term advantages tend to trend towards a significant or decisive advantage unless the defender has dynamic compensation or can transform the nature of the position - usually through a pawn lever. The side that overprotects a key square is generally doing so in order to prevent the opponent's pawn lever or prepare for it under the best possible circumstances. If this pawn lever is prevented, the side with the static advantage should gradually win because he is able to improve his position faster than the defender and can open the position after improving the circumstances to the maximum. The key square overprotected is usually a central square, making the pieces flexible and able to quickly switch to the flanks if needed.

Here is an example of a modern game where Nimzowitsch's overprotection is used to impede a pawn lever, and how Black's position gradually asphyxiated once this pawn break was prevented.

It is either explicitly stated or implied by several authors the necessity of pawn levers when your opponent has a space advantage, which increases the importance of Nimzowitsch's overprotection theory. To avoid confusing readers, I will clarify what I mean by space advantage.

'Having more space optically is not the same as having a space advantage. I think this is one of the things that tends to confuse some people. As I have always understood it, a space advantage occurs when pawns are taking important squares from the opponent's pieces.' - GM Boris Gelfand

Here is another game that emphasizes the necessity of pawn levers when your opponent has a space advantage and you don't have dynamic compensation. You can find this game annotated in more detail in the excellent book Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide.

It shouldn't be surprising that overprotection has its place in modern chess, especially since it's established that prophylaxis should be the first priority in positions with a static advantage.