Use Prophylaxis to Shut Down Your Opponent's Plans!

Use Prophylaxis to Shut Down Your Opponent's Plans!

FM MattyDPerrine
Oct 28, 2015, 2:02 PM |

Chess is a very back and forth game. Both sides are constantly coming up with their own plans in every position, trying to carry them out the best that they can while also trying to defend against their opponent's plans and moves as well. Many people think that the only way to win in this kind of situation is to have a better plan than their opponent or simply execute their own plan faster than their opponent. While this can definitely be the case, there is also the idea of "prophylaxis" in chess as well.

The word "prophylaxis" comes from a Greek word that means "guarding or preventing beforehand". This idea in chess refers to cases where we take time out of our own plans in order to prevent our opponent's plans before continuing with our own plans. This idea can seem foreign to some people; they might wonder "well why would I worry about my opponent's plan when I can simply go on with my own plan?" The problem with this thinking is that sometimes our opponent's plan is going to be the better/faster plan and we may fall behind if they are able to carry out their own ideas. So if we play prophylactic chess before continuing with our own plans, then we can slow down or stop our opponent's plan completely and then have plenty of time to continue with our own ideas.

There are two main parts to playing prophylactic chess:
1. Recognizing what the opponent's plan is or what their next move will be
2. Seeing a way to stop this plan or move

For the first bullet point here, you need to put yourself into your opponent's shoes to figure out what they might be thinking. I always tell my students to do this first in any position they look at, before even looking at their own plans and ideas. Ask yourself "Why did my opponent make his last move?" Look at the board from his side and think "What would I play here if I was in my opponent's situation?" By doing this we may be able to come up with a few potential ideas that our opponent might be thinking. Even without playing prophylaxis, this is still a very important thing to do in your games because if we can understand our opponent's thinking process then we are one step closer to defeating them. A great quote from the book "Ender's Game" is: "In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him... And then, in that very moment when I love them... I destroy them". So understanding our opponent's thinking is very important first of all. Let's illustrate this with a position:

In this position it is white's move. It seems like a simple enough position. White has the lead in development and space advantage however black does have some potential pressure on the queenside and the bishop pair. Based on these factors, how would you aim to play if you were black here? What kind of plan would you come up with? Think about the position from black's perspective. Is he aiming to continue attacking immediately? Does he want to finish his development first and get his king safer? What do you think?

In this position, I believe that it would be a bit tough for black to immediately continue attacking considering he only has a queen active. Also, 1...b4 wouldn't be so good based on white playing 2. Na4-b6 and black's queenside attack stalls out. Also, this doesn't result in a win of a pawn for him because 2...Qxe4 still falls for 3. Nb6 Rb8 4. Nxc8 Rxc8 5. Qxd7#. On the other hand, black is most likely trying to catch up on development and get castled (most likely kingside). This would make sense for him to do considering that his king isn't safe in the center and he needs to get his bishops and rooks into the game.

So the first part of playing prophylactic chess is accomplished. Now we understand what our opponent's plan probably is: complete his development and get castled. Now the second part is to figure out how to stop this plan. Well, what kind of specific move options might black have here for developing? 1...Bb7? No, that doesn't work because of 2. Qxd7#. So the f8-bishop developing seems like the only move that can work along with black's plan. So we need to see if there is a way to prevent the dark-square bishop from getting off it's starting square... We can do this by either defending all the squares the bishop can move to or making it so that developing the bishop would result in something bad. Unfortunately there are too many squares that the bishop can develop to for us to be able to guard all of them (b4, c5, e7). So we turn to the second option. How can we make it so that if the bishop developed it would have a bad consequence? If the bishop moves it won't be defending g7 anymore. Maybe that gives us an idea. Can we pressure the g7-square at all? Yes, we can! With a move such as 1. Bd4! here, black's dark-square bishop is tied down to the g7-pawn and cannot develop. Now, we have to make sure that by blocking the queen from the d7-pawn that we are not allowing the bishop on c8 to develop. Can black now play 1...Bb7? No, because of the tactic 2. Bxg7 Bxg7 3. Qxd7+ Kf8 4. Qxb7 threatening Qxa8 and Rd7 at the same time. White is up two pawns and winning. After we make the move 1. Bd4, black would need to play something like 1...f6 if he never wanted to develop the bishop but now this gives us a new weakness to attack. Click along in the game to see what happened:

Now that we've worked on this position together, let me give you a few positions to look at on your own. See if you can 1. Recognize what the opponent's plan is or what their next move will be and 2. Find a way to stop this plan or move...


So from these examples we see the power of prophylactic thinking. It isn't anything complicated. It is simply you looking at the position from your opponent's side of the board and trying to figure out what they are wanting to do in the position. The next step is seeing if you can find a way to prevent that plan from happening. This isn't possible in every position, however if you are able to utilize this idea in your own games, I am sure that you will play stronger and your results will improve Smile

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