Throw out the lifeline!
A Coast Guardsman clutches at a lifeline as he struggles to "dig his toes" into the deck of a tanker swamped under savage seas off the coast of Cuba (Wikimedia)

Throw out the lifeline!


On the weekend of the 75th anniversary of D-Day
this post is dedicated to the memory of my friend and relative Augie, 
a man from the Greatest Generation 
who after Pearl Harbor volunteered for the Coast Guard
who for his first duty station guarded the Manhattan Project at University of Chicago, 
who served on a Landing Ship Tank throughout the war, 
including at the Torch landings in North Africa, 
the invasions of Sicily and Italy
the British Army's landings in Burma against the Japanese, 
and the Normandy landings
who survived attacks by a Nazi Stuka dive bomber and V-2 rocket, and 
who knew his way around a lifelife

This is a quick post about a tactic I had never heard of before and just came across — the lifeline.

Problem #1

In his latest post, Best Chess Games: Anand's Most Spectacular Move? - Anand vs. Lautier, 1997, NM @SamCopeland mentions the lifeline in passing. So that you and I can both learn this tactic, I'm borrowing the key move from Sam's annotation and presenting it as a puzzle.

As always, if you ever see a puzzle and can't find the correct move, just hit the lightbulb icon.

Problem #2

Since I wanted to learn more about this lifeline tactic, I did some digging and came across a few more posts by Sam mentioning it. Here's a second puzzle from Tournament Adventures: Marchand Open 2014 - The Year of Gata.

Problem #3

Here's a third puzzle from Tournament Adventures: Uncompromising Chess in Charlotte!

Problem #4

Here's a fourth puzzle from Ju Wenjun Wins Tehran FIDE Women's Grand Prix.

Problem #5

As @SamCopeland credits in his annotations, then IM now GM Axel Smith named this tactic the lifeline in Pump Up Your Rating (a book that named as 2013 Book of the Year and that I just got). In his book Smith presents six instances of this tactic. To give you a better flavor for this tactic (and to encourage you to pick up the book, which @SamCopeland obviously likes and which, FWIW, I do too), here's the first study Smith offers.

Smith explains the tactic this way:

By now, you might have noticed the motif. It doesn't have an English name, so I will call it the lifeline.

The lifeline works according to the following scheme:

  1. The opponent threatens two pieces, either directly with a fork or indirectly with a pin.
  2. The higher-valued threatened piece offers an exchange against an undefended piece of the opponent.
  3. When the opponent exchanges, the second threatened piece recaptures and is pulled to safety.

A real lifeline works in the same way, as a last resource to save people from danger.

Problem #6

In 2018, Smith and GM Hans Tikkanen co-authored The Woodpecker Method, which offers up 1128 exercises, including this one.

When I'm trying to learn a concept, I like to look at several different explanations. Bryan Castro, a club player who's @backrankbrawler here on, runs his own blog, Better Chess Training, where he favorably reviewed The Woodpecker Method. Here's how Bryan describes this tactic: "Lifeline: Capturing a piece and then 'rescuing' the capturing piece from recapture by using it in another combination."

Problem #7

As I was researching this post, I noticed that Smith is editor of Tidskrift för schack, the Swedish Chess Federation's member magazine. I checked its website and sure enough, in a blog post Smith shared another game illustrating this motif. (BTW, lifeline in Swedish is livlina.)

Hat tips to @SamCopeland for highlighting this tactic and to Edwin Ufford for inspiring this post's title.

If you know of other examples of this lifeline tactic, feel free to offer them up in the comments.



The Life Line (1884) by Winslow Homer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Update #1 — Fair warning, there're spoilers below.

In light of the comments, I'm running a Stockfish analysis, at depth=30, for each problem.

In problem #1, Stockfish prefers 23.Hd3 at +7.7, ahead of Bh5 at +7, Rxe6 at +6.1, Re4 at +5.9 and Bd3 at +5.7 so in this case Stockfish views the lifeline tactic as the best move.

In problem #2, Stockview views 17...Qxd4 as best at +1.4, over ...Rc8 at +2.2, ...Qd7 at +2.7, ...Qe8 at +3.3 and ...Nxe5 at +3.9 so again Stockfish sees the lifeline as best.

In problem #3, Stockfish picks 25...Qc6 as best at -2.3, in front of ...a6 at -1.7, with all other moves favoring White. The lifeline comes out best once again.

In problem #4, Stockfish selects 34...Bc5 at -0.4, ahead of ...Nf4+ at +0.1 with all other moves decidedly favoring White. The lifeline is best yet again.

In problem #5, Stockfish likes 20.Nxb4 at +1.1, rather than Rfe1 at 0, Rde1 at -0.1, Nd2 at -0.2 or Kg2 at -0.5. The lifeline is still best.

In problem #6, Stockfish prefers 25.Bxf5 at +1.1, over e6 at +0.1 with any other move at 0 or worse. The lifeline is best.