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The Art of Sacrifice

Oct 3, 2011, 4:32 PM 13

One of the most renowned sacrificial players was Rudolf Spielmann.  In his book "The Art of Sacrifice," Spielmann expresses his thoughts on the sacrifice in chess play.  Below is an excerpt from his book that gives his general ideas.


The beauty of a game of chess is usually appraised, and with good reason, according to the sacrifices it contains.  Sarcifice - a hallowed, heroic concept!  Advancing in a chivalrous mood, the individual immolates himself for a noble idea.

Such sacrifice evokes our homage and admiration even where the idea as such does not meet with our full approval.  In chess, which we like to view as a counterpart of like, a sacrifice arouses similar feeling in us.   On principle we incline to rate a sacrificial game more highly than a positional game.  Instinctively we place the moral value above the scientific.  We honor Capablance, but our hearts beat higher when Morphy's name is mentined.  The magic of the sacrifice grips us and we care nothing for the accompanying circumstances - whether Morphy's opponents were weaker than Capablanca's, how Morphy would fare today, how Capablanca would have played in those far-off days.  The glowing power of the sacrifice is irresistible: enthusiasm for sacrifice lies in man's nature.

The experts like to disparage the habit of valuing a game according to the amount of material sacrificed.  This is understandable to a certain extent, but nonetheless deplorable.  The expert is too preoccupied with technique to be able to share the simple-hearted joy of the multitude.  He watches the play both from the auditorium but from the stage itself.   He is also perhaps a little case-hardened.  But the rank-and-file players have preserved fresh and natural feelings: they are delighted now as always with the combinative style.

Various Types of Sacrifices

In the domain of problems the various sacrificial themes have long since been classified and given their own nomenclature.  In practical chess such classification has never, to my knowledge, been attempted.  A few combinations, such as "Philidor's legacy," have their own names; but apart from that, nothing has been done except an occasional loan from the problemist, such as "self-block," "vacating sacrifice" and the like.  True, problem composers have a much easier task: their ideas are preconceived and can be executed without any interference by an opponent!  Superfluous pieces are simply eliminated, so that the underlying idea ultimately appears in purest form permitting clear-cut diagnosis.

It is otherwise in practical chess.  Here well-defined combinations and sacrifices turn up more or less at hazard.  Hardly ever are they "pure" and "economical" as in problems, and consequently they are harder to recognize and classify.  This is doubtless one of the rearsons why such classification has not yet been attempted

. . .

Sacrifices represent in chess an exceptionally important phase of the struggle.  Beauty is not the sole object.  They have the common aim of increasing the effectiveness of other pieces outside the normal routine, if possible suddenly.  In equalized positions their purpose is to gain time. 

But mostly they serve to increase already existing advantages and they are particularrly adapted to the exploitation of mistakes by the other side.  It may be that an advantage in development is turned into a grand assult, or that a weak point in the enemy lines is ripped open in the same way, The advantage to be exploited need not be of a general nature; it can be merely local. Particularly in such cases does the sacrifice provide an indispensable weapon;  for placid play is apt to dissipate the advantage, with resultant drifting into a drawn position.

A sacrifice at the right moment takes opportunity by the forelock.  The opponent may gain material, but he is tempted or forced to make some temporary useless moves, his troops become disordered and the disconnected forces are beaten before they can put up a unified front to the enemy.

To get the unwieldy mass of possible sacrifices into some sort of order, we must first classify them under three heads:  form, size and object. 

Under the heading "form," there are two types: active and passive.

In distinguishing between these two types, the deciding factor, from a scientific point of view, would be whether the sacrifice arises from a move for the purpose of sacrificing or from a raid by the enemy.  In other words, through moving and offering a piece - or through disregarding the enemy's threat to capture.  Thus after 1.e4  e5; 2. f4 (King's Gambit) is an active sacrifice.  Conversely after 1.e4 e5; 2. Nf3 Nc6; 3.d4 exd4; Nxd4, the raid 4... Qh4 allows the passive sacrifice 5.Nb5. (Scotch Game/Horowitz Attack)

From a practical point of view, however, I prefer to make a different distinction, namely, whether or not acceptance of the proffered sacrifice is compulsory.  Those which must be accepted I call active, the others passive.

In the Allgaier Gambit  (1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 g5 4. h4 g4 5. Ng5 h6 6. Nxf7) both forms occur in the first 6 moves.  5.Ng5 is a passive sacrifice, as it can be declined by 5... Nf6 with no worsening of Black's position.  Contrariwise, 6. Nxf7 is an active sacrifice because it has to be accepted.



In the nature of things, the active sacrifice is by far the more powerful of the two.

The size of the sacrifice appears to be perfectly easy to determine. But, as we shall see later on, this aspect also presents problems, as the value of each unit varies qualitatively according to the nature of a given position.

There are sacrifices of Pawns and of pieces.  The latter can be subdivided into full- and part- sacrifices, depending on whether a whole piece is given up or whether there is partial compensation.

When considering part-sacrifices, we must distinguish between the major and minor pieces. When minor pieces are sacrificed, any material compensation can consist only of Pawns.  In the case of a major piece, the compensation may be minor pieces or Pawns or both.  The possible resulting situations are quite dissimilar, for after full-sacrifices the number of your own units diminishes, while after a part-sacrifices it frequently actually increases.

. . .

The most important classification of sacrifices is according to their object.

In this respect we must first distinguish between two groups,  namely "sham" and "real" sacrifices.  The difference is this:  sham sacrifices involve losses of material for a definable amount of time; in the case of real sacrifices, the amount of time required for recovering the material is not clear.

Therefore a sham (temprary) sacrifice involves no risk.  After a series of forced moves, the player either recovers the invested material with advantage, or else even mate his opponent.  The consequences of the sacrifice were foreseen from the first.  Properly speaking, there is no sacrifice, only an advantageous business deal.

Yet, such sacrifices must not be disparaged;  often fine perception and a great deal of imagination are required, as well as the gift of intricate calculation, in order to discern possibilities and exploit them.

We shall divided sham sacrifices into three groups:
     1. Positional sacrifices
     2. Sacrifices for gain
     3. Mating sacrifices

Positional sacrifices lead to forced recover of the material lost with an improved position.
Thus after 1. e4 e5  2. Nf3 Nc6  3. Nc3 Bc5,  White can sacrifice advantageously with 4.Nxe5, for after  4.... Nxe5, he recovers the piece by 5.d4 with improved prospects.

The sacrifice for gain leads to an advantage in material, the sacrificed material being regained by force and with interest.
An example: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. d4 b5 7. Bb3 Nxd4?  8. Bxf7+ Kxf7 9. Nxe5+  followed by 10. Qxd4.

The mating sacrifice leads to checkmate or, alternately, to immediately decisive gain of material.  The actual mate can frequently be delayed by the heaviest counter-sacrifices (loss of the Queen, for example), which are, in effect, tantamount to mate.
For example: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 d6 3. Bc4 h6 4. Nc3 Nc6 5. d4 Bg4 6. dxe5 Nxe5?  7. Nxe5!   if Black now captures the Queen (7...Bxd1), mate follows by 8... Ke7  9. Nd5#.  True, Black can avoid this mate in various ways by declining the sham sacrifice.  But in that case White remains a piece to the good.

In real sacrifices the player gives up material, but is unable to calculate the consequences with accuracy; he has to rely on his judgment.  He obtains dynamic advantages, which he can realize gradually.  She he not succeed in this, he will most probably lose the game through deficiency in material.  Therein lies the risk, and risk in the hallmark of the real sacrifice.  This group will occupy most of our attention from now on.

Compared to sham sacrifices, the real sacrifices are much more difficult to treat scientifically.  Their secrets reveal themselves only to the gifted and courageous player, who has strong, if controlled, self-confidence.  The timid player will take to real sacrifices only with difficulty, principally because the risk makes them uneasy.

The theory of real sacrifices cannot go beyond general rules, advice, warnings and illustrations.  But let no one be discouraged:  the moderately gifted player can obtain a considerable playing strength by applying himself diligently;  while, on the other hand, weak play does not necessarily indicate lack of talent!

Unlike the sham sacrifice, in which the aims are clear as day, the real sacrifice has vaguely defined goals;  the result lies in the lap of the gods and at most can be formulated only intuitively.

It follows that it must be a matter of some difficulty to differentiate between the various types of real sacrifices.  I had to adopt a subjective point of view again and to proceed at times by instinct. This conforms, after all, with the nature of these sacrifices, which in actual play are generally decided upon on an instinctive basis.

I have arrived at the following subdivisions:
     1. Sacrifices for development
     2. Obstructive sacrifices
     3. Preventive (or anti-castling) sacrifices
     4. Line-clearance sacrifices
     5. Vacating sacrifices
     6. Deflecting or decoy sacrifices
     7. (castled) King's Field sacrifices
     8. King-Hunt sacrifices

The sacrifice for development aims at an unusual acceleration of one's development.  To this type belong more or less all gambits, as, for example,

the Muzio Gambit -  1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 g5 4. Bc4 g4 5. O-O gxf3.  

The rapid formation of a center which is said by many to be the object of most gambits, is, strictly speaking, only a means to attainment of that object (accelerated development).   In the nature of things the developing sacrifice occurs in the opening stages - when development on either side is as yet uncompleted.

Besides developing sacrifices known to theory,  new ones are constantly evolved in practical play.  For the most part they are Pawn sacrifices, but - as in the Muzio, mentioned above - pieces are sometimes sacrificed as well.

The obstructive sacrifice also occurs before the respective developments are completed, and the object is likewise a net plus in development.  But here we achieve our objective not by speeding up our own, but by slowing down the opponent's, development.  The material staked will have to be of a modest nature.  An instance from the Caro-Kann Defense: 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. g4 Bg6 5. h4 h6 6. e6 (This last move obstructs the future development of Black's King Bishop)

The preventive (anti-castling) sacrifice is intended to prevent the opponent's castling.

To this end even a whole piece can be given up on certain circumstances, namely when it's possible to hold the hostile King in the middle and to open up the center files.  In his second match with Lasker, Steinitz gave up a piece early in the game for this purpose:
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. c3 Nf6 5. d4 exd4 6. cxd4 Bb4+ 7. Nc3 Nxe4 8. O-O Bxc3 9. bxc3 d5 10. Ba3

The line-clearance sacrifice aims at early employment of the Rooks on open ines.  The Alekhine variation of the French Defense belongs to this category:  1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Be7 5. e5 Nfd7 6. h4
*After 6... Bxg5  7. hxg5  Qxg5,  White's open King Rook file becomes very powerful. 

In certain cases this type of sacrifice justifies a very large stake.
The vacating sacrifice procures access for a particular unit to a more favorable square.  For so limited an object, only a small investment should be risked.  A pretty case in point is the following from the Two Knight's Defense: 
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. Ng5 d5 5. exd5 Na5 6. d3 h6 7. Nf3 e4 8. Qe2 Nxc4 9. dxc4 Bc5 10. h3 O-O 11. Nh2
Now Black has only one really promising continuation of the attack:  11... e3 12. Bxe3 Bxe3 13. fxe3 Ne4.

Thanks to this Knight's strong position, Black's attack is very powerful.

The deflecting or decoy sacrifice has a definite object of luring or diverting one or more enemy pieces from the main field of battle.  The attacker, for instance, allows his opponent to graze on one wing in order to be able to pursue his attack undisturbed on the other side.  Such sacrifices ordinarily occur only after development so far advanced.  An example from the Ruy Lopez: 
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Nxe4 6. d4 b5 7. Bb3 d5 8. dxe5 Be6 9. c3 Be7 10. Be3 O-O 11. Nbd2 Na5 12. Bc2 Nxd2 13. Qxd2 Nc4 14. Qd3 g6 15. Bh6 Nxb2 16. Qe3 Re8 17. Qf4

White has a strong attack against the hostile castled position.  Black's Knight is out of play and for the time being is unable to participate in the defense.

Sacrifices in the King's Field have the object of breaking up the hostile Kng's castled position.  They are the most frequent combinations in the middle game and occur in countless variations.  They are seldom encountered in the opening stage, requiring as they do an advanced stage of development.

King-Hunt sacrifices I call those which drive the King into the open, where he is automatically exposed to a great many dangers.  An example from the Vienna:  1. e4 e5 2. Nc3 Bc5 3. Na4 Bxf2+
White hardly has an alternative to capturing and must at least attempt to hold the extra piece.  But his King will be driven from pillar to post after  4. Kxf2  Qh4+  5. Ke3 Qg5+ 6. Kd3 d5.

In comparing the two broad types of sacrifices we now perceive, the train of thought on which this division is based.  In the sham sacrifice, the ultimate object is paramount.  In the real sacrifice, only the provisional aim is considered.  The common ground in both types is that only the object visible at the time of the sacrifice is taken as the characteristic feature.

In practical play, combinations frequently occur which are composed of several sacrifices.  These usually belong to only one of the two main groups.  But it is quite possible for a sham sacrifice to preceed n as part of one combination.

from the Introduction (by Spielmann) to 1972 English edition of Rudolf Spielmann's The Art of Sacrifice (originally published in both German and English in 1935).

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