Strategy for Perfect Play

Strategy for Perfect Play


In my previous two blogs I discussed the First Scientific Theory of Chess and Steinitz’ Theory of Perfect Play.  To briefly restate his theory, it is simply that if both players were to play perfectly the natural result of the game would be a draw.  In my last blog I offered some initial empirical evidence that supports the correctness of the theory.

Now I continue these explorations by discussing how chess strategy also conforms to Steinitz’ theory.  It is important to note that this discussion of strategy is not evidence for Steinitz’ theory, only that the strategic ideas we see are in accordance with his theory.

In 1885 when Steinitz was at the peak of his prowess, Lasker was born.  Not his more famous friend Emanuel Lasker, who succeeded Steinitz to the throne of the world chess championship, but the less famous International Master Edward Lasker.  In 1911, Lasker the Lesser wrote an influential book on chess strategy called Schachtheorie which was translated into English four years later. 

In Chess Strategy, Lasker pays vague homage to Steinitz’ theory when he writes, "if both sides have succeeded by careful play to preserve equality of material, a draw will generally ensue."  Lasker defines strategy by writing that, "In each game the strategy of chess should set us the tasks which must be accomplished."  

Nearly a century later Grandmasters Lev Alburt and Sam Palatnik are explicit in their tribute to Steinitz’ continuing influence on modern chess strategy.  In their Chess Strategy for the Tournament Player they write that "The basis of modern positional, or strategic, play is the theory of the first World Chess Champion, Wilhelm Steinitz."  In their definition, "Strategy is the art of forming an overall plan."  They go on to say that "the words positional and strategic are frequently used interchangeably." 

This view is nearly identical to the definition provided by the Oxford Companion to Chess which says that “Strategy [is] the planning and conduct of the long-term objectives in a game.  Moves directed primarily towards this end are commonly referred to as positional play.”

The positional nature of strategy is a logical consequence of Steinitz’ Theory of Perfect Play.  This is true simply because while perfect play will result in a draw, another simple truth is that even the best players in the world play imperfectly. “The greatest human weakness is inconsistency,” writes Garry Kasparov in his essay An Evolutionary Theory of Chess (which does not qualify as a scientific theory of chess, by the way).

Given that even the best players suffer from weaknesses in their play, the positional nature of strategy follows.  This could be stated as a kind of general guideline:  Strengthen your position by systematically eliminating your own weaknesses with every move, and be prepared to capitalize on your opponent’s inevitable error. 

This guideline is certainly easier to state than it is to follow.  To strengthen your position it is necessary to understand the general as well as the specific principles of strategic or positional play, and to this end are the great variety of texts on chess strategy to be found. 

Alburt and Palatnik begin their own text on strategy by summarizing Steinitz’ nine basic elements that are key to properly understanding a position.  Those elements are:

1.  Development

2.  Mobility

3.  Center Control

4.  King Position

5.  Weak and Strong Squares

6.  Pawn Structure

7.  Queenside Pawn Majority

8.  Open Files

9.  Advantage of the 2 Bishops

 It is quite interesting to compare this list of ‘elements’ to Jeremy Silman’s list of seven ‘imbalances’ in a position, which is not dissimilar to Steinitz’ list:

1.  Space

2.  Control of Key Squares

3.  Initiative

4.  Material

5.  Minor Piece Superiority

6.  Pawn Structure

7.  Development

 Steinitz himself proposes a strategy that has been dubbed by many as the theory of the accumulation of small advantages.  The idea is to maneuver to obtain a small, but perceptible advantage versus your opponent.  This may not be enough to secure the win, just as the advantage of first move is not enough to guarantee a win for White.  But the combined strength of two or more small advantages will lead to a significant result, in the same way that Senator Everett Dirksen noticed in monetary policy that “A billion here, a billion there – pretty soon, you're talking real money.”

Steinitz’ statement of the accumulation of small advantages is not quite as memorable as Dirksen’s, but has certainly been very influential in chess, if not finance.  Steinitz advocates “steady development without any sacrifice of material, circumspective attention to the balance of forces and of position on all parts of the board, and the accumulation of small advantages if possible.”

Here is a fine example of Steinitz obtaining an accumulation of small advantages in an 1882 game against Blackburne.  After move 17 notice how Steinitz has the following advantages:

1.     More space.

2.     A center pawn.

3.     Half open files for both rooks, giving them great mobility.

4.     Two bishops vs. knight and bishop.

Notice the positional nature of the play that continues from this point, leading to yet other advantages.  I have added annotations in the moves to point out some of these notions.

Kasparov writes that, “By 1870 Steinitz had begun to develop his advanced theories of defense, weaknesses, and strategic play. This is what divides the chess timeline into “pre-Steinitz” and “post-Steinitz” periods.”

Certainly the game above illustrates a beautiful win for Steinitz, who played in accordance with his own theory.  Small errors of play by Blackburne led to small advantages for Steinitz, who knew how to take advantage of the opportunities provided to him with appropriate tactical play. 

As Edward Lasker writes, “Sound strategy, when setting the task, must never lose sight of tactical practicability, and only a thorough knowledge of tactical resources makes correct strategy possible.”  I will write about this interplay of strategy and tactics as I continue to pursue the brilliance of Steinitz in a future blog.