Option Principle

Jun 25, 2011, 9:57 AM |

A worthwhile yet neglected contribution to chess literature is the Option Principle. The Option Principle was first enunciated by Weaver Adams. In his book, White to Play and Win (1939), Adams wrote:

A third characteristic of a good move has to do with the conservation of valuable options, as follows: If a piece appear to have two or more equally attractive moves in a given position, this usually may be taken as a sign that a move of this particular piece is incorrect at the moment, or, in other words, that the best square for this piece is not as yet determinable. Necessarily, however, the best square for the correct piece to move to is determinable (otherwise the move would be incorrect). And because of this fact, the correct piece to move can usually be seen to have but one attractive square to move to. … "In practice it is easy to overlook an optional square for a piece, especially if this is one which at the moment is impossible due to obstruction, or undesirable because attacked by enemy pieces. Any one of these squares represents an important and valuable option in proportion as it can be foreseen that the game might take a course which would render these squares available and/or desirable at some future time (p.15).

Sixty years later the Option Principle was reintroduced into chess literature by Dr. Hans Berliner. In 1999, Dr. Berliner published his book, The System, which incorporated the Option Principle as a central pillar of his system. According to Berliner:

The Option Principle states: make the move (develop the piece) which does the least to reduce your options to make other important moves. When there are several pieces that can be developed, move the one for which the Optimal Placement is most clear. This is a generalization of Lasker’s rule ‘knights before bishops’. Usually a bishop has more good locations to choose from than a knight, so develop the knight first. However, the System options principle is much more general. It frequently encourages the non-movement of a piece that is already well placed on the back rank. It may also discourage castling, if the rook is well placed for an attack. … The Option Principle also prohibits making a move that blocks a friendly piece from reaching its optimal location. … there is always at least one move that is crying out to be played before other moves. (p.36-37).

In 2008, the Option Principle again found its way into print with the publication of The Final Theory of Chess and in 2009 it found a home on the World Wide Web with the Final Theory of Chess Open Encyclopedia of Chess Openings.

In addition to the three aforementioned books, the Option Principle is hinted at with varying degrees of vagueness by several other chess writers.

  • Philidor warned against obstructing one’s own pawns. He advocated 2…d6 (after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3) in order to avoid losing the option of advancing Black’s c-pawn.
  • The second World Champion, Emanual Lasker, applied the Option Principle to the range of plans in which multiple pieces could cooperate. He wrote: “or, to use another term, say flexibility, or adaptability or elasticity. The main idea of this co-operation is to increase the range of possible plans to follow, without specifying too early which road you would prefer to travel. By co-operation you aim to keep the position plastic, alive; by lack of co-operation you take the life out of your position, and to infuse it with new life you will need outside aid” (Lasker, Emanual. Lasker's Manual of Chess, p.231).
  • Nimzowitsch emphasized the reduction in options entailed when the central pawns are advanced early. In his notes to the game Nimzowitsch-Rubinstein (Berliner Tageblatt Tournament, Berlin 1928) he wrote of 1.Nf3: “Certainly the most solid move, whereas moves such as 1.e4 and 1.d4 are both ‘committal’ and ‘compromising’.”
  • A final example comes from the classic book, The Art of Attack, by Vladimir Vuković. Parsimoniously, Vukovic states the Option Principle with a single phrase:  “moves entailing fewer obligations should be carried out before those which are more strongly binding” (Vuković, Vladimir, The Art of Attack, p.12).

Please feel free to comment on this post to share further examples (either implicit or explicit) of the Option Principle appearing in chess literature.