Chess Strategy/The positions of the kings
King position is one of the most important things in chess (technically, it is the most important thing in chess). This is for the simple reason that no matter how much material advantage you have, no matter how much central control you have, no matter how weak your opponent's pawns are, if you are checkmated, all of these advantages are moot. King position is also the thing that amateurs constantly pay attention to, never seeming to understand the ideas behind queenside expansion, or a central pawn center. They always either become irrationally nervous about their own king, or they completely ignore the other part of the board, going all out for the attack.
The castled king position
The castled king position is one of the most effective defenses against attack. It is strongest when the king is covered by three pawns in a row, on (for Black) f7, g7, and h7 on the kingside, or a7, b7, and c7 for the queenside. This is because there is really no weakness for the opponent to focus on, and he will have to advance his pawns or sacrifice material to create weaknesses there, so that he can attack. The king can stay behind his wall of pawns, safe in the knowledge that the opponent will never get to him there.
On attacking the king in general
In the early days of chess, when Romanticism dominated, attacking the king was the most important idea of all games. There would often be a series of brilliant sacrifices to draw the king out from its cover. This all changed when an American master named Paul Morphy came along and crushed the opposition using positional principles, much in the way that Steinitz would thirty years later. However, today such attacks, known informally as "barry", are rarely seen. Back in the 19th century, defensive chess was not yet well-known, and sacrifices would often work. Today, many defensive tactics are well-known, such as returning material in order to halt an attack.
The king in the center
Often it is suicidal to keep one's king in the center. Why? Look at it this way. The center is the most important part of the board. Logically, if one can gain influence in the most important areas, one will have an advantage. However, to get active play in the center, one has to open files there. And with the center of the board opening up, the king will feel very uneasy, as he is a sitting duck for all of the enemy pieces bearing down on him on the open lines.
Not only does the king itself become weak, but the squares around it become weak. You may notice, for example, that f2 (or f7 for Black) is the weakest square in the original position because it is only protected by the king. Piece sacrifices on this square are very common. Take for example, the game at right, Retí—Wolf, Teplitz-Schönau 1922.
Teplitz-Schönau, 1922 Position after White's 15th move
Here Black exploited the semi-open nature of the center and the fact that the king was stuck there with the shot 15...Nxf2! Black exposes White's king position. 16.Bh7+ If 16.Kxf2 then 16...Ng4+ 17.Ke1 Qxe3+ 18.Ne2 Bf5! 19.Bxf5 Qf2+ 20.Kd2 Rxe2+ 21. Kc3 Qxc5+ and Black wins. 16...Kh8 17.0-0 Nfg4 18.Nxa8 White decides to grab material to compensate for the poor position he has acquired—but Black has seen more deeply into the position. 18...Nxe3 19.Qe2 Nxf1 20.Bb1 Nxh2 21.Nb6 Nef3+! White must have overlooked this sacrifice. 22.gxf3 Qg5+ 23.Kxh2 Rxe2+ 24.Nxe2 Qe5+ 25.Ng3 Qxb2+ 26.Rc2 Qxb1 27.Re2 Be6 28.f4 g6 29.Na8 h5 30.Nc7 h4 31.Nh1 Qd3 32.Rf2 Bf5 and White resigned. Black has a decisive material advantage and a continuing attack.
In addition to the way the attack was conducted, one must also realize that the sacrifice was purely intuitive, backed up by a few short-term calculations. At the grandmaster level, there are many cases of such speculative sacrifices. The point is that grandmasters, with their great experience and extremely useful intuition, can easily evaluate a key strategic point of an attack, something that computers will never be able to do. Grandmaster intuition is a fantastic guide, and helps the masters play moves like 15...Nxf2! Also, note that Black was not playing for mate. If an attack leads to the win of material then you must call it a success. Don't just keep lashing out; regroup your material and then use your advantage in force, which will win the game.
The necessary preconditions for an attack
Before the attack is conducted in full, one or more conditions must be fulfilled. This was the mistake that the Romantics and amateurs alike made: the conditions are not always fulfilled. In general, two or more of the following requirements must be met to conduct a successful attack on the king:
- 1. Control of the center, or else that it is closed, so that the defender cannot land a counterblow there.
- 2. A general space advantage in the area where the enemy king resides.
- 3. General weaknesses in the opponent's king position.
- 4. The number of attackers is more than the number of defenders.
- 5. Open lines to the king.
- 6. The majority of your army is posted in the king's sector, or if not, your army can easily get there with speed and efficiency.
Without these prerequisites, the defender will either have excellent chances for a successful counterattack or a successful defense. Note that most combinations of material will suffice to attack a king; in a game Reti—Alekhine, Baden-Baden 1925, Alekhine successfully attacked White's king even while the queens were swapped off.
The pawn storm
A pawn storm is the use of an avalanche of pawns to bust holes in the king's castled position. This is the slowest, but usually the most accurate, way to attack the king. For example, if you have a piece attack against a king, the only way to get in against a strong castled king position is by sacrificing material, or else inducing him to create weaknesses in the position. Pawn storms are usually good for the following reasons:
- 1. They induce weaknesses in the king's position.
- 2. The exchange of these pawns will create open lines for attack.
- 3. They can support the attacking pieces.
- 4. They can drive away enemy defenders of the castled position.
- 5. Near the end of an attack, a pawn may promote after reaching the back rank to help continue the attack.
For example, the "career" of an h-pawn, as regards the attack, as described by Vladimir Vukovic in his classic, The Art of Attack in Chess, goes as follows:
- 1. h3 A pawn drives a piece away from g4, so as to support another pawn or piece coming to g4 for the attack (supporting the "little bayonet").
- 2. h4 The h-pawn becomes part of an attacking formation in conjunction with a knight on g5 and a rook on h1.
- 3. h5 The pawn goes to h5 to either drive away a defending piece on g6, or else exchange itself for a pawn on g6, weakening the king's position and opening lines for attack.
- 4. h6 The pawn drives a wedge into the kingside dark squares, forcing ...g7-g6 and allowing his pieces to exploit the weakened dark squares.
- 5. h7(+) The pawn checks the king, creating an immediate threat to Black's position.
- 6. h8(Q) The pawn promotes and continues the attack as a queen.
Open lines in the attack against the king
Open lines to the king are like highways. Your pieces can travel easily and efficiently down them to reach their goal. That is why it is essential that the king castle as soon as possible in an open position. The opponent can exploit these highways with his rooks, queen, and bishops, which will make attacking your king all the easier.
Take a look at it this way. Is it easier to attack a king on g8 that is surrounded by pawns on f7, f6, and h7, or f7, g7, and h7? The first one, of course, becomes a rook shifting to the g-file followed by the queen coming in will quickly mate. In addition, these pawns lose their defensive value as they advance, because the further advanced pawns are, the easier it is for pieces to get behind them. Pawn sacrifices to get to an enemy king are not rare, either, because no price is too high to pay as long as your last pawn delivers mate.
Kećskemet, 1927 Position after Black's 26th move
The position at right was excellently played by someone on everyone's list of "greatest attacking players of all time", Alekhine. Amongst Tal, Morphy, and Kasparov, Alekhine was a rare bird who was a natural attacking player. As fourth World Champion, it was said that to beat Alekhine you had to beat him three times: once in the opening, once in the middlegame, and once in the endgame. In fact, it was Alekhine who established the tradition of extensive opening preparation that is a hallmark of the world's top GMs today. It seemed as if one only needed to give Alekhine a lime and he could make lemonade.
The first thing Alekhine took into account when looking at this position were the possibilities for attack. Black is cramped, and his bishop pair is quite meaningless in this closed position. He also noted that his knight was strongly posted on e5, and Black has no play on any part of the board. Perhaps if Black could open up the position, his two bishops would become meaningful in a central counterattack, discussed on the previous page. However, Alekhine also notices that such action is impossible in this position. Thus, he decides not to rush the attack, but to begin by advancing a pawn. 27.h4! White plans to set up a battery of queen and bishop on the b1-h7 diagonal, threatening mate. The h-pawn advance discourages defense with ...g7-g6 because then White could answer with h4-h5. 27....Raa8 28.Bb1 h5 The threat was 29.Qc2 g6 30.h5. 29....f7-f5 would not be good, as it would leave Black with a permanent weakness on e6, upon which White could direct his pieces. 29.Qf3 g6 30.g4! hxg4 31.Qxg4 White has successfully used a pawn storm to break open lines on the kingside for attack. In addition, the pawn advance has created weaknesses on the kingside, which White can exploit with his knight and queen. 31....Bg7 32.Ba2 32.h5 was stronger, although this move is also good, preventing Black from moving his f-pawn for lateral defence of the kingside. 32....b4 33.Bc4! Black's last move was a bid for active play, which of course White refuses. 33....bxa3 34.bxa3 Qa5 35.Qe4 If 35.Nxg6 immediately, then 35....Rxd4. 35....Qc7 36.Qf4 Rab8 37.h5! Opening the g-file for the rooks. 37....gxh5 38.Kh1 Rb7 39.Rg1 Qe7 40.Rxg7+ Kxg7 41.Rg1+ Kh7 42.Nxf7! Black resigns because of 42....Qxf7 43.Bd3+ Qg6 44.Qf8!!.
When playing over this game, note not only how Black was denied all counterplay, but also how the pawn advances opened up lines to the enemy king. In this manner, White could slowly create weaknesses in Black's position. After a certain point, it was too much for Black to handle, and he could not survive it.
- Alburt, Lev and Palatnik, Semyon. The King in Jeopardy, rev. ed. New York, NY: Chess Information Research Center, 2001.
- Capablanca, Jose Raul (edited by GM Nick deFirmian). Chess Fundamentals, rev. ed. New York, NY: McKay Chess Library, 2005.
- Silman, Jeremy. The Amateur's Mind, 1st ed. Los Angeles, CA: Siles Press, 1999.
- Vukovic, Vladimir. The Art of Attack in Chess. London: Everyman Publishers, 1998.