Decision-making and the role of prophylactic thinking


There are several types of decision-making in chess:

  1. decisions, based upon the precise acquired knowledge—mainly, openings and endgames;
  2. logical decisions, taken on the basis of logical reflection;
  3. decisions, derived from calculation of variations;
  4. intuitive decisions.

Decision-making and the role of prophylactic thinking

The latter are taken only in situations, where the previously-mentioned types of decision-making do not yield result. After all, what is decision-making in chess about? To put it simply, this  is the choice of a specific move in any specific position (a move, certainly, is generally an element of a wider game plan, but can also appear as a purely specific solution of a concrete position).

Previously it was assumed that the introduction of chess into the school curriculum promotes the development of logical thinking among the majority of children and the competitive spirit among the intelligent children otherwise unable to acquire it through the games such as soccer. The results were generally very positive, for instance, in the Soviet Union and German Democratic Republic, but the ministries of education in other countries failed to realize the necessity of partial changes of the tuition system, based chiefly on the remembering and reiterating of large portions of useless knowledge. This defect of education system will be overcome only in distant future. Now the American education experts have discovered that chess contains another important component—the training of decision-making skills in various situations.

In game of chess the biggest problem of teaching the ways to take decisions in complicated positions is the absence of modern middlegame theory in a recorded form. Indeed, after “My System” by Nimzovitch practically no books on middlegame theory appeared until the second part of the 1990’s. There were but several attempts to examine special problems in the middle stage of a chess game, namely: our books written together with A.Beliavsky—“Isolated Pawn”, “Hanging Pawns”, “Intuition in Chess”, as well as “Method in Chess” and “The Critical Moment” by I.Dorfman and a book by V.Dydyshko, practically unknown in the West.

The main problem of approaching the solution of the task is the matter of operative classification of terms, that is, dividing the problem into smaller logical components with the latter analysis and obtaining some generalized results. After all, a classical process of analysis and synthesis.


The scheme of chessplayer’s thinking


Evaluation of positionр1- Planр2Strategic operations  - Calculation of variations р3a move


The above scheme is very simple, but poses a few questions. Strategic operations are the components of a general and more complex plan. What are the p1, p2 and p3? The matter of prophylactic thinking was considered by Nimzowitch and Dvoretsky, but none of them attempted to analyze the problem logically. After the opponent’s move we ask ourselves a question: what is he threatening? This is p1—simple or elementary prophylactic. This includes direct attacking of our pieces, pawns and king, as well as the simple threats like occupation of the square, exhange of our active piece, creation of the pin, etc. In such cases grandmasters rarely  face difficulties, since overlooking the opponent’s threats is the most common malady of the weaker players.  Having outlined a game plan of our own, we must consider the opponent’s plan and take appropriate measures against it—that is, p2. This is complex real prophylactic, for example, limitation of mobility of the pawn structures, complicated defensive maneuvers, such as liquidation of our pawn weaknesses, improvement of bad placing of pieces, different exchanges, etc. The classification of real prophylactic is rather difficult, but it has been already proposed by several trainers. It is employed mostly by stronger players, whereas to the weaker ones only some elements are available. Some aspects were examined by Nimzowitch and Dvoretsky; Nimzovitch’s theory of excessive defence and prophylactic as the essence of positional play is very interesting, but is not supported by the contemporary middlegame theory (or, to be more precise, quasi-theory).

Young players do not fully understand the prophylatic play aimed at limitation of mobility of the pawn structure and enemy pieces—obviously, they can employ some less complicated forms, but more complex skills require trainer’s guidance and methodological literature, which is in short supply.


Now let us examine several examples of mistakes committed during decision-making.                                                                                        


1. Shoen – Bartel

Krynica, 2002

White: Kg1,Qg4,Ba3,Ra1,Re3, pp.a4,c2,c3,f2,g3,h4;

Black: Kc8,Qc7,Bd7,Rf7,Rh8, pp.a7,b7,c4,d5,e6,g7.


After 1. ...e5! (clearance) – 2.Qe2 e4 Black has no problems. But suddenly Black allows the blockade of  his own structure by 1. ...Rh6? 2.Qd4 b6 3.a5 b5 4.f4!, after which there is no hope of release and White has clear advantage.


(2) Bartel - Urban

Warszawa, 2001

White: Kc1,Qd2,Nc3,Bh4,Rd1,Re1, pp.a2,b2,d4,e5,f3,g2,h2;

Black: Kg8,Qd7,Bd5,Bg7,Ra8,Rf8, pp.a5,c6,d6,e7,f7,g6,h7.



It is utterly senseless to denude the mighty bishop on g7! The correct decision was to play for blockade with 1.f4! and clear advantage.


(3) Zaskalski - Bartel

Poland, 2003

White: Kg2,Ng1,Ra3,Rb5, pp.a2,d3,e4,f2,g3,h4;

Black: Kf6,Ne7,Rc2,Rc8, pp.a7,d6,e5,f5,g6,h5.


1. ...Nc6 – the Black plans a correct knight transfer, but completely forgets  about opponent’s counter-play. Afterwards 2.Rb7 followed, with …Ke6 3.Rg7 Kf6 and a draw. The correct decision, however, would be to defend the seventh rank first of all: 1. ...R8c7!.


(4) Adams - Wahls

BRD, 1997

White: Kg1,Qd1,Ng4,Bd4,Rb7, pp.b4,c3,d5,f2,g2,h3;

Black: Kg8,Qe8,Nd3,Bd8,Rf8, pp.b5,c4,d6,e4,g7,h5.


The question is: how to defend the g7 squareafter 1. ...Be7 Black is OK, but isn’t it better to exchange the rooks and get rid of the theats along the seventh rank once and for all?

1...Rf7? 2.Nh6! gxh6 3.Qxh5.

Now the rook blocked h5 square.

3…Ne5 (3. ...Nf4!?) 4.Bxe5 dxe5 5.Qg6 Kf8  6.Qxh6 Kg8 7.Qg6 Kf8 8.Rb8 Rf6

9.Qh7, and White won.


(5) J.Polgar - Anand

Delhi, 1991

White: Kc1,Nd4,Rd2,Re1, pp.b2,b3,c2,f4,g2,h2;

Black: Ke7,Be8,Ra8,Rd8, pp.a6,b7,e6,f7,g7,h7.


After 1. ...Kf6 White does not threaten anything in particular. But Black decided to play actively:

1. ...Rd5?   and after 2.Nxe6! apeared without a pawn and without compensation. Here a pin and a discovered check decided result.


(6) Weng - Lalic S.

Dresden, 1998

White: Kf3,Re1,Re7, pp.b2,c3,d4,f4,g5,h4;

Black: Kf7,Ra5,Rb6, pp.b3,c4,d5,f6,g7,h7.


Both opponents displayed some “high class” in a rather simple endgame. Firstly Black retreated to the eighth rank, allowing the adversary to mate the king:

1. ...Kg8??

A fatal mistake.  1. ...Kg6 was correct with subsequent even play.


Now White fails to finish the game spectacularly with 2.g6!! and a mate.

2. ...Kf7 3.R1e7 Kg6, and the tedious game ended in a draw.


(7) Korchnoi - Karpov

Merano, 1981


White: Kg2,Qg4,Bd3,Be5,Re2, pp.a3,b2,d4,g5,h3;

Black: Kg8,Qf7,Nf3,Bb4,Rf8, pp.a6,b7,d5,e6,g7,h7.


Prophylactic move 1.Bg3! granted White substantial advantage, but Korchnoi decided to play actively: 1.g6, and after 1. …hxg6 2.Bg3 could receive 2. …Nh4 3.Kh2 with forced repetition.


Now let us consider the third type of prophylactic, designated as p3. Every player from a beginner to a super-grandmaster can bring out dozens of practical examples, when, grabbing the piece and making a move one instantly realizes that it leads to disaster. This happens to every player, but what is the underlying cause? The matter is that when we use prophylactic of p1 and p2 types, we see the oppponent’s threats, but after our move some of the tactical elements of the position can  change or new elements appear.

It happens rather often that while there is no immediate threat at the current moment, it emerges after opponent’s  inaccurate move which offers new possibilities. Therefore, prophylactic of the third type can be defined as the ability to take into account the change of tactical elements of a position after specific move.


(8) Dshunaev - Lputian

Erewan, 2001

White: Kg1,Qe3,Nf6,Bg2,Rb1, pp.a3,c3,f2,g5;

Black: Kf8,Nd3,Nf7,Bc8,Bg7,Ra8, pp.a4,c4,d5,e6,g6.


There is no danger of Qc5 so far, but after Black’s move 1. ...Nde5 the response 2.Qc5 led to mate, 1-0.


(9) Zhu - Hurtidze

Moscow, 2001

White: Ke1,Qc3,Ne2,Bd3,Ra1,Rh1, pp.a3,b2,c4,e3,f2,g2,h2;

Black: Kg8,Qa5,Nc6,Bc8,Ra8,Rf8, pp.a7,c5,d7,e6,f6,f7,h7.


Here b2-b4 does not threaten yet, but after 1. ...Ba6? the move 2.b4! wins the game.


(10) Bartel - Ivanov S.

Moscow, 2003

White: Kb1,Nc2,Nf3,Rc1,Rg1, pp.a2,b2,d4,e5,g2,h4;

Black: Kg8,Nc6,Ne4,Rc8,Rf8,  pp.b5,b7,d5,e6,g6,g7.


After 1.Na3! Na7 2.Rxc8 Rxc8 3.Rc1 a pair of double pawns determines White’s advantage, but in order to reinforce the position Bartel decides to transfer the knight to с5.

1.Nce1??  - after this move the rooks cannot defend each other and 1. …Nxd4! Follows with extra pawn for Black.


(11) Woitaszek - Bartel

Krynica, 2003

White: Kf1,Qg4,Nc6,Ne1, pp.a4,b5,f2,g3,h2;

Black: Kf8,Qb1,Nc3,Nf7, pp.d6,h3.


 White has sheer material advantage, and he decides to eliminate yet another troublesome opponent’s  pawn with 1.Qxh3?

But suddenly 1. … Qe4! follows, and White is forced to surrender a piece: 2.f3 Qe2 3.Kg1 Qxe1 4.Qf1, and here 4. …Qe3 5.Qf2 Qd3 6.b6 Nxa4 7.b7 Qb1 led to winning the game.


 It would be erroneous to assume that the prophylactic thinking has purely defensive aims—sometimes the prophylactic decisions demand activity in order to forestall opponent’s activity.Chess is timing”,--  as the great Fisher used to say.


(12) Mikenas - Khasin

Gorky, 1954

White: Kg1,Qe3,Nd4,Ne2,Bb1,Rd1,Rf1, pp.a2,b3,c4,e5,f4,g2,h3;

Black: Kh8,Qc5,Nb8,Nh6,Bb7,Rc8,Rf8, pp.a6,b4,d7,e6,f5,g7,h7.


Here Black threatens with 1. …g5! 2.fxg5 Nf7, destroying White’s centre, and it is therefore necessary to do something about that quickly.

1.g4! fxg4 2.hxg4 Nxg4 3.Qd3! g6.

After 3. ...Rf5 4.Qh3 Black would lose an exchange.

4.Qh3 Nxe5 5.fxe5 Qxe5 6.Qh6!

Now the struggle for the file begins and White creates the threat of Bxg6.

6. …Kg8 7.Rxf8 Rxf8 8.Rf1 Rxf1 9.Kxf1 Qf6 10.Ke1 Nc6, and after 11.Nf5 White has winning chances.

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