Ancient Greek Warfare and Chess

If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that this week is the 42nd Annual World Open . I’ll be leaving tomorrow, so in all likelihood, this will be my last post until I get back.

Chess is a lot like ancient Greek warfare. Each soldier would line up with both a large shield (pawns) , and a spear/sword (pieces). After a few fights, it was noted that to attack with the spear alone was difficult, and had limited levels of success with high casualty rates. Greek generals opted to use the shield instead, with the goal of pushing the opponent of the field (gaining space). However, shields don’t kill people. A side only won the battle if the other side ran away  and opened the potential to be stabbed by turning their backs (retreat). This battle strategy seems fairly basic, but it actually is important to understanding space in chess. I thought for today’s post I’ll share my first game where I outplayed and  beat a 1700 (I’d beaten one 1700 before, but he had hung a rook in a winning position, so that doesn’t really count). When I played this game, I had just broken 1500, so there are a couple obvious missteps I made, but nonetheless, I think it is a good example of “Greek Warfare” chess.

Steincamp – Dommalapati (Virginia Closed, 2011)

1. c4 e6 2. d4 d5

3. e3?! I tried to avoid all Queen’s Gambit Declined theory in all my games when I was younger. Obviously, this is not such a good idea, but when you are constantly playing up, it is sometimes advantageous to play non–main line moves to throw off your higher rated opponent.

3…Nf6 4. Nc3 Be7 5. Nf3 O-O

6. a3? This is not so much a mistake, but an unnecessary precaution. If I played this game today, I might try 6. cxd5, trying to reach a Carlsbad pawn structure.

6…c5 7. Be2 Nc6 8. O-O a6

9. dxc5 One of the reasons I became a stronger player was my ability to expand on the queenside and gain space. My idea is to immediately follow up with b2–b4.

9…Bxc5 10. b4 Be7 11. cxd5

11…exd5?! This move creates an isolated pawn in the center. While White can force Black to have an isolated pawn, he should have played …Nxd5 first trying to trade down before creating the weakness.

12. Nd4! The critical idea. By creating a blockade, black cannot push the d5 pawn to d4 with hopes of a trade. Now I have the option to try Be2–f3 and put pressure on the blocked pawn.

Qc7 13. Bb2 Be6 14. Rc1 Rac8 15. Qd2 Qb8

16. f4 My computer believes that this is the best move, but I don’t think it is the most principled approach. My pawn on e3 is backwards and if black can trade down, a rook on e8 could spell problems for me. The reason I played this move is because it gained space on the kingside. Black is playing very passively, and is letting me do what I want with the position.

16…Bd6 17. Nxe6 fxe6 18. g4 Ne7 19. g5 Nd7

20. Bg5! The whole point of 17…Nxe6. Black’s pawn on e6 is way weaker than the former isolated pawn was on d5. Even if this move does not win a pawn (it does), my development alone is enough for me to have a significant advantage.

20…Nf5 21. Nxd5! Rxc1 22. Rxc1 Kh8 23. Bxf5 Rxf5

24. Qd4? My first real “miss” in the game. I don’t have record of if I was in time pressure, so I don’t know how I missed this opportunity and later tactics in the game. Much better is the hard–to–find 24. Nc7! If Black tries to keep his bishop with 24… Bxc7 25. Qxd7 Qg8 to stop mate 26. Rxc7 Rf7 is the only way to stop the threat of Qxg7+ followed by Rc8. 27. Qxf7 +- and Black could have easily resigned. At least on the bright side, 24. Qd4 still gives me an advantage.

24…Qf8 25. Nc7 e5 26. Qd3 Nc5 27. Rxc5 Bxc5 28. Ne6 Bxe3+ 29. Qxe3 exf4 30. Qd3

30…Qe7 The queen was overloaded, guarding both back rank mate, and the rook. Unfortunately, black will lose the queen regardless of what he does. The queen most move in response to the threat from the knight, and Bxg7+ is a very strong possibility. After 30… Qf7 31. Qd8+ and mate will follow shortly.

31. Qxf5 1-0

Even though I missed some tactical opportunities in this game, it became very clear that I got a strong advantage after acquiring a lot of space. Because Black did very little to contest both the center and the wings, I was able to expand on both sides, while toggling my pieces to attack my opponent’s weak central pawns.

I think one key takeaway from this game is that you can’t get by playing passively. Unfortunately, there are some players who think that good defense and passive play are the same thing, so choose to make nothing moves in complicated positions. However, there is a critical difference between these two ideas. In my ten years of competitive play, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a master say: “This is a very strong passive move.” The reason is, strong defensive play means that the defender is always creating areas for counter play, and is ready to pounce should the attacker make a mistake. With a passive player, there is no such thing.

In this game, my opponent played extremely passively. For example, you may have noticed that my opponent played 15… Qb8?! and from that square, it effectively did nothing for the rest of the game, and when it did move, all it did was defend from f8. As I created space, my opponent chose to give it to me.

Feel like I missed something? Feel free to comment below!

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