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The symbiosis of attack and defense

Chess TalkPosted by Lars Bo Hansen Fri, May 29, 2015 19:55:06
When a chess player first starts out in the game, the first he or she will learn is how to attack. Coaches will show brilliant attacking games by Morphy, Tal or Fischer and ask the student to solve hundreds of tactic exercises. It is easy to understand why many young players believe chess is about attack.

But as you grow in chess, it becomes increasingly clear that at higher levels, defense equals attack. The two form a kind of symbiosis. Being on the attack is not an advantage in itself!

One of the biggest leaps in chess understanding over the last hundred years has been in the progress of defensive skills. These days, you cannot just throw caution to the wind and advance pawns or sacrifice pieces left and right – a skilled and experienced defender will easily pick such a reckless style apart and initiate a crushing counterattack. For an attack to be successful, it has to be well-founded. This means that the attack must meet the demands of the position and follow the rules for sound attacking play.

Already the first World Champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, pointed this out. You should only attack if you have an advantage – when your attack is well-founded – but on the other hand you have to attack in such circumstances or the advantage will disappear (this advice has since been refined, but the basic point stands).

To be successful at the Master level or higher, you must be able to both attack and defend – attack when appropriate and defend when that is what the position calls for. You cannot just say “I always want to attack”.

This realization has struck even some of the best and most creative attacking players in the history of chess. Many players like the style of an attacking genius like former World Champion Mikhail Tal, but as the Dutch Grandmaster Genna Sosonko has noted, there are two versions of Tal – Tal 1.0 and Tal 2.0, so to speak. The first version of Tal was the one that tore apart the older generation of top players, earned the nickname “The Magician from Riga” and became the by then youngest World Champion in 1960 at the age of 23 by defeating Botvinnik.

When people talk about “playing like Tal”, they implicitly refer to Tal 1.0. But that version of Tal lost the title again already the following year and gradually – while remaining a hugely dangerous attacking player when given the chance – adopted a more universal and calculated attacking style, underscored by the fact that Tal still holds the record for the longest streak among Grandmasters without losing a game (96 games in 1973-1974).

Karpov once said that “Tal “came, saw and conquered”… But gradually players became accustomed to his attacks; it can be said that Tal taught them to defend. In turn, having found the keys to his attacking style, they forced Tal to relearn…His style changed completely compared with the style of the 1960s and became more universal”. Tal himself said in an interview in 1979: “It’s nothing to do with me – it’s my opponents! My style is the same. But I have become a little older and, perhaps, I see a little more for my opponents and a little less for myself. I am convinced that, protected by all this armor, I would simply have torn to pieces that challenger of 1960!”

This can of course never be tested, but the point is clear – good defensive skills are as important as attacking skills, and the two cannot really be separated! At the Master level, you have to have both and to be able to switch seamlessly between them.

That’s why our next Online Master Course focuses on the dynamic relationship between Attack, Defense and Counterattack. If you wish to learn more about the Master Course concept, click here ...



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