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How hockey imitates chess (and vice versa)

Chess TalkPosted by Lars Bo Hansen Tue, June 09, 2015 15:29:27
This season I have started following a new sport: NHL hockey. Right now my new favorite team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, is fighting a tense battle vs. the Chicago Blackhawks for the Stanley Cup. Go Bolts!

Although my native Denmark plays in the A-group in the ice hockey World Championships and a few Danish players are performing well in the NHL, the sport is not really big in my country where soccer dominates. But since most of the other local Major League teams here in Central Florida, like Orlando Magic in the NBA and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL, are currently rebuilding (another word for “we know we are not competitive; please have patience, dear fans”), my son Martin and I have this season predominantly followed our new MLS team, Orlando City Soccer, and the Tampa Bay Lightning in the NHL.

We even went to our first live hockey games ever. And that’s when I realized that hockey is in fact a lot like chess in the ways goals are scored and games are decided. Clearly, hockey and chess are very different, but the basic strategies for scoring are remarkably similar.

From my admittedly limited hockey experience, it seems to me that most goals are scored in one of four major ways, and each of them can be found in chess as well:

1) A lonely shot from afar. A player takes a shot from significant distance and the puck goes in. In most cases, though, this is pretty unlikely to be successful at the pro level. The goalie will typically be able to see the puck and make a save – if not, he is often credited with an error. It’s the same in chess: Sometimes players “take a shot” by initiating an attack out of the blue, but in general such an attack is not likely to strike through in the absence of weaknesses in the opponent’s defenses or mistakes by the “goalie”. I have written about this in a previous blog, and it is a core theme in our ongoing Attack-Defense-Counterattack Online class (more about those classes here ...) Unfounded attacks on a king’s position with no weaknesses against a strong player are not likely to succeed. At lower levels it is maybe possible to score with a lonely shot in hockey (I am guessing here; as I said I have never watched a hockey game below the NHL level before) or an unfounded attack on the king in a chess game, but typically not at higher levels where defensive skills are strong. It often takes more than that to score in chess and hockey.

2) Create traffic in front of the goal, disturbing the goalie’s vision of the puck and get ready for rebounds. This seems to be a very powerful strategy in hockey, leading to many goals, and the same strategy can be used in chess. The key point here is to get attackers in attack position close to the goal, in chess the king’s position. Garry Kasparov, frequently referred to as the greatest chess player ever, has often stated that an attacking knight on f5, close to a castled king, is worth at least a pawn. That’s one of the most important rules of attack: Get more and more pieces to join the attack. The attack is especially powerful if it targets a weakness in the defense. Against a strong defender you will often have to create weaknesses; your opponent will not voluntarily weaken his kingside. In hockey there will often be rapid puck movement in order to catch the goalie and any blockers out of position. The same in chess: Identify targets and shift your point of attack as the opponent rushes to defend the first target, leaving another vulnerable.

3) Counterattacks that create 2-vs-1 or 1-vs-0 situations. Clearly many goals are scored – in basically any sport, including hockey – as a result of a fast break where the attacking side outnumbers the defense. In chess, an important attacking concept is that of the “Attacking (or “Assault”) Ratio: Try to create a situation where you are able to outnumber your opponent close to his goal/king. In chess, there are basically two ways of doing so, each associated with a former World Champion. The first one was often used by Mikhail Tal (especially the version I called “Tal 1.0” in a previous blog post): Launch as many of your pieces towards the opponent’s king as fast as you can. Using this method, Tal scored a lot of rapid victories in his early years, before opponents started to learn how to play better defense against such quick assaults (causing Tal 2.0 to adopt a more calculated attacking style). The other approach is associated with Alexander Alekhine who would often start by maneuvering on the queenside, and only when the opponent was distracted on that side of the board he would launch a swift switch to the kingside, outnumbering and crushing the opponent on that wing.

4) Power Play. In hockey, the power play is basically an institutionalized version of c) above, playing 5-vs-4 for two minutes as compensation for some offense committed by an opposing player. Chess doesn’t have an institutional equivalent, but it is common to create situations with a positive Attacking Ratio because of an opponent’s piece being out of play on the other wing – very similar to Alekhine’s attacking method as mentioned above.

Understanding strategies for “creating scoring chances” is fundamental to success in all sports – it is interesting how sports might be able to learn from and imitate each other in that respect.

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