Sunday, February 10, 2019


What does prophylaxis mean in chess? I think a good chunk of club players might not be fully aware about how important the concept is over the board, and even some players who are aware can forget about it completely during their own games. In reality, prophylaxis is not an advanced idea, but it does requires a certain mindset to be used effectively.

In medicine, "prophylaxis" specifically means some kind of treatment that is designed to prevent a disease from happening. For example, you get a flu shot as prophylaxis against the flu virus. Of course, it's not a sure bet that you'll actually get the flu if you neglect the shot, but if you do get the vaccine you're significantly less likely to get sick.

Over the chessboard, it's exactly the same idea, just a little more abstract. Prophylaxis in chess is anything that prevents your opponent from doing something that would be bad for you in the future. Now, that's a very broad definition, but I'll illustrate with a basic example that I think many of you would be familiar with:

In this position, most experienced players with white would probably play a move like h2-h3 to make luft before doing anything else. But why? After all, black isn't even threatening back rank mate right now. Why would we play h2-h3 like this if there's no threat?

This highlights the key difference between "prophylaxis" and "defense". The point of h2-h3 here isn't to defend against an immediate threat of checkmate; rather, it's designed to prophylactically stop all future back rank mates because we'll always have an escape square on h2.

Of course, I can't say for sure that you will get back ranked if you neglect such a move, but you'd definitely be at a higher risk - for example, here's how things could go horribly wrong if you don't make luft: 1.Rd1? Qb2! 2.Qxb2 Rxd1#. That would be painful, but it's completely avoidable if you had simply played h2-h3 earlier.

I'll show one more example that you might commonly see in practice.

We have a pretty standard Sicilian position, with white to move. What do you think is the most common move played by grandmasters here? You might think that it would be something to continue development - perhaps 9.Be3 or 9.Qe2, but it's actually 9.Kh1.

To someone unfamiliar with prophylaxis, this may seem like a somewhat bizarre move - after all, what does that king have to do with anything? Well, imagine that later black plays something like Qc7-b6 and then even d6-d5 and Bf8-c5. Suddenly you can see that the Nd4 would be in a dangerous pin against the king on g1, and we'd probably have to do some uncomfortable things to defend and escape. By playing 9.Kh1, white prophylactically avoids all that by stepping away from the pin before it even exists.

With those examples in mind, we can generalize our definition of prophylaxis as just any move that stops a good idea our opponent might have. If our opponent has the idea of playing for back rank mate, we stop it before it even becomes a threat. If our opponent has an idea of creating a pin against one of our pieces, we make some move to evade that before it even happens.

We can keep applying this to literally anything else - say you notice your opponent wants to maneuver a knight to a strong outpost; you could be prophylactic and stop that. Or suppose you have two undefended pieces and you think your opponent might try to fork them later; you could be prophylactic by moving one of them back to safety.

This leads us to the formula for thinking prophylactically - you have to ask yourself what your opponent wants to do. Put yourself in his/her shoes and try to figure out what their ideas are, and then stop them before they actually get a chance to happen over the board. I guarantee you this is something that every single grandmaster in the world does both regularly and effectively.

Have you ever played in a simul against a strong player and been sitting at your board, trying to guess what their next move will be? Perhaps you spend several minutes looking at all the obvious moves, and you come up with your own prepared responses to them. Then the master/IM/GM comes around to you, looks at the position for a few seconds, and to your surprise plays something completely innocuous with no apparent purpose. It's a good bet that move had prophylactic intentions. There was some tactical idea they were worried about in the future, so they simply move away from it long before it could even become a real threat.

I know this because I do this when giving simuls myself! I'm only human; I simply don't have the time or energy to calculate lots of variations on every single board, so I make things easier for myself by preventing the tactics from being able to happen in the first place. I use prophylaxis now so that I won't have to defend later. Only when my position is secure enough do I go about executing my own plans to actually try and win.

This brings us to the last point, which is that the key to gradually improving your position is prophylaxis. Next time I'll show some practical examples from real games.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Game of the Month: January 2019

In this game of the month for January 2019, we will see how a rash positional decision early in the opening can have a lasting impact throughout the game.

Kehoe, Webster (2030) - Campbell, David (2052)
CCCR Wednesdays

1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.f4 g6 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Bb5 (D)

This type of Closed Sicilian with an early f2-f4 by white is typically known as the Grand Prix attack. Sometimes white chooses a setup with g2-g3 and Bf1-g2, but with 5.Bb5 Webster signals his intention to give up the bishop pair to permanently damage black's pawn structure.

5. ... a6!?

It is widely considered here that 5. ... Nd4! is the strongest response for black. The point is simple: we avoid any Bxc6 ideas and threaten to take the bishop anyway "for free". After the most common continuation 6.0-0 (White has also tried 6.Nxd4!? cxd4 but this gives black a strong cramping pawn in the center) 6. ... Nxb5 7.Nxb5 black simply has the bishop pair and it's not immediately obvious where the compensation is. Typically white doesn't accomplish much in those positions.

With his last move black daringly declares his opponent's idea to be so worthless that he's even willing to waste a tempo to force him to execute it! If not 5. ... Nd4, I would have at the very least preferred 5. ... d6, which contributes to development and influences the center.

6.Bxc6 bxc6 7.0-0 (D)

7. ... d5?

Although it looks natural to expand into the center like this, in reality this hasty advance is a serious mistake. The issue is that if white ever starts attacking c5, there's no way black can support it with a pawn anymore - he will either have to resort to painfully passive contortions to hold on to it or just accept its loss. For this reason the restrained 7. ... d6 was correct.


A viable alternative was 8.e5! to close down the Bg7. This also would avoid a small escape that black could have taken on the next move.

8. ... e6

Black will be worse off no matter what, but I think the best shot is to try the endgame after 8. ... Bxc3 9.bxc3 dxe4 10.dxe4 Qxd1 11.Rxd1 Nf6 - the opposite colored bishops offer some drawing chances and at least white's structure is damaged too.

9.Qe1 Ne7 10.Qf2 (D)

It should be clear now that black is struggling to defend c5.

10. ... d4

Unfortunately there's not much else to suggest. 10. ... Qa5 runs into the unpleasant 11.Bd2, creating the threat of Nc3-xd5. Although we're only ten moves into the game, white is already completely dominating, all because of the weak c5 square. It is instructive to see the rest of the execution:

11.Na4 c4 Desperation. If 11. ... Qa5, then 12.b3 and 13.Ba3 will win the pawn anyway. 12.dxc4 Qa5 13.b3

Unfortunately there's no way black can take advantage of the exposed long diagonal. 13. ... d3 can even be met by the flashy 14.cxd3! Bxa1 15.Bd2 and 16.Rxa1 with dominating compensation for the exchange.

13. ... 0-0 14.Ba3 Re8 15.Rad1 Bd7 16.Bc5 Even though there's no pawn there anymore, it's still all about the c5 square! 16. ... Nc8 17.Nxd4 Bf8 18.Nf3 Qc7 19.Ne5 Rd8 20.Bxf8 Kxf8 21.Qh4 Kg8 22.c5 Rb8 23.Qf6 1-0

This is a good example of how just one or two hasty decisions in the opening can have a disastrous effect on the rest of the game. After 7. ... d5, white played almost flawlessly to realize his advantage.