The Evolution of Chess Theory

Grandmaster, and master theorist, Alexander Kotov, explained that before the introduction of these systematic approaches players merely played by a rule of thumb, assessing positions based solely on their own experience and methods of comparison.  But when Steinitz and his successors introduced the concepts of open lines, pawn structure, weak points, piece position, space and the control of the center, the world of chess changed forever. 

Thus chess is ever evolving so that even the lines of play set forth by the most influential master theorists are subject to modification.  The evolution of chess has been so dramatic that the renowned games of genius in the 18th century, played by such greats as Paul Morphy, Howard Staunton and Adolf Anderssen, no doubt seem relatively elementary to modern grandmasters.  Not that the tactics were inferior or even erroneous; indeed in their day these maneuvers were revolutionary and brilliant.  But as subsequent masters painstakingly dissected and thoroughly analyzed these legendary games of genius, they soon discovered counter-play and strategies that took the game to a whole new level.  This forced competitive players to stay abreast of their opponents’ innovations.

These innovations and detailed analyses also forced theorists to change their thinking about certain aspects of the game.  For example, Nimzovich introduced the tactical maneuver of attacking the enemy pawn chain at its base as soon as possible.  However, today’s theorists seem less captivated by this approach than when it was popularized. (Kotov, Think Like a Grandmaster, p 104). The concept of attacking the pawn chain at its base has not been discarded, but it is no longer employed obsessively, no longer considered a target that must be pursued as soon as possible.  Then there is the Steinitz-Tarrasch, old school tradition, of placing great value on a queenside pawn majority, which has been displaced by Capablanca’s idea of pawn islands.

Yet another example of how competitive play and theory has changed is the demise of the once popular King’s Gambit Opening.  After losing badly in 1960 to the King’s Gambit Opening in his first ever game against Boris Spassky (who was nicknamed the “Knight of the King’s Gambit”), Bobby Fischer went home and worked out a winning defense.  After he published the defense in an article titled “A Bust to the King’s Gambit,” (Fischer, A Bust to the King’s Gambit). no one, including Spassky, ever played it against Fischer again in tournament play.  Indeed, the King’s Gambit Opening has disappeared entirely from grandmaster play.  Nor did Fischer’s influence stop here.  His innovative methods for playing the Najdorf Sicilian, the Nimzo-Indian and other systems are still unsurpassed.

One of the greatest World Champions ever to hold the title, Grandmaster José Raúl Capablanca, observed that just as the knight seems more terrible to the weaker player until he increases in strength and learns the value of the bishop, so too, “the masters of today are far ahead of the masters of former generations.” (Capablanca, A Primer of Chess, p 104).  Three-time World Champion Grandmaster Mikhail Botvinnik, who retired in 1970, admitted that modern players are more familiar with a growing number of typical positions and the new methods of play being developed; everything, he explained, including the technique of positional play is improving. (Kotov, Think Like a Grandmaster, p 90). And just as either of these would have predicted, this upward trend has continued till the present; so that modern grandmasters such as Magnus Carlsen, Levon Aronian, Vladimir Kramnik, Viswanathan Anand, Teimour Radjabov, Garry Kasparov, et al, doubtless know even more than past, albeit legendary, World Champions. 

Thus, because innovation and deep analyses continue, current lines of play are always in flux, vulnerable to change and growth every time some master introduces a proven, more effective strategy or maneuver for a given position.  With each generation certain theorems and lines of play are modified, refined and perfected so that today’s players have a virtual encyclopedia of advanced lines of play and complicated tactics at their fingertips.  But would be young theorists must not neglect the proven theories, which necessarily predicate all innovation, even the innovations of the greatest of players. 

To speak of the innovations of each generation, is not to say that the totality of chess theory is a target for new theorists.  The great majority of concepts and theories continue to survive scrutiny and the occasional assault from new creative thinkers.  For example, although many other perfectly sound openings have been introduced, the King’s Pawn Opening (e2-e4) still wins the popularity contest, even among top players.  It was a favorite of Philidor—an unofficial World Champion of the 1700’s.  And a century later it was a favorite of Staunton—an unofficial World Champion in the 1800’s.  Staunton observed that,

When the men are first arranged in battle order, it is seen that the only pieces which have the power of moving are the knights, and that to liberate the others it is indispensably necessary to move a pawn.  Now as the king’s pawn, on being moved, gives freedom both to the queen and to the king’s bishop, it is more frequently played at the beginning of the game than any other. (Staunton, Howard, The Chess Player’s Handbook).

A century after Staunton, it was still the favorite opening of Bobby Fischer—one of the greatest World Champions in the 1900’s; “Best by test” he would say. (Fischer, Bobby, My 60 Memorable Games).  To this day it continues to be a favorite of players at all levels. 

Likewise, several fundamentals have stood the test of time, such as rapid and complete development, controlling the center, gaining space and mobility, attaining and retaining tempi, exploiting threat opportunities, establishing a centralized harmonious position for the middlegame and a collective coordinated endgame advance, etc.  Occasionally, when someone does come up with an ingenious innovation—a move in a certain situation that makes the chess world take note—it will, most assuredly, rest upon these and other proven fundamentals.  For example, although castling has long been accepted as a necessary part of development, it has been shown that in some games (such as certain versions of the Caro-Kann, see Appendix C, page 203), castling for Black is not a real priority.  In select games, the lines of play are such that Black is cramped early and unable to castle.  However, by initiating a rapid series of exchanges he is able to bring about the endgame often even before development is complete.  Black takes advantage of this by forgoing the castle and advancing his pawns and king to the center for the endgame.  Here, the castle is exchanged for a superior endgame position to prepare for the general endgame advance.   

Howard Staunton
Adolf Anderssen
Vasily Smyslov
Mikhail Botvinnik
Alexander Kotov
Mikhail Tal
Tigran Petrosian
Anatoly Karpov
Boris Spassky
Bobby Fischer
Young Magnus Carlsen vs Garry Kasparov