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Sunday, July 20, 2008

How to Analyze the Position?

Notes on a lecture by NM Scott Massey

NM Scott Massey lectured once on "how you analyze" during a game. He began by considering some criteria that have been developed over the years by several chess writers, which show a certain progression from focusing on the opening, to the middlegame, and then to the endgame. Then he looked at a famous game, Steinitz-Rosenthal, Vienna 1873 (see below), where we could see various modes of analysis in action. The following are simply notes on what he covered and cannot possibly repeat more than the basics for those who missed the lecture.

Positional Elements
Wilhelm Steinitz famously wrote that "You must attack to win" and "Many advantages are temporary." When these remarks are repeated these days, people generally see him as saying that as soon as you have an advantage you must attack or risk allowing that advantage to slip away. But how did Steinitz evaluate an advantage? He offers the following principles in his writings:

* Development
* Mobility
* Control of the centre
* The position of the kings
* Weak and strong squares in both camps
* Pawn structure
* Queenside pawn majority
* Open files
* Two bishops versus two knights or bishop and knight

These principles are really the principles we see at the beginning of the game when the fight is over the centre and development. They move into the middlegame and ending to some extent, but it is interesting that one of the first writers to offer a systematic approach to analysis gives us principles that are most helpful in the opening stages.

Moving into the Middlegame
A different set of criteria, much simplified compared to Steinitz, are offered by Reuben Fine in his book The Middle Game in Chess:

* Material
* Pawn structure
* Mobility
* King safety
* What's the threat?

These are principles that are most helpful in thinking about the middlegame as you are making decisions and planning your next move.

"What if the Queens came off?"
More recent writers have thought about the implications of decisions at every stage of the game upon the endgame. In what he calls the "Static Evaluation of a Position," Iossif Dorfman offers the following criteria, which are invaluable for any concrete evaluation of a position:

* Pawn formation, including:
o Doubled and tripled pawns
o Protected passed pawns
o Number of pawn islands, hanging pawns, compact pawn chain
o Pawn majority in the centre
o Pawn majority on the queenside
o Weak squares, isolated pawn, backward pawn
o Group of weak squares of one colour blockade
o Half-open files, out-posts
o Bad pieces
o Types of centres and space
* Who has the better position after exchange of queens?
* Material correlation
* King position

The most significant item is "Who has the better position after the exchange of queens?" Clearly, for Dorfman the ending is always in view. He prefaces his criteria by distinguishing between what he calls "static" and "dynamic" issues--"static" issues being those that are most important long-term:

"Candidate moves are chosen in accordance with the static balance. By static are implied factors that have enduring effect, whereas dynamic factors are change in a state of the position--with the energy of a break through, with the coming into contact with the opposing army, with the passage of time, their role diminishes and reduces to naught. Find a critical position (a turning point in the play, a moment when there is a possible change in the hierarchy of strategic elements)--a position in which a decision has to be taken regarding a possible exchange or a possible change in pawn formation or the end of a series of forced moves. If for one of the players the static balance is negative, he must without hesitation employ dynamic means and be ready to go in for extreme measures." --Dorfman

Let's look at a game to see how well it illustrates these principles. The following game has been annotated by several authors, including Chernev in The Most Instructive Games Ever Played and Tartakower in his 500 Games of Chess. Some of their notes have been incorporated.

Samuel Rosenthal - William Steinitz [C46]
Vienna (1) 1873
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