Thoughts on Dynamic Chess

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The term ‘dynamic chess’ is often used in characterizing a specific way of playing. It can be applicable to many phenomena: certain players, eras in chess history, schools of chess etc. Dynamic chess or play is also used to describe the nature of a certain position, be it in the opening, middlegame or even in the endgame … and undoubtedly there are good reasons why to use the description of ‘dynamic chess’ in all the aforementioned cases. However, this kind of terminological ambivalence might cause some trouble too, especially for the player who would like to incorporate the conception of dynamic chess into his studies.

One possible way to start exploring the concept of ‘dynamic chess’ is by having a look into chess history. Now this might fall far from the practical aspects of learning how to play good and interesting chess, but getting to know how chess was used to play certainly doesn’t hurt. It could even prove to be the opposite – the chess player’s psychological processes are certainly not only driven by accumulation of theoretical knowledge. Exploring the chess played in past and acquainting oneself with historical players could be a great asset in developing motivation. The idea of having role models is very common in chess because it adds an essential human factor to the otherwise strictly logical game. Also, one of the most approved methods of improving in chess is by mentorism, and chess history gives a vast selection of mentors to choose from!

In regards to dynamic chess in historical context, there are two eras which could be regarded as having an emphasis on dynamics. The first would be the era or romantic chess in the 19th century and the second era would be the post-war (WWII) period (e.g. 50’s and 60’s) in chess. These two eras were, of course, very different by nature.

In the 19th century, chess was yet to evolve into a sport, methodological approach to chess was non-existent and overall it could be said that chess was not as serious as it became later. People played for money in coffee shops … enjoying themselves without having to bother with 400 pages of theory in the Open Sicilian – the good times. And all of this could be seen reflecting in the chess played during those times – the chess played during those times was very combinational and the concept of prophylaxis and defence was not often used. During those times, many gambits in 1. e4 e5 were developed and some of the best attacking examples were produced (though it is often a misconception that no positional chess was played; see for example Harrwitz – Morphy 1958 (2)). However, it is not established that dynamic chess and romantic chess could be seen as similar. Romantic chess was very specific and for modern theoreticians, the popular openings during those times were fundamentally unsound. However, for the amateur who strives to improve, one could learn a lot from the chess played in the 19th century. While the openings might have been suspect, the fundamentally sound ideas of initiative, piece development and attacking were more or less in their pure form during those times. And this leads us to the connection between romantic chess and dynamic chess: to play dynamically means to be able to grasp the concepts of initiative, fast development and attacking.

While initiative, fast development and attacking largely constitute the practical aspects of dynamic play, the question of how to put the aforementioned elements into play in the correct way remains. The romantic era in chess came to an end when the theory of positional chess started to develop. Nimzowitsch, Lasker and Steinitz, to name a few, all had their saying on opening principles. In the early 20th century, chess theory evolved in a way which made it possible to methodically retain play for both sides in many. The existing openings were improved and many new openings (e.g. by the hypermodernists) were developed. Besides the emergence of complex defensive conceptions, prophylaxis etc., the evolution of chess theory naturally had a saying in how and when to attack.

Before continuing, it is probably important to provide the reader a definition of ‘dynamic play’. In his book “How to Play Dynamic Chess”, Valery Beim (2004: 7) gives the following guideline to understand dynamics in chess: “Dynamics should above all be understood as the capacity of pieces and pawns to move around the board.” This definition applies to all phases of the game, though mainly openings will be discussed.

The by-product of the development of chess theory in the first half of the 20th century were some dogmas which got a fair amount of critique in the post-war era. Issai Rozenfeld writes (1962: 12) that “modern” opening theory is characterized by trying to get the initiative already starting from the first moves – to lead the game into complex, combinational waters.
Rozenfeld explains further (ibid., 12):

“It is not by chance that some very sharp openings, such as the Sozin in the Sicilian have become popular. In many openings players tend to pick systems which give the opponent spatial or developmental advantage, but give in exchange some sort of compensation. This makes play sharp and gives more chances to play for a win. Nowadays the art of defence and positional shuffling of pieces is on such a high level that it takes more than just calm, precautious and passive play to get an edge against an opponent of equal strength. Therefore, the main characteristic of modern opening play is fighting for initiative in every possible way. However, sharp play has one interesting peculiarity. Namely, it usually takes sharp play by oneself to efficiently combat opponent’s sharp play. Calm play is rarely enough to counter sharp moves by your opponent. Therefore, grandmaster Tolush was right – chess is not a game for cowards. [. . .] It is important to remember that active counterplay is often the best defence.”

It is also very interesting to note how Rozenfeld explains the concept of development in the 60’s in comparison to the “classical positional play” played in the interwar era. Rozenfeld writes the following (ibid., 13):

“According to the principles of classical positional play, all pieces must be developed first and only after that it is possible to start with active operations. Up until that moment however, one must consolidate the position and develop pieces to better squares. Nowadays things are different. In modern theory it is often the case that mobilization of pieces takes place during the development of an attack. Moreover, the attack is often started in very early stages of the game.”

To illustrate the aforementioned ideas, the following examples are given by Rozenfeld in his (co-authored with Iivo Nei) book “Opening Theory” (Rozenfeld 1962: 12 – 18):

Attacking early in the Anglo-Grünfeld Defence:

Fighting for initiative in the Three Knights Defence:

Considering 5. Nd5! in the Three Knights Defence illustrates the fact that it is not advisable to play on a positional autopilot. For every position, it is wise to first of all spot the peculiarities and only then think of a concrete reply, be it positional or aggressive.

Rozenfeld provides us (1962: 15) with an example of concrete play by Alekine in Alekhine – Böök, Margate 1938 in a Queen’s Gambit Accepted. In this case, dynamical possibilities prove to be more important than material:

Another interesting thing to notice about dynamic opening play is approach to pawn structures. Pawns are the least mobile pieces on the board. The infrastructure of piece placement is defined by the placement of pawns. Therefore, it is very important to treat your pawns correctly – especially in phases of the game where piece development is important. In regards to dynamic play, positionally unorthodox approaches to pawn structures may provide interesting prospects in piece activity.

In the Caro-Kann Bronstein-Larsen Variation Black neglects its pawn structure to gain an open file:

In the following example provided by Issai Rozenfeld (1962: 10) in the Philidor Defence, Black creates isolated doubled pawns to achieve central presence and provide interesting paths for its pieces to move along:

To conclude, let’s return to the question on how to incorporate the conception of dynamic chess into studying. So far we have mainly discussed openings, but dynamics play certainly an important role in all the phases of the game. Unfortunately, the concept of dynamics in practical play is definitely not an easy idea to grasp, especially as there is no certain way to measure dynamics. Especially when the play is very concrete. But thinking about dynamics is certainly not useless. In the phases of the game, where strategic decision-making is necessary, thinking about dynamics is certainly a good way to evaluate the position. After all, it is necessary to make way into the opponent’s camp one way or another and checkmating is definitely a “dynamic operation”. Increasing the dynamic and attacking possibilities of a position certainly needs precision and might lead to unfavourable positions if executed incorrectly, but the option of doing so is certainly worth considering. It is suitable to end these thoughts quoting Issai Rozenfeld (1962: 15): “Many contemporary masters play by the following principle: being uncomfortable is fine, given that the opponent is also uncomfortable. This way of playing has better prospects than playing in a comfortable way, but allowing the opponent to be comfortable too.” … And manipulating with the dynamics of a position can certainly make things uncomfortable – or interesting – for both sides.

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