Foundations Of Chess Strategy

Applying Business Methods to Chess Preparation and Training

Lars Bo Hansen

Reviewer: John Watson
176 pages

A sophisticated effort about chess strategy, in the practical sense, is FOUNDATIONS OF CHESS STRATEGY: Applying Business Methods to Chess Preparation and Training by Lars Bo Hansen [To reduce confusion, I’ll call him LB Hansen until further down in the review].

This is a deceptively complex book and the author has a variety of theses, some related to the world of business theory and some not. Be aware that it is rather advanced, not out of reach of developing players but better suited to players with quite a bit of experience. There isn’t sufficient space to discuss the book in the depth that it deserves, so before I describe particulars I will quote from the Introduction and early pages to give an overall feel of what the author is doing:

“… it is becoming increasingly difficult to play chess according to ‘standard principles.’ It is no longer sufficient to know how to play according to basic principles in typical situations ­such as ‘isolated d-pawn’, ‘minority attack’ or ‘space advantage’. While there are still important principles that underlie the evaluation of many positions, they have now become commodities – knowledge and understanding of how to handle such positions is no longer reserved for masters; this has become public knowledge and as such cannot any longer be used to build a competitive advantage against a knowledgeable opponent. More concrete and deep analyses of the position and of the two players are required if you want to outsmart your opponent and become successful in chess. After all, the purpose of chess is to beat the opponent and get a point on the scoreboard!”

And that’s one of L B Hansen’s key points: beauty or even “correctness” (and similar factors) is nice but not the goal. What is necessary is to take into account all competitive factors, including the type of opponent, your own style, the practical demands of the position, and the conditions at the board (e.g., time controls, etc.). Style is a priority consideration:

“Therefore it becomes increasingly important to understand your own strengths and weaknesses as a chess-player, as well as those of the opponent. Not all players handle all positions equally well, when they can no longer resort to their basic knowledge of how to handle ‘this type of position’. Some players are very good at concrete calculations, while others thrive in simple positions. To be­come successful, you must understand these differences. Put simply, you need to shift focus from how to win the position to how to defeat your opponent.”

This philosophy puts one in mind of Gligoric’s book I PLAY AGAINST PIECES, a title which seemingly espouses the reverse philosophy. Whether or not Gligoric actually put this into strict practice is unknown (although he seems peculiarly “objective”), L B Hansen might point out that he could have been even more successful by factoring in his opponent’s predilections.

L B Hansen goes on to introduce the analogy between business and chess in terms of “inside-out” versus “outside-in” strategies: “To avoid this potential deadlock [everyone having access to the same information], contemporary business strategy experts and researchers increasingly emphasize the role of internal resources rather than the external position. The outside-in perspective is dominant in chess. It is how we are taught to think and work with chess from an early age – objective assessment of the position. It is this perspective that leads players to go for opening variations because in ECO, lnformator or a New in Chess Yearbook it is assessed as leading to a slight advantage for White. But what if you are a positional player and the position demands a radical tactical approach? Or conversely, what if the position is evaluated as slightly better for White because Black has an isolated pawn, but actually you prefer active piece play over pawn-structure?

“… as outlined above, the internal competences – the abilities of the chess-player – may not fit the external opportunities. The player may simply not be capable of playing the position. He may feel uncomfortable with having weak pawns in return for active play and may not have a clue as to how to continue. Then having a slight nominal advantage rarely helps…The players in a game are humans (forget about comput­ers for a second), and the choices they make are influenced by their background, experience, self-confidence, personality, etc. This means that what is the right choice in a given position for one player is not the right choice for another player with a completely different personality and chess style. Therefore there is no ‘best’ choice in a (strategic) position… It is not enough to evaluate material, initiative, pawn ­structure and other structural considerations generically – these considerations should be held up against the characteristics of the two players. The style and personality of the com­batants should be included in the decision pro­cess as well. This means that we should give up the assumption that in a given strategic position there is one best way to play which should be chosen by any player in the given position against any opponent sitting on the other side of the board. The assumption that chess is played on a board and against pieces should be aban­doned and replaced by an approach which acknowledges that chess is played between opponents and that the aim is to win the game against this particular opponent…

“Take the example of two equally strong play­ers but with different styles – one is solid and positional, the other a sharp attacking player… These two should recognize their differences and evaluate the same position in different ways – without paying too much at­tention to the ‘right’ evaluation that chess ex­perts would put on the position. This is most likely to lead to the best practical results. Who has not been in the situation of having a posi­tion on the board which you knew was objec­tively okay, but still you felt uncomfortable, because the position did not really fit your style? Honestly – did you do well in such games?”

This philosophy leads to a book’s worth of analyzing players’ styles, tendencies, likes and dislikes. It is a huge effort which I can’t possibly describe in full, and in my opinion is set apart even more by its rich examples than by its philosophy. I can only imagine how long the author took to compile such appropriate illustrations of his points. The variety of players and types of positions is remarkable, sometimes ones that the author’s sharp eye has noticed at an event in which he played.

As the book goes on, his purely chess insights – based upon experience, analysis, and reflection – come to play a greater and greater role, or at least that’s the way I see it. Early on, he ties in business thinking when he suggests that chess strategy involves not just finding a plan but a string of consecutive plans. By contrast, I just now opened the book to a section towards the end concerning the features of games with shorter time limits and/or time scrambles. The section is dotted with examples from L B Hansen’s own games, describing the difficulty of choosing between the normally-suggested “do-nothing” approach until the time control is reached (best followed in the case of sustainable advantages) versus a temporary advantage that might slip away with a few safe and static moves. He gives the interesting advice that in time scrambles one should keep the initiative (it’s harder to defend than attack) and keep the pieces “focused and close together” so as not to be subject to double attacks and such. This may bear some tangential relationship to business strategy but probably only in the cosmological sense that everything is related to everything.

The largest section and longest chapters of the book have to do with separating World Champions and other great players into classifications/types of players. These classifications are meant to reveal fundamental inclinations and practices, revealed even in their annotations! He uses four general categories:

(a) Activists, who are attackers, great tacticians and bold sacrificers. They often take risks and employ almost irrationally aggressive and enterprising methods. Hansen classifies Tal, Anand, Shirov and Morozevich as Attackers. Their main weaknesses are rather obvious, i.e., that they willingly take on positions in which they may stand worse, that their risky play may simply backfire against them. (b) Pragmatics [“Pragmatists” seems a better word to me], who are calculators and fact-based players. They tend to be very theoretical in the opening (which often goes with sharp attacks). They are, as their name suggests, practical and not irrational. Hansen includes Lasker, Alekhine, Euwe, Spassky, Fischer, Kasparov, and Korchnoi in this group. They can play weakly in dull positions. (c) Theorists have a large base of theoretical knowledge relating to factors such as pawn weaknesses, maneuvering in closed positions, use of two bishops, etc. They tend to be followers of the history of the game and its development. Their games are logical and systematic. They can be too dogmatic. Great Theorists are Steinitz, Tarrasch, Nimzowitsch, Botvinnik, and Kramnik. (d) Reflectors [who aren’t actually described as being reflective; thus “Generalists” might be a better term] are players who have a feel for where the pieces belong and very good understanding of piece coordination. Reflectors are good at exploiting small advantages and are strong in the endgame. They calculate less than those in the other categories. Sometimes the Reflector finds the game “too easy” and loses for that reason. Famous Reflectors are Capablanca, Smyslov, Petrosian, Karpov, and Adams.

I find these categories interesting but I disagree somewhat with the division. In general, I believe that differences in style are both stereotyped and overrated, especially when it comes to modern players. As for the division, I don’t see Petrosian, a notoriously great calculator and Karpov (a less recognized one) as fitting the Reflector category very well, whereas Lasker and Spassky are certainly pragmatic in the normal sense of the word but hardly opening theorists nor weak players in dull positions. Botvinnik seems a good match for a “Pragmatic” and not a Theorist. Korchnoi would be a better Theorist, or maybe even an Activist. Fortunately this is mostly a matter of opinion and doesn’t impact the overall quality.

I also find parts of the whole “business methods” argument to be thin. I’m not sure if Hansen has ever worked for a sizeable company, but his descriptions tend to sound like academic models and business jargon rather than what I experienced working in the real world. Imagine if chessplayers could manipulate the rules and win immediate, transparent advantages over the board by the use power relationships with governing bodies and collaborative allies. One comparison would be using an Arbiter to change the way that the pieces move to your advantage. Or to force your opponent to play blindfold. The naive school model doesn’t match what’s happening out there with the exception of highly-competitive, mostly newer, industries (e.g., those with a heavy technological orientation). Maybe the word “methods” should be changed to “models”.

But all this is unimportant, especially since the business theme seems to fade as the book goes on. The real virtue of Hansen’s effort, obviously a labor of love, rests with the examples and his extremely intelligent analysis of them. Hansen is full of insights, clearly interested in his subject, and capable of finding original ways to describe the game. This is a unique book, and I can unequivocally recommend FOUNDATIONS OF CHESS STRATEGY to all mid-level players and above.