1. Without blunders, only the attacker can win the game. A game is always won by an attack. As long as your opponent is attacking you are occupied by parrying that attack.
2. Only the player with the initiative can successfully attack! The player that does not have the initiative can often bring forth a sortie, but in order to gin up a successful attack the player must have the initiative.
Couple this thinking with the fact that white has an initiative by virtue of the first move. Thus, white is favored to win. He will win if he can hold the initiative. He can lose if he loses the initiative. In many games the initiative changes hands, sometimes it changes often: perhaps because it is not respected; or because both players value it and fight for it.
Statistically, White wins 54% of games decided, Black wins 46% of those games. It seems clear that White has an 8% advantage due to the first move! This is the initiative with which White begins the game. There are two ways that White can lose the initiative:
First, he can voluntarily trade a unit of time (tempo) for a unit of power (pawn or piece). We see this in gambits, and sometimes in sacrifices.
Second, he can make unnecessary moves that allow Black to gain tempo. We usually see this when white makes unnecessary “preventive” moves, the most common being a3 or h3 denying b4 or g4 to Blacks’ pieces, when it is not clear that black wants to place his pieces on those squares. In other words, making moves that require no specific response by Black.
This works both ways, Black can also give up valuable tempo with unnecessary “preventive” moves. If, however, the move is made at the right time, no tempo is lost. That is; if Black waits for White to pin his Knight on f6 with the bishop, and then plays h6, that pawn move now requires a responding move by White, and no tempo is lost. The most common “good” preventive move I see is a6 by Black in the Morra gambit. In this case, denying White the b5 square is prudent and often essential. Still, if it is premature, White can collect a penalty.
With these thoughts, I believe that any plan in the play of the game must include either maintaining an initiative, or seizing the initiative.
The initiative is a result of tempo. If we can gain tempo in a game we can seize or buttress an initiative. Although our opponent can voluntarily yield the initiative, he will do so less frequently as his playing strength increases. However, it is common to trade one element for another: a player can trade any of the following three elements, which are at play in a game of chess:
a) Force/power. Force can often be directly related to power. We can discuss the concept of force and power in a later piece, but the player with the greater force has an advantage. Power is the material advantage; Force is the kinetic application of power.
b)Space. The player that controls the most space has a distinct advantage. Space depends on holding lines and squares. We can look into this concept in a subsequent piece.
c) The principle of Time: This is the key to improving most games. Time is conserved by moving pieces to their best square on the initial move of the piece, or as early as possible in the game, and then making moves which carry a threat causing our opponent to defend. Remember, only the attacker can win, if we play with threat, our opponent is occupied with meeting that threat and cannot easily gain the initiative.
We refer to a unit of time as a tempo. We can lose tempo if we move the same piece twice in the opening. Or by making an unnecessary move. We can gain tempo by achieving two or more objectives on the same move.
A solid initial plan in any game is to own the initiative, forcing the opponent to respond to threats and allowing the optimum positioning of our force. With White we want to hold the initiative, and to prevent our opponent from seizing the initiative. With Black we want to wrest the initiative from White. Although this concept itself is simple, in play it can be quite difficult. If we play a gambit, and our opponent accepts that gambit, he will use a move to capture that could have been used to improve his position. That gives us tempo. He has traded a unit of power for a unit of time. He will have an extra pawn or piece, but he will have given us time by the capture.
If our opponent uses two moves to get a piece to the best square, he has donated a tempo to us. When playing black, it makes sense to play openings that give the opponent a strong opportunity to yield a tempo.
My own games are more often won by Time than by material! I am often behind in material when I mate or my opponent resigns. Think of it this way: A street lamp can use 200 watts to light a circle on the ground directly below that is usually less than eight meters in diameter. An automobile headlamp uses about 40 watts to light the roadway 50 meters ahead. The difference is focus, creation of a beam aimed on an objective. In chess, Force is focused. (Power is static, Force is kinetic).
It takes time (tempo) to bring power into an attack and become translated, through focus, into Force. Concentrated Force wins!
Although the opportunity to gain tempo exists throughout the game, the easiest way to see it is by looking at openings. Let’s first look at a few gambits played by white. Here are three common gambits:
The oldest is probably the Kings Gambit: 1. e4 e5, 2. f4 exf4. Here we have the kings gambit accepted. Black has lost one tempo. White has a center pawn, black has none. White has given up a pawn (Power) for the opportunity to make an extra move (Tempo).
Then, look at the Danish gambit: 1. e4 e5, 2. d4 exd4, 3. c3 dxc3, etc. White has again yielded material in order to gain tempo (and, in both cases, Space as well).
In some cases, the tempo is gained by black. In the Semi-Slav, the white bishop often moves twice in the opening in order to reach a good square: 1. d4 d5, 2. c4 e6, 3. Nc3 c6, 4. e3 Nd2, 5. Nf3 Nf6, 6. Bd3 dxc4! Now, after 7. Bxc4 b5!
White must retreat the bishop to d3, giving black a tempo, having moved the bishop three times. Add to this the easy development of Black’s queen bishop on the queenside, nullifying the block on e6, and Black has taken away the initiative with which White began the game. Black may gain a successful queenside attack without exceptional moves. Still, Black has kingside opportunities as well and a solid defensive position until the attack can be generated.
The Two Knights defense is an attack in disguise. Black often comes out of the opening with an initiative. In a similar sense; the Berlin defense appears passive/defensive, but is like a coiled spring. The Berlin pawn structure hampers White, and Black has the bishop pair with which to utilize the initiative, once gained. When I was young I liked the Sicilian Dragon for the ‘coiled spring’ effect against an impatient opponent. The French can work the same way, but requires the patience of a Saint or a Steinitz!
As an example of seizing the initiative with Black, I offer the following game. This game was played in 2007. I played Black. I have not asked the other player to reveal his identity.
1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bc4 Nf6
The Two Knights defense is a favorite of mine because I believe that it gives Black an early opportunity to seize the initiative. This is a decisive point for White. He can play to gain a pawn by 4. Ng5, or he can play to hold the initiative with 4. e4. Both moves are good. If he goes for the pawn (Ng5), however, he can yield the initiative!
4. Ng5 d5
5. exd5 Na5
6. Bb5+ c6 (Bd7 is also good)
7. dxc6 bxc6
8. Qf3 Rb8 The pawn can be protected by Qc7 or Bd7, or a counter-attack can be made by h6. I believe the White knight will return to f3 without disrupting the kingside pawns and the initiative is more likely to come to Black by getting the rook onto an open file.
9. Bxc6+ Nxc6
10. Qxc6+ Nd7
11. d3 Be7.
The initiative has passed to Black, at a cost of two pawns. I continue with the game to show use of the initiative. In many of my games it takes 15 moves or more before the initiative is seized.
12. Nf3 0-0
The moves by the white knight and the quest for a pawn have resulted in a position where white has succeeded in gaining two pawns, but at a terrible price: All of Black’s pieces are mobilized, White has four pieces still requiring development, and has the White Queen afield.
23. Nc3 …
Not a good move. It develops the knight to it’s natural square but allows it to be pinned, and neglects the queen which can come under attack by four (!) Black pieces. Withdrawing the queen may have been more prudent.
13. … Rb4
This allows Bb7 without blocking the rook. At this post, the rook takes away three escape squares from the White Queen, and holds the b-file. The Queen hunt is on!
14. Nd5 Bb7
15. Nxe7+ Qxe7
16. Qc3 …
The Queen retreats to the only available square.
16. … Rc8
17. Qd2 …
There is no choice. The c1 bishop is blocked, locking in the a1 rook. Black is gaining space from his initiative.
17. … e4
Black plays to open the board for the attack.
18. Qe2 Rxc2
19. Qe3 …
Obviously, White cannot take the invading rook, but the e5 pawn remains pinned.
19. … Nf6
Black protects the pawn a fourth time, and positions the knight to attack the White Queen.
20. Nd2 Nd5
Strange as it seems, the Queen must give herself up. There is no better move. With five marauding pieces, a protected king, and the attacking e-pawn, Black has a won game.
The remainder of the game is simple mechanics, and of little interest.
If you are just beginning to play chess, I urge you to use the opening to get each piece to its’ ideal square in one move. Your opponent, if he is a beginner, will squander a move or two early in the game. A player at 1500 elo will give up the equivalent of a pawn in the first fifteen moves. Early attempts at mate work with beginners, but as your skill grows you will find that you are playing opponents who know how to turn your early attempts into tempo for themselves. The Fool’s Mate, the Shepherd’s Mate, the Fegatello attack, even the Fried Liver, are all easily rebuffed by an experienced player and result in his acquisition of tempo, and consequently, the initiative.
When you don’t know the ideal square, move the pieces where best placement is known. The placement of Knights are generally known first, then one or both of the bishops. By this time perhaps the placement of a rook or the queen may be known. Let your opponent move his pieces while you calmly configure the board.
Still, you must respect each move. Think of the move not as putting a piece, think instead of improving the board in your favor. Do not surrender the initiative, and play to seize the initiative if you do not hold it.