The Initiative

20th_July_2010: Initiative

Half a story

Some things in chess are very concrete and visible -- checkmate, or a knight fork, perhaps, or as we get better, we can also see superior development or pawn weaknesses.  There are more abstract features of a chess game which are less easy to see, at least at a glance, and you can appreciate best over a whole game or a part of a game.  Annotators often talk about a player's 'feel for the initiative', which is at least a warning that this is not going to be an easy session.

Half a story

For a long while, I understood only half the story of chess.  From the introduction to Michael Stean's excellent little book Simple Chess:

"Don't be deceived by the title--chess is not a simple game--such a claim would be misleading to say the least--but that does not mean that we must bear with the full brunt of its difficulty. When faced with any problem too large to cope with as a single entity, common sense tells us to break it down into smaller fragments of manageable proportions. For example, the mathematical problem of dividing one number by another is not one that can in general be solved in one step, but primary school taught us to find the answer by a series of simple division processes (namely long division). So, how can we break down the 'problem' of playing chess?

"Give two of the uninitiated a chessboard, a set of chessmen, a list of rules and a lot of time, and you may well observe the following process: the brighter of the two will quickly understand the idea of checkmate and win some games by 1. e4 2. Bc4 3. Qh5 4. Qxf7 mate. When the less observant of our brethren learns how to defend his f7 square in time, the games will grow longer and it will gradually occur to the players that the side with more pieces will generally per se be able to force an eventual checkmate. This is the first important 'reduction' in the problem of playing chess--the numerically superior force will win. So now our two novices will no longer look to construct direct mates, these threats are too easy to parry, but will begin to learn the tricks of the trade for winning material (forks, skewers, pins, etc.), confident that this smaller objective is sufficient. Time passes and each player becomes sufficiently competent not to shed material without reason. Now they begin to realize the importance of developing quickly and harmoniously and of castling the king into safety."

"So what next? Where are their new objectives? How can the problem be further reduced? If each player is capable of quick development, castling and of not blundering any pieces away, what is there to separate the two sides? This is the starting point of Simple Chess. It tries to reduce the problem still further by recommending various positional goals which you can work toward, other things (i.e., material, development, security of king position) being equal. Just as our two fictitious friends discovered that the one with more pieces can expect to win if he avoids any mating traps, Simple Chess will provide him with some equally elementary objectives which if attained should eventually decide the game in his favor, subject to the strengthened proviso that he neither allows any mating tricks, nor loses any material en route. "

"Essentially, Simple Chess aims to give you some of the basic ideas for forming a long-term campaign. It also shows you how to recognize and accumulate small, sometimes almost insignificant-looking advantages which may well have little or no short-term effect, but are permanent features of the position. As the game progresses, the cumulative effect begins to make itself felt more and more, leading eventually to more tangible gains. Combinations and attacks are shelved for their proper time and place as the culmination of an overall strategy. Given the right kind of position it is not so difficult to overwhelm the opposition with an avalanche of sacrifices. The real problem is how to obtain such positions. This is the objective of Simple Chess."

These permanent (or at least long-term) features of the position that he discusses are things like open files, outposts, colour complexes, space.  We might think about different levels of chess: Scholar's Mate (Level 1), tactics (Level 2), opening principles (Level 3), and now positional elements (Level 4).

With this firmly in mind, how can we explain Alekhin's 9th move here?

Alekhin  - Poindle [C67] (simul.) 1936

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.dxe5 Nxb5 7.a4 Nd6 8.exd6 Bxd6 9.Ng5

This move is not possible to understand in terms of the first four levels of chess.  In fact, it directly contradicts the opening principles that we have learned, like don't move any piece twice until you have move every piece once.  Alekhin judges that straightforward development (e.g. Re1+) would have allowed Black time to get sorted out - this move denies Black that time.  Threat follows threat, and Black can never settle.


  • Alekhin - poindle [C67]

So, brace yourself for Level 5: dynamic chess.

The Initiative: definition and description

The initiative is the capacity to make threats.

"As the pieces are set on the board both sides have the same position and the same amount of material. White, however, has the move, and the move is this case means 'the initiative', and the initiative, other things being equal, is an advantage. Now this advantage must be kept as long as possible, and should only be given up if some other advantage, material or positional, is obtained in its place. White, according to the principles already laid down, develops his pieces as fast as possible, but in so doing he also tries to hinder his opponent's development, by applying pressure wherever possible. He tries first of all to control the center, and failing this to obtain some positional advantage that will make it possible for him to keep on harassing the enemy. He only relinquishes the initiative when he gets for it some material advantage under such favorable conditions as to make him feel assured that he will, in turn, be able to withstand his adversary's thrust; and finally, through his  superiority of material, once more resume the initiative, which alone can give him the victory. This last assertion is self-evident, since, in order to win the game, the opposing King must be driven to a position where he is attacked without having any way to escape. Once the pieces have been properly developed the resulting positions may vary in character. It may be that a direct attack against the King is in order; or that it is a case of improving a position already advantageous; or, finally, that some material can be gained at the cost of relinquishing the initiative for a more or less prolonged period."

-- Capablanca in Chess Fundamentals, Chapter 4.

Examples: from initiative to attack

"The main objective of initiative play is not so much to force the win but rather to prevent your opponent from equalising." -- Colin Crouch, Attacking Technique.

EG: Akesson-Morozevich.

  • Akesson R. - Morozevich A. [D02]

EG: Tal-Simagin.
  • Tal - simagin [B07]

Quieter forms of the initiative

This is much less exciting, but Black may also struggle to equalise in quieter positions

  • Hort V. - Polugaevsky L. [B22]
EG: Hort-Polugaevsky

Relinquishing initiative

I haven't found it so easy to find examples of this feature, which seems so obvious.  Anyone?

EG: Winawer-Zukertort

  • Winawer S. - Zukertort J. [C49]

EG: Capa - allies
  • Capablanca - Salwe and allies [C83]

I know a young nman who often loses the initiative, having got a winning material advantage, and the consequences are sometimes painful to watch:

EG: Malam-Slade

  • Malam J. - Slade T. [C02]

The foundations of initiative (activity, King safety, structure and space)

Initiative based on superior piece Activity

We've seen Moro on the rampage, here's a simpler one:


  • Kramer - Busek [D94]

Initiative based on opponent's unsafe King

EG: Lasker-Reti

  • Lasker - Pirc [B85]

Initiative based on superior Structure


Initiative based on Space

Another form of structural advantage, I guess.  Many games won on the basis of space can be thought of as having an element of initiative to them: the side with the extra space can organise threats much more easily, even if they can't at first break through.

EG: Fischer-Gheorghiu

  • Fischer R. - Gheorghiu F. [C42]

Losing the initiative when you have more space is awful; you're defending a much longer line, that is well within reach of your opponent.

EG: Webb-Hartston

  • webb - hartston u. [A31]

You will notice that I have so far drawn example from master play; club games tend to be cluttered with so many errors in tactics and strategy that the issue of the initiative is lost in the fog.   But among the top county players you can see the pursuit of a persistent initiative in good style, and I watched one this year:

Mackle,D - Edgell,B [E18]
Devon vs Gloucestershire (1), 2009

1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 e6 3.c4 b6 4.g3 Bb7 5.Bg2 Be7 6.Nc3 Ne4 7.Nxe4 Bxe4 8.0-0 0-0 9.Bh3 d6 10.Nd2 Bb7 11.e4 c5 12.d5 exd5 13.cxd5 Bf6 14.Re1 Nd7 15.Bf1 a6 16.a4 Ne5 17.f4 Ng6 18.Nc4 b5 19.axb5 axb5 20.Rxa8 Bxa8 21.Ne3 c4 22.b3 cxb3 23.Qxb3 Qa5 24.Re2 Rc8 25.Rc2 Rxc2 26.Nxc2 Bd8 27.Bxb5 Bb6+ 28.Kg2 Bb7 29.Qc4 Ne7 30.f5 Bc5 31.Qd3 f6 32.Bd2 Qa2 33.Bc4 Qb1 34.Ne3 Qb2 35.Nd1 Qa1 36.Bc3 Qc1 37.Bb2 Qg5 38.h4 Qh5 39.Qe2 Qxe2+ 40.Bxe2 Kf7 41.g4 h6 42.Nf2 Nc8 43.g5 hxg5 44.hxg5 fxg5 45.Bh5+ Kf8 46.Nh3 Ne7 47.Nxg5 Bc8 48.f6 gxf6 49.Bxf6 Bd7 50.Kf3 Nc8 51.Bg6 Ba3 52.Nh7+ Kg8 53.Bd4 Ba4 54.Nf6+ Kf8 55.Bf5 ½-½

The psychological initiative

Jonathan Rowson is always interesting to read, and he does not disappoint in his chapter on the initiative (Chess for Zebras).  However, he ends up folowing Suba in saying that the initiative is largely psychological in nature.  I don't deny that the initiative has strongly psychological elements, but there is something on the board too.  Rowson (and I) find this easiest to see in those games where White tries to attack Black's position from the first move, say, in the sharp main lines of the Najdorf.  Black can always find a defence after the game, but during a game it's not so easy.

The struggle for the initiative in the opening

Alekhin's defence: 1.e4 Nf6 "White has his initiative to defend" -- Tartakower.

The opening can be played to seek an advantage in development, or space, or both, but some lines cannot be understood except as a struggle for the initiative.  In many modern variations this makes for very sharp play, and some 'unnatural' moves.  The main lines of the Najdorf, an opening we looked at earlier, have this quality.

EG: Sicilian Najdorf

EG: Fischer-Tal

  • Fischer R. - Tal M. [C17]

The initiative can be more important than general opening guidelines

EG: Alekhin-Wolf
  • Alekhin - wolf [D34]

The initiative can be more important than material

Kasparov did some video interviews a while ago, and John Watson commented in his review "Kasparov also believes that the new generation of the 90s plays a different kind of chess than that of the 80s, believing that 'initiative can be worth material'." This comment is utterly lacking in historical subtlety.  Alekhin's quest for the initiative often took precedence over material, and I can think of a few of Capablanca's games where his initiative won out over a lost pawn. More recently, Alexei Suetin's book Modern Chess Opening Theory, translated by our very own David Richards, gave many examples of material sacrifice for the initiative.  Perhaps the top players of the 1990s extended the range and daring of such sacrifices for the initiative, but it is hardly a new insight. 

EG: Marshall-Capa

  • F.J. Marshall - J.R.C. [D64]

EG: Nimzo-Capa

  • Nimzowitsch A. - Capablanca J. [C62]


  • Modern Chess Opening Theory - NN [B34]
initiative in the opening & a pawn sacrifice for White (Suetin)


  • Kasparov G. - Petursson M. [D15]
a pawn sacrifice for initiative in the opening for White (Kasparov: Geller-Tolush gambit)

EG: a pawn sacrifice for initiative in the opening for Black (Browne: Benko gambit)

  • Lorinczi P - Browne Walter S [A58]

EG: other sacrifices of material for initiative (Bronstein: exchange sac in the Grunfeld)

  • Bronstein D. - Boleslavsky I. [D89]

EG: not enough initiative

  • Novopashin A. - Kortschnoj V. [B97]
(Korchnoi: Poisoned pawn)

“I like to coax my opponents into attacking, to let them taste the joy of the initiative, so they may get carried away, become careless and sacrifice material.” -- Korchnoi

The struggle for the initiative in the middlegame

EG: Spassky-Tal

  • Spassky B. - Tal M. [E31]

The initiative can be more important than structure

A revealing moment:

EG: Fischer-Larsen

  • Fischer R. - Larsen B. [B77]
Defending against the initiative

Defence is another session or three, but to some extent it depends on your style: do you prefer to defend in an active, enterprising, opportunistic, counter-attacking style (Lasker, Kasparov, Korchnoi) or is it more your style to be solid, gritty and patient? (Capablanca, Petrosian, Karpov)  Of course, all the best players can play how they like, and it's hard to put the latest generation (Kramnik, Topalov, Anand, Carlsen) into pigeonholes.

I mentioned last time Karpov's tenacity in defence: strengthening his position where he can, challenging and exchanging his opponent's strong pieces, making progress with his own ideas when given a chance; here's an example.

EG: Timman-Karpov

  • Timman J. - Karpov A. [E30]

Defensive sacrifices

I was very struck, following the first Karpov-Kasparov encounter, in how many games Kasparov sacrificed a pawn.  We have seen an example of him doing so when trying to win, but he also uses the same device when trying to get enough counterplay to hold the balance.


  • Karpov A. - Kasparov G. [D87]
  • Karpov A. - Kasparov G. [D55]
Karpov-Kasparov 85
Turning points of a game

...may be seen in the transfer of the initiative.  John Watson in Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy talks for a while about the ebb and flow of initiative in modern chess, but without an example to support his highfalutin talk.  It is difficult to find games where the initiative is exchanged as a result of good play based on the features of the position, rather than losing the initiative because of a second-rate move.  Anyhow, here is a game where we see an exchange of the initiative; play it through and see if you can 'feel' who is pressing.


  • Karpov A - Kasparov G [D97]
Karpov-Kasparov 87
At club level it's even harder to find games where the initiative might go back and forth as a result of something other than errors, but try this one, perhaps:   

EG: Regis-Littlejohns
  • Regis D. - Littlejohns D. [B14]

Further reading

Dvoretsky in School of Chess Excellence, vol.3, says something characteristically sniffy along the lines of 'annotators often mention the initiative, so you can tell it's important, but hardly anybody has written anything good about it...' and then offers a couple of chapters of his own.  But don't start there!  His books feature a succession of very complicated examples which I expect are just the thing that aspiring IMs should study if they want to be GMs, but are generally hard to make use of if you aren't that good yet. 

Nonetheless, I think an understanding of the initiative is useful for club players.  Fortunately, Dvoretsky is quite wrong to say that there is nothing worth reading on the subject; besides the references mentioned above, Max Euwe dealt very well with it in his Middlegame books with Kramer, and Hansen's more recent chapter in Improve your Positional Chess uses very much the same framework.  I've also noticed (but not read) a long chapter by Beim in How to Play Dynamic Chess.  Suba talks a lot about initiative in Dynamic Chess Strategy, a book that I have struggled to get much out of; again, the talk floats a little too high above the evidence.