When and where to attack (Steinitz' accumulation theory)

Steinitz' accumulation theory

Steinitz became World Champion (more or less) in 1866 by beating Adolf Anderssen in a bloodthirsty match (+8 -6 =0).  His style was very much in the tradition of the Italian school, playing for attack from the word go.  He was awarded the brilliancy prize for this Rook sacrifice:
His play in the of 1872 was still in this style, but his play in the tournament of 1873 was in marked contrast, playing for small positional advantages in the opening and early middlegame, and converting to a win only later.  Converting to a win might still be a brilliant attack, but it was more likely to be scooping up a few pawns.
Steinitz was World Champion for 20 years -- because, he said, he was 20 years ahead of his time!  His theories diffused into the chess world through lots of little pieces in newspapers and magazines, as never produced a book or a summary of his theory during his life (he died before he completed The Modern Chess Instructor). Lasker undertook to explain Steinitz to the world after he died, and Tarrasch also wrote a lot about Steinitz' theories.

Steinitz' elements (after Lasker) Steinitz' rules of attack

Permanent advantages

1. Material advantage
2. Bad king position
3. Passed pawns in the middlegame
4. Weak pawns for the opponent
5. Strong and weak squares
6. Pawn islands
7. Strong pawn centre
8. Control of a diagonal
9. Control of a file
10. Bishop pair
11. Control of a rank

Temporary advantages

12. Bad piece position
13. Inharmoniously placed pieces
14. Advantage in development
15. Concentration of pieces in the centre (centralization)
16. Space advantage

  1. At the beginning of the game the forces stand in equilibrium.
  2. Correct play on both sides maintains this equilibrium and leads to a drawn game.
  3. Therefore a player can win only as a consequence of an error made by the opponent. (There is no such thing as a winning move.)
  4. As long as the equilibrium is maintained, an attack, however skilful, cannot succeed against correct defence. Such a defence will eventually necessitate the withdrawal and regrouping of the attacking pieces and the attacker will then inevitably suffer disadvantage.
  5. Therefore a player should not attack until he already has an advantage, caused by the opponent's error, that justifies the decision to attack.
  6. At the beginning of the game a player should not at once seek to attack. Instead, a player should seek to disturb the equilibrium in his favour by inducing the opponent to make an error - a preliminary before attacking.
  7. When a sufficient advantage has been obtained, a player must attack or the advantage will be dissipated."
From David HOOPER, Steinitz' Theory, British Chess Magazine Vol. 104, p.370, Sept 1984.

Now, where to attack may be obvious, but just in case not: you attack where you are strongest or where your opponent is weakest.

Here's a quick example:


    weak pawns: creating holes

    1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Be7 5. Nf3 Nbd7 6. e3 O-O 7. Rc1 b6 8. cxd5 exd5 9. Qa4 Bb7 10. Ba6 Bxa6 11. Qxa6 c6 12. O-O Ne4 13. Bxe7 Qxe7

    w - - 0 13 If we compare pieces and pawns, the inequalities are:
    White's plus points Black's plus points
    • White's Queen's Rook on c1 is more active than Black's Queen's Rook on a8.
    • White's Queen on a6 is more active than Black's Queen on e7
    • Black has a weak pawn on c6 -- in fact, Black has a few weak light squares around on the Queen's-side.
    • Black's Knight on e4 is more active than White's Knight on e4

    This all suggests that White can, should and even must attack on the Queen's-side. 
    The continuation is also a good example of Lasker's famous maxim:

    “No combination without a considerable plus, no considerable plus without a combination [...]”
    “In the beginning of the game ignore the search for combinations, abstain from violent moves, aim for small advantages, accumulate them, and only after having attained these ends search for the combination - and then with all the power and will of intellect, because the combination must exist, however deeply hidden.”

Chess Quotes

"We perceive after a careful consideration of the evolution of the chess mind that such evolution has gone on, in general, in a way quite similar to that in which it goes on with the individual chess player, only with the latter more rapidly."
— Richard RETI