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Maximize the Usefulness of Your Moves
Chess Tutorial on Positional Play

The Principle of Maximum Usefulness

Diagram: Similar moves achieve different objectives.


The power of the double attack is well known in chess tactics. Forks, pins, xrays (skewers), and discovered checks are all strong moves because they attack two pieces at the same time.

Less well known is a similar concept that applies to positional moves. All other things equal, a move that achieves two objectives is better than a move that achieves only one; a move that achieves three objectives is better than a move that achieves only two; and so on. We like to call this the 'Principle of Maximum Usefulness'.

What do we mean by a move that achieves two objectives? • Let's say a move attacks one of your opponent's pieces. That's one objective. • Then let's say the same move protects one of your own pieces. That's also one objective. • A move that attacks an opponent's piece at the same time it protects your own piece achieves two objectives.

This concept is an especially useful principle for comparing two similar moves. For example, in the initial position, the moves 1.e4 and 1.d4 look very similar. They both

  • Plant a Pawn in the center,
  • Open a diagonal for a Bishop, and
  • Make space for the Queen.

At the same time they are different in significant ways.

  • 1.e4 hinders 1...d5 and stops 1...f5, while
  • 1.d4 stops 1...e5 and hinders 1...c5.
The difference is even more striking if we compare them to bad first moves like 1.a4 or 1.h4.

An Example from the Early Opening

Diagram: After 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6


One advantage to the 'Principle of Maximum Usefulness' is that you start to think about the small ways in which a move changes a position. Here is another example from the opening.

The diagram show the position after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6. White has several good moves, including 3.d4, 3.Nc3, and a move of the Bishop from f1. The four possible Bishop moves all achieve two objectives. They

  • Develop the Bishop, and
  • Prepare to castle O-O.

Each Bishop move also achieves at least one other objective. It's those other objectives that that set any one move apart from the other choices. Here are the advantages of each move:

  • 3.Be2 : Prevents a future pin by Bg4.
  • 3.Bd3 : Guards the e-Pawn.
  • 3.Bc4 : Attacks Black's weak square on f7 and stops ...d5.
  • 3.Bb5 : Attacks the Nc6 which is defending the Pawn on e5.

Each move also has disadvantages. Looking at these we see that three of the moves are good, but one is bad. The bad move is 3.Bd3 : It blocks the d-Pawn, which in turn prevents the Bishop on c1 from developing on its long diagonal. On d3, the Bishop is also blocked by the e-Pawn. No one ever plays 3.Bd3.

Of the three good moves, 3.Be2 is considered a little passive and is rarely played. The moves 3.Bb5 and 3.Bc4 are more active because they attack the opponent and they are frequently played.

An Example from the Later Opening

Diagram: White to move


If you've read other chess books, we bet that you have never heard of the 'Principle of Maximum Usefulness'. That's because we invented the term for this tutorial. It's also possible that you've never seen a detailed discussion of an opening position like we just did for 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6. Few chess writers have the space to present these ideas in detail.

One of the few books that discuss the nuances of each position is 'Logical Chess (Move by Move)' by Irving Chernev. The next few examples are all taken from Chernev's classic book, which examined 33 games by the great masters, most of them played in the first half of the 20th century. The diagram shows a position from game 24 of 'Logical Chess' : Capablanca - Mattison, Carlsbad 1929. Black has just played 11...O-O.

Capablanca, who had been the third World Champion, played 12.Rab1. Chernev liked the move so much that he gave it a '!', meaning 'Great Move!'. It:

  • Develops the Rook,
  • Attacks the Pawn on b7,
  • Prevents the Bc8 from moving,
  • Prepares doubling Rooks on the b-file, and
  • Threatens Rb5 attacking the Queen.
Note that Capablanca didn't play 12.Rfb1, which would achieve the same objectives. The difference between 12.Rab1 and 12.Rfb1 is that Capablanca's move leaves open the development of the other Rook. We could talk about a 'Principle of Maximum Flexibility', but we don't want to burden you with too many principles.

Attack and Defend Simultaneously

Diagram: White to move


The diagrammed position is from Bernstein - Mieses, Coburg 1904. Black has just played 13...Nf6-e4, forcing White to move the attacked Queen. The position was reached twice in the game. The first time, after 11...Nf6-e4, White played 12.Qd4 and the players repeated the position with 12...Nf6 13.Qd6 Ne4

The second time around, White tried 14.Qb4. This move not only

  • Safeties the Queen,
it also
  • Attacks the Knight,
  • Prevents O-O,
  • Prevents ...Rb8,
  • Prevents ...Bb7, and
  • Stops check by ...Qa5+.
In contrast, the move 14.Qa3, which is not at all a bad move, does not attack the Knight, thereby giving Black a larger number of possible continuations.

After 14.Qb4 the game continued 14...d5 15.Bd3 Qd6 16.Qxd6 16.Nxd6. Here White played 17.f4, another multi-purpose move, though more subtle: It prevents ...e5, forcing the Pawn to stay on e6, where it restricts the mobility of the Bishop on c8. Since the Bishop on d3 prevents the Black Bishop from moving to a6, Black is going to have a real problem developing that piece.

You might have noticed that the move 17.f4 interferes with the Bishop on c1, but this piece will find a good position on the a7-g1 diagonal. The next diagram is from the same game a few moves later.

The Difference Between a Very Good Move and a Good Move

Diagram: White to move


This diagram is the continuation of the game discussed in the previous diagram. Black has just played 24...Ra8-a6.

You can see that Black's light squared Bishop is still sitting on its initial square. In fact, it moved off this square and Black had the opportunity to exchange it, but instead allowed the exchange of the Knight for White's light squared Bishop. Bishops of opposite color are often an easy path to draw, but here Black has misjudged the effect of the Rooks.

White now has the choice between Bc5 and Bd4. Bernstein chose 25.Bc5, and Chernev commented, 'dominates every important square on the board!' Let's count the number of objectives this move achieves. It not only

  • Safeties the Bishop.
It also
  • Prevents Rh8-f8, Ra6-b6, Ra6-a7, and Kd7-d6.
It prevents all of Black's pieces from occupying a single aggressive square! Compare the mobility of White's Bishop with that of Black's Bishop.

White's only other good move, 25. Bd4, probably wins also although it blocks the path of the White King on the dark squares. The White King ultimately advanced as far as g7 and forced the win of Black's Kingside Pawns.

Knights Can Also Fork Squares

Diagram: White to move


This diagram shows a position from Chekhover - Rudakovsky, Moscow 1945. Black has just played 12...a7-a6. Many players would continue with the routine 13.Rac1, developing a Rook. White, a strong Soviet master, instead played 13.Ne4. This move

  • Discovers an attack on c6 by the Queen,
  • Prevents ...c5,
  • Prepares Ne4-c5,
  • Prepares Ne4-g5 with an attack on h7, and
  • Eyes d6.
The Knight on e4 is not attacking a single Black piece, and yet it is wreaking havoc in the Black position. The game continued 13...Bb7 14. Ne5, and eventually reached the position shown in the next diagram.

Multiple Attacks Create Multiple Weaknesses

Diagram: White to move


The diagram shows the continuation of the previous diagram. Black has just played 18...Bb7-c8, trying to save the c-Pawn from being captured.

White again uses the e4 square, this time playing 19.Qe4. Let's enumerate the objectives achieved by this Queen move. It

  • Prevents ...e5, which would free the Bishop;

  • Prepares a battery that together with Be2-d3 will attack h7. This will provoke ...g6, thereby creating holes in Black's castled position on f6 and h6; and

  • Prepares the transfer of the Queen to h4 followed by Qf6 or Qh6, exploiting those same holes.
The objectives of this Queen move are more complex than anything we've seen yet, but they are nevertheless concrete. White eventually achieved all of these objectives and won the game by a series of nice combinations.

Never Play Obvious Moves Automatically

Diagram: White to move


Here we have another example by Capablanca. The diagram is from the game Capablanca - Villegas, Buenos Aires 1914. Capablanca was one of the greatest positional players of the pre-WWII years. It stands to reason that we can find many examples of the 'Principle of Maximum Usefulness' in his games. Like all great masters he used the principle intuitively.

Black has just played 27...bxc5. White has three ways to recapture the Pawn.

  • If 28.Qxc5+, Black plays 28...Qxc5 29.bxc5 (29.Rxc5 Rd4) and the c-Pawn will be lost.

  • If 28.Rxc5, then 28...Rd1+ 29.Kg2 Qb7+ 30.f3 (30.Qf3?? Rg1+) and Black has counterplay against the exposed White King.

  • If 28.bxc5, Black blockades the Pawn with 28...Qc6, when White will have a difficult time lifting the blockade.

Has Capablanca the positional player been outplayed positionally? Not at all! The Cuban genius realized that he was not forced to recapture the Pawn immediately. He played 28.Qe4! This wonderful move
  • Prevents ...Qc6,
  • Prepares Kg2, when the King can't be checked on the a8-h1 diagonal,
  • Prevents ...c4, and
  • Prepares b4xc5-c6.
Black can't play cxb4 because of the pin on the c-file. The game continued 28...Rd5 29.bxc5 g6 30.c6 and Black felt compelled to resign a few moves later.

Maintaining the Pressure Is Worth a Pawn

Diagram: White to move


Our last game from 'Logical Chess (Move by Move)' is a position from Rubinstein - Maroczy, Goteborg 1920. Black has just played 22...Bd7-e6. Rubinstein was another pre-WWII positional player of the highest caliber. He is always mentioned on lists of 'great players who never had the opportunity to play for the World Championship'.

White could now continue 23.Nxe5, winning a Pawn. The continuation would be something like 23... Nxe5 24.Bxe5 Bxd5 25.Rxd5 Rad8 26.Qe4 Bf8 27.Rxd8 Rxd8. White would then have a long technical endgame to exploit the Kingside Pawn majority.

Rubinstein, who was no slouch in technical endgames, played 23.Qe4! This move

  • Activates the Queen,
  • Attacks the Pawn on b7 a second time,
  • Attacks the Pawn on e5,
  • Prepares a discovered attack on the Bishop at b4,
  • Defends the Bishop on d5, and
  • Defends the Knight on c4.
Wow! Talk about the power of centralization! The move probably does a few other things that we haven't even thought of.

The game continued 23...Bxd5 24.Rxd5 Rac8 25.Rcd1. White later played a few more key moves that could serve as further examples of Maximizing Usefulness, and won the game with an attack on Black's King. That sort of a game is a lot more fun to play (and to analyze) than a technical endgame that exploits a Pawn majority.

A Principle for Everyone, Not Just for Masters

Diagram: Black to move


We will finish this tutorial with an example from one of our own games. We had Black and our opponent had just played 18.Ne4-g3. Black has a big advantage : the White Rooks are undeveloped, while the Black Rooks are doubled on the e-file. How should Black continue?

One idea is to advance the Queenside Pawns. Unfortunately, the Bishop is in the way, and ...c5, to start the advance, leaves the Bishop without a retreat after a2-a3. • Another idea is to play ...Qb6, threatening ...Nxe3 with an immediate win of a Pawn. White can meet this with Qe3-e4, when ...c5 would again strand the Bishop. • Another idea is to play ...Nb4. First the Bishop has to vacate the b4 square.

The Bishop is badly placed and should move. But where? The squares a5 and c5 are not worth considering, while on the squares d6 and e7 it interferes with Rook actions on the d- and e-files. That leaves only the square f8. After ...Bf8 and ...g6, the Bishop would be well deployed on ...Bg7 to attack White's Queenside and support an advance of the Queenside Pawns.

We played 18...Bf8. We eventually won the game by pursuing all of the plans mentioned above: ...Nb4, ...c5, ... g6, and ...Qb6.

You don't have to be a grandmaster to exploit the 'Principle of Maximum Usefulness'. You only have to

  • Remember that the chess move that does the most is often the best, and
  • Find the move that does the most.
Chess is, after all, a game of logic.