GM Joel on Steinitz's 4th Rule
By GM Joel Benjamin   
October 29, 2009
GM Joel,
At my (beginner) level, my opponents often play a3, a6, h3, or h6 during the opening, which I've read is a mistake.  It usually allows me to take decisive control of the center.  My question is, what comes next?  If I have two pawns in the little center, my knights and bishops developed, and my king safely castled, should I push those center pawns, get my queen to the center, start a wing attack, or something else?
 
On a similar theme, Steinitz' 4th rule of attack is to direct the attack at the weakest point in the opponent's position.  Does this mean literally to find the weakest square and move my pieces to attack it, or is it more about finding a region in his position that he will have the most difficulty defending?
 
Thank you!
Robert Gillett


 
Robert,

With all the possible positions that can occur in a chess game, it is impossible to map out a start to finish strategy that will apply in all cases.  The opening always starts from the same position with few possible moves for each side, so it is better suited for generalities.  The strategy you describe—occupying the center with your pawns, developing knights and bishops, and castling—is as close to a formula for the opening as you can get.  Indeed, I preach those goals to every beginner’s class I teach.

Getting off to a sound start is really all you can ask for.  Planning beyond that is difficult without examining what your opponent is doing.  Has he weakened his pawn structure?  Is his king vulnerable?  Which of his pieces are active and which ones misplaced?  Without further context, there is no next step that can be consistently applied.

Beyond the first three steps you mentioned, activating the rooks, possible by utilizing levers or exchanges may be next, and an attack on the king is often, but not always, appropriate.  But by the latter stages of the opening, if not sooner, surely tactical concerns will crop up.  You don’t want to be so locked into any plan that you don’t notice pieces are hanging or checkmating combinations are in the air.

I can honestly say I have never heard of Steinitz’s 4th rule of attack, nor the first three for that matter (how many are there?).  It is a good common sense suggestion to advise players to attack weak points (certainly much easier than to attack strong points), but let’s not make too much of it.  It would be misguided to waste a lot of moves redeploying your pieces to focus on a weak square that isn’t very meaningful.  For instance, you don’t want to make sure your opponent will never move a piece to a6 while he builds a strong attack on your king.  But focusing your pieces to attack an isolated pawn in the center can be a good plan.  And if your opponent has any kind of weakness around his king (even the lack of defenders can be considered a weakness), and you can bring a reasonable amount of force to bear on it, an attack on the king can be a logical, high-reward plan.

You won’t master planning without practical experience.  So use your best judgment to decide when certain strategical advice is applicable, and bit-by-bit you will acquire more understanding. 

Ask GM Joel Benjamin a question of your own at askgmjoel@uschess.org.