The Pendulum is Swinging Towards Defense

by Andrew Soltis
12/9/2016 – The recent World Chess Championship match in New York was a different match than the ones we have come to know before because defense – a modern style of defense – played such a dominant role. Our author Andy Soltis contemplates modern defense.

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Of all the perceptive comments about Magnus Carlsen-vs.-Sergey Karjakin, the most striking came from the challenger’s longtime second, Yury Dokhoian.  "At the current moment in chess, defense is stronger than attack," he told Sport-Express. "This is a fact. These are the realities of the modern game."

This may sound strange considering that this was the first match in the 130-year history of the world championship to end with a truly stunning attacking move.

But Carlsen’s mating 50.Qh6+! in the final playoff game didn’t change the outcome. His position had been won for some time. 
The moves that were truly pivotal in this match were quite different. They included:

With 51…h5! Karjakin turned his heroic defense of more than 25 moves into a furious counterattack. He won with remarkable speed, 52. h4 a2! White resigns. 

That might have decided the match had it not been for his defensive slip two games later:

Perhaps Karjakin’s worst mistake in New York was overlooking the forced draw of 20…Nxf2+! (21. Kg2 Nh4+! 22. Kg1 Nh3+--not 22. gxh4? Qg6+). He went on to lose the game that tied the match.  

There were other key turning points in the match and most of them concerned defensive moves. Both players impressed in this regard, not just the player whose fans called him "the Minister of Defense." Carlsen’s marathon defense in the ninth game was highly praised by Karjakin. He played "fantastically," the challenger said.

This was quite a different match than the ones we’ve come to know because defense – a modern style of defense – played such a dominant role. When we think of great world championship battles we remember dazzling attacking moves – several Kasparov moves come to mind. 

To a lesser degree, we recall matches for the opening innovations that rewrote theory. Not this time: Carlsen-Karjakin may be the least theoretical match in a century. If you had predicted several weeks ago that two of the games would begin 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4. 0-0?!, no one would have believed you.  

No, this was a match of defense and, if Dokhoian is right, it reflects a shift in chess style. There have been eras when defenders outnumbered attackers among the game’s elite. For example, the time of Wilhelm Steinitz, Emanuel Lasker and Geza Maroczy.

And there have been times when the attack had the upper hand: Half a century ago the world’s top players included at least five who were primarily attackers (Mikhail Tal, Boris Spassky, Leonid  Stein, Yefim Geller, Paul Keres) and others who were superb attackers when the position called for it (Bobby Fischer, Bent Larsen, Lev Polugayevsky). Only Tigran Petrosian could be considered primarily a defender.

Even in the most defense-oriented eras, there were standout attackers. Now look at the top ten Elos of today. Who on that list would you call a distinctly attack-oriented player?  

A few reasons for this shift come to mind:
First, computers have taught us that positions once considered hopeless are not. They don’t require "computer moves" to be saved, just bend-don’t-break resistance.  Another reason that defense is being emphasized, is that time controls and lack of adjournments have made chess much more physical. It simply takes more energy, mental and otherwise, to try to be the irresistible force than to be the immoveable object.    

Also, we now appreciate that successful resistance has a profound psychological impact. Losing a game badly is depressing. But failing to win a won game is just as bad, as Carlsen showed. 

Garry Kasparov said the fourth game of the recent match came "as a shock" to the champion. He had a winning position for "25 or 30 moves" but Karjakin managed to defend, Kasparov said. Carlsen admitted he became discouraged mid-match, when he felt he should have been plus-one or plus–two because of his positions up to then.

And another reason for the trend towards defense is that players are consciously seeking a more creative approach to it. Dokhoian said Karjakin won the last World Cup and Candidates Tournament because of what he called artistic defense.

This is reflected in a deeper study of techniques such as building a fortress in an endgame. Think of Karjakin’s drawing with 78…h5!!  in the second rapid playoff game and his Houdini act in the fourth round. But we also saw how fortresses influenced the outcome of the 2012 Anand- Gelfand world championship.

After 20…Rxc5! Black lost his queen, 21. Bh7+ Kxh7 22. Rxd6. But his position was solid after 22…Rxc1+ 23. Rd1 Rec8. White conceded the draw 26 moves later.

The pendulum seems to be clearly swinging towards defense. When will it swing back?

Andrew Soltis (born 1947 in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, is an International Grandmaster and is author or co-author of more than 100 books. Since 1972 he has written a weekly column for the New York Post and since 1979 he has written "Chess to Enjoy", a monthly column for Chess Life. He was named "Chess Journalist of the Year" in 1988 and 2002 by the Chess Journalists of America.


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genem genem 12/10/2016 08:59
In my view, Carlsen's choice to play into the high move-pair counts, in positions which other players might offer a draw, is what gave Karjakin occasions to show himself to be the "Minister of Defense".
Carlsen's near success in his endgame strategy (games 3,4) remind me of something Greg Shahade said:
"Sure a position may seem drawish, but then why is it so hard to draw the top computers in these positions?"
-- Greg Shahade, The Draw Problem in Chess, 2015/08/24

'weerogue' made an excellent comment in his Discuss post.
FOffermann FOffermann 12/10/2016 05:55
We'd like to ask some of our readers to be more respectful in the discussion. This is what Andy Soltis offers as a contribution to this discussion:

"In my article, I wasn't saying that members of current Elo top ten are incapable of great attacking chess. Far from it.
I was saying they are practictioners of a universal style: They attack only when the conditions are right.
Compare them with Fischer. Bobby was primarily a materialist. He loved to grab pawns and win long endgames.
Yet by time he was the age of the current Elo elite he had already won more brilliant attacking games than anybody on top ten list. And this was at a time when GMs played comparatively rarely. (Databases have about 1,000 games from Fischer's entire career. Today an elite GM plays many more than that by the time he's 25.)"
- Andrew Soltis
XSammaelx XSammaelx 12/10/2016 06:20
I wonder why Soltis thinks 4.O-O in The Giuoco Piano deserves a "?!".
KOTLD KOTLD 12/10/2016 02:14
Good article. Thank you.
Aighearach Aighearach 12/9/2016 11:39
Nakamura said the same thing earlier this year at the NY tournament, that the number of resources in any position are really high at the top level now, and it is getting very hard to attack. He has had to switch to a more solid style already, this is not theory or prediction.
turok turok 12/9/2016 08:01
sorry defense is misunderstood in chess based on this article and many others. Your champions have always been great defenders. Just because they knew how to attack based on what they are known for doesnt in any way take away from defense.
Steven E DuCharm Steven E DuCharm 12/9/2016 03:34
Prudent Aggression!
weerogue weerogue 12/9/2016 02:43
Nice article, thanks!

Tend to agree with 'Depsipeptide' in that players are becoming more universal, but there is validity in the points made by Soltis.

Despite the title of the article, I don't feel his main point is that "chess is becoming more defensive!", but rather "there is a modern way to defend (where I interpret the defining characteristics to include mental resilience, stamina, objectivity and the ability to find inferior positions that can be proven to be tenable - brought about largely by the influence of strong chess engines) and it is becoming more prevalent, especially so in the most recent World Championship match" - no arguments here.
deepestgreen deepestgreen 12/9/2016 12:44
I'm not sure I agree. Just like in a game of chess, dogmatic thinking is doomed to fail. Modern chess is all about objectivity. If the position demands defending, then defend. In this match, Karjakin constantly had bad positions so he had to defend, and he did it well. Magnus will do the same, if he has a bad position he will defend, if he has a good position he will squeeze everything he can. If there a wild attacking options the modern player will go for it.
Depsipeptide Depsipeptide 12/9/2016 12:42
I respect Andy Soltis a lot and even have his autograph but I beg to differ.
There is only one clear trend in style since the beginning of time- chess players are becoming more and more universal. It's not that the top 10 will not attack or do not know how but they will only do so when the position calls for it. Meanwhile, the ability to hold slightly inferior positions has markedly increased (partly due to the objective view of engines) and this skill is reflected in tournaments and matches.
An unpredicted outcome of engine strength is Nimzovich's dictum 'The threat is stronger than the execution' as applied to opening theory. More and more, players are avoiding mainlines out of fear of the opponent's preparation. Whether or not Carlsen or Karjakin had lined up impressive bombshells that the opponent successfully avoided we will not know. What we do know is it became the dullest title match of all time in terms of openings.
eyal01 eyal01 12/9/2016 12:27
"If you had predicted several weeks ago that two of the games would begin 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4. 0-0?!, no one would have believed you"

What?!?! Perhaps no one of those who haven't been following top level chess for a while. The Italian (and specifically with 4.0-0) is all the rage now, probably the opening with the fastest developing theory in the last year or two (during the official broadcast of game 5, Nepomniachtchi said: "Italian is one of the most complex openings at the moment. It's much like Ruy Lopez with d3, but since it's less analysed, there's a lot of space for creative play"). Here's a list of top level games just from the second half of 2016: Karjakin – Giri, So – Giri, Giri – So, Giri – Wei Yi (Bilbao); Anand – So (Sinquefield); Karjakin – Navara, Kramnik – Radjabov, Nepomniachtchi – So, Harikrishna – Karjakin, Harikrishna - Carlsen (Olympiad); Svidler – Jakovenko, Grischuk – Jakovenko (Russian Superfinal); Nepomniachtchi – Mamedyarov, Giri – Mamedyarov, Kramnik - Anand (Tal Memorial). Carlsen himself played it with White against Adams in Tata.
vinniethepooh vinniethepooh 12/9/2016 11:57
Just one tournament which was completely defensive and you say the trend is changing? No, no, that's wrong.

"Now look at the top ten Elos of today. Who on that list would you call a distinctly attack-oriented player?"

What? Of course there are so many attackers! In the top 10, these are the names:

Fabiano Caruana

Maxime Vachier Lagrave

Hikaru Nakamura

Where is the shortage of attackers?

Disagree with the author, imdvb_8793 and sdd.
sdd sdd 12/9/2016 09:10
I agree, imdvb.
imdvb_8793 imdvb_8793 12/9/2016 08:46
Best article on the match I've seen so far.