Edward Winter's Chess Explorations (21)

5/22/2009 – We all know what a chess combination is, or do we? How best to define it? C.J.S. Purdy examined the matter at some length, and the Editor of Chess Notes has pursued the discussion, incorporating contributions from a number of correspondents. In particular, there is the tricky question of whether a combination must contain a sacrifice. Opinions vary...

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What is a Chess Combination?

By Edward Winter

C.N. 1960 observed that whereas many books claim that a sacrifice is an essential component of any chess combination, C.J.S. Purdy used the following position to dispute that:

White, to play, wins by 1 Bb5+ Ke7 2 Nf5+ Ke6 3 Nxg7+, etc. The black king can no longer defend the queen, since 3...Ke5 allows 4 Qc3+ Qd4 5 Qxd4 mate. Purdy noted that White had made no sacrifices but ‘a succession of threats winding up with the capture of the netted piece’. See page 201 of C.J.S. Purdy: His Life, His Games and His Writings by J. Hammond and R. Jamieson (Melbourne, 1982) or pages 170-171 of the algebraic edition, The Search for Chess Perfection (Davenport, 1997). The original article, ‘What is a Combination?’, was published on pages 264-268 of the December 1955 issue of Purdy’s magazine Chess World. As shown by the excerpt below, a number of definitions of ‘combination’ were evoked:

We asked in C.N. 1960 whether readers agreed with Purdy that ‘Combinations are characterised by violent moves, but not necessarily sacrifices’, and C.N. 2035 quoted a number of comments received.

Lawrence Stevens (Pasadena, CA, USA) concurred that a combination does not necessarily contain a sacrifice:

‘What are being “combined” are the powers of more than one piece and/or forcing moves. I would think that the sacrificial characterization evolved through usage, i.e. it was statistically likely that a sacrifice had occurred.’

From Robert S. Moore (Anchorage, AK, USA):

‘Cecil Purdy seems to me to be defending an exceptionally doubtful thesis that “combinations” do not require a sacrifice. Admittedly, in his chosen example we see a number of combinational elements – line clearance, overworked pieces and a mating net – but all of the moves given would likely be found, although perhaps without fully realizing their implications in advance, by the merest beginner. Sacrifice is the drama, the surprise, the brilliance and the dignity of a combination; it is that which lifts it above being only an illustration of the elements. In Purdy’s own example, 3 Bc4 (instead of 3 Nxg7+) is a minor combination.’

From Philip Laren (Irmo, SC, USA):

‘I was first shown the position in C.N. 1960 a few years ago by Ron Finegold, who asked me to find the best continuation. It doesn’t take a super Grandmaster to figure out that 3 Bc4! is a) a sacrifice, b) objectively better than 3 Nxg7+ and c) much more aesthetically pleasing.’

Ron Evers (Bar Harbor, ME, USA) wrote:

‘My personal definition: “A combination is a sequence of moves that forces together (combines) two or more tactical themes.” Purdy’s example, therefore, is a combination because it forces together, by an attack on the king, two tactical themes: decoy and double attack. Sacrifice in a combination is the method of applying force. “You know of course that attacks and threats of all kinds, exchanges and Zugzwang are such means of applying force, but the most lasting effects are achieved with sacrifices.” This quote is from Yuri Averbakh’s Chess Tactics for Advanced Players, page 212. An example on page 209 proves to me that a sacrifice is not needed in a combination.’

Robert John McCrary (Columbia, SC, USA) sent us a copy of the July 1989 issue of the Magazine of the SC Chess Association, in which (pages 14-15) he contributed an article that defined ‘combination’ as follows:

‘A combination is a precisely-identified set of variations at least three half-moves deep, leading to a precise set of objectives, with the same player moving first and last in all the variations, and with his opponent having a choice of at least two defences leading, respectively, to distinct outcomes.’

A contribution from Antonio Gude (Madrid):

‘I believe that Purdy is mistaken about the position with which he claims to illustrate his interesting thesis, because White wins by following a logical tactical sequence which should not be regarded as a combination. A position that provides a better illustration of his theory comes from the game Ivan Sokolov v Lembit Oll (Wijk aan Zee, 1993), after Black’s 29th move. White plays an extraordinarily strong move (30 Qc8). Owing to the strength of White’s finish, we can call it a combination, since it is surprising and effective. However, it is also the consequence of an earlier combination, which did involve sacrifices.’

30 Qc8 Qd7 31 Re1+ Qe6 32 Rxe6+ fxe6 33 f7+ Resigns.

The knight is lost after 33...Ke7 34 Qc7+.

In C.N. 2035 two other views were added:

a) ‘A combination has nothing to do with sacrifice, but, of course, there are sacrificial combinations just as there are combinations which are designed to win an opponent’s pieces or bring about an accession of material.’ (W.H. Watts, writing on page 14 of Chess Pie No. 3 (London, 1936).)

b) ‘What is combination? Nothing but the logical weaving together of ideas.’ (J.N. Hanks, Chess World, February 1960, page 25.)

A more recent definition was given on page 5 of Winning Chess Tactics by Y. Seirawan and J. Silman (Redmond, 1992):

‘A combination is a sacrifice combined with a forced sequence of moves, which exploits specific peculiarities of the position in the hope of attaining a certain goal.’

We remain on the look-out for good definitions, as well as interesting positions (preferably little-known) which illustrate the various views on what constitutes a combination.

Finally, for historical information see the entry ‘Combination (first occurrence of term)’ in the Chess Notes Factfinder.

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All ChessBase articles by Edward Winter


Edward Winter is the editor of Chess Notes, which was founded in January 1982 as "a forum for aficionados to discuss all matters relating to the Royal Pastime". Since then, over 6,100 items have been published, and the series has resulted in four books by Winter: Chess Explorations (1996), Kings, Commoners and Knaves (1999), A Chess Omnibus (2003) and Chess Facts and Fables (2006). He is also the author of a monograph on Capablanca (1989).

Chess Notes is well known for its historical research, and anyone browsing in its archives will find a wealth of unknown games, accounts of historical mysteries, quotes and quips, and other material of every kind imaginable. Correspondents from around the world contribute items, and they include not only "ordinary readers" but also some eminent historians – and, indeed, some eminent masters. Chess Notes is located at the Chess History Center. Signed copies of Edward Winter's publications are currently available.



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