The Winning Academy 4: Handcuffs for your opponent

by Jan Markos
1/12/2022 – What is the soul of chess? André Philidor back in the 18th century answered: "Pawns!" Aaron Nimzowitsch a century ago claimed in My System: "Overprotection of strategically important squares." Jan Markos' answer to this question is rather different. He is convinced that the essence of chess manifests itself best in domination. | Photo: Evan Amos (Wikipedia)

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What is domination? Well, have you ever experienced in a game against a much stronger opponent an intense feeling of helplessness? The material was equal, but you could barely move. This is it: you have been dominated.

Domination is the ability to put handcuffs on the hands of your opponent, to immobilise him and make him totally helpless. This is how the strong players like to win the games: with a tied-up opponent, the victory is easy. Compare that to e. g. positions, in which the opponents castled on opposite sides. One mistake in a sharp position, and a won position can easily turn into a lost one. On the contrary, when you are dominating your poor opponent, you can do almost everything, and your advantage will not evaporate.

Let us start with a simple example:

Vachier-Lagrave – Aronian, London Chess Classic 2016


The position is approximately balanced. Nominally, White has got a small material advantage, but Black's duo queen+rook is potentially very powerful and might cause a lot of problems to the weakened white king.

After 34…Kh7 or 34…Qd7, keeping an eye on the important e5-square, Aronian is fine. However, he played the careless 34…Rd1? (perhaps intending …Rd1-d3) and allowed Vachier-Lagrave to achieve domination. The Frenchman did not hesitate. After 35.Qe5! the game was practically over. The black queen is now tied down to g7, and the sole rook is not able to stop the advance of White's queenside pawns.

And here's the complete game:



How do we achieve domination? Quite often domination is the result of prophylaxis. There is a logical explanation to it: with prophylaxis, you are – step by step – taking away active possibilities from your opponent. Once you have done this thoroughly, he is completely tied up, and you are dominating the board.

Of course, you should combine prophylaxis with gradual improvement of your own pieces. Let us have a look at a very convincing example. How would you evaluate the position in the diagram below?

Caruana-Shankland, Saint Louis 2016


Many of my students tend to see this position as approximately equal. After all, Black has a nice pawn on b3, and two major pieces coupled dangerously on the f-file. In fact, Black is – objectively speaking – already lost. It is very difficult to imagine a bright future for his minor pieces. On the other hand, Caruana has a long-term plan up his sleeve.

He played 25. Bc1!. This formally "bad" bishop will come to d6, where his strength will grow exponentially. The poor e8-bishop has no similar career in sight.

Let us now push "fast forward" and have a look at position from the same game after next seven moves:

Caruana-Shankland, Saint Louis 2016


Now, White's advantage has become clear. Caruana controls the a-file and both bishop and knight are restricting Shankland's forces. But what to do now?

Well, White should continue with the same queenside strategy. Caruana played 32.Qc1!, allowing the strongest piece to join the party.

Let us push "fast forward" again and have a look at the final position of the game:

Caruana-Shankland, Saint Louis 2016


White's domination is fully visible now. Black pieces have been downgraded to mere objects, hunted by the white army. Please note that Caruana has transferred all his pieces to the queenside, including the king and the knight.

And here's the complete game:



There is also another path how to achieve domination. Surprising as it may be, domination is quite often the goal of a sacrificial combination, or of a direct attack. Let us have a look at one interesting example:

Nakamura-Iturizzaga Bonelli, Gibraltar Masters 2019


Again, it might seem that Black is fine. His pieces are exerting considerable pressure, the c4-pawn is hanging. However, not all his pieces are placed well. The b8-knight and a8-rook are in a state of deep sleep. And this is the crucial aspect of the position masterly used by Nakamura.

He played:

16.Nd2! Be5

Black needs to play this. After the retreat of the e4-bishop White pushes e2-e4 and dominates the position for free.

17.Nxe4 Bxa1 18.Nd6

The knight has reached the key square. Without …d7-d6, Black's queenside will remain dormant for a long period of time.

18…Rf8 19.e4 Be5 20.Bf4 Bxd6 21.Bxd6 Re8 22.e5


Nakamura has achieved his goal. For a small material investment (an active bishop-pair often equals rook+knight) he got complete domination over the centre of the board. In the subsequent fight, White attacked the abandoned black king and won effortlessly.

Please, remember: Domination is a legitimate goal of a combination or an attack. Usually, we are trying either to find a mate or a material gain in our calculations. However, quite often we are not able to achieve these goals directly. In these cases, please check whether you can achieve domination instead.

And here's the complete game:



Quite often, domination might be achieved in endgames. Let us have a look at one classical example:

Marshall-Maroczy, Ostende Masters 1905


Again, the first impression is deceptive here. The position seems to be equal. And with White to move, it truly would be. However, it is Maroczy to move, and he will convincingly show that White is in fact lost.

31…Qd1+ 32.Qe1 Qd3+ 33.Kg1 (33.Qe2 Qb1+ loses a pawn) Qc2 34.Qa1


What a tragicomical sight! Black queen bullies both white pieces and can't be expelled from its dominating position. Maroczy carefully played 34…a5! and after 35.g3 (35. b4 loses a pawn after 35…axb4 36.axb4 Qe4) a4 White was virtually in a zugzwang.

And here's the complete game:



Every grandmaster knows what a strong weapon domination is. Therefore, professionals try to avoid being dominated at almost any cost.

Jobava-Georgiev, European Championship 2009


Black is worse due to his inferior pawn structure. Moreover, Jobava threatens to transfer his bishop to d5. After that, Black's hopes for any activity would be futile. Therefore, Georgiev pulled an emergency brake.

He played 24…d5!? 25.Rxd5 e4! 26.Qxe4 Qxc3.

True, Black is still worse. However, the situation became more colourful. For the price of a single pawn, Georgiev got a strong passer on the c-file. And, most importantly, he avoided positional suffocation.

And here's the complete game:



Many club chess players perceive chess as a specific kind of a race. White has got a plan, Black has got a plan, and the one that accomplishes his idea first wins. However, the reality is quite different. You do not want our opponent to be in a race with you.

You do not want him to have any plan at all! You want to put handcuffs on his hands, tie a big metal sphere to his leg and then – slowly and with all the comfort – proceed with your plan.

This is how grandmasters win in chess. If you want to win in the same manner, please focus your efforts on mastering the noble art of domination.


Jan Markos is a Slovakian chess author, trainer, and grandmaster. His book Under the Surface was the English Chess Federation´s 2018 Book of the Year. His last book, The Secret Ingredient, co-authored with David Navara, focuses on the practical aspects of play, e.g. time-management over the board, how to prepare against a specific opponent, or how to use chess engines during the training process. Markos was the U16 European Champion twenty years ago. At present he helps his pupils from several countries to achieve similar successes. Apart from focusing on the royal game, he is also the author of several non-chess books, focused on critical thinking, moral dilemmas, and phenomenology.


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