The Winning Academy 7: Why is the threat stronger than its execution?

by Jan Markos
3/8/2022 – It was Aron Nimzowitsch (pictured) who coined the paradoxical expression "The threat is stronger than its execution." This phrase sounds catchy and smart but if you think about it, you start to wonder how a threat can actually ever be stronger than its execution. Jan Markos has a number of good answers. (Foto: L'Echiquier 1931)

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"The threat is stronger than its execution", is probably the most cryptic rule in chess culture. I remember that in my teenager years I was told this sentence (ascribed to Mr. Nimzowitsch) many times, and still could not understand it at all, although I was otherwise a relatively smart chess student. I was confused: Why shouldn't I execute a strong threat? Why should I wait? And what is actually so threatening about a threat that is not worth executing?

Recently I accidentally visited a chess forum on this topic, and saw that a huge portion of club players share my confusion about this rule.

A player nicked Divyesh_B asked: "I have heard this statement in many YouTube videos and some books but never actually understood that how can a threat be stronger than it's execution. So, can anyone please explain this to me?"

However, there was little clarity in the answers:

"The threat means the other side has to defend against it compromising their own ideas of making active plans against you....I suppose."

"Don't ask me I never said it....:("

"It basically means the threat is a bluff."

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So, it is our task today to explain this mysterious rule of Nimzowitsch. Let us start with a lovely example:

Shcherbakov - Daniliuk, Elista 1995, White to move:

 

White's light pieces resemble a gun that is prepared to fire. There are many different discovered checks at White's disposal, but none of them wins immediately. White therefore kept all his possibilities open and simply took 40.Qxa7!?, winning without much effort in the subsequent fight.

However, he could have won in a more direct way. The stunning 40.Qf4!! Qxa1+ 41.Kh2 was best, E.g. 41…Kf6 42.Qd6+ Be6 43.Qf8+ Bf7 44.Qg7+, winning the black queen in the corner.

Please note how in the previous line the white queen enjoyed the support of the f5-knight. The queen dance was possible only because White resisted to "fire the gun" and kept the knight in its dominating position.

Delaying the knight jump, White achieves a mysterious think: his knight is in fact located on several places at once. On f5, obviously, but also on h4, g3, e3, e7, d6 etc, as it can be transferred there in an instant. White's f5-knight resembles Schrödinger's cat. It is and isn't on f5 at the same time.

An unexecuted threat allows us to bother our opponent with two scenarios at the same time: 1) the threat will be executed and 2) the threat will not be executed. Our opponent has to adapt his play, so he is prepared for both scenarios. Thus, his possibilities are seriously limited and ours seriously expanded.

Also, we are usually delaying the execution of threats only when they are not decisive in this exact moment. Keeping the threat unexecuted therefore means looking for the best moment of its execution.

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In the following position, Black was far too hasty:

Petrosian-Zhou, Lake Sevan 2011, Black to move:

 

Petrosian has a nice attacking position. Most of his pieces are directed at the black king. Zhou therefore decided to pull an emergency brake and played 25…d3? However, this pawn sacrifice does not give him enough compensation. After 26.Bxd3 Nxd3 27.Rxd3 Rxd3 28.Qxd3 Rd8 29.Qe2 White is simply better. Black's pair of bishop is optically impressive, but he has no targets for attack and White has therefore time to gradually improve his position.

However, Black could have been much more patient. In the diagrammed position he has got many defensive resources, delaying the …d4-d3 move for a more suitable moment. As one of my pupils suggested, the paradoxical 25…h5! is very strong. Black slightly weakens the shelter of his monarch, but takes away the g4-square from the white knight, and thus slows down the attack. Of course, 26.Nf3 is a no-go, as then ...d4-d3 is much stronger than before. After a long analysis we have agreed that White should probably play 26.Bd3, stopping the thread to …d4-d3 for good. Then after 26…Nxd3 Black gets two bishops as in the game, but with his pawn still on d4 and material being still equal. A good result for a little bit of patience, is it not?

Here's the complete game:

 

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The following example is from an extremely important game, the 10th game of the Carlsen-Karjakin 2016 match for the chess crown:

Carlsen-Karjakin, World Championship match (10), New York 2016, White to move:

 

A small reminder about the context: Carlsen was in a very difficult match situation. He lost the 8th game and won none. Therefore, with only two more games to go, he desperately needed to win this promising position.

White's plan is simple: he needs to push b4-b5. However, when should he strike? Now, or later?

When is it possible to delay a threat? Well, when your opponent has no means to prevent it anyway. Or, more generally, when he is not able to improve his position any time soon. In the diagrammed position, time has very little value for Black, as he is destined to defend passively for a long time.

Carlsen therefore decided to be patient. Delaying the threat, he has also put a serious psychological burden on his opponent. Black has to calculate b4-b5 at any moment in the following moves, and this costs a considerable amount of time and energy.

The game continued slowly:

48.Ra3 Nd4 49.Rd1 Nf5 50.Kh3 Nh6 51.f3 Rf7 52.Rd4 Nf5 53.Rd2 Rh7 54.Rb3 Ree7 55.Rdd3 Rh8

 

Magnus, is now the time?

56.Rb1

No, not yet. Let us lure the black h8-rook to a slightly inferior square…

56...Rhh7 57.b5!

Now! Carlsen has finally decided to start a direct attack and he was successful in the following fight. Karjakin resigned 18 moves later.

It is impossible to assume how much time and energy has Carlsen taken from his opponent by delaying the b4-b5 break, but I think most of us know from our own experience how psychologically difficult it is to wait passively in an inferior position.

Here's the complete game:

 

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The "threat-execution" rule can help us also in calculation. It reminds us of the fact that attack can be advantageously slowed down after a few forceful moves.

Krasenkow-Radjabov, Dos Hermanas 2001, Black to move:

 

In this position, Radjabov decided to allow b2-b4 and played 11…Ne8. However, as I was writing my book "Beat the KID" about the Kings Indian defence in 2008, I found out that Black can be considerably more ambitious.

More logical is 11…Bd7!

Now white has to go 12.b4, as otherwise the threat …a5-a4 would slow him down on the queenside.

Black answers with a sacrifice:

12…Ncxe4! 13.Ndxe4 Nxe4 14.Nxe4 f5 15.Nc3

 

But what now? Black seems to have no suitable follow-up. 15…f4 gives away the e4-square, 15…e4 allows 16.Bd4. Does Black have enough compensation for the pawn?

Well, he does! All he needs to do is to remember the threat-execution rule. After the simple 15…Qe7!! White finds himself in a difficult situation. Suddenly Black threatens to play …f5-f4 followed immediately by …e5-e4. The position is still approximately equal, but it is much easier to play for Black than for White. (I can disclose that all the best moves for White are quite paradoxical: 16.h4, 16.b5, or even 16.Ne4).

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Let us sum up now what the rule "Threat is stronger than its execution" actually means:

  1. If you threat is immediately decisive, play it now! There is no reason to delay it.
  2. if your threat is promising but not decisive, it might be good to delay it, as this delay restricts opponents play, as he must prepare for different scenarios.
  3. Delaying the threat might also help you to find a more suitable moment for its execution.
  4. For your opponent it is also exhausting and psychologically difficult to wait for the threat to be executed, and therefore delaying your threat might give you a psychological edge.

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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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