21 July 2015

Counting Tempi

During a lesson with one of my top students last week, he observed that a particular candidate move lost a tempo. I opined that tempi did not seem as vital in this variation of the Pirc Defense as in certain open positions. The conversation brought to my recollection something that I had read in John Watson's Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy (1998) more than a dozen years ago.

Later in the week, I pulled Modern Chess Strategy off the shelf to revisit the half-remembered passage. Watson's book drove me back into Aron Nimzowitsch, My System (1930). After spending idle moments of three days rereading Modern Chess Strategy and My System, I started digging through other books on the shelf. William Steinitz. The Modern Chess Instructor (1889) did not offer anything to my inquiry, although he mentions a move "losing time" as early as 1873 in The Field.* Seigbert Tarrasch, The Game of Chess (1935) was published after My System, even though it seems to precede Nimzowitsch theoretically.

In order to illustrate his point concerning tempi, Nimzowitsch presents a curious position that has arisen in very few games. Watson carries the position further through logical moves as a critique of Nimzowitsch.

1.e4 e5 2.d4 exd4 3.c3 Nf6

Black's third move does not appear in the Encyclopedia of Chess Openings (ECO). My database does have three instances of this position prior to publication of My System. All three games were played in 1839 by William Davies Evans, inventor of the Evans Gambit. Evans had White against three different opponents, the best known of which was Pierre Charles Fournier de Saint-Amant. One of these games reached this position by transposition (1.e4 e5 2.c3 Nf6 3.d4 exd4).

Concerning this unusual 3...Nf6, Nimzowitsch states, "Black lets what will happen, and this is what every beginner should do in order to gain experience of the consequences of an advance in the center" (12).

4.e5 Ne4


White to move

"The knight can maintain himself here, for Bd3 will be answered by a developing move of full value, namely d5" (Nimzowitsch, 12-13). Nimzowitsch suggests that after 5.Bd3, Nc5 would be an error because the continuation 6.cxd4 Nxd3+ 7.Qxd3 "would yield an advantage of four tempi to White" (13). The resulting position appears once in my database--a seventeen move draw, perhaps one of those notorious arranged draws that plays out an obscure line from a book for a few moves.

Watson states concerning this advantage of tempi in Nimzowitsch's line:
Four tempi or not, 7...d5! leaves Black with two bishops and a healthy share of the centre (and it is White's 'good' bishop which has just been devoured). Most players would be quite content here as Black. (14)
After 4.e5, Captain Evans faced 4...Ne4 against George Perigal, 4...Qe7 against Saint-Amant, and 4...Nd5 against F.L. Slous.

Watson describes as "egregious", Nimzowitsch's assessment after 1.e4 e5 2.d4 exd4 3.c3 Nf6 4.e5 Nd5.

White to move

Nimzowitsch offers the continuation: 5.Qxd4 c6 6.Bc4 Nb6 7.Nf3. He states, "White has here six tempi as against two or one and a half, for the knight is not better placed at b6 than at f6, and the pawn at c6 is not really a whole tempo, since no move of a central pawn is here in question" (13).

Black to move

Watson asks, what has become of those valuable tempi after the logical 7...Nxc4 8.Qxc4 d5? Again, Black has the two bishops and is about to catch up in the number of minor pieces developed. He asserts that White is struggling for equality (15).


Tarrasch

For his part, Siegbert Tarrasch claims that counting tempi originated with Semion Alapin and him.
It is a very good thing, from time to time at least, to balance an account of the tempi visible on the board. This tempi reckoning originated with Alapin and myself. To be sure Alapin, as indeed is quite correct, included in his reckoning such moves as a4/a5, whilst I include only the developing moves and ignore the others--a system which, in my opinion based on my experience, gives results of greater practical value.
The Game of Chess, 228-229
Tarrasch offers a diagram to illustrate.


From his discussion of earlier positions, we learn that center pawns that have cleared out of the way of the pieces can be counted even if they have been captured. In this position, however, he does not count the pawns because both players have advanced both center pawns, making matters equal.

He explains further that a queen that has moved off the back rank counts as one tempo, regardless of how many times it has moved or where it stands. A rook is counted only if it has some space to move. Both of White's rooks have squares in front of them, and so count. Black's rook on g8 has moved, but is blocked and so does not count. Tarrasch does not count the rook on a8 because it has not moved, although perhaps he might consider it developed if the a-pawn were advancing against some target. Knights are more valuable when further advanced. The knight on c3 is one tempo. A knight on the fourth or fifth rank would count as two tempi, and Tarrasch counts three tempi for the knight on e6. Each bishop counts as one tempo when developed no matter how many moves were required to reach its present post.

Tarrasch thus finds that in this diagram, White has nine tempi to Black's five.

Most useful in Tarrasch's discussion, however, is the relationship of Time to Force and Space. "By good play tempi once gained are never lost," he asserts, "but rather are ultimately transformed into a gain in Space or Force" (231).

He is worth quoting at length.
These three factors of Force, Space and Time work together at every move. The whole art of the Opening consists in bringing into action pieces which are first shut in, in freeing pieces by a very few pawn moves, and in getting them to favourable positions and that as quickly as possible. Each tempo must be fully utilised for development, and one must advance one's game. (231)
Although Tarrasch is considered the dogmatist among classical chess theorists, I see the beginnings of modern dynamic chess in his discussion of the balancing of tempi with material and board control.


*See Sid Pickard, The Collected Works of William Steinitz (2003), CD for Steinitz's magazine annotations.

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