08 August 2015

Thinking about Development

Ever since reading Elements of Positional Evaluation, rev. ed. (1999) by Dan Heisman fifteen years ago, I have thought a little differently about development.* Before reading this book, I had been content to get my pieces out, hopefully to good squares. I did not think deeply about which rook to move first, nor when to delay deploying a bishop because I was uncertain of its best square, nor what exactly is meant by the term development.

Heisman calls development a pseudo-element.
Development theory yields more contradictions than any other single positional theory, and if noting else comes out of this work, it is hoped that the overused "development" will be exposed for what it really is: a vague catch-all which confuses more than it clarifies. For a definition, we finds such indefinite generalizations as "getting your pieces into play," "moving a piece from its original square," and "putting your pieces on squares where they are well placed for the middlegame."
Heisman, Elements, 28.
I have sought to employ Heisman's seven elements--mobility, flexibility, center control, vulnerability, piece coordination, time, and speed--in my teaching of juniors and in my own play. I have sought through my reading and rereading of classic works to understand the historic evolution of the concept of development. Chess writers before Steinitz concerned with positional play used the term time before development became a catch phrase.

A position that I recently faced in a correspondence game provoked further considerations of development, and surprisingly, perhaps, found me relying on something I read in Siegbert Tarrasch, The Game of Chess (1935). Tarrasch employs the concept of development throughout this book. However, he breaks it down into three factors: time, material, and space.

White to move

It was my move in this position. My first impulse was to play 10.Nxf6+, but then I remembered Tarrasch's sage advice in his section on time, "every care must be taken not to develop one's opponent, for by so doing one presents him with one or more tempi" (227). There was no rush as this was a correspondence game with seven days to move. I spent a leisurely 45 minutes or so contemplating and researching this position.

It seemed clear to me that White had an advantage. Tarrasch would note White's occupation of four ranks while Black's pieces occupied three (space). Counting tempi in the manner that Tarrasch suggests yields 5-4 in favor of White because a knight on the fourth rank is worth two tempi (229). Capturing the knight on f6 would restore the balance of tempi, something obviously not in White's best interests.

Heisman's elements were also helpful. White's pieces struck me as slightly better coordinated than Black's. The old pseudo-element (Heisman's term) of space helps. In particular, White's pieces are well coordinated to generate pressure against h7 and start an attack on the castled king. Despite seemingly adequate protection, Black's king could prove vulnerable if White could build an attack.

I looked at several lines designed to create a checkmate threat on h7. Inevitably, Black was forced to play g6, but then Black's bishop became well-posted on g7 or f6. As pieces were exchanged, White's initiative failed to expose the king and began to dissipate.

Exploring my database, I found that this position had occurred in at least fourteen prior games with thirteen White wins and one draw. One of the wins, however, came as a consequence of a long endgame with one knight and five pawns each. Black was outplayed in what looked to me like an equal position. In those fourteen games, White had played ten different moves.

Before looking at the move that I played and the subsequent course of the game, it may be of interest to see how this position came about.

Stripes,J (2175) -- Internet Opponent (1919) [C04]
www.ChessWorld.net, 31.05.2015

1.d4 e6 2.e4 d5 3.Nd2 Nc6

The Guimard variation has long had a reputation for being weaker than 3...c5 and 3...Nf6, as well as the flexible 3...Be7 that is recommended in several recent books on the French. Even so, John Watson offers a chapter on it in Dangerous Weapons: The French (2007).

4.Ngf3 Be7

4...Nf6 is nearly always played and is the only move discussed in Watson's Dangerous Weapons. Other moves that can be found in ECO are 4...g6, 4...Nh6, and 4...dxe4. The last transposes to a obscure variation of the Rubinstein French.

5.c3 has been played in over half of the small number of games reaching this position. White's score of 84% is impressive, but the sample is too small and most of the games are between players below Candidate Master.

5.e5 f5 (5...Nh6 6.c3 Bd7 7.Bd3 Nf5 8.Nf1 Na5 9.Ng3 Nxg3 10.hxg3 h6 11.g4 a6 12.g5 h5 13.g6 Bb5 14.g4 h4 15.gxf7+ Kxf7 16.g5 Ke8 17.Bxb5+ axb5 18.Qd3 c6 19.Nxh4 Nb3 20.Rb1 Nxc1 21.Qg6+ Kd7 22.f4 Qf8 23.f5 Nd3+ 24.Kd2 Nf4 25.fxe6+ Nxe6 26.Rbf1 Bxg5+ 27.Kc2 Qe8 28.Rf7+ Be7 29.Nf5 Rxh1 30.Nxg7 Rh6 31.Qf5 Qxf7 32.Qxf7 Rf8 0–1 Fernandez Romero,E (2383)--Pons Boscana,G, Mallorca 2000) 6.c4 Nh6 7.cxd5 exd5 8.Nb3 Nf7 9.Bd3 a5 10.0–0 a4 11.Nbd2 g5 12.Bb5 Ra5 13.Bxa4 g4 14.Bxc6+ bxc6 15.Nb3 Ra7 16.Ne1 Ba6 17.Nd3 Qa8 18.Re1 Bb5 19.a3 Ba4 20.Bd2 c5 21.dxc5 d4 22.e6 Nd8 23.Nf4 Bxc5 24.Qc2 Bd6 25.Qxf5 Bxb3 26.Qh5+ Kf8 27.Ng6+ Kg8 28.e7 Ne6 29.Nxh8 Bxe7 30.Qf7+ Kxh8 31.Qxe7 Ra6 32.Bh6 1–0 Rogers,I (2574)--Buecker,S (2341), Hertogenbosch 1999.

5...dxe4 6.Nxe4 Nf6

White to move

With Black's move the game transposes into a slightly larger data set, perhaps the seventy games are sufficient for justifying some optimism for White in the 92% score.


A thematic move against the French.


7...Qd5 8.Qe2 0–0 9.Bf4 Nxe4 10.Bxe4 Qa5 11.0–0 Bd6 12.Ne5 Bxe5 13.Bxe5 Bd7 14.a4 Nxe5 15.dxe5 Rab8 16.b4 Qa6 17.b5 Qb6 18.Qd3 Rfd8 19.Bxh7+ Kf8 20.Be4 c6 21.c4 Qc5 22.Qa3 Qxa3 23.Rxa3 Be8 24.Rd3 Rxd3 25.Bxd3 Rd8 26.Rd1 cxb5 27.axb5 a6 28.bxa6 bxa6 29.Be2 Rxd1+ 30.Bxd1 a5 31.f4 f6 32.Kf2 Bc6 33.g3 a4 34.Ke3 a3 35.Bb3 fxe5 36.fxe5 Kf7 37.Kd4 Kg6 38.Kc5 Be4 39.Ba2 Kf5 40.Kd6 g5 41.h4 gxh4 42.gxh4 Bf3 43.h5 Bxh5 44.c5 1–0 Mortensen,E (2440)--Crawley,G (2345), Copenhagen 1987.

7...0–0 is the most popular move in the position.


8.Qa4 has been played by the strongest players who reached this position 8...Bb7 9.0–0 (9.Bb5 Qd5=).

8...Bb7 9.Qe2 0–0

And we have reached the diagram position at the top of this post. Notice that it emerged from the Tarrasch variation of the French.

Fourteen games in the ChessBase database have reached this position. White has tried ten different moves. One game was drawn and White won all the others.


Moving my rook to the semi-open file strengthens my grip on the center, prepares for an eventual rook lift if I can generate an attack on Black's king, leaves d1 available for the other rook, and defers development of my dark-squared bishop. Even more important, it makes no concrete threats that guide Black's choices. I am developing with a very slight increase in pressure. I have increased the mobility of my rook (Tarrasch would count the rook's placement on e1 as a tempo because there is no White pawn blocking it). My pieces remain well-coordinated as others join in the battle. I continue to eye potential vulnerabilites in Black's position. I am not wasting time, nor am I helping my opponent gain time through exchanges.

Whether my move is better than others that have been played in this position is unclear. It seems that almost everything has led to success.

Indeed, I like this position for training because it is not the move, but rather the rationale that is most telling. Although I will likely never see it again, and my students are not likely to ever play it, it could be a useful position for asking students to articulate their thinking. The concepts and principles that a player brings to this position may help identify what one still needs to learn concerning positional play in the later phases of the opening.

10.Qc2 was played on move 11 in a fifteenth game. 10...Nxe4 11.Bxe4 f5 12.Bd3 Bf6 13.Bc4 Bc8 14.Re1 Qd6 15.Qxf5 Bxd4 16.Qe4 Bf6 17.Bf4 Qc5 18.b4 Qh5 19.Bxe6+ Kh8 20.Qxc6 1–0 Jovanovic,Z (2541)--Patarcic,D (2157), Bosnjaci CRO 2015.

10.Nxf6+ Bxf6 11.Qe4 g6 12.Bh6 Re8 13.Qf4 Qe7 14.Bg5 Bxg5 15.Nxg5 e5 16.dxe5 Nxe5 17.Be4 Bxe4 18.Nxe4 Nd3 19.Nf6+ Kh8 20.Qh4 h5 21.Qg5 Qf8 22.Nxe8 Rxe8 23.Qb5 Nc5 24.Rfe1 Ne6 25.f4 Rd8 26.Qe5+ Kg8 27.f5 Qc5+ 28.Qxc5 Nxc5 29.Re7 Na4 30.Rxc7 Nxb2 31.fxg6 fxg6 32.Rxa7 Nd1 33.Rb1 Nxc3 34.Rxb6 Rd1+ 35.Kf2 Rd2+ 36.Ke3 1–0 Mirabile,T (2203)--Stenzel,H (2077), Nassau 1999.


10...Nxe4 helps White 11.Qxe4 g6 12.Bh6 Re8 13.Bb5 Bf8 (13...Na5 14.Qf4) 14.Bg5 Be7 15.Bxc6 Bxc6 16.Qxc6 Bxg5 17.d5 with an attack.


This move becomes Stockfish's second choice after several minutes, although it does not make the top six through the first minute or so. It does not make it into Komodo's nor Hiarcs's top eight even after five minutes. The moves that appear favored by more than one engine are 11.Nfg5, 11.b4, and 11.Bd2. 11.Nxf6+ is an early choice that drops after the engine has a few minutes of thinking time.

Black to move


This move fails to address the needs of the position. White's forces are well-deployed for action against the king.

11...Nd5 is the top choice of every engine that I checked. 12.Bd2+/=. Perhaps 11...Nd5 was the only move with all others giving White an explicit advantage.


The time is now! Black's position is collapsing.


12...gxf6 was the only try 13.Qe4 f5 14.Qh4+/-.

13.Qe4 g6 

I was surprised to see that this move was Stockfish's top choice. I considered it tantamount to surrender.

13...Rfd8 or Rfe8 struck me as the only reasonable try. Both moves drop two pawns and leave White with kingside pressure. 14.Qxh7+ Kf8 15.Qh8+ Ke7 16.Qxg7+-.

14.Bxf6 1–0

Black resigned.

I was preparing for a longer struggle. By slowly building pressure and forcing my opponent to make critical decisions in a seemingly quiet position, I gave him the opportunity to self-destruct.

*The fourth edition came out in 2010 and is much expanded over the edition that I read fifteen years ago.

1 comment:

  1. 7.....b6(?)
    7......Sxe4 /stronger/
    8.Gxe4 Gd7(!)