The main strategic principle of warfare appears to be restraint on the enemy forces. It can be clearly seen in how war is waged as well as in chess and all space-control sports (football/soccer, American football, basketball, hockey, etc.). As soon as one side takes possession of the ball, the other party starts harassing them by using restraint, trying to curb their mobility and activity (dribbling, passing the ball, and so on).

Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military commander, strategist and author of Art of War, one of the oldest and most successful work on military strategy, put it this way:

“To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.

Thus the highest form of generalship is:

– to stall the enemy’s plans; the next best is

– to prevent the coordination of the enemy forces; the next in order is

– to attack the enemy’s army in the field.”

As we see, an open all-out battle is not the goal, it is basically grinding down the opponent. Instead of flinging himself head over heels into the attack,  we methodically impose restraint on the opponent, while trying not to give them any counter chances.

Here is an example from the game played at XVIII USSR championship in Moscow, 1950, between Yefim Geller and Salo Flohr:

White to move

We see the position after Black’s 18th move. What is White to do? His e5 pawn is under pressure and it can be a good idea to advance the h-pawn, and attack the Knight at g6 driving back the main defender of the King’s fortress and releasing some pressure in the center (bad is 19. Rd1? because of 19…Ndxe5 20. Nxe5 Rxd1 21. Rxd1 Nxe5).

19. h2 – h4   c5 – c4!

Great move. Black clears c5-square for his Knight. Had the commander of white pieces followed the advice of Sun Tsu, he would have tried to prevent this advance first, and then continue on with the h-pawn storm.

19. c4  is not the answer as Black plays 19…Nb8!, followed by Nc6 and the threat of occupying d4.

So what is the right stroke here?

19. Bg2 – f1!

This prevents c5-c4 and Nd7-c5, while now threatening h2-h4-h5 combined with Bf1-d3 and an attack on the King.

If you want to be more successful in chess, you have to act on Sun Tzu’s advice about restraint (or the “supreme excellence”), as you can see is the case in all space-control sports. That should become part of your instinct, coded deeply within your subconscious brain. You don’t even want to think about it during the game, the same way as a football player checks the attacker right away without a though about it.

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