The Secret of Initiative in Chess and Sports
Chess is a clash of interests between two independent and irreconcilable wills. Each will is trying to impose itself on the other and win the chess war.
So how do you impose your will on the opponent in any competitive situation?
Offensively toward the aim
Offensive action is the most effective and decisive way to achieve a defined goal. Selection and maintenance of a single, unambiguous objective is one of the master warfare principles. It’s the centerpiece of any successful action on the chessboard, or elsewhere. Offense is a practical way to seize and hold the initiative and gain some advantage for it.
All actions on the chessboard are based on either taking the initiative or reacting in response to the opponent. The two cannot exist separately. The same goes with a related pair: attack and defense. One party to a conflict must take initiative, or attack. The other one must respond, or defend. Without that there would be no conflict.
Tactical nature of the initiative
Where does the initiative come from? It comes from active piece play, superiority of force, or lead in development, for example. It’s generated by an idea coming from the specifics of the position with the objective to gain some advantage out of it. It “looks for some general goals, such as gaining control of maneuvering space, maintaining the tension, keeping the opponent busy and reserving plenty of attacking options for oneself,” Euwe & Kramer, The Middlegame. Over time it should bring some concrete results and get you a more specific material or positional advantage for it: an open line, better pawn formation, or ultimately, a direct mate attack.
In practical terms all manifestations of initiative are coming in the form of threats. “The initiative is the capacity to make threats,” Capablanca. Creating threats and use of various tactical methods are surest means of seizing and maintaining initiative and harvesting any advantage that comes with it. Strike first and then keep striking. That’s the first principle of tactics: don’t let them breathe when you’re chipping away at them.
But initiative objectives are strategic
By using initiative the skillful player, while maintaining the freedom action for his pieces, ties up the opponent in such a way that he cannot strike back. It forces the other side to play on the defensive, rather than make moves constructive to his own plan. As you know, that’s the first principle of strategy: defeat the enemy’s plans, kill their strategy, oppose their intentions. To do so, the holder of the initiative chooses the continuation of the least resistance as the target for his efforts (or linea minoris resistentiae, as Lasker wrote in his Chess Manual), giving his opponent the least possible number of responses and chances for counterplay. Tie them down!
Initiative vs attack
Initiative is the most valuable intangible dynamic advantage in an undecided phase of the game. It’s governed by general principles, as described above, in positions where balance has not been upset and there is no definite target of attack yet. For that reason it usually requires much time on the clock.
Over time, if successfully followed up, it can grow and turn into a full-scale attack. At that point you need less time to think. The number of possible lines becomes more restricted as dictated by the nature and direction of the attack.
Attack is a broader concept including longterm initiative, elements of positional maneuvering and quite often a decisive winning combination.
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Next time you take a look at an actual game to see how initiative develops and evolves into a full-fledged attack. Also about why the initiative exhausts itself and cannot sustain indefinitely as well as about counterattack as the supreme form of defense.