Chess Prophylaxis

During a chess game you should withstand all kind of adversity from your opponent. Your men should be holding up if you want to win. For this you need to employ them in a harmonious way so as to build up a strong, resilient and flexible position. It should be “healthy” and free from weaknesses the opponent may use as possible targets against you.

Chess is not all about attack and defense. It is also building a solid position to make sure your piece set-up and movements are guarded from the opponent’s actions while preparing for the right moment to unleash striking power. Not only tactical clashes, chess should also be very much about positional moves, preventive moves, waiting moves, maneuvering — generally, all kind of moves calculated to put your house in order.

As Nimzovich1 put it, “it is necessary for your pieces to establish contact with the enemy’s strategically important points or key strategic points of your own.” Only sound positional play will possibly create ground for a successful tactical outcome later.

Card Tower, chess art by Isaac Root

Is your chess fortress built on solid foundations, or it’s just a house of cards and you’re gambling for your future (Card Tower, by Isaac Root)

Remember the 9 Principles of Warfare, as explained by J.F.C. Fuller? One of them was Endurance, or your chessmen’s resistance to pressure. This is measured by your ability to see direct threats, but also to anticipate things undesirable from the strategic point of view which will enhance your strategic eye on how best to avoid, overcome, or negate them. The Strategist in you should always think in terms of paralyzing the enemy. Either by reducing the opponent’s possibilities of resistance, or by forestalling his aggressive intentions. According to Nimzovich, the well known idea of the accumulation of small advantages, brought to us by Steinitz, is only of secondary significance to prophylaxis, or prevention, that is, all those measures designed to preserve health of your position and hold off the spread of harmful effects of ongoing enemy actions.

Here is some more observations from Nimzovich1, “Positional moves are in general neither threatening nor defensive ones, but rather moves designed to give our position security in the wider sense.”

“Neither the attack nor defense is a matter properly pertaining to positional play, which is instead an energetic and systematic application of prophylactic measures. What is important above all else is to blunt the edge (italics mine) of certain possibilities which in a positional sense would be undesirable.”

We should be constantly “concerned with the warding off of an evil, which has really never been understood as one, yet which can, and in general does, have a most disturbing effect on our game.”

Isaac Root, The City on a table

You may be taking chances when you neglect prevention. The city on a table, by Isaac Root

Lack of prevention in chess reminds me of modern medicine that most of time only deals with consequences of a disease that has already progressed, instead of preventing it by smart strategic moves like healthy diet, active life, etc. Needless to say, it is far more advisable to avoid disease than to have to apply controls and do firefighting after disease has broken out. Well, your efforts to put the fire out may come too late then.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, –Benjamin Franklin

Again, the key concept and the main principle of strategy is prevention and holding your opponent back. As Sun Tzu put it some twenty five centuries ago, the highest form of generalship is to stall the enemy’s plans.

Masters do it all the time. For example, here’s an assessment Mikhail Botvinnik made about his opponent David Bronstein at the time they played their match for the World Chess Championship in 1951, “In general, he is very cautious. When danger is approaching, he shows inexhaustible energy and haste to ward off the attack and divert the opponent.”2

Destroy the very seeds of evil, before they shall have had time to germinate.

All the above discussion finds its support in language. If we look at the meaning of the words3 prevent, restrict, restrain, control, dominate, you can see they all share one meaning, to choke adversary’s actions and movements which then should guarantee domination.

Prevent3 means to keep from happening. Originally, it comes from Latin praevenire, to come before, anticipate, forestall.

Restrict3 comes from Latin restringere, re+ stringere, to bind tightly, draw tight, press together (so as not to let move); the noun is string, or rope. Of the same origin and meaning is strain, as in restrain.

You clearly see that all these words are synonyms. The key message is that if you want to be in the commanding seat you need to foresee and suppress freedom of movement and stop possible actions of the opposing side before they grow too dangerous — this will put you in control.

By the way, control is made up from two words, contra (against, opposite), and rotulus (roll of rota, or wheel). Going from its Latin origin even further into the past , you can find its Proto Indo-European language roots in the verb ret, meaning run, or roll. To control thus originally meant to deprive the other side of movement, bind tightly, hold in check.

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You should learn to recognize the seeds of strategic evil before they ever begin to take root. You must cut off the bad seeds and make sure they are eliminated before they can spread their disease and ruin your game.

Alas, this aspect of the game is greatly neglected when we teach and learn chess. Yet, it should be vital part of the chess player’s thought.



1. Aron Nimzowitsch, My System, 21st Century Edition, Hays Publishing, 1991.

2. Brotvinnik – Bronstein Moscow 1951: Match for the World Chess Championship, “64” Publishing, Moscow 2001, p.12

3. Prevent, a. to keep from happening or existing b. to hold or keep back, hinder, stop

Restrict, keep or confine within bounds

Restrain, a1. Hold back or keep in check; control a2. Prevent b. Deprive of freedom and liberty c. Limit or restrict

Control, a. Exercise the dominating influence over something b. Hold in restraint or check

Hold in check, to keep something/somebody under control, usually to stop them becoming too large or too powerful

Dominate, a. Control by superior power b. Exert a supreme influence on or over somebody/something c. Enjoy a commanding or controlling position

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