Sunday, January 14, 2007

Rules in chess

Are there rules in chess? Yes. Or no. Everything depends on who you want to believe. Jacob Aagaard says there are rules, and that we ignore them at our peril. John Watson says there are tendencies that have been simplified into rules, but at the highest level of play no one bothers with them very much.

Interested readers are encouraged to track down Watson's book Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy, Aagaard's later book Excelling at Chess, and Watson's review/rebuttal of Aagaard that appeared in his online book review column. A word of warning: prepare to be challenged!

In this blog I do not have the time, space, or material for a book on the subject of rules in chess. Instead I would like to discuss rules in the context of two endgame positions.

Say you're in a simple rook and pawn ending involving a passed pawn. Quick now: where does your rook belong? That's right: behind the passed pawn. It doesn't matter whether you're the attacker or the defender. It's quite a well-known rule.

Take a look at the first position. What do you notice right away? White's rook is in front of the passed pawn; in other words, it's in the wrong place. Doesn't White know the rule about rook and pawn endings? What to do? Oh, good – luckily, there's a tactic: 1.Rh8!, threatening to queen the pawn. Black must take: 1...Rxa7, and now White skewers the rook with 2.Rh7+, winning easily.

Now take a look at the second position. White's rook is in the right place: behind the passed pawn. And look at Black's pathetic rook, completely paralysed by White's pieces. Good job, White. Now, what to do? Well, Black is threatening to bring his king over and capture the pawn. We could check him, but that doesn't help. Hmm... there doesn't seem to be any way forward. The unhappy verdict: an easy draw for Black.

Let's sum this up from the perspective of the rule. With his rook in the wrong place, White won easily; with his rook in the right place, White could not stop Black from drawing easily. Here we have a what is known as a counterexample, or in simpler language, an exception to the rule. Whatever you call it, in the circumstances anyone who wants to argue for a strong version of the rook/passed pawn rule has some explaining to do.

(Sidebar: there is an old and well-known saying, “It's the exception that proves the rule.” Very few people understand this saying properly, because the word “prove” is being used in an antiquated sense. Here it does not mean “demonstrate” Instead, it means “test.” So today we would say, “It's the exception that tests the rule,” which makes better sense. Now, back to our discussion.)

Faced with such an exception, what can one say about the status of the rule? I suggest there are three possibilities:
1. The rule is no longer valid
2. The rule no longer applies
3. The rule is overridden by another rule

If we decide that the rule about putting rooks behind passed pawns is compromised to the extent of no longer being valid, we might try formulating a new rule, such as “Rooks must be kept active.” In the first position, we could argue that White's rook, posted in front of his own passed pawn, is only apparently inactive. The tactic 1.Rh7! shows that it is in fact active, thus satisfying the rule.

As an alternative we might want to argue that all chess rules have qualifying circumstances and are not intended for certain positions. For example, we might argue that chess rules are positional in nature and are not intended to apply to tactical situations. When tactics arise, rules fly out the window.

Finally, we might want to argue that in any chess position, a number of rules apply, and that our task is to find the most appropriate or important one. Here we could argue that the second position demonstrates the rule that passed pawns must be blockaded. Because promotion brings a new queen into the picture, the positional rule about rook placement must take a back seat.

Or we could adopt a fourth position, which is that trying to conceive and apply rules to a chess position instead of analysing and understanding it in terms of concrete possibilities amounts to absurd and pointless mystification. Because of the laws of the game, the hard truth is that tactics are paramount in chess. As Nigel Short once said, “Checkmate ends the game!”

Rooks belong behind passed pawns. Rooks must be kept active. Passed pawns must be blockaded. We're in a position and we have to find a move. Which rule applies? Without analysing the position, we can't tell. Once analysis reveals the correct line of play, only then can we characterise the position in terms of a particular rule.

In my opinion, rules are important in chess only to the extent that they assist correct decision-making. If rules help us find stronger moves, great. But if they hinder us from finding the strongest move, they must be reexamined. I think this puts me in the Watson camp!


GeneM said...

"... Watson's review/rebuttal of Aagaard that appeared in his online book review column"

The blog post should have contained the http address.

Re the debate about how far principles or rules apply in chess play, consider the 9-10 very well known principles of opening play (A.Nimzovitch, R.Fine).

The annual August chess960 play from Mainz Germany ( shows that only half of these so-called opening principles are genuine robust principles.
Half of the 10 turn out to be false when other start positions are used. Their brittle-ness means they are actually nothing more than heavy analysis of one particular chess position.

In contrast, the good half of the 10 opening principles do apply well to most or all chess960 (FRC) start positions.

Gene Milener

Dan Scoones said...

(1) I agree but I don't know how to do that (yet.) It's a young blog...

(2) Interesting... I would guess that "knights before bishops" is one of the "brittle" ones.

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Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada
National master (Canada) since 1984. B.C. Champion 1977 and 1984. Runner-up 1991 and 2002. B.C. Open Champion 1972 and 1982. B.C. U/14 Champion 1964-65-66. Mikhail Botvinnik once wrote that publishing your analytical work forces you to be accurate because it exposes you to criticism. Hence this blog.