Intuition, Candidate Moves and Early Chess Theory

This evening we are going to look at early chess theory as it began to come together in the work of the first two world champions, Steinitz and Lasker.

lasker“When you see a good move, look for a better one”
~ Emanuel Lasker

Before we jump into some great comments and games from history, I have an experiment for us to conduct about candidate moves.

Joke: An intuitive chess player is scrambling about in the street on his hands and knees one night late and a bystander asks, ‘what are you doing?’ ‘Looking for my keys. I dropped ’em coming out of the store’. Confused, the bystander points down the street and says, ‘but the store is over there…?’ ‘Yeah,’ the player says, ‘but the light is way better over here…!’

First, please, no one is allowed to suggest a move and please hold any comments! I want you to study our position silently.

Here is a position that came from a queen’s gambit accepted (which could also arise with the Alapin Sicilian). Here, white is trying to find a weakness around the black king and black is counter-attacking q-side:

Take out paper and pen and write down candidate moves… Even write down a word or two about what might be good or bad about each move you list.

— when done, pair up, weaker players against stronger. Weaker players play white. Play two moves per side and STOP —

Did things go the way you thought?

— Set it up again and switch sides. Play two moves again and STOP —

How about now? Are we seeing very different move choices for white now?

Look here when done.

Botvinnik long ago suggested using the opponent’s time for strategic thinking.

Well, that would be great if you and I were strong enough to ignore tactical stuff for that much time! No – I advocate using some of your opponent’s time looking for deeper tactical patterns and counter-intuitive insights, for both sides.


White got stuck because he failed to see the danger his queen was in against strictly minor pieces – if attacked by Bg4, his queen will remain trapped no matter what else goes on. If you first see this trap, then you don’t have to calculate the tactical value of the rook attacking the queen; you already know it is a mistake because even if you win black’s queen for a rook, you will then lose your own queen for just a minor piece.

Ra-d1 is intuitive because a weaker piece attacks a stronger one, but analytically a blunder because a tactic for the opponent has greater value, one worth the exchange.

The reason I advocate continuing to look at tactical patterns on your opponent’s time is not so you can daydream about variations that might happen – which is naturally a waste of time! Take a look at the first position we studied as black, one move before …b4. Black, a 2500+ player, did not see the threat that could destroy his position because it was a counter-intuitive idea.

Here is an extra exercise:

It is black to move. You are playing white. What kinds of things should you be looking at? Scroll down to see the whole game.





And here is our promised look at Steinitz and Lasker:

Steinitz was really the first important theoretician of chess and his theories formed the basis of early chess theory. Ex-world champion Vladimir Kramnik has commented that Steinitz was important, but that naturally the first attempts at forming a body of chess theory were not complete nor entirely correct.

Old Willy was certainly one of the strongest players for many years, with a 25 year span of match play without defeat! His rating is over 2800, placing him as #14 of all time.

He lost to Lasker in the 1890s in his late 50’s, but until then was alone at the top. It was a sudden change in style, very deliberately done, that marked Steinitz’s theoretical work. He changed from an ‘old school’ romantic like Morphy to a positional player – and in practical terms did it nearly over night.

Here is some of what he had to say:

  1. At the beginning of the game the forces stand in equilibrium.
  2. Correct play on both sides maintains this equilibrium and leads to a drawn game.
  3. Therefore a player can win only as a consequence of an error made by the opponent. (There is no such thing as a winning move.)
  4. As long as the equilibrium is maintained, an attack, however skilful, cannot succeed against correct defence. Such a defence will eventually necessitate the withdrawal and regrouping of the attacking pieces and the attacker will then inevitably suffer disadvantage.
  5. Therefore a player should not attack until he already has an advantage, caused by the opponent’s error, that justifies the decision to attack.
  6. At the beginning of the game a player should not at once seek to attack. Instead, a player should seek to disturb the equilibrium in his favour by inducing the opponent to make an error – a preliminary before attacking.
  7. When a sufficient advantage has been obtained, a player must attack or the advantage will be dissipated.

Source: David Hooper, ‘Steinitz’ Theory’, British Chess Magazine Vol. 104, p.370 Sept 1984.

Steinitz’ ideas, which he wrote prolifically about, were completely opposite the previous ‘Romantic’ view that inspired play could generate advantages and attacks. Steinitz proposed that such brilliance lies in setting problems for the other player such that your opponent makes a mistake…

If you would like a little more, google ‘steinitz ink war’. Steinitz was a professional chess writer for newspapers for many years and his outspoken opinions caused quite the kerfuffle!

Steinitz wasn’t alone in generating theories for discussion: Louis Paulsen had previously declared (quite unfashionably) that all gambits can be defended, so he predated Steinitz’ more fully formed theory. It is thought that point #7 in the list is taken actually from Lasker.

“Place the contents of the Chess box in a hat, shake them up vigorously, pour them on the board from a height of two feet, and you get the style of Steinitz.”  –  Henry Bird


Emanuel Lasker defeated Steinitz in 1894 and remaining champion for 27 years – the longest of any champion. Lasker’s chessmetrics rating is even higher than Steinitz at 2863, placing him higher than the current world champion Magnus Carlsen and putting him at #5 on the all time rating list, higher than any living player today. Here is a game against Steinitz a year later:

Here is a well-known example of Lasker’s inventiveness: Lasker is the first known to play this double bishop sacrifice, and his opponent was a well known master.

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