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Daan Noske / Anefo

The art of doing nothing

ChessOpeningStrategy
Inactivity comes easily to many of us. Have you ever wondered what would happen if you just shuffled your pieces around backwards and forwards rather than latching on to the fashionable concepts of having plans and making progress? Actually there are some established opening and early middlegame strategies which aim to do just that. In this blog we'll look at these approaches and assess their suitability for bullet, blitz and classical chess.

Doing absolutely nothing

On a strict definition this of course isn't really possible. We are compelled to make moves. It is, however, possible just to shuffle a piece backwards and forwards. As you might expect this isn't a very successful strategy for any reasonable form of the game. You could perhaps make a case for enabling fast execution of moves or premoves in some form of ultra-fast bullet, but that's about it.

I tried this strategy against Stockfish and ran out of moves in the following position.

https://lichess.org/study/o4yORZlL/Xbyu1M7J#19

As an aside and notwithstanding the extreme strength of modern engines, a human might do better. If you believe your opponent is just shuffling say a knight or king between two squares then you might come up with an exploitative strategy which is better than the engine first line. This is more practically relevant in a time trouble middlegame / endgame situation where a human might well shuffle pieces.

Doing something normal

Let's consider where you set your defensive or attacking line in a game. Let's start with an analogy to football (soccer if you're American). What we saw in the section above was the equivalent of putting all eleven of your players on your own goal-line. As you might expect the players get in each other's way and aren't terribly effective.

It's more effective in football to push more of your players up the pitch. However, it's possible to play a reasonable defensive game with all of your players in your own half of the pitch and even say with most of them in say the first third of the pitch.

Let's look at some diagrams which illustrate the chess equivalent of how deep you defend. We'll mostly focus on Black's approach.

In the next diagram Black has one central pawn on the 4th rank, the most common way of setting up a defensive line. White has two central pawns on the 4th rank and so is arguably setting up a more advanced line.

https://lichess.org/study/o4yORZlL/eDkFGtMH#20

Doing just a little something

Another common approach is for Black to move two or three pawns onto the third rank to give some space for his pieces to manoeuvre and to discourage White's pieces from doing too much on the 5th rank and beyond.

https://lichess.org/study/o4yORZlL/WXB2hraF#12

In the Masters database White scores 32% wins to 24% for Black. Even at blitz and bullet White edges things with 49% wins to 45% for Black.

Doing the Hippo

A more extreme version is the Hippopotamus system. The first time I saw it I thought it was some kind of joke but it actually sets up a fairly sturdy defensive line. Black or in the example below White basically says attack me if you dare and prepares to exploit any overextension of White's pieces and pawns.

https://lichess.org/study/o4yORZlL/eurkaKg6#19

There's nothing special about the moves or order of moves to reach this position. I just made a series of superficially plausible moves. Notably a Hippo player would play the same moves as White here against almost any other Black setup.

How would you evaluate the position? White isn't doing very much but it also looks difficult for Black to do anything. Often in such positions a ...d4 pawn push by Black would be met by e4 with dreams of a later f4 break. Similarly, a ...e4 push might be met by d4 with dreams of a later c4 break. If Black somehow pushed a pawn to h4 then White might bypass it with g4, and an ...a4 push might be met by b4. In short there are formulaic approaches which White can follow. They won't always be best in a computer sense, but they will often be reasonable choices. Critically such moves can all be played very quickly. Black meanwhile might spend some time agonising over how to try to make progress.

By the way Stockfish says the position is around -0.9, a clear advantage to Black. You might expect some pretty lopsided results on that basis. Looking at the Lichess Masters database there have only been three classical games with White actually scoring 2.5/3 despite being slightly outrated in each game.

If you look at the Lichess database (mostly blitz and bullet) there are over 4,000 games. White scores 50% wins, 4% draws and 46% losses. I suspect that the relative simplicity of the plans for White helps save time and reduces the chances of serious errors. The conclusion is that the Hippo is an excellent practical weapon for blitz and bullet.

If you spend time looking at the Hippo, you will no doubt find some good strategies against it. You might for example try and put an addition c-pawn or f-pawn on the 5th rank. Or you might push your h-pawn before castling. Playing the Hippo regularly in classical games where opponents have time to prepare would therefore be risky. However, it's possible to harness elements of the "wait for your opponent to do something silly" strategy in sounder openings as we look at next.

Doing a more thoughtful little something

https://lichess.org/study/o4yORZlL/R9XRSuD3#38

The position above is from a game played by Mihail Suba (Black) against Bent Larsen. Suba discusses it in his book Dynamic Chess Strategy. In an engine sense the position is more or less equal (actually +0.3 for White), but Larsen over-pressed with 20.g4 and lost in just a handful of moves. Suba has played a flexible waiting strategy. This Hedgehog system puts Black's pieces in squares which will be useful if White pushes f4 or g4 or loses control over squares like b5.

This flexible waiting approach is common in many lines of the Sicilian and against the English Opening. Here's a famous example where Kasparov needed to draw the 24th match game to become World Champion.

https://lichess.org/study/o4yORZlL/lMkln306#40

After 20 moves Kasparov is waiting for Karpov (with a +0.2 advantage) to commit further on the kingside. Karpov over-presses and is crushed by the time control.

The two examples above illustrate that the Hedgehog-type approach is effective at classical. At blitz it may also give some time advantage from fairly standard piece arrangements and middlegame manoeuvres. No doubt Kasparov put a great deal of thought into his specific manoeuvres but lesser mortals could develop some guidelines which would likely work well in practice. For example you could aim to put a bishop on b7 the queen's knight on d7 rather than c6, move the queen towards b8 and put the king's rook on e8. Once you account for putting pawns on d6, e6, b6 and a6 and developing the kingside you may well have close to 15 moves more or less sorted.

Conclusions

Doing absolutely nothing is a poor strategy. However, there are definite advantages to taking a wait and see defensive strategy. This gives you a number of straightforward moves to make where you are unlikely to make a big mistake. Your opponent. on the other hand, may be induced to spend considerable time devising ways to refute your strategy. Such efforts might ultimately succeed but in practice may lead to overreaching and open up opportunities for a strong counterattack.

The handful of data points I picked out above suggests that these practical advantages can even occur at classical speeds.

Finally

In case anyone prefers a video explanation I posted a video covering the topic here: The Art of Doing Nothing (youtube.com)

I also created a Lichess study which includes the games above and will post the link in the forum.

Hopefully you enjoyed the discussion above. Please feel free to post any comments on the topic or feedback in the forum.

Finally, if you enjoyed the discussion above you might enjoy my book Better Chess Faster which applies an analytical approach to how we can play faster and better at both blitz and classical. It is available from Amazon here Better Chess Faster: Strategies for online and live play: Amazon.co.uk: Crocker, Mr Phil: 9798829874704: Books