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Player: United  KeSetoKaibaChessHere Gold Member Subject: Capablanca-style Prophylaxis

2021-04-01 06:55:06
When most chess players hear the term “prophylaxis”, I suspect they mechanically visualize a “small” pawn move such as White playing h2-h3 in the Ruy Lopez Opening to prevent a possible …Bg4 pin on a Knight developing to f3. However, prophylaxis can be much deeper than this simple one-move example. For those unaware, “prophylaxis” is the chess term for basically putting your own plans temporarily on hold to throw a monkey wrench into the opponent plan, so to speak.

Here is an interesting Capablanca game I recently came across that illustrates the latent energy of prophylaxis in chess. A prophylaxis motif at just the right instant can halt the momentum of the opponent right then and there. This game was played in 1926, on July 8. We will follow along with Capablanca playing as the Black pieces against Abraham Kupchik playing as the White pieces. This was round 2; played at Lake Hopatcong, NJ, USA. The game begins fairly straight-forward:

1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 e6 3. e3 b6 4. Bd3 Bb7 This opening is the Yusupov-Rubinstein System of the Indian Game. This is a solid, yet flexible, way for the Black pieces to play. Personally, I like Black’s flexibility here; they haven’t really committed themselves too much (other than the Bishop fianchetto) and might even decide to opt for a hedgehog pawn formation. The hedgehog pawn formation would be Black placing their pawns on a6, b6, d6 and e6 and then developing their pieces behind these “spines.” Black may look cramped, but the pawn breaks with …b5 or …d5 are thematic and Black can get a good game.

Black hasn’t revealed their intentions yet. As we shall soon see, the Black pieces will not go for a hedgehog pawn formation this time. Instead, play will greatly be centered around contesting the strategically important e4 square. The fianchetto Bishop aims at this central square and so surely White can’t give up such an important point without a fight!

5. O-O Ne4 White’s play of castling is logical, but 5…Ne4 might not be best for Black. Obviously, plonking a Knight onto the vital e4 square “controls” it to a degree (also prevents e3-e4 from White which is perhaps why this move was chosen). However, I heard of a Russian chess study where central influence was examined in chess. The study revealed that it is usually stronger to influence critical squares, in the center, by Knights and Bishops from afar - rather than occupying those squares. This applies to the pieces as well as pawns. The study claimed that too many pawns in the central squares (at least e4, e5, d4, d5 and perhaps a few surrounding squares to a degree such as the f5 square or c4 square) usually becomes more of a target than an asset and that the chess player might do slightly better to influence the center with Knights and Bishops instead of occupying the center squares themselves.

This “study” has probably been credited to a million different chess players or groups, but I first heard it as a study by several Russian players examining these intricacies together. Regardless which individuals first came up with these insights, it is worth noting that …Ne4 might not be best. Perhaps not dubious, but not best.

From an opening theory perspective, contemporary opening database statistics confirm this because 5…c5 and even 5…d5 score much better for Black here than 5…Ne4 does (5…Be7 is also a studied line that Black scores well with, but I do not mention this here because it does little in influencing the center as is the topic of discussion).

6. Nbd2 f5 Both factions are correctly battling over the e4 square. The move 6…f5 is logical here. It comes with the slight draw-back of weakening the Kingside for Black’s King, but the alternative in 6…d5 would have the draw-back of blocking off the diagonal for the b7 fianchetto Bishop. Every move has pros and cons to them; …f5 is a fine idea here, so long as White isn’t able to exploit this (specifically the weak diagonal from h5-e8).

7. c3 Be7 8. Qc2 d5 There is little concern for cutting off the fianchetto Bishop from the e4 square because this Bishop still “controls” the e4 square! True, not directly, but if White ever wants to liquidate and contest the e4 square then the d5 pawn might capture on e4 at some point and the b7 Bishop still influences the e4 square; the fact that a pawn currently sits on d5 actually matters little!

Amazing that players like Capablanca (playing the Black pieces in this game) correctly identified the need to reinforce e4 over blocking the fianchetto Bishop, since this is many decades before chess computers and about a full century before chess computers were even proficient at chess!

Capablanca was born in 1888 and chess computers didn’t beat a world chess champion in even a single chess game until Deep Blue vs Kasparov 1996 (which Kasparov won the series with a score of 4-2 by the way, getting 3 wins and two draws out of the remaining 5 games).

9. Ne5 O-O 10. f3 Nxd2 11. Bxd2 Nd7 12. Nxd7 Qxd7 Both sides are exchanging off active pieces, of the opponent, in the center of the chess board. With the move 10. f3, White kicks Black’s Knight out of the center and with the move 11…Nd7, Black gets White’s Knight out of the center.

The game state is roughly equal. However, I will mention that Black’s setup now looks reminiscent to a Stonewall formation. It is not quite the Stonewall because Black’s pawn is not on c6 (but the f5, e6, d5 pawns are all in the Stonewall setup), but play might be similar. White may likely attempt to compromise Black’s “pawn pillars” of f5 and d5 at an opportune time.

13. Rae1 c5 14. Qd1 Rf6 15. Qe2 Raf8 16. Bb5 Qc7 Both chess armies are jousting around for the slightest of advantages, but the game is still undecided and both White and Black have play here.

17. f4 c4 This is a fairly significant moment of the game that might otherwise go unnoticed. 17. f4 attempts to cut off the b8-h2 diagonal from the Black Queen on c7 and then 17…c4 similarly cuts off communication between the White Queen and White Bishop on e2 and b5, respectively.

The reason this moment means something is because these “small” pawn moves close up the center somewhat and it is this closed nature that blocks off the center. If the center of the board is closed, then thematically play might shift to the flanks. That is exactly what soon happens in this game. White will try to get play on the Kingside and Black will try to get play on the Queenside. After all, take a look at Black’s central pawns on e6-d5-c4 “pointing” to the Queenside. From the perspective of pawn structure, typically the chess player should seek play on the side of the board where their pawns are “pointing” and especially so with which way the central pawns are “pointing.”

18. Kh1 Bd6 This seems like a good moment to evaluate the “plans” each faction should be striving for. Theoretically, both players should be doing this after every single move. In practicality, I usually re-assess the position when I feel that the structure has changed (specifically pawn structure) or the last opponent move puzzled me.

It is also worth sometimes taking a breather, or even walking around a bit and coming back to the position if the time control is long enough to allow it. A position like this is a great time for stepping back and re-evaluating ideas.

For the Black side, the plan is fairly straight-forward to come up with. The pawns are “pointing” to the Queenside, so it makes sense for Black to expand on that flank and gain even more space. Moves like …a6 and …b5 (also kicking the Bishop with tempi) look good. Many chess players could find, or understand, a plan like this.

However, we must also consider what plans the White side many have in mind. 18. Kh1 might puzzle some players and if this is the case, then that is more of the reason to try and figure out what the plan is. Sometimes pieces just shuffle aimlessly, but usually our opponent has an idea behind it.

It reminds me of what Bobby Fischer said:

“One day you give your opponent a lesson, the next day he gives you one.” - Bobby Fischer

With 18. Kh1, White tucks the King away a little safer, but this also prepares White’s threat to advance on the Kingside with g2-g4 here! Let us not forget which way White’s pawns “point” too! White’s central pawns are pointing towards the Kingside, so White may expand there. Rook lift ideas are also possibly in the air. Perhaps Rf3 and then Rg3 or Rh3.

19. Rf3 If we correctly deciphered White’s previous move of 18. Kh1, then this should not come as a surprise. The question now is, what should Black play here? Black playing 19…a6 and expanding on that side of the board makes complete sense and would be a good plan, but Capablanca chose to take this moment to use prophylaxis and contest the opponent plan(s). That move is…

h5! That is it, 19…h5! This move deters g2-g4 and essentially halts White’s source of play here. Black intends to barricade up the Kingside shelter and utilize play on the Queenside while White’s Kingside operations are slowed down. This mindset illustrates how Capablanca was able to understand the details of a position (like what the opponent plans were) and adapt accordingly.

20. Ref1 Rh6 White doubling Rooks is simple enough to spot, but 20…Rh6 is not nearly as easy to understand. This is a clever place to put the Rook because Black seeks activity. The Rook behind the h-pawn may threaten advancing the Black h-pawn into White’s King position. Alternatively, the Rook might land itself on an open file if carelessly prepares for g2-g4 anyway with h2-h3 and then g2-g4 because Black would have h-captures and gain the open file.

Perhaps a line like this:

21. h3?! a6 22. Ba4 b5 23. Bc2 a5 24. g4?? hxg4 and the h-file may open entirely soon if White isn’t careful.

This instructionally demonstrates why we must create plans that fit the needs of the position. We can’t force our ideas like White forcing h3 and g4; we must decide which plans best suit the current position and then try to play for those. A nice example of that was earlier in this same game when both sides correctly created plans based on where the pawns were “pointing.”

However, we must digress back to the actual game.

21. Be1 g6 22. Bh4 Kf7 Black has a nice setup here. The Black monarch is a lot safer than it might appear. It looks like the dark-squares near the King is a problem (because of the many pawns on light-squares), but it is not so easy for White to infiltrate. All of White’s plans take a long time to put into action and Black won’t dilly-dally without doing anything productive in the meantime.

It looks like White might go for something like Qe1-Qg3-Qg5, but that gives Black adequate time to setup defenses. Plus, those moves can’t come right away because Black will create threats and keep the initiative. Mainly with …a6 and …b5 soon to be played. With all of this said:

23. Qe1 a6 24. Ba4 b5 25. Bd1 Bc6 Black’s King position is holding up on the Kingside and White’s forces are being pushed back with gain of time on the Queenside. I especially like the nice touch with 25…Bc6. It displays the fact that Black has all the time they need, so they slowly improve their position. On the c6 square, the Bishop now can keep an eye on b5 and a4. This little added support might come in handy if the pawns decide to advance further as did happen in the game text.

26. Rh3 a5 27. Bg5 Rhh8 28. Qh4 b4 I like the way NM Robert Ramirez described White’s forces at this point in the game, “…There is nothing for these pieces (on h3, h4 and g5) to do over here (on the Kingside).” It is no wonder that White had to re-position to defend the coming Queenside advance.

29. Qe1 Rb8 30. Rhf3 a4 31. R3f2 a3 Now there is no way to prevent Black from opening at least one file and getting a dangerous passed pawn.

Although obvious to some, it is still worth pointing out how 31…b3?? would blunder away all of Black’s advantage. White could then play 32. a3 and keep the position on that flank closed. With the pawns locked up, then the far advanced pawns have little value as they can’t advance. Much stronger is the game continuation and threatening to open lines to keep the attack alive.

Similarly, this is a positional point to remember if one is defending (especially common in opposite side castling pawn storms). There is little danger of advanced pawns if the defender can block them all by locking up the pawns and keeping the position closed. It is much tougher to make progress then.

32. b3 cxb3 33. Bxb3 Bb5 Here is another idea by Capablanca that feels prophylactic in nature. Black wants to capture the pawn on c3, but the in-between move 33…Bb5 first gains a tempo on the f1 Rook while unleashing a discovered attack by the Queen on the c3 square; now the Black c3 pawn will have more protection when it captures the White pawn there.

Instead, 33…bxc3?! is a bit impatient. 34. Qxc3 Rhc8 and Black still has a slight advantage, but not nearly as convincing as the game text.

34. Rg1 Qxc3 35. Qxc3 bxc3 Generally, White should not be exchanging Queens when down in material (down by a pawn here), but this is probably done to “split” the dangerous Black pawns; pawns on a3 and c3 might be more defensible than if the pawns were connected such as on a3 and b4.

36. Rc2 Rhc8 As noted, the White pieces are trying to blockade the dangerous pawns and if those pawns are split, then at least the pawns can’t defend each other.

37. Bh4 Bd3 38. Rcc1 Rxb3! Naturally, Capablanca breaks through the attempted blockade in stylish-fashion. This exchange sacrifice greatly assists Black because the passed pawn on the a-file is now a critical factor to the position and the two pawns on a3 and c3 are certainly dangerous enough to make up for the material deficit once White takes the offered Rook.

39. axb3 a2 0-1 The pawns are too strong and Kupchik, playing the White pieces, justifiably resigns.

Next time both sides are actively pursuing their chess plans, then don’t forget to consider the opponent threats and think of prophylaxis. It is natural to rush and follow through with our goals first, but sometimes it is beneficial to temporarily pause those plans to delay (or outright prevent) the opponent chances for counterplay; successfully do this and that is one more step in the direction to playing Capablanca-style Prophylaxis.
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