The Modern School and Its Tendency

by William Steinitz

The object of the game is to checkmate the adverse King as early as possible, and the whole play of each party has to be made subservient to that end. Theorists and practical experts have naturally attempted to effect this purpose, or at any rate to gain some material advantage, by a direct attack against the hostile King in the opening, and in numerous instances they have succeeded in proving that Pawns and pieces may be given up very early in the game for the purpose of harassing the adverse King and with the effect of accomplishing the mate, or at least of recovering material greater in value than what had been temporarily sacrificed. Such attacks generally are essayed in practice by the first player, or advocated in analysis for the same party, and it was always admitted that the second player cannot obtain such opportunities in the opening excepting when a fault is committed by the adversary. But later researches and practical trials among masters have proved that such sacrifices early in the game, even of the first party, are mostly unsound or else they succeed only in consequence of moves on the other side which can be demonstrated as errors of development.

In fact it is now conceded by all experts that by proper play on both sides the legitimate issue of a game ought to be a draw, and that the right of making the first move might secure that issue, but is not worth the value of a Pawn. It therefore follows that, theoretically as well as practically, among first-class masters of equal strength, not a single Pawn can be given up by either party at any stage of the game without at least greatly endangering the result, unless it can be soon recovered. But, moreover, it has been proven beyond any doubt that, irrespective of an attack against the adverse King, the mere weakness of any square on any part of the board will cause great inconvenience and trouble and very often will be fatal. In the middle of the game such points will generally be occupied by a hostile piece that will exercise a menacing attitude, and will be extremely difficult to dislodge, which often gives the adversary time to strengthen his position, either by bringing more of his forces to bear on such a point or by obtaining greater freedom for his other pieces for the formation of an attack in another direction. A game will generally be lost when such a vantage ground can be taken by the opponent on the King's side or in the centre before the exchange of several pieces have been effected, but such weak squares are also dangerous in the ending after the exchange of Queens and Rooks, and when the Kings are brought into play, for it is then mostly important to gain moves with the Pawns, and the side that is free from weak points will have a great advantage for that purpose.

But it is specially as regards the powers of the King that the modern school deviates from the teachings and practice of old theorists and Chess masters, and we consider it established that the King must be treated as a strong piece both for attack and defence. This means that so far from the King requiring great protection early in the game a few simple precautions which we shall further explain will render him so safe that any attempt at attacking his wing will be more dangerous for the opponent than for himself. For such attacks can only be formed either by advancing Pawns on that wing, in which case those Pawns become weak for the ending, if the attack fails; or else by directing several pieces against the adverse King and thus removing them from defensive action on some other point of the board where the opponent may break in with superior forces. But, moreover, several forms of openings have been developed in which the King, though apparently on the defensive for some time, is brought into action early in the game, and after withstanding a seemingly vehement attack, obtains perfect security with the superior position generally for the ending, by means of forcing the exchange of heavy pieces after having gained some advantage in material, but sometimes also in the middle game, with nearly all the principal forces of both parties on the board.

These are in the main the leading ideas of the modern school, as it has been called, though in fact, they formulate no more than an extension in general of maxims of play which with the intuitive instinct of genius have already been adopted by old masters and theorists in some of the openings. For instance, the Bishop's Gambit and the Salvio Gambit show, that though the King has to move early and is deprived of the right of castling, a strong attack can be formed with the minor pieces, owing to the Queen being brought out early into the adverse game. Likewise the French Defense on the very first move of the second player obviates beyond any manner of doubt, for a great number of moves, all sacrificing tactics and even the combination play on the part of the first player, and calls at once for the very treatment that is now advocated as the classical one by best play on both sides, and which consists in a steady development without any sacrifice of material, circumspective attention to the balance of forces and of position on all parts of the board, and the accumulation of small advantages if possible. The principal thesis of the modern school may be briefly summarized thus: Among first-class masters the capture of the adverse King is the ultimate but not the first object of the game and by best play on both sides a draw ought to be the legitimate result.

When it is remembered that a mere alteration in the order of a few consecutive moves sometimes leads to an enormous number of new variations it will be easily understood that a change of a whole system involved the introduction of innumerable new lines of play and the development of novel ideas that were often in direct opposition to popular notions and tastes. Objections have been raised against the reform chiefly on the ground that its tendencies are calculated to abolish or at any rate to reduce brilliant combinations which it is assumed are the special characteristics of the direct attack against the King. We can only answer that this is a sort of sentimental objection that ought to exercise but very little influence on our game, which is essentially of a scientific character. We entirely agree with Baron von Heydebrand und der Lasa who lays down the sound maxim: "The simplest and the shortest way of winning is the best." Correctness of judgment and calculation ought to be chiefly cultivated in the exercise of our pastime, and it merely shows primitive taste to prefer brilliancy to soundness. Elegance of style when opportunity arises is no doubt an attribute of a great master, but the fact should never be lost sight of that the brilliant sacrificing combinations can only occur when either side has committed some grave error of judgment in the disposition of his forces, and therefore, only rarely in important games between first-class masters. Thus, for instance, in the games of Morphy against his most prominent opponents such brilliant sacrifices occurred only in 2 games out of 63, and the extraordinary elegance and dash of Morphy's style was chiefly shown in his blindfold performances, games at odds and skittle play against more or less inferior opponents. The same observation applies to the practice of Chess masters of our time who have greatly increased in number, and as the game has also grown more popular the opportunities arising for first-class players of displaying their ingenuity against less skilled opponents are more frequent. In our opinion the brilliancies have in no way been reduced in proportion and on the contrary they have become even among players who do not belong to the very first rank. The special prizes for instance which are sometimes offered in tournaments for the most brilliant games are generally taken by competitors who do not obtain a high score. This goes to prove that a certain element of hazard is introduced into the aim for brilliant combinations and only those who have little to lose run the risk. But even the sound combinations that involve great sacrifices very rarely present difficulties as great as the maintenance of the balance of position, and very often each player has to look far ahead of possible brilliant combinations on the part of the opponent and accordingly adopts means of prevention which, though apparently simple, require greater depth and ingenuity than the plans which they obviate. Players who exercise their faculties for the purpose of acquiring soundness of judgment in general will also strengthen their perceptions for the most complicated manoeuvres of the King's side attack.