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Using Prophylaxis as a Weapon (with Anatoly Karpov)
GM Danny Gormally

05 July 2017

Recently I started to think about why the late chess coach Mark Dvoretsky, who passed away recently, was so well acclaimed as a teacher of the game. It struck me that the real reason was that Dvoretsky wasn’t afraid to talk about some of the most difficult themes that crop up in chess.

It would have been easy for him to grind out a living talking about the sort of subjects that most gravy-trainers tend to fall back on, like showing off some wonderful attacking game featuring a stonking combination at the end, while showering such games with the usual platitudes and cliches.

But no, Dvoretsky had a real love of chess which shone through in his writing, and loved to get down to the nitty-gritty, and try and uncover the engine room of chess and the process that players go through when they consider their moves.

One of the topics Dvoretsky kept coming back was the importance of prophylatic play and how you should always approach a position from the perspective of “What does my opponent want to play”? Dvoretsky explained how perhaps the greatest expert in this field was the legendary Anatoly Karpov who in his prime, was able to smell out a potential attack before his opponent had even thought of it himself.

Dvoretsky also pointed out that while Petrosian, another well known exponent of prophylaxis rather used it in a defensive way, Karpov was able to refine it into a weapon that could be used to actively fight for the initiative.

In the following game as is so typical in such hedgehog positions, the main battlefield rather revolves around whether Black can carry out the break …d5 successfully. It is important for White to be able to restrain Black’s play in the center, so it’s interesting to see how subtly Karpov goes about doing this.

A masterpiece of control.

The Power of Retreat

Another game, another chance to get inside Karpov’s head. Black has just played his queen out to the active square b6, perhaps anticipating that he will cause some confusion in the White camp with a subsequent …Qe3 lunge. What is the best way to snuff out Black’s activity? Karpov came up with an elegant solution:

Calm in the Eye of the Storm

It’s interesting that even in seemingly wild attacking positions Karpov had a sense of calm and was still thinking in terms of restricting the play of the opponent. In the following diagram position I’m sure most players would be thinking about candidate moves like Ra7, or something of a similar aggressive vintage. Karpov comes up with something else entirely:

Another short, and simple example. It is obvious that White is threatening to play f5. What is the best way to take the sting out of this idea?

Thinking in a Different Way

The way that Karpov would handle certain positions was quite unique and also very illluminating. Take a look at the diagram position- with the Black king on e8 I would immediately think of some way in which to land some sort of attacking blow. Karpov however understands that with the Black knight on e5 it’s not easy to do this. Instead he first deals with Black’s main strategic idea, which is to carry out the break …b5:

The 1970s

Just writing this article makes me nostalgic. For disco, for the time when John Lennon was still alive, for Dutch football, for the long hot summer of 76. That was the same summer I was born and Karpov had been champion for a year. The following example isn’t a particularly prophylatic one, but it does demonstrate how highly Karpov regarded the harmony of the pieces:

Karpov’s Influence

Karpov’s games and the teachings of Dvoretsky have had an influence on the grandmasters of today. I was reminded of this during a game against the Brazilian player Alexander Fier. In a messy game I have just played Qd4. My opponent had to ask himself, what was the point of my last move? What do I want to play?

When you think about it, it’s fairly obvious I want to play Qe5, putting more pressure on g5, and in some situations also threatening Rd6. Fier came up with a clever reply, preparing an answer to Qe5:

Putting this all into Practice

One of the problems many amateur players have is looking at the overall situation on the board and trying to be as objective as possible. They tend to focus on their own plans which is why they often overlook ideas for their opponents.

Having some experience of playing high-class opposition you can quickly tell they train themselves to think in terms of fighting against the opponents plan. One of the ways in which I’ve found you can do that funnily enough is playing 1 minute games online - as you have no time, you simply have to think very quickly “Why did my opponent just play that?” because if you don’t you’ll inevitably blunder or hang a piece.

Or you can just study the games of players like Carlsen and Anand. Watching this game live, it became apparent to me that Carlsen’s last move was very subtle. He wants to capture the advantage of the two bishops by playing h3, and then Nh4 followed by g4. Anand is more than equal to the challenge:

To sum up: although the mastery of prophylatic play is not an easy one, the rewards are considerable. Karpov has won more tournaments than any other world champion and the deep understanding of strategical play gave him a consistency that other players perhaps lacked. Next time you play try to think on each move “What does my opponent want to play? Why did he play that last move?”

Continual practice of this craft will make you a much more rounded player. Remember that chess is essentially a clash of ideas,and those who are best at preventing those of their opponents, and implementing their own, will be the most successful.

About the Author
GM Danny Gormally

Danny Gormally is a talented English Grandmaster. He lives in the bustling market town of Alnwick, somewhere near Scotland.

Danny’s first DVD for Ginger GM, Improve Your Practical Play was released in September 2013.