08 December 2009

What Makes an Opening Extravagant?

The chess player is an alchemist. Starting with 16 pieces in a particular formation and alternating single moves of those pieces with an opponent having the same force, he converts the base forces of material and time into a solid gold position where his opponent's King is checkmated, i.e. can't escape capture. A player uses each single move to improve his position, where the improvement is measured according to tangible values. I described these well known values in Positional Play in Chess:

  • The center
  • Open lines / Piece activity
  • Pawn structure / Strong and weak squares
  • King safety

These are supplemented by a few intangible values that are easier to recognize than to describe:

  • The initiative
  • Interference with the opponent's plans

In other words, a chess player spends a move to improve his position, in the same way one might spend time or money to improve one's house or apartment. For some moves, particularly in the opening, a player can speculate on certain values at the expense of other values.

For example, the move 1.a3 ignores both the center and piece activity in the goal of interfering with the opponent's plans. This is accomplished by forcing the opponent to abandon his prepared repertoire and to think for himself. Similarly, a gambit ignores the material value of a Pawn and seeks compensating value in more control of the center, better piece activity, a clear initiative, or a combination of these factors.

Following the definitions in Extravagant Openings -- 'lacking in moderation, balance, and restraint', 'spending much more than necessary', or 'extremely or unreasonably high in price' -- this is what makes an opening extravagant. Just as in life, extravagance in chess is not necessarily punished, nor should it be.

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