Defense in chess is an essential skill we all need to master to become better players. As much as we would like to always have the better position all the time in our games, it is not going to happen.
Although we know we all make mistakes in our games, it can be surprisingly difficult to admit our position is worse than our opponent’s position. Our resistance to accepting this without indulging in blaming ourselves and thinking of earlier moves is one of the biggest hurdles we must overcome.
Steinitz taught us you should only attack if you have the better position. If your opponent is launching an attack, you should evaluate why they consider they have the better position.
However, you can take comfort knowing that even former world champions had to defend. We can learn from them to become better at defense in chess.
Like any other area of chess, you can improve your defense, and there is nobody better to coach you in chess defense than Anna Rudolf. Enjoy this video from Anna’s best-selling Master Method course:
World Chess Champion Lasker’s Advice on Defense in Chess
Emmanuel Lasker was World Chess Champion for a staggering 27 years. There is little doubt we can learn a lot from such a strong player.
On defense in chess, Lasker determined:
- When you are under attack or at a disadvantage, you must be willing to defend and make concessions.
- A good defense means minimizing the concessions you make.
Steinitz’s theory that you should only attack when you have the better position, or an advantage, means you must be very cautious about counter-attacking. If the option exists for you to counter-attack, you are not at a disadvantage.
This principle is what makes defending so challenging. You need to sit tight and ensure that all avenues of attack are equally protected if possible.
Make your opponent prove that he can find a winning attack by making it as difficult as you can for him. A sound approach is always looking to play the best moves in the position, no matter if you are attacking or defending.
Chess engines can remain calm and play the position without getting frustrated, but your opponent is a human and can make a mistake. You can frustrate him with your tenacious defense.
Do not become dismayed at how bad your position is, but accept the challenge of defending.
There is a chance your opponent will create weaknesses in their position or play an unsound sacrifice simply because he believes his position is so superior it must work.
Although he did not get frustrated enough to lose the game, Nimzowitsch squandered a significant advantage against Lasker. Emmanuel Lasker was able to patiently play defensively for several moves until he got the chance to settle for a draw with a tactical blow.
Emanuel Lasker – Aron Nimzowitsch, 1914.04.22, ½ – ½ , St. Petersburg Round 2, St. Petersburg RUE
The Three Elements of Defense in Chess
The three elements of defense in chess are:
- the optimal placement of our pieces and pawns on squares suitable for defending squares from attack;
- be prepared to sacrifice to slow down our opponent’s attack.
Placing your pieces on optimal squares will help you follow Lasker’s advice to keep any concessions you make minimal. There is no way to avoid making concessions when defending, but at least you can minimize them.
Exchanging pieces is an excellent defensive strategy because it reduces the number of attacking pieces at your opponent’s disposal. When you have been pushed back and are cramped for space, the fewer pieces you have, the better.
Sacrificing material is not something to rush into, but it is better than losing the game. Even if you enter an endgame down a pawn, you can often hold on for a draw.
World Champion Tigran Petrosian made excellent use of exchange sacrifices to hold a position.
In this game against Gligoric, he sacrificed the exchange on move 28, and his opponent agreed to a draw three moves later.
Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian – Svetozar Gligoric, 1962.09.28, ½ – ½, Varna ol (Men) fin-A Round 2, Varna BUL
Tough Defense in Chess Requires Mental Toughness
Nobody likes blundering in chess, but they are inevitable. The first thing to do is remind yourself not to panic.
After playing an attacking sacrifice, an excellent approach is to continue with regular, principle-based chess moves.
After you play an unintentional sacrifice, adopt the same approach. Focus on the position and look for the best move.
The material is lost and is not coming back, so make the most of the pieces on the board.
Embrace the challenge of holding on for a draw even though you are material down. In games like this, getting the draw can often feel as good as winning.
Intuition can assist you in sacrificing material to launch an attack, but defense in chess relies almost exclusively on calculation. In order to calculate effectively, you need to be focused on the current position instead of your earlier mistakes.
Perpetual Check Aids Your Defense in Chess
It becomes easier to get a draw with perpetual checks as the game progresses because advanced pawns leave space behind.
Although a tremendous defensive resource, you can also use perpetual check as a safety valve on the attack. If you see a draw through a perpetual check, you can confidently go ahead with your attack, knowing you have at least half a point.
One well-known perpetual check often involves a sacrifice on g6/g3 after the h-pawn has advanced.
This position occurred in a game between two of the greatest chess players ever. Now 21…Qg4+ leads to a draw by perpetual check after 22.Kh1 Qf3+ 23.Kg1 Qg4+
Even a great attacking player like Tal uses the perpetual check to draw a game. The position above was from his game against Fischer in 1960.
Robert James Fischer – Mikhail Tal, 1960.11.01, ½ – ½, Leipzig ol (Men) fin-A, Leipzig GDR
Set Traps for Your Opponents
We often think setting traps is only about winning material, but in a challenging situation, look to see if you can set a trap that earns a draw.
Sometimes your attempt to obtain a perpetual check does not work. When this happens, you must simply accept losing the game but not your head.
However, it does not hurt to set a trap for your opponent. They can’t fall into a trap unless you set one in the first place! This can be extra effective in rapid or blitz time controls.
Blackburne set a trap for Steinitz with 34.Rh4, hoping to entice Steinitz into offering a queen trade with 34…Qe2. White then has the amazing 35.Bf8 Qxd3 36.Rxh6+ Kg8 37.Rgxg6+ Kxf8 38.Rf6+ Ke7 39.Re7+ and the king cannot escape the checks.
Steinitz did not fall for the trap and played 34…h5. He won the game six moves later.
Joseph Henry Blackburne – Wilhelm Steinitz, 1863, 0-1, London ENG
You Cannot Win a Chess Game After Resigning
Defending in chess can be challenging and wear you down, but always remember you end the game when you resign.
When a higher-rated opponent offers you a draw, it pays to be suspicious and ask, “Why?”. Before accepting the draw, examine the position very deeply.
In a similar vein, before you resign, always check that you have examined every possible defensive move, no matter how weak it appears at first glance.
You might still find yourself in a lost position, but it could offer you more chances of holding the game than the current position. There is a human sitting opposite you, and it only takes one mistake for you to save the game.
The following position occurred in a game between Bent Larsen and Mikhail Tal.
Tal played 28…e2, and Larsen resigned. However, analyzing this position with Stockfish shows that Black could lose a good portion of his advantage if he plays a check before recapturing the rook.
Here are two possible continuations, followed by the complete game.
Bent Larsen – Mikhail Tal, 1984, 0-1, Bugojno Round 1, Bugojno YUG
Final Thoughts On Defense In Chess
We know we cannot play attacking chess all the time, yet many of us struggle to knuckle down and defend an inferior position. The biggest challenge to defending is unsurprisingly what we think about defense in chess.
Chess is a multi-faceted game that derives its richness from different areas of the game like the middlegame or endgame or attacking or positional play. When you find yourself having to defend in chess, pause to get excited about defending.
Look at the opportunity as a way to show off your defensive technique.
What went before does not matter. The only position you can play in chess is the current one.
Later on, you can look at how you reached it and decide what changes you wish to make. For now, all you can do is ensure you enjoy meeting the challenge and wear your opponent down with your rock-solid chess defense.
To become a better all-around chess player, you need coaching in all three chess game phases. Defense in chess is important but equally important is knowing how to attack.
IM Anna Rudolf teaches you how to improve in both these areas and many more. Her 15-hour Master Method course will help you improve every essential aspect of your game.
Now you can get the full course for half the price and deepen your knowledge about all areas of chess.