The Wintered Rook, continued!

by admin on July 24, 2016

My chess friend Mike Splane, whose comments have often been seen on these pages before, had so many things to say about my recent post The Wintered Rook that they would never have fit into a comment.He sent me a complete re-analysis of the game by e-mail. I’d like to share it because it’s interesting to see how two people could have such different assessments. On top of that, I showed Gjon Feinstein the game (and read Mike’s comments) yesterday, and he said, “I think you’re both right.”

With no further ado, here is what Mike had to say. Quotes from my original post are in black, Mike’s comments are in red, and my responses are in blue.

Dana Mackenzie – Thomas Waymouth

U.S. Open, 1998

 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 f5 4. d4 fe 5. Bxc6 bc 6. Nxe5 Nf6 7. O-O Be7 8. c3

What are the rules for playing good moves in the opening? The traditional view is that a good move either develops a piece, or controls the center, or brings the king into safety. I would add a fourth possibility; it advantageously alters the pawn structure. If it does more than one of those things, it’s a great move. This move does none of those things. 

It looks like Dana is playing for a cheap trap. 8 … 0-0?? 9. Qb3+.  Masters don’t play this way.

Gjon and I had to chuckle at this. It’s pretty harsh. But there’s nothing much I can say in defense of 8. c3. Moves like 8. c4 (which I eventually played, losing a tempo) or 8. Nc3 would have been more reasonable.

8 … Rb8   9. Qa4?

Dana is trying to play a middle-game idea before the opening is completed. Again he is ignoring the rules for playing good opening moves. His self-criticism was very well stated.

We don’t even know yet what the best place for the queen will be, whether to go to the kingside or queenside. So we should stay flexible, keep the opponent guessing, and give ourselves more options.

White is already getting a little bit behind in development, and he needs to resolve the issue of how to get the inactive queenside pieces into the game.

 9. … Rb6 10. Re1 d5 11. c4 Ra6 12. Qd1 0-0

You should only castle if there is nothing better to do!

This maxim is one of Capablanca’s contributions to chess theory. I have used this principle for many years and wrote about it here.

So, how do you decide which move to play when you have a choice? One rule is to make necessary moves first. And it’s very important to note that the rules vary in different stages of the game and for different pawn structures. The rules for evaluating candidate moves in the opening are not the same as the rules you use in the middle-game.

What makes things more complicated in the middle-game is there are different rules for different types of middle-games. For example, if the pawn structure in the center is locked, you don’t need to be in a hurry to castle, but if there are open central files you do. Kotov in “the Art of the Middlegame” discusses how the various types of central pawn structures determine what approach you should use in the middle-game.

After Dana played c3 he is created a fixed center. When he played c4 he changed the position to a dynamic center. one with unresolved central tension. When Dana played c5 he changed it to a closed center.  If Black had played 12 … c5 he would have created an open center. These all have their own set of rules.

How do you decide whether to play aggressively, attack or to continue developing quietly? The pace of the game is based on the central pawn structure. With an open center fast development and piece activity are the only important elements to consider. With a closed or fixed center attacks develop on the wings and events proceed much more slowly.

The choice of center structure needs to be based on an accurate assessment of the position. Ask yourself, “what is the nature of my advantages? Dana accurately points out the problem with his position: 

“White is already getting a little bit behind in development, and he needs to resolve the issue of how to get the inactive queenside pieces into the game.”

If Black had understood the nature of his advantage, he is way ahead in development, he might have figured out that creating a position where rapid development is critical must be the right strategy. He must open the center quickly or his advantage will disappear. Dana sums it up perfectly.

… the correct move was 12. … c5! I can understand that Black was afraid to open up the position with his king still in the center. But Black’s pieces are beautifully developed, while White has only two pieces developed – and the knight on e5 could easily turn into a target. Black just has to have faith that with his much superior pieces he will be able to swat away any threats on his king.

I’ll just add that Gjon and  I looked a little bit at 12. … c5 last night. Black may need to sacrifice a pawn in some variations, but he gets a ton of play. This is the way that a Janisch/Schliemann player should be thinking. The spirit of the opening is to open lines, sac material if necessary and use piece play to overwhelm White.

13. c5!

My thinking here was, essentially, “I have a strategically won game.” White has a simple winning plan: play b4, a4-a5, avoid getting checkmated on the kingside somehow …

Dana has just answered what he calls “the Mike Splane question” which is “How am I going to win this game?” Bravo! 

So why doesn’t he win this game? Look what he says next in his great explanation of “wintered”pieces. and how to win when your opponent has one. 

“trade off all the other pieces. If I can get down to an endgame with my rook against his rook on a6, I win because his rook has no moves.”

This is an incomplete understanding of the nature of how to win: You don’t need to trade ANY pieces. The advantage is you have an extra rook in play! That’s a crushing advantage in the endgame, sure, but it’s maybe even more crushing in the middle-game. Just go ahead and mate him.

Then he said,

“First, I way underrated the danger of Black’s attack. What I failed to realize was that Black has five developed pieces with open lines toward the kingside.”

I think this statement is 100% backwards. Black has no pieces in position to attack on the kingside. He WAY OVERRATED the danger of Black’s attack.

A three-piece advantage (if it’s on the side where the king is) is potentially a mating advantage.

Great point and a good one to know. This idea has been known for almost a century. It’s called Alekhine’s attacking ratio.  Tal also writes about it. So why is it overwhelming? Because you can trade off all of the defenders and then have three pieces against no defenders. During the game Dana thought he should trade off as many pieces as possible because of his fundamental misunderstanding of the way to take advantage of the “wintered” rook. By doing so he greatly aided Black’s attack.

One last point. I think Dana gets into a lot of trouble in this game because he was playing by the rules for games with open centers and thought he had to develop quickly, causing him to neglect the strategically called for play on the queenside.

I’m going to skip a couple paragraphs because I think that Mike here has put his finger on something important. I was guilty of stereotyped thinking in two different ways.

  1. I played the position by normal rules of development. But the wintered rook is such an extreme feature of the position that one could argue that I should suspend normal development and complete the wintering plan as soon as possible. Besides, the rook will be well developed on a2 or a3 and the bishop is already well developed… on c1! On any other square it gets in the way… except on g4, which is bad for a different reason.
  2. I played the position by the normal rule that “piece exchanges favor the defender.” But that’s not applicable here! When you have “Alekhine’s attacking ratio,” exchanges favor the attacker. When the attacker is ahead 5-2 in pieces on the kingside, he wants to get to a position where he’s ahead 3-0, because that will mean three attackers on a naked king. In this game he got to 2-0, which turned out to be good enough.

Also, there’s one more important point, which has to do with post-game analysis rather than during-game play. I overrated Black’s attack in my post-game analysis because I was too influenced by the result of the game. Basically, I was asking, “Why was Black’s attack so much stronger than I thought it would be?” The answer, as Mike points out, is that I did everything I could to help him

The danger of being too influenced by the result of the game is that you’ll learn the wrong lessons. Actually, I think there were some pretty good lessons in my first post, but Mike has pointed out some other good lessons, too!

Okay, let’s move on.

13 …  Qe8     14 b4 h5

Stop! Neither Mike nor I noticed something interesting here for Black. It was Gjon who pointed it out: Black could play 14. … Bd6!? here. The point is that after 15. cd cd 16. Nd3 Qf7, White’s knight is still not safe and in fact it has a hard time finding a safe place. Meanwhile, Black is working up serious kingside pressure, and he has freed his rook! This is a true master move. In fact, from the long-term strategic point of view, Black isn’t sacrificing a piece, he’s winning the exchange — giving up a piece to get his rook back. When Gjon and I analyzed it (and we went pretty deep) we didn’t see any clear refutation. Maybe White wins with careful play, but Black’s game was strategically lost anyway. This is a heck of a lot better way to go down.

15. Qb3

Look what he said earlier:

We don’t even know yet what the best place for the queen will be, whether to go to the kingside or queenside. So we should stay flexible, keep the opponent guessing, and give ourselves more options.

The rule is “make necessary moves first.”  15. a4 should have been played. 

15 … Kh8 16. Bg5

… deploying my queenside pieces toward the kingside, to reduce Black’s advantage there.

I would still argue that Black does not have an advantage on the kingside.

Sometimes pieces are effective on their original squares and moving them is counterproductive. Your rook and knight were the pieces that were not working; the bishop and queen were both very well placed to defend the key squares. You just wasted two tempos to put them on worse squares.

Rooks on the first rank are almost completely useless as defenders. The only defensive functions they play is to stop back row checks. I really liked the idea of playing 15 a4, 16 a5, and then 17 Ra3 defending the third rank. Now your only piece that is not playing an active role is the b1 knight.

 If exchanging pieces is not the right defensive strategy for White, what is? What are the principles of good defense? These are all generally well known:

  • Don’t move pawns in front of your king.
  • Defend with the minimum amount of force.
  • Be prepared to make small concessions.
  • Try to generate counter-play.
  • Trade off the strongest attacking piece.
  • Defend the weakest point first.
  • Create a defensive strongpoint.

What is the weakest point? I would say the g2 square. It’s too hard to coordinate the Black pieces to attack h2 or f2. It looks like Black should be playing h4 and h3 to strike at g2. But does White even care? He would love it if Black took the g2 pawn.  All that would do is create a traitor pawn that would shield the White king from attacks.

What is a defensive strongpoint? It’s the idea of creating a hole in the attacking sides pawn roller and occupying it with a piece. Let’s assume Black can get in the moves h4 and g5 and White can play the move h3. The g4 square is a defensive strongpoint. White can post a piece there and completely halt the Black attack.  

To me, this long comment is wandering off the point a little bit. The point is simply that 16. Bg5 (which I played because it looked as if I had a strongpoint on g5!) helped Black more than it helped me, for the reasons we discussed before. 

Dana says

17. h3 has the drawback that it gives Black a “hook” to attack on the kingside, so that eventually Black may be able to advance a pawn to g4 or sacrifice a piece on h3.

I think this is right. The general principle is to not move pawns in front of your king. I think White should not play h3 unless Black plays h4, and then only if it allows him to set up the defensive strongpoint on g4.

I wasn’t too afraid of … Ng4 because I thought the exchanges would weaken Black’s attack.

I already discussed this. I think the opposite is true, mainly due to the attacking ratio. Black has more attackers and trading down benefits him. With equal numbers of attackers and defenders I think you could be right.

16 …  Bf5  17. Nc3?

I see this type of move quite often from weaker players. They know they are supposed to develop pieces so they just stick them anywhere, even if it messes up the coordination of their other pieces, and even if they have more urgent moves that needed to be played first.  Clearly the knight should be moved to d2 if it should be moved at all. I’d still prefer to play 17. a4 first.

17. … Ng4 18. Bxe7 Qxe7 19. Nxg4 Bxg4 20. Nd1 Qg5

Black’s threats are getting serious. Notice how he once again has a 3-piece advantage on the kingside.

Of course. This is the logical outcome of White’s flawed strategy.  It’s not too surprising that White has great difficulty organizing a defense from this position.

21. Qe3? Qh4!  22. h3 …

I should have stuck to my plan of 22. a4, but I did not see what was coming.

22. … Rf3!!  23. gf  Bxf3 24. Kh2 Ra3!!

Ouch!! Nothing more needs to be said. The rest of the game is a rout.

A really good game is one that can be looked at from a lot of different angles. I think this qualifies. Plus, of course, it has a great combination at the end.

Let’s not forget about that last fact! Of course in our analysis we spend a lot more time on the difficult questions that don’t really have precise answers, like, “How did a strategically won game become a spectacular loss?” But let’s not forget to give credit to Black’s striking and original two-rook sacrifice. If he didn’t see that, I might have gotten away with all my sins.




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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

paul B. July 24, 2016 at 5:13 pm

What a masterful discussion! Completely absorbing. I will be revisiting this post over and over. This is what great teaching is all about. Thank you Dana and Mike.


Scott July 25, 2016 at 11:10 pm

I’ve got to agree with Paul B! Reading what you, Mike and Gjon have analyzed has been impressively educational. I’m completely sold on this style of teaching. More please!


paul B. July 26, 2016 at 10:40 am

I’ve previously suggested this type of lecture: Dana and Mike play a game. After each move, each makes notes that the opponent doesn’t see till after the game ends. We are thus seeing the thoughts of the opponents as they confront the choices to be made at every move. Dana and Mike, please don’t make us beg…


Mike Splane July 26, 2016 at 3:41 pm

Thanks for your interest and comments.

Dana and I have only played one USCF rated game. His notes are here: and the pgn is here

We both wrote up notes to this game.

I have annotated most of my games from the past decade, about 200 in all. You can find them on my chess page


admin July 26, 2016 at 7:27 pm

Hi Paul,

I hate to disappoint you, but it isn’t likely to happen. Mike doesn’t enjoy playing against friends. When a group of us gathers together for speed chess, he usually just watches. So I don’t think he would want to play an arranged game. Also I’m not sure if it would bring out the best in us. The one game that we played, before we really knew each other, is not one that either of us was very happy with.

Still, I’m glad you enjoyed this post and I’d love it if something similar happened again.


Mike Splane August 6, 2016 at 4:23 am

In regard to the idea of trading pieces favoring the attacker when he has more attackers, here is a great video of Kasparov describing the demolishing of Karpov;s kingside using that principal. The game is breathtaking, one of Kasparov’s best. This is a must-see video

A minor correction: The next to last paragraph in the blog-post was written by me, not by Dana.

Gjon’s idea of 14… Bd6!! fundamentally alters the central pawn structure, changing a closed game into an open one, and making tempos matter again. According to Kotov this is the correct approach. He writes ” Sometimes it is necessary to set in motion a counterattack in the center. With a closed center this happens most often by a piece sacrifice with the aim of breaking down the pawn position.”


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