Breaking the Rules

by Webmaster on November 15, 2016

An old saying in chess goes something like: “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” Of course, similar quotes appear in many other fields and they are attributed to a number of people, including Pablo Picasso.

In chess, the phrase is a reference to how we should understand the reasoning behind some generally accepted guidelines before we decide to make a move contrary to those guidelines. (Of course, with regards to ‘rules’, there are also the formal rules of the game, such as how the pieces move, which should not, in theory, be violated.)


Chess opening principles

For example, consider the start of a chess game. We are often given suggestions as beginners on how to play in the opening. The best-known of these is probably American grandmaster Reuben Fine’s “rules” for the opening.

  1. Open with either the e-pawn or the d-pawn.
  2. Wherever possible, make a good developing move which threatens something or adds to the pressure on the centre.
  3. Develop knights before bishops.
  4. Pick the most suitable square for a piece and develop it there once and for all.
  5. Make one or two pawn moves in the opening, not more.
  6. Do not bring your queen out too early.
  7. Castle as soon as possible, preferably on the king’s side.
  8. Play to get control of the centre.
  9. Always try to maintain at least one pawn in the centre.
  10. Do not sacrifice without a clear and adequate reason

For example, an optimal setup, in this case for white, is often seen to be something like the following:


Fine’s principles are general tips that apply in most circumstances. But it is easy to find exceptions. Most major databases will show that the Sicilian Najdorf is the most popular opening system in recorded chess. It was a favourite black opening of World Champions Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer, generally regarded as the two best players of all time, and includes at least four pawn moves before black is even castled, violating rule 5.

Modern top grandmaster play now favours the Berlin Defence as black, which does not even involve castling in the main line! A clear violation of rule 7.

Not considering the most popular openings, you might even have information that your opponent reacts badly to particular opening systems. For example, the English Opening is a setup for white that has a good theoretical foundation and, ignoring black’s moves, starts by looking like the position below. (The idea is to ‘overprotect’ the square d5.)


Firstly, since the English Opening involves starting by moving the c-pawn two squares, Fine’s first rule is immediately violated. In the modern understanding of “the English”, such as the approach recommended by grandmasters Tony Kosten and Mihail Marin, it is often advised to move the light-squared bishop out first before moving any knights (as pictured above). This violates Fine’s third rule.


Relative value of chess pieces

An even more direct example is the estimated value of the pieces in chess. It is generally agreed that the following relative values hold in most situations. (We usually do not value the king, since it cannot be traded off like a normal piece.)


However, it is easy to find exceptions. For example, if a sacrifice were to lead to the inevitable delivery of checkmate, then obviously the sacrifice of any amount of material is fully justified.


In the position above with white to move, it makes sense to sacrifice the queen of value 9 for the pawn of value 1 because after the black king recaptures, white can immediately swing his rook around and deliver checkmate. The table of relative values of the pieces is violated.

A combination leading to checkmate is the obvious example, but something I find even more interesting is long term strategic sacrifices that violate the estimated numeric values of pieces. One particularly interesting example is the long term ‘exchange sacrifice’, giving up a rook for an opponent’s bishop or knight, which is a net 2-point loss. The Russian grandmaster Vladimir Kramnik, famous for defeating Garry Kasparov in a match and currently himself still ranked number 3 in the world, is notable for making these kinds of sacrifices [1] [2].


Extending the analogy

To conclude, I would add that it is not too difficult to find examples of ‘knowing the rules before breaking them’ in daily life. For example, some circumstances obviously permit jaywalking, even though it is technically illegal.

An example that is much more morally dubious (and hence not really a model example) is online piracy. Most people understand why it is illegal, but many consider it to be socially acceptable. Even a simple ad-blocker add-on for your browser is also, in some sense, stealing content. It is up to us to make the judgment call of whether it is justified.

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