The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes

"It all depends!"...



Generalisations and exceptions
Further reading


The words "it all depends!.." was once muttered by the super talented young, but highly chess mature Luke McShane.  Apparently this was quite an often used catch-phrase by the young Luke, which got the author of this article thinking about how chess players needs to have guiding frameworks and rules, but at the same time be highly flexible in their though processes, and be prepared at all times to break those rules! 

This clear paradox in a chess players thinking helps explain why chess is so difficult, and with so many levels! Experienced International masters can be totally destroyed by strong Grandmasters, and strong Grandmasters can be totally destroyed by Kasparov! Kasparov in turn, can also be totally wiped out by strong computers - especially in tactical positions!

This paper emphasises flexibility in thinking which contrasts with an older technical paper on the website [1]. This older paper emphasised the re-usability of concepts in chess. As the older paper argued, there is much guidance to be gained from Nimzovich's concepts which could pervade our thinking as a chess player. Guidance such as rook on the 7th rank, overprotection, pawn chain strategies. There are also hundreds of basic principles and tips from elsewhere that have been passed down from generation to generation of chess player such as the following table shows

Generalisations and exceptions

Generalisation/ tip Example exceptions

"Avoid moving pawns in front of your king"

R. Teschner - S. Gligoric, Helsinki OL, 1952


R. Teschner - S. Gligoric, Helsinki OL, 1952.
23...g5! This is a sudden blow - White must take the g5-pawn (with check!) and thus Black opens the g-file, which he can utilise later. 24 Qxg5+ Kh8 25 Nc2 Or 25 Ng4 Rg8 26 Qf4 Rb2 27 Qg3 Bxg4-+. 25...Bh3! 0-1

"Don't leave your pieces en-prise!" 25th World Olympiad held in Malta, Lucerne (board 2 behind Karpov)

Kasparov left a knight en-prise for 7 moves!!

"A bishop is stronger than a knight"

Mattison,A - Nimzowitsch Aaron [E21]
Karlsbad, 1929

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Nf3 Bxc3+ 5.bxc3 d6 6.Qc2 Qe7 7.Ba3 c5 8.g3 b6 9.Bg2 Bb7 10.0-0 0-0 11.Nh4 Bxg2 12.Kxg2 Qb7+ 13.Kg1 Qa6 14.Qb3 Nc6 15.Rfd1 Na5 16.Qb5 Qxb5 17.cxb5 Nc4

 and Black won in 23 moves

"Never move a piece twice in the opening" The Alekhine's defence!

One of the key ideas of the Alekhine's defence is that the provocative knight moves will encourage White to overstretch with many pawn moves. Black will hope later to exploit the potential weaknesses created

Reader exercises- Find dramatic exceptions to the following tips

"When you have more space, avoid exchanges"


"Always castle at the earliest opportunity"

Guidance as the above table shows may not lead to the correct plan/moves in the given position we are confronted with, because the best plan all depends on the given position. It also in practice depends on other factors, if we are concerned with winning our game/ playing a fun game and not simply playing the "best moves" from a purely theoretical perspective. 

Factors such as:-

Playing interesting moves, to keep our enthusiasm and interest in the game!

Playing interesting moves to keep the spectators awake!

How much time one has on the clock!

How much time the opponent has on the clock!

The opponents reputation for certain types of position/ certain openings. Former World chess champion Lasker was an expert in understanding the opponent's strengths and weaknesses and playing against his opponent in this respect!

One's own strengths and weaknesses for certain types of position/ certain openings

Assuming that we are simply interested in playing the "best moves", experience may suggest general questions which might often include questions relating to the "periodic table" of the elements of the chess board- the chess elements of pawn structure, king safety, space, time:-

What are best element management plans at my disposal?

This question could lead to more specific element management questions some of which show the influence of the great strategic thinking writer Aron Nimzovich:-

(Pawn structure element) What are the best pawn structure element plans at my disposal?

How can I cause my opponent to have doubled pawns?

What particular variations allow me to inflict doubled pawns?

How can I blockade the opponent's past pawn?

How can I create passed pawn(s)?

How can I undermine the opponents pawn chain?

(Space element) What are the space management plans I can try?

How can I gain space on the queenside?

How can I gain space on the kingside?

How can I exchange pieces to emphasise the weaknesses caused by my opponent's overstretching?

How can I exploit my space advantage?

Can I try to switch pieces across for a king side attack?

Can I try to create a passed pawn?

(King safety element) What king safety aspects are there?

How can I cause a breakthrough to the opponents king's position?

How can I distract the opponent's king defensive pieces

How can I provoke the opponent to weaken their king position?

(Time element) How can I gain vital tempo for the attack?

Can I sacrifice pawns on the queenside to gain time?

Can I sacrifice around the opponents king?

These kind of critical, structured questions had been evolved from experience and culture of the chess player to ask. Just as a doctor would ask the right questions (hopefully) of a patient in order to reach a proper diagnosis, the chess player should be able to ask relevant questions from the current position.

Reaching conclusions on a specific move based only on intuition is obviously very risky. Concrete variations need to be analysed. Because the slightest details of the position may affect the entire chosen plan, the specific details of the position must be understood! 

The assess-> plan -> execute model preached in many middle game books has great justification in that the "execute" phase should handle the specific calculations the chess player has to make to ensure the chosen plan is fine from a tactical perspective.

Analysis of variations if beyond the scope of this article. However a useful paper to revise is the tactics technical papers suite [4] which emphasises that even the most seemingly insignificant resources need to be examined as part of our complete understanding of a chess position.


This article hopefully emphasises to the reader that there are no simple answers in chess! Every chess position must be treated on its own merits. The position may be such that it could contain some unique properties which make seemingly outrageous moves in fact the best moves to play in the given position!

Relevant rules quotations


"There are no rules nowadays, only the exceptions! "
- GM Shipov, annotating Khalifman-Leko [3]

"4. SIEGBERT TARRASCH. Razor-sharp, he always followed his own rules. In spite of devotion to his own supposedly scientific method, his play was often witty and bright."
-Robert J.Fischer referring to Tarrasch


"There ain't no rules around here! We're trying to accomplish something!" 
- Thomas A. Edison.

"The fastest way to succeed is to look as if you're playing by somebody else's rules, while quietly playing by your own."
-Michael Konda

Further reading

  1. The assess-> plan-> execute model put into context article

  2. The excellent book "Secrets of modern chess strategy" (Can order from Amazon US and Amazon UK), by John Watson has a powerful second chapter entitled "Rule independence"

  3. Books on the middle game in chess!

  4. Tactics technical papers suite - in particular see the calculation of variations section