The Art of Prophylaxis in Chess

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prophylaxis
Table of Contents

Quick overview:

  • Prophylaxis in chess is a key component for any players trying to improve. It is prominent in all phases of the game, including the opening, middlegame, and endgame.
  • Thinking prophylactically will help players in all areas of the game, as if they can prevent their opponent from executing their plans, players can improve their own position and execute plans of their own.
  • While being a feature of positional chess, being able to predict and prevent your opponents from carrying out their game plans is necessary for all types of playing styles.

What is prophylaxis in chess?

Prophylaxis is a key concept in chess which is very important if you’re trying to improve your game.

It is considered an important concept to get to the advanced level, but that doesn’t mean you should not be practicing it if you are a beginner/intermediate player. Learning what prophylaxis is and how to use it in your games can greatly impact your game, no matter what level you find yourself at.

In short, prophylaxis can be described as preventive moves, i.e. moves that prevent your opponent from taking some sort of action.

Playing preventive moves is as important as knowing How to Attack in Chess. Prophylaxis is a key component in positional chess.

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Prophylaxis in the opening

In the Najdorf Variation of the Sicilian Defense, Black makes a prophylactic move on move 5.

The Najdorf is a complex theoretical opening, and many novice players may be confused by 5…a6. The move does not develop any of Black’s pieces nor does it attack any of White’s. However, the move is a prophylactic move.

The starting position of the Najdorf. White would like to maneuver a knight to b5 to launch an attack on Black’s queenside, but 5…a6 prevents any such maneuvers.

This move, beyond being prophylactic, serves multiple purposes. Often in this opening, Black will expand on the queenside, and 5….a6 prepares a b7-b5 pawn thrust. So prophylaxis is not a standalone concept, it intertwines with other areas of the game as well.

In the following position in the Vienna Game (specifically the Vienna Gambit), Black may be looking to play 5…Qh4+, giving them the initiative.

As such, White can play the prophylactic move 5.Nf3, which prevents Qh4+.

Prophylaxis in the middlegame

As in the other stages of the game, you must look critically at the position and assess what your opponent would like to do. How can they improve their position? Once you figure this out, you can ask yourself how can I prevent them from improving their position? That is prophylaxis.

Take a look at the following position and try to assess what move sort of move you would make, it is Black to move.

Firstly, what do we see in the position?

Material is equal in this position, and no side for the moment has a passed pawn threatening promotion. Note that Black’s king is slightly closer to the center, so is more active. White would like to improve their king and get it closer to the action.

White’s king cannot move to g1 because this square is covered by Black’s bishop. So the only move, if allowed, would be Kg2. How can Black prevent this?

1…h3. Now White’s king is stuck and cannot escape. A simple prophylactic move decides the game!

Luft

Luft is one of the most important prophylactic concepts in chess. Luft is a German word meaning air, but in chess, it means creating space around your king, usually by advancing a pawn to h3 or g3 (h6 or g6 for Black).

Luft can be made at any stage of the game, and like other prophylactic moves, its purpose can be multifold. For example, in the following position from the Ruy Lopez, White played 9.h3, which stops Black’s light-squared bishop from pinning the knight with Bg4. White will usually play d4, and without the pin, White is controlling the d4 square with the knight.

In addition to these prophylactic moves, White has created luft around their king. This gives the king an escape square and prevents a back-rank checkmate.

Prophylaxis in the endgame

Prophylaxis in the endgame is of utmost importance. Limiting your opponent’s options and plans can mean the difference between a won endgame and conceding defeat or a draw.

Take a look at the following position. It is White to move and they are up a pawn. With the right prophylactic move, White can win. White needs to limit Black’s knight’s mobility. How can they do this?

If White allows Black’s knight to move to g4 on the next move, this could create a lot of problems for White. White would not be able to defend the h-pawn, and White would no longer be winning.

1.f3

Now White has deprived Black’s knight of the option of coming to g4. Note that the knight cannot reroute either to h5 and g3 because the h-pawn controls the g3 square.

Model game

The following game was played between the master of positional chess, Anatoly Karpov, and Jan Timman.

Karpov was an expert in incorporating prophylaxis in his games. He restricted his opponents’ moves so that they had no good options, thereby slowly improving his own position with an iron grip.

Summary

Prophylaxis is a key concept of positional chess and is a core component for game improvement.

Though positional in nature, even great attacking players are strong prophylactic players. By being able to understand what your opponent wants to do, you will become stronger and be able to prevent their plans, all the while finding your own winning plans.

FAQs

What does prophylaxis mean in chess?

Prophylaxis in chess is making one or several moves to prevent your opponent from executing their plans.

What is prophylactic thinking?

Prophylactic thinking involves an overall board vision and trying to see the intentions of each of your opponent’s moves. By thinking prophylactically, you can prevent your opponent from executing their plan, which will lead you to a better position.

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