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In chess, most people argue that the first to attack wins the game. What is the best approach early in a game? Attack or defend?

There are tons of chess materials online, talking about attacking, but I could find only a few lessons on how to defend in chess.

For those who say attacking is the best, I vehemently deny it, as a player who can't defend can be a best chess player. Some say both attack and defence is the best, whilst some say winning is all about in the end game.

What do you think?

  • While not perfectly true, I always like to view this question as: e4 or d4? Which is best approach to win? I believe the answer to both questions so far is: whichever you personally prefer. – NoseKnowsAll Jun 22 '15 at 16:49
  • I do not know any good chess players who would argue that "First to attack wins the game." – dfan Jun 22 '15 at 21:56
  • You need both... – magd Jun 23 '15 at 8:54
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A lot depends on your opponent. Finding the right moves in defence is generally much easier than finding the right moves in attack.

If you are playing a much stronger player your best chance will be if he attacks you and you can survive the attack. If he doesn't attack then part of the reason will be that he doesn't think he has built up the kind of position that warrants him launching an attack. If you try and attack in that situation then you will likely get beaten quickly. So, the best advice is to try and play openings and positions you are familiar with and concentrate on prophylaxis. Strengthen and reinforce your position. Make sure you don't have any weaknesses and always be alert to your opponents threats and the areas of the board he is building up in. Don't waste too much time looking for chances to attack him.

Conversely when you are playing a much weaker opponent your best chance will be to launch a sound attack. If both of you just try and defend there is a much greater chance of the game petering out in a long draw. But the emphasis really is on sound. Use your superior positional knowledge and experience to build up a better position with your pieces working together in the area of the board you want to launch your attack from. Don't launch it prematurely or your opponent may be able to defend correctly and successfully and either get the draw or even win on the counterattack!

If you and your opponent are evenly matched again strengthen your position first and build up before any attack. Be on the lookout for chances to attack more than you would against a much stronger player but make sure you do so from a position of strength.

In all 3 cases it is clear that early in the game you should be developing your pieces to good squares and strengthening your position. Sometimes these good squares will be in attacking positions because it makes developing other pieces easier for you and more difficult for your opponent. For example, pinning knights in openings like the Ruy Lopez. But the emphasis should be on building a sound position first and not trying to make a string of attacking moves before your position warrants it.

  • I have heard chess advice that says not to adjust your play to different opponents. – limits Jun 23 '15 at 16:33
  • @overtheboard Well, for better or for worse, I do. I may play a speculative attacking line against a player rated 200 lower than me which I wouldn't dream of playing against one 400 stronger. Similarly as white against the French I would play the exchange variation (solid, defensive, drawish) against a much stronger opponent but would never play that against even a similar strength player unless I needed just a draw to guarantee winning a prize and certainly not against much weaker opposition. – Brian Towers Jun 24 '15 at 7:57
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That's a tricky question. I'd say that beginners should attack whenever they see the opportunity, since they will learn alot about attack, defense, and initiative in chess. That means playing open games and gambits to get a good sense of what it means to have active pieces.

However attacking is much harder to do than defending. To find attacking moves you have to be familiar with a variety of tactical themes, know how to see weakensses, etc. To defend against a specific threat you only need to know five basic ideas (capture, block, move, defend, counterattack).

  • I would dispute the notion that attacking is much harder than defending. Looking for great attcking players gives a huge list (Marshall, Tal, Kasparov, Nezhmedtinov, Morphy, Alekhinem ,,,) but for great defensive players the list seems much smaller (Petrosian, Anand, Karpov, Lasker). I really believe it is much harder to be a strong defensive player. – Old John Jun 22 '15 at 20:04
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    It is harder to defend (Soltis, "New Art of Defense") – limits Jun 22 '15 at 20:07
  • my response was caveated with "for beginners", however in general, I'd still argue that being able to find defensive resources is easier because your options are limited by the nature of the threat you are facing. The defensive themes are pretty easy to grasp as well. – Dan Forbes Jun 22 '15 at 20:38
  • The OP, I think, was referring to attack/defend positionally in a general way (e.g. attack on the queenside, defend your king), not counting/safety "I attack the pawn with my knight, he defends, etc" – limits Jun 23 '15 at 1:33
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    @OldJohn very well said :) Lets face it. People who start chess always love to attack in chess and want to win quickly. But to me defending is much harder than attacking. I strongly believe that if you can't defend, then you can never be a chess champion. – pbu Jun 23 '15 at 11:45
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It depends on the position. For example, in a rook endgame, you should be trying to keep your rook active. But in some positions, any counterattack is tactically defeated (unsafe) and the best plan is to defend. In other situations, you should do neither (e.g. if you have two pieces out and your opponent has none, you should play to keep your lead in development before creating threats).

Attacking/Defending guidelines:

  • Meet a flank attack with a counterattack in the center.
  • A flank attack is justified if the center is closed and cannot be opened or if you control the center and that is not going to change.
  • A premature attack is doomed to failure.

In some positions, it pays to use attack as a method of defense. Attacking pieces are usually ill placed to meet a counterattack.

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