Imagining How A Game Position Arose

Recently I had a student start working through one of those chess puzzle books that contain positions drawn from actual games. The positions capture the state of games in any of the phases, from the early opening to the endgame. While discussing his attempts at solution, I couldn’t help notice that many of the positions were such that one could easily deduce what opening led to them, or which class of possible openings could have led to them, because of features such as Pawn structure and piece placement.

It turns out that I have deliberately omitted any opening theory training for this student so far, because in my experience (unfortunately including my own as a youth), until one reaches a certain level, that way lies madness. But I got the idea that working backwards from typical positions would be a good way to begin introducing opening ideas, because of the concrete context of puzzles where there is a clear tactical or positional error made by someone.

So I got the idea of an interesting fantasy game: given a chess position, try to imagine how the game arose, such as what might have been the previous couple of moves leading to the position, assuming some kind of logical progression of threats and counter-threats, or more longer-term plans. Often in chess we are trying to think forwards, like aiming for a position. But how about if we also work backwards? For entertainment, one could even “reconstruct” an entire sequence of plausible moves leading to a given position that is still not too deep into the middle game. I am sure many of us have informally engaged in this speculation when being a spectator of a game already in progress, and we think, “How did this position arise?” I am suggesting that it might be worth exploring this fantasy more deeply.

What is particularly instructive, I think, is when there are multiple plausible paths to a position. Seeing this connects ups the elements that different openings may have in common, so that when one is learning a new opening, it is not in isolation, but can be related to something else with similar static and dynamic features.

One nice thing about this exercise is that one can enjoy it at any level, to any depth. There are no wrong answers, but there are more plausible and subtle ones. It is not necessary to know the names of different openings. I think it is a fun ice breaker for discussion about a chess position and the hidden history behind it that continue to drive the possibilities in it during a real game.

A final note: obviously, for games that are sufficiently high-profile to be in one of the big databases, it is possible to find out what really happened to reach a position. But I think it can be fun enough to fantasize without knowing the answer, although a hardcore student may want to study a given position more in depth.


First example

Here’s one example that seems fairly “easy”:

It seems plausible enough that this game was a closed Ruy Lopez: the general Pawn structure and the minor piece placements point to this. White played d5 at some point. Possibly White had a Bishop at e3 that traded with a Black Knight on c5 (it doesn’t look likely that a black Knight made it to f4). Black is trying to do something with otherwise locked out dark-squared Bishop, hence it ending up on f4. The middle game looks complex, although it looks like Black has gotten a head start with Queen side expansion and White’s loss of the dark Bishop is not going to help with an attack on Black’s King side.

But: one should also be aware that these kinds of positions can arise from a Rossolimo Sicilian, or a Modern Defense, through a different move order. Both sides have many ways to reach this kind of position.

Second example

Here’s a position that has undergone more dynamic changes:

First, it would be reasonable to look at the missing Pawns on both sides and conclude this was a Sicilian. Somehow, White lost a Queen, but presumably won a Rook and Bishop on c8 on the half-open c file. The Bishop on e7 and the doubled f Pawns (from Bg5 and Bxf6 trading Black’s Knight on f6) and White’s castling Queen side suggest a Richter-Rauzer in which Black played some tactic involved moving the Pawn from e6 to e5. Maybe White’s Queen was trapped?

If only the Pawn structure was looked at, one would probably think a Sveshnikov Sicilian. But because of where the minor pieces are, that seems unlikely for this position. Then again, how did Black’s Knight get to c5? That’s a stretch for a Richter-Rauzer also, but at least there, one can imagine the Knight going from c6 to e5 to d7 and then to c5. Or was this a funny Najdorf in which the Knight went to d7 and then to c5? But then why would the f Pawns be doubled?

I don’t have an answer to these questions. Here’s a case where maybe if I were given the answer, I would learn something useful about the maneuvering possibilities of Black’s Knight that ended up on c5, and by extension, learn something new about particular Sicilian Defense opening variations.

So you see how one could really get into trying to extrapolate backwards in a chess position!

Franklin Chen

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About Franklin Chen

Franklin Chen is a United States Chess Federation National Master. Outside his work as a software developer, he also teaches chess and is a member of the Pittsburgh Chess Club in Pennsylvania, USA. He began playing in chess tournaments at age 10 when his father started playing in them himself but retired after five years, taking two decades off until returning to chess as an adult at age 35 in order to continue improving where he left off. He won his first adult chess tournaments including the 2006 PA State Game/29 and Action Chess Championships, and finally achieved the US National Master title at age 45. He is dedicated to the process of continual improvement, and is fascinated by the practical psychology and philosophy of human competition and personal self-mastery. Franklin has a blog about software development, The Conscientious Programmer and a personal blog where he writes about everything else, including his recent journey as an adult improver in playing music.