The Zulu Principle

Financier and chess enthusiast Jim Slater made a significant contribution to the game’s history when he saved the 1972 match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. With the match in doubt he doubled the prize fund, called Fischer a ‘chicken’ and challenged him to come out and play.

Slater also gave us a less obvious gem with the concept of The Zulu Principle, the idea of becoming an expert in a narrow niche being useful in many different fields. Slater’s book on the subject was aimed primarily at investors but chess players can use it too. And I wonder if Tony Miles learned this from Slater as he was the recipient of another of the financier’s incentives, £5,000 for the first British Grandmaster.

Miles certainly adopted this approach with great success, for example he used his patented 4.Bf4 line of the Queen’s Indian Defence (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6 4.Bf4) to beat Spassky not once but twice. Another Miles speciality was to meet 1.e4 with 1…Nc6, the so-called Nimzovitsch Defence, and once again it was something in which he had great expertise compared to his opponents.

Most club players do the exact opposite of this, choosing popular openings as played by top players but knowing relatively little about them. A classic example of this is with the Sicilian Dragon (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6) which has been a perennial favourite at both junior and club level. Yet with the general level of knowledge being so high in this area, to get any kind of edge is a considerable undertaking. Tony Miles played the Dragon early in his career but as soon as it became popular he moved on to other fields.

What’s a good way to find a chess niche? One good method is to examine at the games of lesser known players, for example International Masters and lower rated Grandmasters. They often have some interesting and less usual opening repertoires which get little attention because they are not playing in top events. Naturally this doesn’t come with quite the same seal of approval as having had your opening repertoire discussed in the latest top GM tournament but that can be considered an advantage from a Zulu Principle perspective.

To get the ball rolling, a couple of players worth taking a look at are Swedish GM Jonny Hector and the Spanish GM Juan Manuel Bellon Lopez. They both have many original and enterprising ideas in lines that you can get in early in the game. And if you’re happy to adopt the ideas of a mere International Master then the Israeli, Mark Berkovic.