Over the years, I’ve occasionally seen this interesting question appear on chess message boards: “What’s a threat?” For the old chess grognards like myself, that seems like a pretty elementary question, one which we take for granted, but for newcomers to the game the answer may not be at all obvious or intuitive.
Think about it for a moment. How many times do you see the word “threat” (or its various derivations such as “threaten”) used in chess articles, tutorials, annotated games, etc.? As a chess term, it’s pretty ubiquitous, right? Even some of our treasured chess maxims contain the word, such as Nimzovich’s famous “The threat is often stronger than the execution”.
But, aside from the occasional opponent threatening to physically flip the board if he loses, or Dr. Milan Vidmar famously driving ol’ Nimzo half batty by “threatening to smoke”, what’s the actual usage and definition of “a threat”?
It’s pretty simple. A threat is what a chessplayer would do if he could make two moves in a row (and, if we want to split hairs, it’s usually applied to the position after the first of these moves, but before the opponent has responded).
Here’s a great example of a threat:
Black just played …Qxf3. Black’s threat is mate-in-one; if he could make a second consecutive move, he would play …Qxg2#. So White has to find a way to stop Black’s threat, or else he’ll lose the game outright. This, by the way, is exactly the reason why Aron Nimzovich said that “the threat is often stronger than the execution” — by making threats, you force your opponent to respond to your plans instead of pursuing ideas of his own. It’s similar to a couple of boxers in the ring – if one guy is launching a flurry of blows, the other fighter will cover up and not be in a position to punch back.
Of course, once in a while it doesn’t quite work out that way, and the guy who is covering up suddenly snaps up, unleashes a barrage of blows of his own, and wins the fight. That’s exactly what happened in that chess position. Black played …Qxf3 and thought he had White skunked. But White fought back and the game ended with these moves: 20. Rxe7+ Nxe7 21. Qxd7+ Kxd7 22. Bf5+ Ke8 23. Bd7+ Kf8 24. Bxe7#
Four checks in a row, ending with mate! Black never even had time to play the threatened mate-in-one.
That’s from a very famous chess game, by the way, which you may well recognize; for my money it’s the most awesome game ever played. It’s known as “The Evergreen Game” because it’s literally “ever green” — no matter how many times you replay it, it still blows your mind. The great Adolf Anderssen, one of the greatest players of the nineteenth century had the White pieces, while Jean Dufresne (who was himself no slouch at the chessboard) had Black. Check your chess database – any “comprehensive” database worth its salt will contain this game, and it’s been reprinted scores (if not hundreds) of times in chess books.
So what relation does this “threat” business have with chess software? (After all, the banner at the top of this blog indicates that this is a chess software blog, right?) I’m been using chess software for twenty years (as of this year in fact – happy anniversary to me!), and every single piece of chess software I’ve ever used has a “Show Threat” feature (even ancient outdated leftover crappy programs that you can get for free from websites that haven’t been updated since the 1990’s or buy for a couple of bucks at a chain discount store, the kind of programs that don’t run on anything newer than Windows B.C. Mesopotamia Edition, have it).
The Fritz “family” of playing programs (Fritz 13, Hiarcs 13, Shredder 12, Junior 12, Rybka 4) certainly have it, and for novice players or anyone of any chess skill level who is replaying a database game and suddenly finds him/herself asking “Why did they do that?”, the “Show Threat” feature can be an incredibly useful tool.
I’ll even use the Evergreen game as an example to show how you can use it. Let’s go to the position after 19…Qxf3 and have Fritz13 show us the threat. (If you want to follow along, open Fritz’s database and do a search using “Evergreen” [without the quotes] in the “Tournament” field, double-click on the game in the game list to load it, then click on 19…Qxf3 in the Notation pane to jump to that position.)
Next we’ll click on the “Home” tab in the menu bar, and select “Threat” as shown below:
What this actually does is “trick” Fritz into thinking that the side which just competed a move is the side to move next (it’s that “two moves in a row” thing we were talking about earlier), and makes Fritz calculate the strongest move in that position. After a moment or three, we’ll see this on the chessboard:
…where we now see a red arrow, indicating that Black’s threat is …Qxg2#.
Please note that the threat function doesn’t work when the moving side just gave check, as it’s assumed (taken for granted, actually, being as chess has rules and all) that a check constitutes an automatic mate threat.
Just for chuckles, though, you can click on 19.Rad1 to load that position, and click “Threat” to get this:
Yep, ol’ Fritzie sees the combination Anderssen had in mind (and which Dufresne could have averted if he’d not been so intent on enforcing his own mating plans). Running “Infinite Analysis” here will show you what Dufresne should have done – and the answer might surprise you!.
Note, too, that you don’t always get earth-shattering, startling results when you display a threat. If a position is fairly quiet, with no obvious tactical shots, displaying the “threat” simply shows the best move in the current position for the non-moving side – this could very well be just a simple developing move which is not terribly dangerous in itself. It all depends on the position in question.
Hey, don’t forget: When you purchase ChessBase, Fritz, FritzTrainer DVDs, ChessKing, and now ChessOK Aquarium Windows PC computer software from uscfsales.com, you will receive free technical support from yours truly. You will NOT get technical support from me if you purchase your chess software anywhere else! Just e-mail me with your questions (but don’t forget to include your uscfsales.com order number!).
Have fun! – Steve Lopez
Copyright 2012, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.