“Hypermodern” is not a classification of openings, but rather an idea or philosophy of how to proceed in certain specific openings. In describing an approach to the hypermodern philosophy, I therefore will slightly contradict some of the essential rules for how to proceed in the opening and what one likely learns from the time one first learns how the pieces move on the chessboard. This is because the hypermodern movement was a radical idea for its time, so that I need to review a little chess history here.
One first learns that it is essential to fight for control of the centre and to begin this process by occupying the centre with a pawn on one's very first move. As Black, it is natural to respond to 1. e4 with 1. .. e5 or to 1. d4 with 1. ... d5 for the this reason. These principles were developed in the 19th century largely by Paul Morphy (1837-1884) and formalized by the first World Champion, Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900). They were then codified into general theory by Siegbert Tarrasch (1862-1934 ) who was their foremost advocate. While Tarrasch was stubborn, unyielding, and dogmatic about teaching these principles, I especially recommend the study the games of Paul Morphy. You will be amazed at what he is able to do in his games.
However, after World War I, these theories began to be challenged in the 1920s by a new breed of player, led by Richard Réti (1889-1929), Aron Nimzovich (1886-1935), Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946), and others. When Alekhine defeated José Capablanca (1888-1942) to become the 4th World Champion in 1927, their radical ideas began to be taken more seriously. This revolutionary new theory in chess was called the “hypermodern” movement, which arose as a reaction to the rigid, formalistic teachings of Tarrasch.
The hypermodernists rejected the view that the centre needs to be occupied with a pawn to be controlled, and to the classicists, their games seemed very strange.
Hannibal, and the Second Punic War
The 11th World Champion, Bobby Fischer (b.1943), once said, “Chess is like war on a board.” Since chess is, at its heart, a war game, the hypermodern philosophy has always reminded me of the military strategy adopted by Hannibal (247-183 BC), the brilliant Carthaginian general in the Second Punic War against the Romans, at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC. So let’s also review a little world history here.
Carthage, the principal enemy of Rome at that time, was located across the Mediterranean Sea from present day Italy, in what is now Tunisia on the north coast of Africa. In ancient times, Carthage was the major rival of Rome in the Mediterranean, controlling present day Spain and the entire North African coast west of Egypt. Today, Carthage is a wealthy suburb of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia.
Carthage’s military leader in the Second Punic War was Hannibal, one of the greatest military generals of all time. His campaign against Rome and this particular battle was so brilliantly executed that it is still studied in military schools today, more than 2200 years later. His idea was to attack Rome, not by crossing the Mediterranean Sea directly, but by going around it by land.
Hannibal’s plan meant he had to lead his army on foot, starting from the south of present day Spain and crossing numerous rivers and two mountain ranges, the Pyrenees and the Alps. This was a very formidable journey. Incredibly, he took elephants with him which he intended to use not only to carry supplies, but also as war weapons on the battlefield. It still amazes me that he managed to lead his army and cavalry, together with elephants, on such a long, hazardous, arduous journey through impossible mountains and impossible weather while still keeping his army’s morale high, feeding them, keeping his supplies in tact, and winning several other military battles along the way. I don’t know why Hollywood hasn’t made a modern movie of this incredible military campaign. It was a mind-boggling feat which is still talked about today.
Rome, of course, knew he was coming, so the city and the Roman legions were fortified and strengthened. Eventually he crossed into Italy, winning more battles, and traversing additional mountainous terrain in the Apennines until he finally met the Roman legions at the small village of Cannae, on the Aufidus River (the present day Ofanto River) about 300 km southeast of Rome.
Here one of the most famous battles in history took place. The vastly more numerous Roman legions were lined up in great strength on the battlefield, opposite Hannibal who deployed his forces in a cunning fashion, with his strongest soldiers and calvary on the flanks, his less experienced soldiers facing the Romans in the centre, and his elephants holding back in reserve behind the foot soldiers. As the two armies advanced toward each other, they clashed on the battlefield, at which point Hannibal had ordered his soldiers in the centre to fall back. This retreat naturally was interpreted by the Romans as the prelude to a great victory on their part, so they pressed forward in even greater strength to rout the Carthaginians.
But Hannibal had laid a trap. The slow retreat of his weaker soldiers in the centre was part of his plan. His centre had initially advanced forward to present a target, enticing the Romans to attack, and, once attacked, they carefully withdrew to set up a defensive position further back, where they stood their ground. While at the same time, his cavalry moved slowly and surreptitiously forward on the flanks to encircle the Romans. Once the Romans pressed the attack in the centre with more strength, at exactly the right moment in the battle his cavalry charged from the flanks, while the elephants, which surprised and terrified the Romans, came forward to support the foot soldiers and pressure the centre. The Romans were decimated and annihilated.
Although Hannibal never captured Rome, the invincible Roman legion suffered such a terrible and decisive defeat that the very name, Hannibal, struck fear in Rome forever after. Fourteen years later, in 202 BC, Hannibal was finally defeated by Scipio (Scipio Africanus, the Elder) at the Battle of Zama in North Africa southwest of Carthage, thus ending the Second Punic War, but it took another nineteen years after that for the vastly more powerful Romans to catch Hannibal and stop him completely.
The Battle of Cannae, Applied to Chess
Can you see how Hannibal’s battle plan at Cannae might be applied to chess theory? Aside from the fact that the rook in ancient times used to be depicted as an elephant, I’ve always felt that the battle plan at Cannae, in its basic form, is the theory of the hypermodern openings in chess. Hypermodern openings do not begin by placing a pawn in the centre. Instead, the hypermodern theory contends that the centre need not be occupied to be controlled, but can be controlled from the flanks by the minor pieces. The idea is for Black to allow White to build a pawn centre, then to attack it from the flanks, just like Hannibal at Cannae. However, I caution you not to take this analogy too far. Don’t get caught up in this utopian battlefield strategy. This is chess, after all, and chess concepts must be applied.
The hypermodernists proposed the theory that a centre pawn is just a target. They refused to occupy the centre with pawns on the assumption that occupying the centre just gives the opponent a target for his forces to shoot at. They strived instead to entice the opponent to advance his centre pawns, as classical principles advocated, with the idea that advancing too far too fast just leaves them vulnerable. In addition, as they advanced, they would leave behind them a trail of weak squares which could be occupied.
To understand this, we need to remember that any advance of a pawn is permanent. A pawn cannot retreat, unlike Hannibal’s army. Also, a pawn can never control the square directly in front of it, but attacks only the two squares diagonally in front of it. As it advances, it no longer controls the squares it formerly controlled, which are now beside it and vulnerable. If it advances again, it creates more vulnerable squares in its wake behind it. That’s why, if you watch a game between Grandmasters, you will probably notice that on average, they spend more time on their clocks considering pawn moves than they do when thinking about moving any other piece. This is because a pawn move is permanent and forever changes the terrain of the chess battlefield.
The forward movement of pawns may create an outpost in their wake in the centre. An outpost is a square in the other half of the board from which a piece cannot be evicted by a pawn. An outpost can be of enormous strategic importance. A knight, in particular, likes an outpost where it is safe from attack. If you can place your knight on an outpost, especially after you have exchanged bishops of that coloured square, then it can not be easily dislodged and may dictate the whole course of the game from then on. A knight secured on a central outpost is very happy, and that outpost was created by the brash advancement of the opposition’s central pawns.
In other words, the pawn structure is always the foundation over which the chess struggle will be fought, and moving a pawn will change that foundation. Hence, pawn moves must be considered very carefully. As Steinitz said, “Pawns don’t go backward, so move them reluctantly.” Yes, you must move pawns, but such a move must be made wisely with due consideration as to how it will change the battlefield terrain.
However, I need to emphasize a further note of caution. It is a basic principle of chess that the best way to meet a flank attack is to counterattack in the centre. This still holds true. So the centre is still of supreme importance. If a flank attack is to be launched, you must not do so if play can still take place in the centre. Therefore, for a flank attack to succe...