The concept of “over-protection” was advocated long ago by Nimzowich as a positional chess strategy. But it’s really an “anti-tactical strategy” that is a type of “prophylaxis” against tactical combinations by your opponent. The two main types of over-protection are:
- Overprotect Weaknesses
- Overprotect Strengths
The basic idea of over-protection is to protect something more than it seems to need. It’s a type of “prevention” or “prophylaxis”.
The simplest type of over-protection is simply to have all your pieces defending each other. You avoid having “loose pieces” or “hanging pieces”. This avoids losing a piece to simple combinations like forks or discovered attacks. This idea is the beginner version of over-protection.
Over-Protect Weak Pawns or Weak Points
More advanced over-protection is of pawns or points in the position. It’s a positional strategy. What this is really doing is getting a head-start on any combination (tactical or positional) against that pawn or weakness. So that if your opponent attacks it, it’s already defended. And ideally you’re supposed to over-protect it more than one time, such as with two or more defenders, so that if your opponent tries to double up or triple up against your weak pawn, it’s already defended two or three times.
A good example is the “d4” pawn in an “Advance French” chess opening. The d4 pawn is not backward, as it’s blocked by a Black “d5” pawn. Commonly it’s protected by Nf3 but attacked by Black’s Nc6. So it doesn’t seem to need over-protection. But actually Black has an inherent threat to “triple up” against the d4 pawn by moves like Nc6, Qb6 and Ne7-f5. So White often needs to over-protect the d4 pawn by moves such as Rd1, Be3, Nc3-e2 and/or Na3-c2.
Why do you need to over-protect a strong point? This seems a strange strategy. It makes sense to protect your weaknesses, but why do you need to over-protect your strengths?
The basic idea is similar to protecting weaknesses. It prevents your opponent from turning a strength into a weakness by using some tactical combination or undermining positional move. This idea is often a prophylaxis against a positional strategy such as a “freeing combination”. In some ways, it is an attacking strategy because it allows you to maintain your strong point which may cramp your opponent, and also may prevent your opponent from a “central break” if you embark on a “flank attack”.
A good example occurs again in the Advance French. Consider the situation where, as White, you might have a strong pawn at “e5” that is cramping the Black position (e.g. White pawns at d4 and e5, Black pawns at e6 and d5). The idea of “overprotecting your strength” is that you should over-protect the pawn at “e5” (e.g. by Nf3, Bf4, Qe2 and/or Re1), so that Black has to think twice about tactical combinations or undermining pawn moves like “..d6” or “..f6” (positional combinations). Black will often “triple up” on the e5 pawn with pieces (e.g. Qc7, Nc6, and Nd7), which looks harmless because the pieces cannot take the pawn! This is correct, a “tactical combination” of taking on e5 will fail. But it’s a strong positional strategy for Black to be attacking the pawn with pieces before playing the undermining “f6” move. If White has lots of protectors, any positional combination against this strength is also unlikely to be successful. So that White is not forced to capture “e5xf6” (whereup on the cramping e5 pawn is gone and the White d4 pawn is also weaker), but instead White leaves the pawn there at “e5”, after the moves “…f6xe5 d4xe5”, and the strong pawn on “e5” stays strong, and can remain there cramping the enemy now and supporting an attack later. Keeping the pawn at e5 would not be possible without White over-protecting the strong pawn with pieces. Having lost its d4 defending pawn, the pawn on e5 would simply be taken by the Black pieces, if not for the overprotecting White pieces.
Downside of Over-Protection
Over-protection has its downsides too. It’s not a strategy that you use in every position. The basic problem with over-protection is that it is inherently a defensive strategy. It’s very passive. Prevention of your opponent’s plans against you will only get you so far in a chess game. You also have to embark on your own plans against the enemy!
A common choice occurs between overprotection versus activity in the placement of your Rooks. Prophylaxis would mean putting your Rooks defensively protecting your own pawns in the center (e.g. you have a pawn center on d4 and e5, so you put your Rooks on d1 and e1). But piece activity would demand instead that you put your Rooks on an open file (or at least a half-open file), and then ideally you would even double the rooks on an open file. So rook placement is often a choice between defensive versus attacking strategy.
What Should You Protect Specifically?
So what do you over-protect?
- Weak pawns: e.g. backward pawns, isolated pawns, isolated queen pawn, etc.
- Strong pawns: e.g. advanced pawn outposts
- Important pawn structures: e.g. pawn at the base of a pawn chain
- Weak points
- Strong points
- Piece outposts
Generally, you are supposed to overprotect not just your weaknesses, but also your strengths too. But you don’t have enough pieces to over-protect everything, so it’s always a trade-off, as is everything in chess.
And one more last thing is…the most important thing to over-protect is your King! What you don’t want is a “lonely King”!
Related Chess Tactics
Read more about these related chess strategies: