Chess lessons from the Iron Duke

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Chess lessons from the Iron Duke

Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (image created in Shutterstock)

Salvador Dali once said: At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon and my ambition has been growing steadily ever since. I have never wanted to be Napoleon, but I did once harbour ambitions to be the Duke of Wellington, or at least the chessboard equivalent.

At the Battle of Waterloo (1815), the Duke carried out the classic Wellingtonian strategy against the hitherto greatest general of the day, Napoleon himself. Wellington combined impenetrable defence with a coup d’oeil, which recognised just the right moment for the tidal wave of a counterattack. The principle of impenetrable defence was deployed by Wellington not only against Napoleon himself but also his marshals, during the preceding Peninsular Campaign in Spain and Portugal. It is optimally demonstrated by the 1810 battle at the lines of Torres Vedras outside Lisbon, which I specifically adopted as a guiding principle for my chess games in my teenage years.

This confrontation from the Peninsular War was the indispensable preparation for Wellington’s strategy of impenetrable defence at Waterloo. At Torres Vedras Wellington enticed the French army of Marshal Masséna into a wasteland, where the ne plus ultra British defensive lines condemned the French forces to starvation and disintegration.

This is my favourite and indeed seminal battlefield reference. Whereas the chess instruction manual which I had been following was My System by Aron Nimzowitsch, the manual which covered the exploits of the Duke of Wellington was Sir Arthur Bryant’s Years of Victory: 1802–1812.

Wellington had been retreating during 1810 from Spain into Portugal and on to Lisbon, leading the French Imperial army under Marshal Masséna to delude themselves into believing that they were driving the British army into the sea. In fact, Wellington was luring the French into a well- prepared and deeply conceived trap. As the pursued and pursuers approached Torres Vedras, Wellington’s secretly prepared lines of defence rose suddenly and spectacularly out of the very mountains to greet both armies.

I found Sir Arthur’s description of The Lines both exhilarating and inspiring: “Scarcely any one, even in the British army, had any idea of their existence. Scores of guns disposed in elaborate redoubts and earthworks looked down from every height. Trenches had been dug, parapets raised, palisades, abatis, chevaux de frises and trous-de-loumade, forests, orchards, mounds and houses all levelled to the ground, every hollow and ditch eliminated, that could give cover against the terrible cross-fire of the guns, had been filled in, and every hillside turned into a vast, exposed, featureless glacis. In other places, streams had been dammed to form impassable marshes, and defiles blasted into precipices. Wellington’s engineers had used the respite Napoleon had given them to good advantage. For nearly a year, thousands of Portuguese labourers had been working to turn a broken range of hills into an impregnable barrier. Every pass had been barred, every roadway transformed into a deathtrap. Behind, echeloned in immense depth, were other forts and redoubts whose guns covered every way to Lisbon.”

To Masséna’s rear awaited a desert, devoid of food or sustenance as a result of Wellington’s scorched earth policy, while on either flank of the twenty-one miles of mountain walls, the gunboats of the British Navy were already on guard. As a somewhat belated homage to Wellington, the Portuguese government in March 2019 declared the remaining elements of the Torres Vedras lines to be part of the Portuguese national heritage.

So, back to the military situation of 1810 and Sir Arthur Bryant: “Masséna clung on manfully. In a starving match in which the dice were loaded against him, he persisted where almost any other commander would have despaired. He wrung sustenance – of a sort – out of the very rocks and fed his men on roots and garbage; it could scarcely, wrote the British general, be called subsisting. Where the latter had given his foe a month in which to starve, the old Marshal held out for three. It was an astonishing example of what a French army could do…” Before falling back in headlong retreat, exit pursued by a Wellington!

The game which parallels the defence of the Lines of Torres Vedras is an example of the fruits of my schoolboy study of both Nimzowitsch (see last week’s column) and Wellington. My opponent was a sixth former, parachuted into Dulwich from Manchester Grammar School. Graham Sandiford was a skilful tactician, four years my senior, who had previously defeated me with a sparkling display of tactics in the knockout final of the Dulwich College school championship.

In the following encounter, our first since my setback in the championship, I was determined to eliminate all tactical interventions by rigorously observing the Wellingtonian precept of impenetrable defence, followed, if feasible, by the decisive counterattack. Of course, the counter I chose against my opponent’s 1.e4 was an invention popularised by Nimzowitsch and, indeed, named after him: the Nimzowitsch Defence. In My System, Nimzowitsch developed the theory of prophylaxis, which again seems to relate to the Wellingtonian battlefield principle of impenetrable defence.

Graham K. Sandiford vs. Raymond Keene

Dulwich College, London (1961)

1.e4 Nc6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 f6

One of Nimzowitsch’s more extreme ideas, which is far more challenging than 3…Bf5.

4.f4 Bf5 5. Ne2 Qd7 6. Ng3 Bg4 7. Be2 Bxe2

As so often in this defence, the trade of light-squared bishops furthers Black’s aims rather than White’s.

8.Nxe2 e6 9. Be3 Nge7

Almost imperceptibly, Black has gained tangible influence over the centre, and White’s remaining dark-squared bishop is seriously restricted by its own pawns.

10.O-O Nf5 11. Qd2 h5

This strategically valuable advance of Black’s h-pawn plays a vital role.


A common factor in this opening is that White simply cannot tolerate the continued presence of the black knight on f5 and therefore accepts doubled pawns in order to eliminate it. However, White’s doubled pawns on the g-file represent an attractive target for Black’s further attack, by means of…h5-h4.

12… Nxg3 13. hxg3 Ne7 14. Bf2 f5

Black no longer requires the f5-square for his knight. It is more important to fix White’s g3-pawn as a weakness in preparation for the line-opening attack…h5-h4.

15.Na3 Ng6 16. Qd3 Kf7

A vital step in connecting Black’s rooks. The king is safer on f7 than it would be after              … O-O-O.

17.c4 Bxa3 18. Qxa3 h4

With White’s forces blockaded on the Queen’s side, the final counterattack commences.

  1. cxd5 Qxd5 20. Rac1 c6 21. Rc5 Qd7 22. b4 h3

White’s demonstration on the other wing comes too late. There is really no defence to Black’s numerous options on the h-file. 23 Qf3! is the sole try.

23.gxh3 Rxh3 24. Qc1 Rah8

The immediate 24…b6 wins more quickly.

25.b5 Ne7 26. Kg2 b6!

This elegant move, somewhat overdue, now gains control of the vital d5 square for Black’s queen.

27.bxc6 Nxc6 28. Rxc6 Qd5+

Leads to checkmate, while after 28 Rb5 Ne7 (or 28…Nxd4) White also loses control of the long light-squared diagonal.

White resigns. 0-1.

Ray’s 206th book, “ Chess in the Year of the King ”, written in collaboration with former Reuters chess correspondent, Adam Black, appeared earlier this year. Now  his 207th, “ Napoleon and Goethe: The Touchstone of Genius”  has materialised, just in time to complement Ridley Scott’s new epic Napoleon. Both books are available from Amazon and Blackwell’s.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 92%
  • Interesting points: 92%
  • Agree with arguments: 90%
41 ratings - view all

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