Chess: styles of play: tactical vs positional

The tutor explores the two common styles of chess seen at high level.

I’ve read that Bobby Fischer was a positional player; I’ve also read his being a tactical player. Though a given player can exhibit both styles, they arise from different objectives.

Really, there are three (or more) styles of chess. Materialism is the style most beginners embrace: they try to keep their high value pieces and capture the opponent’s. To such a player, capturing the opponent’s queen is very important, and practically signifies a won game.

Players who continue at chess eventually realize that a minor, but well-placed piece, can be worth more than a poorly placed heavy piece. (Heavy pieces are the high-value ones: the rooks and queen.) Then, they begin to focus more on finding good squares for their own pieces, rather than on capturing the opponents’. As this shift in focus occurs, one can say that the player becomes either tactical or positional.

A tactical player tries to organize their pieces into a concentrated attack, usually against the opponent’s king. Sometimes, the tactical player will sacrifice a heavy piece to weaken the (opponent’s) king’s defenses. Then, less powerful pieces can be used to sustain the attack until checkmate. Tactical players are happy to sacrifice pieces to gain winning squares for other ones. After all, checkmate can be accomplished with a small fraction of the pieces if placed correctly.

The approach of a positional player is less dramatic: s/he focuses on preventing the opponent’s pieces from achieving good squares. The philosophy is that, if the opponent’s pieces are all forced to poor squares, those pieces can’t attack successfully. Positional players are commonly said to constrict their opponents into losing.

Anatoly Karpov, a former world champion, is a famous positional player; I’d say the world champion (as of 2014), Magnus Carlsen, is as well. Garry Kasparov, another former world champion, is a tactical player, as was Mikhail Tal. As I say: I’ve heard Fischer described as both. Having studied numerous of his games here, I can’t decide. I’d say he leans towards positional, but in a given game he can exhibit tactical style.

Interestingly, my experience is that computer chess engines can also be either positional or tactical. I play against 4 or 5 different ones; most seem more tactical than positional to me.


Jack of Oracle Tutoring by Jack and Diane, Campbell River, BC.

Chess: queen’s pawn openings: Caro-Kann

The tutor reflects on some of his early chess discoveries.

I always play black against the computer. I set the difficulty so that I win about 30% of the time. Therefore, if I don’t play carefully, I lose.

The defense I had early success with against White’s queen’s pawn opening is Caro-Kann. I find it’s a patient opening; getting an early advantage from it is unlikely. However, it’s a strong defense.

One advantage of the Caro-Kann is that the pawn at c6 prevents White’s knight from invading the queen side at b5. The computer, as White, likes to attack that way.

Another advantage of the Caro-Kann is that the c-pawn, being moved to c6 early, can likely replace the d pawn in the centre. Converting a side pawn to a centre pawn is generally an advantage in chess, in my experience.

My success with the Caro-Kann often comes from queenside expansion, which is probably why winning from the Caro-Kann is gradual.

Playing as Black, none of Tal, Fishcer, Carlsen, Capablanca, or Polgar seems to like the Caro-Kann. Tal, Fischer and Polgar like King’s Indian, whereas Carlsen and Capablanca prefer Ruy Lopez.

I’ve begun studying King’s Indian; it’s tough going sometimes:)


Jack of Oracle Tutoring by Jack and Diane, Campbell River, BC.

Chess: mobility: opening files?

The tutor discusses the (dis)advantage of opening files.

I suffered some chess burnout earlier this holiday season, but hope I’m making a recovery. I still lose more than I win, but computers aren’t prone to error the way a human might be.

Rooks need open files to operate, or course. In a recent game I had a chance to snatch a centre pawn from the computer; I didn’t, because it would have opened a file. The computer is better with its rooks than I am.

In early training about chess, one hears about the advantage of opening the board to mobilize pieces. The heavy pieces – rook and queen – benefit most from an open field. However, the computer has a much greater awareness of the board than most humans can.

As often as not, I make moves to try keep the computer’s pieces bottled up. For instance, if a bishop is in front of a rook, I try to leave that bishop alone, hoping it will stay there. Often, a player’s own pawns stall movement of other pieces. Even when I can snatch such a pawn, I’ll often let it be. This may represent a beginning towards understanding positional play.


Jack of Oracle Tutoring by Jack and Diane, Campbell River, BC.

Chess: queening a pawn

The tutor introduces a resource to help with endgame play.

Some tough games, I’ve won by queening a pawn. (I mainly play the computer, and I lose more often than I win.) Towards the end of a long, tiring game, knowing how to queen a pawn can really help.

A very useful resource that can teach you just how to queen a pawn is by chessvideos on YouTube. It’s less than five minutes long. My understanding of it is to keep your king ahead of your pawn; you’re best to have one or two squares between them. The key is to get your king to one of the the six squares on ranks 7 or 8, left, directly ahead, or right of your pawn.

I highly recommend the video. I’ve used its tips myself, enabling me to queen the pawn with much less effort.


Jack of Oracle Tutoring by Jack and Diane, Campbell River, BC.

Chess terms: zugzwang

The tutor defines an oft-used term in chess.

I’m sure I first heard zugzwang used by Sean Godley of Killegar Chess. I got the impression it meant “overextended” – that one piece was protecting two others. Therefore, after an exchange, the other piece would drop for free.

Since first hearing zugzwang, I’ve heard it countless times. I’ve learned that the formal definition could be worded as follows:

Zugzwang: a situation in which the player must move, but every possible move will worsen the player’s own position. The player would be better off if they didn’t have to move.

Games like chess, in which the player must change their position each turn, are prone to instances of zugzwang. However, not all games require change each turn. Some card games allow one to draw but discard the same card, maintaining the same hand over successive turns. Zugzwang is not necessarily relevant in those games.


Jack of Oracle Tutoring by Jack and Diane, Campbell River, BC.

Chess: positional play

The tutor reflects on his evolving chess experience.

When I played chess as a kid, I knew little about it. Eventually I came to believe that tactical finesse was the key to winning. For me, in those early days, it was. I managed to win often against my peers, just by developing my pieces in a more coordinated manner. While I likely took it more seriously than they did, it wasn’t a passion for me, either – rather, a pastime.

At university I met people in the coffee shop who took chess much more seriously than I did. They had read books about it; some also had what I’d call “training.” I was no match for one or two of them; moreover, I couldn’t understand why.

A couple of decades later, I took up chess again. I promptly hit the same wall from twenty years earlier: I couldn’t beat GNU Chess, even on the Easy level. (I have since beaten it many times. However, the fact remains: GNU Chess, Easy level, isn’t “easy” to beat unless you’re quite an experienced player. You can read more about GNU Chess in my post here.)

Finding myself unable to win against GNU chess, I realized I needed to learn how to beat it; I needed training. I turned to chess commentators on Youtube. (You can read my article about them here.) I also read some books.

In the commentaries about playing effective chess, the words “position” and “squares” are prominent. They don’t talk about forming a combination to achieve checkmate; rather, they discuss placing pieces on good squares in order to improve the player’s position. The good squares are mainly centre ones. To the experts, the goal in chess is to gradually gain control of the key squares. By doing so, a player can improve their position to a winning one.

I’d always been told about the importance of the central squares in chess. However, I’d never thought about chess from the experts’ point of view. Their theme – called positional play – is much more subtle than how I’d perceived the game. Yet, it’s undoubtedly how a strong computer chess program plays.

Only recently do I understand positional play to the point of applying it. As Sean Godley of Killegar Chess points out, “It takes years of experience to judge the quality of a position.”


Killegar Chess

Pachman, Ludek. Modern Chess Strategy. New York: Dover Publications, 1963.

Jack of Oracle Tutoring by Jack and Diane, Campbell River, BC.

Chess: moving the knights

The tutor shares a chess observation.

The summer hasn’t left me with substantial mental resources for chess playing, but I’ve had some good games. I’ve also been watching kingscrusher and MatoJelic on YouTube. From all three sources, I’ve noticed an idea I want to share. Before that, however, I want to bring up a background idea. I think I heard, from Aron Nimzowitsch (via the coverage on Killegar Chess), the following:

You find the right square for a piece. You manoeuvre it there, then leave it there.

It seems to me, both from experience and from watching kingscrusher’s coverage of Bobby Fischer’s games, that the knights are likely moved more often than the other pieces. I’ve got some potential reasons why:

  1. The knights are probably moved out first, before the game has consolidated. As it progresses, their best places likely change.
  2. Knights don’t attack at long range, so they often need to be moved close to attack or defend a piece.

I believe I’m getting more comfortable with moving my knights more often than the other pieces, once the middle game has started.

I’ll be sharing more of my chess ideas in future posts:)

Jack of Oracle Tutoring by Jack and Diane, Campbell River, BC.

Chess: castling

The tutor offers a few comments from his chess experience.

Castling, I have read, doubles the king’s security. Therefore, one idea is that a player should castle as early as possible. Since it develops the rook used to castle, it has the added advantage of being a developing move.

Playing against the computer, however, I find castling early offers a target. The computer seems less decisive when my king is still in the center, but could castle. While the computer remains non-committal, I get more time to develop my pieces. (I always play black, so an extra move is valuable.)

Some of my best wins have come from castling middle-game, or not castling at all. While that fact counters common chess thinking, I find that, often, I need to break with conventional wisdom to win. During a game, I’m often confused because I believe the move I “should” make will not lead to best advantage.

I’ll be sharing more of my chess reflections in coming posts:)


Horowitz, I.A., and Fred Reinfeld. How to Improve Your Chess. New York:
   Collier Books, 1972.

Jack of Oracle Tutoring by Jack and Diane, Campbell River, BC.

Chess: kingscrusher

The tutor mentions an inevitable Web discovery for a chess enthusiast.

I heard about kingscrusher from Sean Godley at Killegar Chess.

Kingscrusher’s site is likely appealing to chess enthusiasts who have short durations to spend watching. The reason is that he posts blitz games – his own. Each game includes candid commentary about his own moves as well as his suspicions about his opponent’s. His love of the game is evident, win or lose.

Kingscrusher also commentates games between masters, of which I’ve not seen many so far. However, I’ll likely be watching more soon. As I do, I’ll keep you posted:)

Jack of Oracle Tutoring by Jack and Diane, Campbell River, BC.