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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Editorial on Positional Play

Lower rated players in their quest to improve always seem to concentrate on openings and tactics. I’ve heard many say they’ll wait until they reach 1800 before studying strategy and endings. Unfortunately most will never get that far. Most don’t know what ‘strategy’ or ‘positional’ chess means. A lot of the world’s greatest players couldn’t explain it either. Nimzovich sneered at the old idea that every chess move was either "attacking" or “defensive.”

I’ve seen a lot of requests from lower rated players asking if any books existed that explained chess mostly in words and not variations. For the most part the answer has to be “No.” because masters think mostly in variations, not in words. And the variations they are calculating often come more from intuition than verbalizing the salient points of a position. It’s very difficult to explain intuition! As CJS Purdy observed, amateurs often view chess strategy and tactics as if they were different animals - one is a bird and the other a fish. The amateur wants words because nothing but moves leave him befuddled. He lacks the master's intuition skill.

Steinitz realized chess could not be reduced to simple concepts and rules of attack and defense so he saw positional play as an accumulation of minute advantages.

Nimzovich wrote in My System: Another erroneous conception may be found among masters. Many of these and numbers of strong amateurs are under the impression that position play above all is concerned with the accumulation of small advantages, in order to exploit them in the endgame .... We are inclined rather to assign to this plan of operation a very subordinate role .... There are quite other matters to which the attention of the positional player must be directed, and which place this "accumulation" wholly in the shade.

So what is position play? Position play is a systematic application of safety measures that is concerned with avoiding for oneself and/or exploiting positional weaknesses in the opponent’s position.

Nimzovich wrote: In the last resort, position play is nothing other than a fight between mobility (of the pawn mass) on the one side and efforts to restrain this on the other. In this all-embracing struggle the intrinsically very important device of the prophylactic is merely a means to an end.

In most all games between masters nearly all the moves will be positional but Nimzovich’s definition is not complete. CJS Purdy writes: Position play is the treatment of positions in which sound attacking play is not possible, and purely defensive play is not necessary. It means either strengthening one's own position or weakening the enemy's.

The average player finds many moves in master games which he cannot understand but many of them would be clearer once you get hold of the general idea that the master was trying to strengthen his position. When there is nothing you can accomplish by force and nothing you are forced to do, what’s left? You try to strengthen your position or weaken your opponent’s.

Most average players are always looking for a way to attack, even if it’s not justified. This is wrong! The result is they mess around looking for a trap, hoping the opponent will make a blunder. Either that or they sac something. But what if the opponent doesn’t fall for the trap or defends well? The trap or sac may have been positionally bad.

Positional play, unlike tactics, is not concerned with calculated lines of play of the type I go there, he goes there, etc. If your move is not forcing, i.e., if it is positional, then usually the opponent has a fairly wide choice of replies. Therefore your move must be of a sort that will serve you well in every possible situation. Developing moves in the opening are a good example.

You can’t select positional moves by calculation. Of course before playing any move be sure you are not giving the opponent the chance of a sound tactical reply! Thus in positional play you do not calculate so much as rely on judgment and knowledge. This is where the playing over of master games will be a big help. It will help us build up the intuitive judgment which guided the master.

Plans are important in position play, as a rule, but not always necessary! For instance, looking at a certain type of position, a strong player may decide without making a plan that White should play h3 to make a "luft" for his K. There is no specific threat, but the move will free his pieces from the task of guarding the back rank. Such a move could be deemed positional but no plan was involved. He just made a strengthening move.

One very important aspect of planning is to maintain the cooperation of the pieces. The average player is often uncertain if his position is superior, equal, or inferior because he lacks positional judgment and intuition. Therefore an understanding of positional chess is absolutely essential for the improving player. It may not enable us to find the best move but it will help to know what we should be trying to do.

I don’t know of any school that teaches students only one subject at a time. Nobody is going to claim you shouldn’t study history until you learn how to read better but that is exactly the approach taken by a lot of players. Rather than waiting until one is at a certain rating, I can see no reason not to study openings, tactics, positional play and endings all at the same time in an effort to become an all around player.

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