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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Strategy and Tactics

In his book, The Road to Chess Improvement, a book that should be a classic and required reading for every player rated from 1400-2100 who wants to improve his play, GM Alex Yermolinsky had some interesting things to say about strategy and tactics. He told about when he was a young player, one medium strength master named Slava Shishmarev talked about ‘spirited fighters’ and ‘spit and polishers.’
      Spirited fighters were players who would play any position and did a lot of calculating. They will often find themselves in bad positions because eof their unsound play but they keep on fighting until a seemingly random tactical opportunity presented itself.
      Spit and polishers, on the other hand, play solidly and value things like better P-structures and any other positional advantage. The classical works of Soviet players like Panov and Romanovsky and especially the patriarch of positional play among the Soviet players, Botvinnik, were constantly advocating ‘positional understanding’ at every turn.
      One of the greatest clashes between spirited fighters and spit and polishers in recent history were the two matches in the 1960’s between Botvinnik and Tahl. Yermolinsky said when he finally got around to playing over the games in those two matches he was surprised to find that despite the widely discussed difference between the two players, Tahl, the tactician, was well aware of positional principles and endgame theory. Botvinnik, the deep strategist, went for tactical solutions very often. In short, Yermolinsky didn’t see all that much difference between the two! Yermolinsky stated, “The truth is, a chess player’s main aim objective is to find good moves.” That observation really should not be surprising though because you don't get to be world champion without being good in all areas of the game.  Preference is another matter.

Here’s Yermolinsky’s glossary:
      Positional Play: Means nothing more than making moves based on positional principles such as development, centralizing, controlling open files, P-structure, etc. No calculation is required except for blunder checking.
      Tactics: Variations that are calculated. A tactic relates to the position on the board at the moment and continues as far as the moves are forced.
      Strategy: A long term thing. Creating and following plans. A strategic plan can be conducted by tactical means independent of the positional principles it was based on. It just does nopt happen very often which is why “strategic” and “positional” are often confused.
      Combinative Play: Consists of tactical operations linked with one another and may or may not involve a sacrifice.

Yermolinsky claims that of the many books written since WW2 a lot of them just repeat each other with the same boring lists of positional elements and hollow advice showing carefully selected games where chess heavyweights beat up on lesser skilled opponents.  His recommendation is to study the games from David Bronstein’s 1953 Zurich Candidates Tournament, and the collected games of Bobby Fischer and Bent Larsen. The value of studying these games is that’s where you learn pattern recognition and get to see how true masters apply strategy and tactics. Another book he recommends is John Watson’s Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy.
Yermolinsky wrote how GM Vladimir Malaniuk once told him that when you have the initiative, no deep calculation is required because the simple strategy of attacking your opponent’s pieces and creating threats on every move has a cumulative effect…sooner or later, something is going to give. GM Alex Wojtkiewicz described GM Judith Polgar’s play: She threatens your pieces, at first one by one; for a while you are able to defend, but then she attacks two at a time and defense is impossible. When Yermolinsky asked GM Alex Shabalov what criteria he used when he sends his games into wild tactical melees and Shabalov told him that his main concern is the number of ideas present in his position. If they are growing, it’s a good sign. If they are diminishing with every move he has overreached himself.
      In his early days, Yermolinsky believed risk had to be diminished because positional play should be enough to win but his results weren’t supporting that theory. At that time he was studying the games of one of the most boring players in the world at the time, GM Ulf Andersson. He eventually discovered that something very important was missing from his play. He began to study with GM Mark Tseitlin and realized that being dogmatic in your approach does not work. One has to be ready to use whatever approach works in a position. If it means trading Q’s and being prepared to play a hundred move endgame based on your Q-side P-majority or making a speculative sacrifice where the outcome is uncertain, then that’s what you have to do.
      Along these lines, he wrote that he began to realize that the loss of a Pawn was just another positional factor that must be taken into account along with a lot of other factors present. In short, I think the point that Yermolinksy was trying to make was that in order to improve you can’t be a one trick pony and confine your study to only one area like a lot of players try to do. You should try to do as NM Mark Buckley wrote in Practical Chess Analysis: becoming the all around player should be your goal.
Yermolinsky advocates a lot of hard work but the real value of the book is that he offers practical advice and gives you an insight on how to study. I've owned Bronstein's book and books of both Fischer's and Larsen's games and can say, even if you don't improve a single rating point, you will enjoy playing over the games.  Sometimes it's not about improving at all...it's just enjoying the games.

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