C.J.S. Purdy wrote about the time in 1924 when he questioned visiting Yugoslav master Boris Kostich about why Kostich considered a player named Viner the best player in Australia and his reply was Viner “had a better sense of position.” Purdy couldn’t get Kostich to explain just exactly what he meant by that remark though. Purdy observed that the master thinks mostly in moves and not words while amateurs think in words because moves confuse them. I know what Purdy meant because one time while watching Super GM Tony Miles analyzing with an IM, Miles kept pointing out suggested moves were not any good. When asked why, he could only say, “It just isn’t.” Miles wasn’t being condescending; he could not explain why a move was not good, he just “knew.” I’ve seen that in other titled players, too. When asked why a move was bad, rather that explaining it, they just bashed out a series of moves and then said something like, “See, White (or Black) is better (or winning).” as if it was as plain as the nose on your face to us rating challenged folks.
Going back to Steinitz, he defined positional play as the accumulation of small advantages. Then along came Nimzovich in My System and he disagreed with Steinitz. He described positional play as “prophylactic” by which he meant blunting certain possibilities which would have undesirable consequences if the opponent was allowed to play them. He wrote, “Position play is nothing other than a fight between mobility (of the Pawn mass) on one side and efforts to restrain this on the other."
Capablanca said of that great tactician Morphy, "Morphy's principal strength does not rest upon his power of combination but in his position play…” So, positional play is important. It’s important because what should you do if there is no sound tactic available? Apparently not a few players seem to think you play an unsound one.
Anyway, when there is no sound combination available and neither you nor your opponent has any threats that must be defended against, what do you do? As Purdy observed, many players start looking for a “trap” which if met by a weak move by their opponent will lead to success. But what if the opponent’s move is not weak one, but a good one? Purdy observed that the attempt at playing “tactically” leaves you worse off than if you had played “positionally.”
Under such circumstances a (positional) move is one that, even when your opponent has a wide choice of moves, will serve you well in all circumstances. How do you find a move like that? Calculation won’t work because the possibilities are endless. In those cases move selection has to be based on a “sense of position” or judgment and knowledge.
In Guide to Good Chess Purdy summed up positional play as, “…the art of improving your position in small ways when no sound (emphasis mine) combination is possible.”
Purdy gives a thorough analysis of a game between Botvinnik and Boleslavsky from the 1941 USSR Absolute Championship and in the above position (White to move) positional play is clearly called for because there are no tactical threats in the air.
Boleslavsky’s last move (19…Qg6-d6) had to positional aims: 1) kick the N out of its strong post by …a5 followed by …b6 and 2) create the possibility, after moving the N from e7, of challenging the open e-file with …Re7.
White played 20.c3. For what purpose? Purdy points out this move was not part of a specific plan. Botvinnik was simply strengthening his position. How so? 20.c3 secures both the c- and d-Pawns which generally gives his pieces more freedom and he can perhaps strengthen his N’s position even further by playing a5 thus securing it on c5. In this game there were very if tactical moves and Boleslavsky made only tiny positional errors, but Botvinnik, by constantly strengthening his position in little ways went on to win.
Purdy advised that when there is “nothing to do” a good idea would be to find your least active piece and look for a way to increase its activity. This usually will not be a long winded sequence of moves; it may take only a move or two, but it will strengthen your position a little and in those situations, that’s all you can hope for. Just make sure you aren’t overlooking a tactic and your move doesn’t set up one of these situations:
1) An unexpected or dangerous check
2) Your move does not leave a piece undefended unless you are sure there is no possibility of a discovered attack on it.
3) You haven’t opened yourself up to a dangerous pin or fork
4) You aren’t leaving your King exposed and undefended
5) There isn’t an enemy piece that is “masked” or sitting behind another piece which, if the masking piece were to move, would allow the masked piece to bite you.
6) There are no bizarre moves like a sacrifice, Pawn break or some other move that at first glance is obviously unplayable that would leave you at a disadvantage.
If your “positional” move allows any of the above, be careful!!
How do you get this sense for position? Reading books on strategy and playing over a zillion games would be a start. Not to discourage anyone but getting to be like Miles so you just know a move is bad is highly unlikely...just saying.