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Friday, October 23, 2015

Strategy or Tactics?

     Wikipedia says strategy is the aspect concerned with evaluation of positions and setting of goals and long-term plans. A player must take into account such factors as the relative value of the pieces, P-structure, K safety control of key squares, diagonals, open files, etc.  Tactics is concerned with threats and defenses.
     Normally we think of players as either strategist or tacticians, but I recently came across an interesting, old article on Chedddotcom that had a refined list of styles. Here are the abbreviated descriptions: 

Technical player - usually plays the same positionally based openings and knows them extremely well. May become uncomfortable when confronted with a new and unfamiliar position. Sometimes they make concessions to avoid being attacked or giving up counterplay. A very practical style of play. They are very strong players and it requires too much understanding for lower rated players to successfully play this way. 
Positional Players - versatile in their opening choices and rely on general understanding to find the right solution in all positions. The difference between a "positional" player and a "technical" player is almost psychological, the positional players don't go out of their way to avoid unfamiliar positions, or positions in which they are being attacked. Easier to face for tacticians as it's easier to steer the game towards tactical positions. 
Attacking players – strive for the initiative. Want to be attacking. Some are not great calculators, but have a natural understanding of how to conduct an attack. May have some difficulty against technical players, who often don't even give the attackers a chance. Attacking players like to “mix it up” and their games can be very entertaining. 
Calculating players - generally work very hard because though their general chess intuition may not be great, they make up for it by calculating power. They are ready to pounce at the slightest miscalculation. Often end up in time trouble. 
Tricky players - Repeatedly play moves that you didn't even consider and sometimes look weird. They never give up and are constantly looking for ways to trap and attack. Entertaining and resourceful. Differentiated from calculating and attacking players mainly by the unorthodox nature of their play. 
Dynamic players - usually pretty well rounded, but lean more towards the aggressive/tactical side. Often play enterprising openings and aren't scared to mix things up and are fighting constantly. Not uncomfortable in strategic or dry positions. 
Practical players - Understand that chess is a game, and the object is to do everything possible to win and not always to find the absolute best move. Often will play very quickly, play openings they are very familiar with and can play many types of positions comfortably. Often have serious holes in their theoretical knowledge. They just hope to get a reasonable position out of the opening without spending too much time, and then to simply outplay you. 
Intuitive players - a weird group, you get the sense they simply understand where the pieces belong. May not be the best calculators, but they make up for it by moving quickly and confidently and are able to quickly find solutions where others may have to spend a lot more time. Their reliance on their intuition may sometimes be a weakness as they trust their instincts too much when the position demands harder work. 
Logical players - try very hard to try to understand the position. Solid at all phases of the game but not spectacular at any. Good at adapting to unfamiliar position. Have no preconceptions of what types of positions they would like to play and just try to find the best move. These players won't often try anything too unorthodox, however they also won't shy away from complications if they are necessary. 

     GM Alex Yermolinksy talked about tactics and strategy. Back in the days when he was living in Leningrad and earned his Master norm (around 2400 USCF or 2300 FIDE) they used to talk about ‘positional understanding’. Some players, they called them 'spirited fighters', would play any position, calculating variations on every move. Yermolinsky was one of the spirited fighters; he would find himself in trouble due to the unsoundness of his play, but he would keep fighting until a seemingly random tactical opportunity presented itself. The other group they called 'spit-and-polishers.' They would play solid openings, often using schemes to catch their opponents in positional traps. They valued things like better pawn-structures and detested unbalanced positions. Yermolinsky said he spent two years trying to learn ‘master's chess’, which would earn him promotion to the spit and polishers category. In the end he rarely played a 'clean' game with all strategy and no tactics and for all his effort all he accomplished was losing 50 rating points. 
    He recounted how the classic Soviet authors Panov, Romanovsky and the Patriarch, Botvinnik, constantly referred to positional understanding and how Botvinnik was claiming his tactical skills were diminishing with age but his positional understanding was growing and it was being unjustly challenged by tacticians. 
     Everything written about the Botvinnik vs. Tahl matches was about the strategist vs. the tactician. In their first match Botvinnik lost by 4 points and the next match he won by an even larger margin. How could those things be? 
     So one day Yermolinsky decided to actually look at the games. He expected to see wild attacks and sacrifices from Tahl and deep strategic plans by Botvinnik. What he saw surprised him... the difference in styles didn’t differ that much! Botvinnik went for tactical solutions very often while Tahl played strategic chess and had a surprisingly good understanding of endings. The main difference was that Tahl was more aggressive from the beginning. 
     Yermolinsky began to suspect that he had been lead to believe in something that didn't exist. He came to the conclusion that a player's main objective is to sweat it out at every move and find good moves and not worry about style and not put undue emphasis on either tactics or strategy
     He wrote that what is called positional play only means making moves based on positional principles: such as development, centralizing, controlling open files, P-structure. No calculation, except for a blunder-check, is required. Tactics is calculating variations and relate to the position on the board at the moment and continues along a calculated line as far as the moves are forced. Strategy is a long-term thing while tactics are short-term. 
     And, here's the thing that most players do not understand: a strategic plan can be conducted by tactical means, independent of the positional principles it was based on. It doesn’t happen very often, but it can. Tactical play consists of operations linked with one another and may or may not involve a sacrifice. In the end, elements of strategy blend with tactics in real game situations. Hence, the reason to study BOTH and not, as the current trend is today, rely on the saying chess is 99 percent tactics and exclude the study of positional play.  
     Most of us tend to ignore the areas of chess we don’t like. That's why I have always liked USCF Senior Master Mark Buckley's approach: he made it habit to study things he disliked or didn’t understand.
    In an unrelated matter, when it comes to analyzing a position, Buckley wrote about 'lines of force' and 'auras' of pieces (aura refers to the array of squares available to the piece). Imagine lines going through all squares, even those obstructed by other pieces. It will help you recognize pins, discovered attacks, etc. and gives ideas for which lines to open up with sacrifices or Pawn breaks. Buckley claimed aura/line visualization is a great way to improve your analysis skills, making it less likely that you will miss potential moves as you visualize variations in your mind.

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