07 June 2012

Playing Styles Deconstructed

A major breakthrough that has allowed me to make progress lately is leaving behind the idea of playing according to a particular chess "style" - that is, the idea that a chessplayer can (and should) be classified a certain way according to their personal abilities and preferences.  I have come to believe that this kind of self-identification can be a trap for players who believe themselves to be either "tacticians" or "positional players" (the two main style types), one that leads them to both consciously and unconsciously limit their capabilities.  One can of course come up with a rather long list of perceived styles, including such subtypes as "contrarians" (who avoid classical-type moves whenever possible) or "barbarians"/"cavemen" (who always attack the king, regardless of the situation).  Perhaps you've seen some other examples of particularly memorable styles in your own chess career.

One of the things that helped me make the mental realization of how impractical a "style" can be came in an excerpt of an interview that I read last year; unfortunately I can't find it again to link, since I didn't bookmark it.  In it, a grandmaster commented that style was largely an illusion among the top ranks of the chess world, as (for example) in a 40-move game, once out of the opening phase where both sides were relying on their book knowledge, only with perhaps 4-5 moves of the remainder of the game would there be any real divergence of opinion among GMs on the best move, leaving it open to the player's personal preference.  This translates to roughly one move in seven having any real personal "choice" involved.  (EDIT: see "A robust and deep insight on playing style" for the original quote, which I eventually found.)

At first, the concept sounded rather shocking to me and also seemed quite limiting for a player's freedom of choice.  This gives you an idea of how I used to think about the phenomenon of playing styles: namely, that they reflect your innate abilities and thinking process and therefore determined almost every move of the game (or if not every move, perhaps one in two or one in three).  The concept that the grandmaster presented, of style having an influence on play in certain unclear situations but not determining what should be played in most positions, was a new one for me.  It's worth noting that a similar overall concept - that whatever move objectively works best in the position is what should be played, regardless of any set of general principles or beliefs about chess - is also the centerpiece of John Watson's masterwork Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy.

This is not to say that no such thing as a style of play exists.  However, the perception of style is apparently greatly exaggerated at the top professional level; furthermore, as will be discussed more below, misunderstanding the concept can be a serious limiting factor for Class players.  At the top levels, one can easily find examples of "positional, defensive" World Champions like Tigran Petrosian playing brilliant attacking chess and combinations, or "tactical, aggressive" players like Kasparov winning with relatively quiet, maneuvering games such as in the must-win final game of the 1987 World Championship.  Certain strong players have deserved reputations for liking and playing particular position-types - and the openings that usually lead to those particular position-types - but that should not be confused with an inability to cross the tactical/positional divide when the position requires it.

The most important aspect of this for the improving player is not a theoretical debate about the styles of World Champions, though, but how the idea of "style" can affect our play and hold us back.  Regardless of what we call ourselves, either tactical or positional players, I think mentally over-identifying with a style has some major detrimental effects on our performance.  Most seriously from a practical standpoint during a game, it necessarily limits our ability to perceive and evaluate candidate moves as part of our thinking process.  Moves that we consciously or unconsciously characterize as being outside of our style are either not examined or incorrectly evaluated, usually in a dismissive manner.  What occurred in Annotated Game #2 when I wrongly and consciously dismissed a key move possibility, for example, was an early indication in my chess study that this was a problem for me.  That and other examples from my analyzed games pointed out rather starkly that emotional and other illogical attachments or aversions to particular types of moves were measurably dragging down my performance level and causing me to lose games.

Moving beyond the general issues described above, here are some specific thoughts on how over-reliance on a "style" can hold you back.

Tactical Style: this (as with any other style) will only get you so far as a player.  It seems that low Expert level (2000-2100) is probably the top limit for tactical specialists; Michael de la Maza's well-known story is one anecdotal indication of this.  (For those who are into statistics, you can look at his career record and make your own judgments about his playing strength versus various classes of players.)  Naturally, a 2000 rating would sound good enough for a lot of people, but it is still short of mastery.  Also, for those of us without hard-wired chess brains, the ratings ceiling for being a tactical specialist may be much lower than 2000.  Here are some other typical limitations that may be associated with this style:
  • When tactics are not currently present in a position, cannot identify a useful plan to make progress.
  • Default plan is a kingside attack, regardless of the position.
  • Neglects study of positional factors, since everything is about tactics.
  • Neglects endgame study, because doesn't expect to make it that far, either winning or losing in the middlegame.
Positional Style: based on my personal observations, an insistence on "playing positionally" and ignoring tactics will not get you along the path to mastery even as far as the tactical specialists.  I was a "positional player" most of my career, which has so far limited me to a Class B rating, and only in the past year have I made a real effort to study and implement tactical ideas.  The missed opportunities in Annotated Game #46 are just one example from my own play of how a positional player needs to be able to spot tactics in key positions, in order to win.  Some other general limitations on playing effectiveness include:
  • Avoiding entering into tactical play, even when it would result in material or positional benefits.
  • Being unwilling to undertake gambits or sacrifice material.
  • Being unable to effectively conduct attacks on the opponent's king position.
  • Having a tendency to draw a won position rather than win it.
I think a majority of players start off tactical and then acquire positional knowledge, although a significant minority (including myself) think of themselves as positional players from the start.  Normally we identify with a general approach to playing chess that we like the most, based on our early experiences.  However, that's not necessarily the best approach for us as players over the long-term; furthermore, we all acquire some bad habits or erroneous ideas as we struggle to understand the game.  The point of breaking free of the limitations of a self-defined style isn't to negate our own preferences; rather, it's to free us from our mental chains and open up a new world of possibilities on the board.  Regardless of the path we choose, it takes time and effort to think in new ways and then apply our new knowledge.  I hope to continue moving along the path for a long time.


  1. Great post!!

    Petrosian, the positional guy, was (as the story goes) the guys called in last minute to play some informal blitz against a young Fischer after Fischer had demoralized many of the Soviet players at whatever the state chess house was in Russia. So Petrosian knew tactics!

    That is why I sometimes purposely play some openings I don't like! :)

  2. This was an excellent post.

    For me one of the most helpful lessons learned from Fischer was his quote "As usual, tactics flow from a positionally superior game."

    It might be some of the best games where position and tactics working together really show were the Reshevsky-Fischer games.

  3. De la Maza's performance was about 2150 at the end, see http://empiricalrabbit.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/michael-de-la-maza-statistics.html. There is a famous quotation, which is roughly "players below GM do not have style, they have weaknesses." The implication is that we should work on our weaknesses.

  4. Wow, TommyG lives! *laugh* How are things going with you, man?

    Good post - I (also class B) trap myself in the "positional" category too much as well. Part of it is that I can't stand playing 1. e4 as White or 1. e4 e5 as Black, so I get into far more closed positions out of the opening than is probably normal at this level.

    From that, I can definitely see the first three weaknesses that you list there in myself. Working on it (current book: Biem - How to Play Dynamic Chess *laugh*)

  5. Anonymous09 June, 2012

    Thanks for the comments, all.

    One thing that has struck me repeatedly during the analysis of my past tournament games is the fact that even as a self-identified "positional player", I in fact made a lot of positionally suspect moves. I don't believe I'm alone in this, either.

    If I run across that GM comment again that I referred to in the post, I'll be sure to link it, although I think I paraphrased it all right.

  6. Interesting post. I greatly enjoyed it. One thing, though, is the idea that there is a battle... tactical -vs- positional. Actually the two are complementary. As Bobby Fischer put it, "Tactics flow from a superior position." They both go hand-in-hand. Positional ideas tells us what to aim for, tactical ideas tell us how to do it. In other words, tactics is not relegated to a mating attack or the gain of material, tactics is also used to secure a bind -- to render our opponent's pieces less effective or to make ours more effective (or both). The "positional pawn sacrifice," for example, is a tactic with a positional objective.

    I understand the point of your article, and it is very good. I just wanted to add that, just as "styles" reside more in our imagination than in reality, so too, does the idea that being "tactical" is opposite of being "positional." What I think people are really saying is that a tactical player tends to prefer quickly changing dynamic play while a positional player prefers more slowly changing static positions.

  7. You're correct.

    It's very much a question of definition though : at club level, "tactical style" often means looking for complications without calculating much, and "positional style" meaning avoiding complications...


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