Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The neglected area.

On http://www.videochess.net/ you will find how a grandmaster thinks during 100+ blitzgames of 3 minutes (hattip to Wormwood). I have watched over 50 video's now.

In opposition to what you might expect maybe, most games are not decided by tactics, nor do tactics play a very big role during the game. It is indeed true that if there are tactics around, the grandmaster spots them often very fast. But usually not so fast that it differs all that much from how fast I see them.

The real power of a grandmaster lies in how fast he spots a favourable positional move. I already suspected that, that's why I wanted to have a closer look at grandmaster blitz games in the first place. As said, there is a considerable difference in tactical speed too, but that seems not to be an unbridgeable gap.

Positional play is a largely neglected area under chess improvement bloggers. That is not so strange, since most bloggers have a rating below 1700, where tactics play the biggest role by far indeed. It is the easiest way to get results. But above 1700, when the dropping of pieces has almost come to a standstill, tactics play a role more in the background. In an unmanifest way. The course of the game is decided by positional moves. You have to learn positional moves just like tactics. First you have to learn the basics, then you have to learn to do them à tempo.

The problem with positional moves is that you have to learn to value them. With tactics that is fairly easy, just count the wood. But most positional advantages will be rated below 0.3 pawn-point. It takes time to get a feeling for that.

It is true that all positional moves gear towards two middlegame goals: piece activity and invasion. Yet most people know only the endgame related stuff, like # pawn islands, double pawns, bad bishop etc.. Endgame stuff is easier to comprehend, since it is more static. Most of the time the middlegame dynamics are much more important though.

Dvoretsky recognizes 3 area's of improvement for positional play:
  • Regrouping your pieces. For instance: improve your worst piece. But also: change from weakness that you attack. Attack where your opponent is not strong. Manoeuvring related to piece activity and invasion.
  • Pawnplay. Pawnstructure. In spite of what you may think, this has nothing to do with the endgame! It has to do with which lines are going to be open. Freeing pawnmoves, pawnsacrifices etc. all related to piece activity and opening lines.
  • Exchanges. Knowing what kinds of trades are favourable in the given position and what should be avoided. Highly based on positional valuation.
So I will think about the circles in relation to positional play. Right now I'm still in the phase of learning, but the area isn't that broad at all. Just as tactics, to learn to do it à tempo is what makes it into a skill. And what is the most work.

Some time ago I casted doubts on the usefullness of openingstudy. Now I see what openingstudy is all about: it is positional play right from move one. In the video's above the GM plays the Leningrad Dutch, the Leningrad Dutch reversed and the Scandinavian. It are allmost always the same freeing moves that are played, the same lines that come open and the same squares that are under combat in the same opening. It is not about memorizing the variations, but knowing for which assets to struggle and how.


  1. the thing that struck me the most was how simple chess he plays. he's never in a hurry to crush the opponent, never looks for that complex tactical blow. it's just sane, safe moves one after another, accumulating small advantages, taking a square here and there, until the opponent suddenly collapses. if there's a complex tactic available, he often doesn't even consider it but improves a piece instead. no flashy tricks, and in the end the strategy just prevails time after time.

    I especially liked how he won a pawn, was offered another with no obvious danger, and he commented: "do I take the pawn? I think not. I only need to win once." :) and it was still middlegame.

    another thing is that he really knows his openings and the resulting positions. he knows the weaknesses and possibilities without even looking. I always need to think things through, which takes time and is subject to errors, but he just recognizes things. he just knows this or that is "good in this kind of positions."

    and he never worries about advantage, he's fine with equality. not a second is wasted on 'how can I find an advantage here' if there's an easy equal move.

  2. WW,
    yeah, it gives a good idea in what direction to improve. Thx for pointing him out.

  3. Cool stuff. I feel lucky I am still in the range where it is all about tactics :)

  4. Oh, for opening books that really stress the strategy, check out the 'Mastering the X' series (e.g., 'Mastering the Spanish'). Ridiculously helpful overview of the main plans, pawn moves, etc.. Too bad they don't have any books out on openings I play! :)

  5. all very well said. yes, i saw maybe eight of these videos, and its all very good stuff. thank you wormwood again, and thank you tempo for emphasizing this.

    books, books, more books. but some of them are hard to do without.

    have you looked at Gelfer's Positional Chess Handbook? I swear by this book with all the blood in my body. there is little to be missed there.

    just as Maxim Blohks book Combinative Motifs can supplant the CT-Art 3.0 software (in my case, suppliment it) for the 1209 problems thereof, so PCH is a way of doing 497 problems in positional play, with great depth or range or concepts suppliment PCT, i suspect quite strongly. portable PCT!

    might i suggest this for your next circles in this parallel stream? knowing you, you will do something else, but, again, the question is have you seen it, or if seen it, really, really sat with that book?

    were you here in the states, id bring it to your door as a gift.

    warmest, dk

    P.S. why i always hit a TRUE STOPPING point at 49 bullet games, i dont know, but did it again (i did 39 wednesday)? last night, after warming up on CTS and GM games from 11:15pm to JUST 2:00 am, i was ready to play! 2:13am to 7:09 am. after watching turbulant overnight markets sink due to a bad report by Erikkson SA, it was by then time for bed, then sleep 7:45 am to 12:45am. after a eight minute nap at lunch, now im hungry for more!

    zero fatigue. organic vegetables! organic fruit! similarly only 4.1 hours sunday night, and no tiredness AT ALL.


    honest. the thirst is bad. i want blood (the hides or skins of ++ elo's unsuspecting of a mere bottom fish 200 to 300 elo down.

    393w, 695L, 46d= 1134 games. 34.7% is shamefully too high a number. if i was not a weekling, id have it 29.99%

    soon i will have my goal then quit bullet and start 2/12 for a LONG TIME!

  6. I strongly agree with this post. This is exactly what I have experienced in my last tournament where I got my best result so far. For the first time, I have abandoned tactically aimed gambit play and switched to a sound positional treatment of openings. In most cases I got a good, playable, sometimes superior position just applying sound principles, and I did not memorize opening trees at all. Tempo, I think you are on the right track.

  7. DK,
    I need more positional problems indeed, so I will check out the positional handbook. I fired up the strategy module of PCT again already. It's remarkable how well I remember the problems from PCT. Which means that PCT is a good system for memorizing. A pity that I don't quite understand all solutions. But with our new solution-focussed approach I intend to correct that.

    Still reading Dvoretsky's book. It has exercises too.

  8. Christian,
    the method of exclusion works slow, but finally you arrive where you must be with great certainty.

  9. Christian: I hope I never get so good that I have to stop playing gambits :)