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.
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.