A Foundation for Beginners Forty Three

Our regularly scheduled article will not be presented this week due to my students sudden involvement in my writing. A question came up at two of the schools I teach chess at last week. The question asked of me was “are tactics really the only way to win games?” It seemed like a simple enough question with a simple enough answer! I was going to once again, present the end of our student game and not bring this question into this series of articles. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there was a depth to the answer that needed to be addressed.

Sure, tactics can be decisive and change a game quickly. I have seen countless games played by my students in which a well timed tactic has changed a losing game into a winning game. There are numerous books whose message is “you’ll win more games if you have great tactics in your arsenal.” There’s even that famous quote that “chess is 99% tactics.” Therefore, as a beginner, you might think that tactics was absolutely necessary if you wished to become a better player. Of course, I’m going to do a large number of articles in this series dedicated to tactics. However, are tactics really the be all, end all when it comes to playing good chess?

This question has been rattling around within my thought process for a long time! As a chess teacher, I teach tactics to my students and it takes up a fair portion of the curriculum. Tactics really can change a losing game into a winning game. If you teach chess, you have to teach tactics. Where the problem comes into play is when students try to win their games solely by employing tactics. While most games present tactical opportunities within one of the game’s three phases, there are times when it is difficult to find an opportunity to use a tactic to your advantage. Beginners tend to stumble into tactical opportunities rather than create them. A strong player can create a tactical play by setting that tactic up through a series of well thought out moves (combinations). Unfortunately, beginners have not yet developed this skill, which takes years to master. While beginners should immediately start developing their tactical skills, there is plenty more in the way of improvement to be gained through a complete and balanced, overall study of the game.

I have had students who become really good at tactics, winning plenty of tournaments because of this skill. However, when they face an opponent who knows of my student’s tactical abilities, that opponent denies my student tactical opportunities by creating tight, closed positions. These closed positions make tactical opportunities difficult to create and often cost the player trying to create the tactical opportunity in terms of positional weaknesses. A good overall player can deny a tactical player the chance to demonstrate his or her tactical skills and go on to win the game with good positional play.

There’s a balance you must maintain in your playing, being able to be an all around good player with sound knowledge of all the game’s principles. You have to be a good opening, middle and endgame player! You have to be ready to both take advantage of tactical positions, and positions where tactics won’t work. When I’ve faced a tactical player whose skills are better than mine, I know I cannot outplay them tactically so I have to take another approach. What’s that approach?

This brings me to the heart of this article, positional play. Some players spend the majority of their time working on their tactical skills, reasoning that they can drive the game towards positions that favor tactics. For an intermediate player facing a beginner, this task is easy. When playing someone with the same skill level, the challenge becomes one of being better at creating combinations that lead to or set up a tactical opportunity. However, when facing a stronger player who has a high tactical skill set, the task become daunting. I’ve played against stronger players who are much better at tactics than I. I have won my fair share of games against them. How did I manage to beat the stronger player? By trying to eliminate any potential tactical opportunities.

There are two primary types of games, opened and closed. In an open game, there is plenty of space available for long distance pieces (Bishops, Rooks and Queen) to control a large number of squares simultaneously. Many tactics require the use of the long distance pieces. In an open game, there are plenty of empty squares on the board which means a greater number of tactical opportunities. In a closed game, the board is jammed with pawns and pieces belonging to both players. A crowded board reduces the mobility of the long distances pieces and subsequently many tactics. This doesn’t mean that there will be no tactics, just that tactical opportunities will be reduced. How do you create a closed game? You could learn some openings that lead to closed games.

Of course this isn’t always possible because a position will eventually open up a little (even if it’s just for a few moves). Is there a way to keep the position closed. The great Grandmaster Tigran Petrosian made a career of it. He literally would strangle the life out of a position, giving his opponent room to do nothing other than suffer and lose. You’re probably thinking “that’s great for a Grandmaster, but what about me, a beginner?” You can take some steps to at least make tactical opportunities much more difficult for your opponent to achieve! Of course, this means you’ll have to study closed games and positional chess, but that’s what I want you to do! I don’t want you to only study tactics as a way to win games!

The first step to shut down a tactical artist is to remove any opportunities they might have to employ tactics. It really starts with being aware of your opponents pieces. Not just where they are in any given position, but where they are going. To do this, follow the path that each of your opponent’s pieces can travel on the board. At any point where an enemy piece intersects with one of your pawns or pieces, as well as any square that enemy piece travels along, determine whether or not that piece can execute a tactic. Typically, a beginner will see a long distance piece, such as a Bishop, positioned away from the board’s center. They ignore that piece and then the Bishop suddenly moves to a square where it forks (attacks multiple pieces simultaneously) two of your pieces. Had you considered each square that Bishop could move to, you would have seen the tactic coming. Beginners tend to ignore their opponent’s pieces that are not centrally located because they’re taught that centralized pieces have greater positional value during the early phases of the game and therefore, pieces not controlling the center aren’t really in play.

The point here is to look for potential tactical opportunities your opponent can take advantage of. Beginners tend to look for their own tactical opportunities while ignoring those for their opponent. The other thing you can do is use your pawns and minor pieces to stop tactical attacks. For any of your opponent’s pieces to take advantage of a potential tactic, they have to move off of their starting squares. Those pieces will have to move off of their starting squares and into the game before being used for a tactical play. If you take the first step, following the potential path of your pieces, you’ll have an easier time with the next step, controlling potential tactical squares.

A potential tactical square is one that your opponent can launch an attack from. You need to control these squares with a pawn or minor piece before your opponent can reach that square. Pawns are great for this purpose. This is why you sometimes see a player moving the h pawn to h3 during the opening. In a position in which Black’s Bishop on c8 has an opening diagonal to g4 and White has a Knight on f3 and Queen on d1, this pawn move keeps the Black Bishop from pinning the White Knight on f3 to it’s Queen. This is what I’m talking about!

In the end, you have to be prepared to win games without the use of tactics and with tactics. The key to chess success is being an all around good player. It is better to have a decent understanding of all the game’s phases and principles rather than being a specialist in one area and a handful of principles. You can avoid dealing with tactics if you first look for potential tactical plays by your opponent before trying to create one of your own. When examining your opponent’s position, pretend your playing that side of the board. If you were your opponent, what would be the best move you could make. Those who keep their eyes open tend not to bump into walls. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Please follow and like us:
follow subscribe
Hugh Patterson

Author: Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat). View all posts by Hugh Patterson

You May Also Like