Positional versus tactical skills

This is sort of odd, but I want to explain my theory on why I got my rating jump by beating higher-rated players and not by beating lower-rated players.

Let me back up first. Two schools of thought exist on chess improvement. One is positional play and we’ll call this the Blunderprone school of thought. The second one is studying tactical diagrams. We can call this the Seven Circles guy’s school of thought.

IMHO, to beat the lower-rateds, you need to find the tactical shots, whereas to beat the higher-rateds, you need a solid positional game/understanding.

Why is this? Well, some of the lower-rateds, like I was once, probably read books on openings and study the greats, so they can get decent positions. Sometimes they are even unbeatable when they stick to their opening schemes so well.

Higher-rated players are usually better at tactics and endgames. Some higher-rateds are strong tactically and positionally (Neal and Show are two that I face in this respect). The rest I play against are mainly tactically strong. Like Anthony Ong is way stronger than me tactically, but the other thing is that some of these players like to mix it up so much that someone is bound to lose. This is where your having solid positional skills can make it harder for them to finish their attack, while also giving you great counter-chances should they not capitalize positionally.

My other theory, based on supposition really, is that most of the “just tactics” school of thought will begin to tap out around 2000-2200 USCF rating. I think the 2200 types are probably monsters of the endgame or of tactics. But beyond that are probably the types more like postal players, players who will have a lot more researched and I would think strong balance of positional understanding mixed with tactics. I would think the types to make it to a Zurich 1953 tournament would be the types that can keep it together positionally as well as tactically, although there are still imbalances like Keres was mad tactics guy, Smyslov more balanced, Petrosian and Karpov more positional.

I guess a better way of saying this is that you can be imbalanced between the two, but for example if “all” you knew were tactics, like that’s all you had ever studied period, then I don’t think you would have the positional strength to reach those positions in some cases, or you would have such a skewed preference that you would end up in losing endgames, and strategically botched middlegames. That I have seen happen before, then the person ends up saying something like “tactics don’t work!” and I do believe that is a quote.

On the other side of the coin is the person who is 1300 and reaches a won game against a 1900 player, but can’t “pull the trigger” correctly or possibly even loses on time (because tactics will eat up major time, if a person is not used to analyzing them) – incidentally, this last person was me. Stronger players analyze their tactics rather quickly, so calculation speed is part of the issue toward improving results as well.

Just had a look at Dana’s blog:
He is a Master with a neat combinative position. I love puzzles like that! I did fairly well, but didn’t play his initial move which is quite masterful. Now that is an instructive game fragment! You can also test whether you see how the final move is winning. This stuff is getting easier for me now as I am studying tactics from the ‘Combination Challenge’ book. It really is mostly pattern recognition. You can even recognize the themes like how the CC book breaks it down.

There is a less glamorous win in that position than the one he choose, so I’ll include it as a comment.

The best part about studying tactics is that it is the most time-efficient way to improve your results, if you are strapped for time and can only study one thing.

You guys may somewhat think I am joking with regards to these two positional players that I have to face. Found one game on the internet by Show. It was a maneuvering draw. Here is a game by Neal:

Giving this game the once-over, I think Black missed his chance to draw by not taking the bishop with 47… BxR 48. e7 Rf8 49. exR Kxf and now the king can rush over to stop the pawns from queening and the rook can aim to win the c-pawn. I think Black should have asked for a draw on move 40. I didn’t like where he doubled the pawns on e6 either instead of Rxe6, but this is what can happen when you play this guy. Scary. I think positional players do best against him, which means he does lose some games to a positional player of lower rating like Kurt beat him once recently (Kurt is currently 1651 but also has nearly 600 tournaments played to his name).

Kurt once told me it started out with him and his buddies playing. They would play not to lose in the opening, just set up their pieces unbothered, so consequently I don’t think he formally learned the openings so much as his strength during a game grows the longer it goes on. IOW, you don’t want to be waiting around until move 30 to try and get an advantage against him.

Charles was 2334, and Neal was 1990 at the time.

Here is the game I found of Show as Black. Actually, I think Black still has something to play for here, but White does not.


9 thoughts on “Positional versus tactical skills

  1. ….Qa8 Nf8 (saw this initially), but then simply R2g2 (didn’t notice this) after that, and Rg6 looks forced, and RxR hxR is an easy win.

    Didn’t realize that White was so up on material as well, initially, but that f-pawn along with the bishop diagonal against the king on h8 is crushing.

  2. I think to be over 2000 you have to have good positional understanding and endgame knowledge, not only good tactics.
    I loved that trap on Dana’s blog, with 2 minutes left and your opponent 1 minute left many people would take the rook. I found the mate and perpetual, but I spent more than 2 minutes (and I knew to look for something).
    In that last Kitagami’s game not sure how Black can proceed, I see only f5.

  3. Right, …f5. I don’t like the placement of White’s pieces, some of them look stuck out of place a bit, and Black does have some advanced pawns on Q-side.

    RP, I also think what you said before that is right. Chessgames are not purely tactics even though tactics are how we accomplish things and take advantage of opportunities. Tactics are the means to the end, but we still have to create and spot those ends. Some ends are simply static structural endgame wins, but using tactics to take advantage of other holes in the opponents position is how we reach that end. Even once that end is reached, there is little doubt that more tactics may be encountered the rest of the way up until the end of the game. A lot of my big decisions are structural, but I use tactics to justify the reasonings.

    One thing I learned today is that “deep is wide”. This is the connection that I have made as I go through Silman’s ‘The Reassess Your Chess Workbook’, which I would flat out recommend to just about any chess player.

    Look at my ‘lame’ game where I missed that 4 move combination that wins a pawn. Is it really a depth problem, is it a width problem or is it both?

    Silman says to note all the weaknesses, not just a couple in your opponents position.
    Weakness #1, (had I played thusly) after I play …exf Nxf, his f pawn is attacked by my rook and only defended by his knight – even he spotted this by playing g3 on his next move.
    Weakness #2, Bb5+ forces the king to move
    Weakness #3 BxN removes the defender of the f4 square, and forces the recapture by the king.
    Weakness #4 The previously-undefendable-f-pawn is now hanging and can be safely by the rook. It’s a 4 move combination, based on 4 weakness, one of which initially needs to be created (the undefendable f-pawn).

    Of course, I would have liked him to recapture on e5 with a pawn instead of a knight (which clogs up the fine knight outpost square, and gives me an unopposed open f-file for my rook)

    I finally agree with Ken Smith; that until I reach Expert, my first, middle and last name has to be tactics.

  4. I played another meaningless attack on some poor 1600 level player. hehe. I love how you guys like these sort of games. Virtually no thought on a relative scale. Now extricating one’s self with the Black pieces (or even as White), that can take some thinking. The title of it is just a pun.


    I spent 7 minutes and he spent 6. 20 moves.

    And here is what could have happened had he played 0-0-0 instead of Qxb2.


  5. One must have a position before one can even think about tactics. With other words, one has to build up the position first by positional chess before one can think about tactics. So positional and tactical chess are very much entangled.

  6. Chesstiger, well said!

    I’ve been looking at some people’s games who are my rating or better and realizing they are in love with tactics, making bad positional moves just because the tactics look fancier, but seem more busted to me, positionally.

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