- There was a long-running argument on the UseNet rec.games.chess newsgroups earlier this year, basically around the idea that "chess is tactics, and club players should study nothing but tactics" (or 90% tactics).
- More recently I got a video by Nigel Davies called Dirty Tricks which offered a complete repertoire for a club player. In every line, there was at least one huge smelly pit for the opponent to fall into, or some other hope of some other dramatic way of finishing the game early.
- Pete Lane has kindly offered to run a session soon on 'Preparing For Combinations'. Without knowing what's in it. I thought I might be able to do the overture for his three-act drama.
Bellers,C - Regis,D [B27] Exeter Club Ch'p Exeter
Club Ch'p (5), 1997
33...Bxg3+?? [33...Re3! -+] 34.Kxg3 Qe5+ 35.Kxg4 h5+?? [35...Re4+!] 36.Kh3 Re3+?? [36...Qe6+] 37.Nf3 (sealed move) (and resigned) 1-0
(37...Qf4?! might have been worth a punt OTB, but not after a week's analysis)In response to this obvious failing I have tried to play more open games and treat all positions a little more sharply.
However, I am far from persuaded that club players should study nothing but tactics, or even devote (say) 75% of their study time to it. But first let us hear the case for the prosecution:
"Chess is 99% tactics" -- Richard TEICHMANN
"Until you are at least a high Class A player: Your first name is 'Tactics', your middle name is 'Tactics', and your last name is 'Tactics'." -- Ken SMITH
"Thirty years ago (this was written in 1942), Teichmann said that chess is 99% tactics. And despite the enormous strides of chess theory since then, his percentage can only be reduced a few points.
"Many amateurs think that master games are usually decided by some deeply-laid plan covering all possibilities for at least ten moves. It is still true that most games, even between the greatest of the great, are decided by tactics or combinations which have little or nothing to do with the fundamental structure of the game.
"To take one striking example, look at the games of the Euwe-Alekhin matches. Euwe is a player who analyses openings ad infinitum, i.e., one who wants to settle everything strategically. Alekhin is likewise adept at the art of building up an overwhelming position. And yet in almost all cases the outcome depended not on the inherent structure of the play, but on some chance combination which one side saw and the other side did not. Tactics is still more than 90% of chess." - - GM Reuben FINE, "Chess Marches On", Strategy and Tactics. (from Richard S. Cantwell)
"It's not that chess is 99% tactics, it's just that tactics takes up 99% of your time"- - NM Dan HEISMANN.
"Chess IS tactics" -- NM Ignacio MARIN
"A knowledge of tactics is the foundation of positional play. This is a rule which has stood its test in chess history and one which we cannot impress forcibly enough upon the young chess player. " -- RICHARD RETI
...and so on. Moreover:
"It is a mistake to think that combination is solely a matter of talent, and that it cannot be acquired" -- RETI
So, it seems fair to say that you do need to get your eye in for tactics, and keep up your practice, and try to extend the depth and range of what you can analyse routinely.
However, I would disagree with the conclusion that tactics are the be all and end all at club level. It's not just the point that if chess was only a matter of calculation, it would be unplayable - obviously the number of choices at each turn means you must use your judgement to select which moves to analyse. Also, I'd guess that for at least 9 moves out of every 10 there is not going to be any combinational blow available for either side, so you are going to have to think about something else, if only how to set up such a blow. But the real reason I object is: where do these tactics come from? Why do combinations arise at all? It used to be thought that chess mastery depended on ingenuity, daring and intuition, but according to Lasker there is...
"...No combination without a considerable plus, no considerable plus without a combination" -- Em. Lasker, Manual of Chess, Book IV
So, before you get your tactical opportunity, you need to build up a positional plus. Studying tactics alone is putting the cart before the horse - or more fairly, the chicken before the egg.
ASIDE: Part of this essay explains that I don't entirely agree with this view either; in fact, this is so dogmatic that Lasker risks being dumped with Steinitz among the impractical theorists rather than the practical players (of which he is usually taken as a supreme example). So, why did Lasker make such a statement? Well, there is more than a grain of truth in it, and I think the absolute way in which Lasker expressed it was born out of Lasker's esteem for Steinitz, and particularly what he saw as the heart of Steinitz' theory. Anyhow, let's listen to Lasker's ideas first, before criticising them.Steinitz had many ideas which have become associated with the treatment of closed positions, but Steinitz the player and Steinitz the theorist both started in the arena of open, tactical games. Lasker gives a game of Steinitz against Hamppe as an example, with both players out to score a win from the very start of the game. (In fact, Steinitz won more brilliancy prizes than most of his 'brilliant' contemporaries, and won them throughout his career.) Although he could play like this, Steinitz also thought about, where do tactical combinations come from?
"...If Steinitz continually took pains to discover combinations, the success or failure of his diligent search could not be explained by him as due to chance. Hence, he concluded that some characteristic, a quality of the given position, must exist ... that would indicate the success or the failure of the search before it was actually undertaken. (...)
"The master should not look for winning combinations, unless he believed, unless he could prove to himself that he held the advantage.
"An advantage could consist ... not only in a single important advantage but also in a multitude of insignificant advantages.
"Therefore... in the beginning of the game ignore the search for violent combinations, abstain from violent moves, aim for small advantages, accumulate them, and only after having attained these ends search for the combination - and then with all the power of will and intellect, because then the combination must exist, however deeply hidden." -- Em. Lasker, Manual of Chess, Book IV
I think here is the heart of the matter: combinations in fact do not come out of nowhere, so if you want to strike tactically, you must first play positionally. Morphy's dominance was often attributed to brilliance, and while Morphy undoubtedly was brilliant his games were based on good positional principles, and his combinations came out of positional advantages. If you fail to understand this, you may end up in this, perhaps familiar, predicament of amateur players:
"... the most disheartening issue was our failure to play as well as we feel we should (...)
"Here is my hypothesis: My friend and I are both afflicted with the same problem, Forcing The Issue. We have spent so much effort learning tactics from setup positions, that once we are in a real game, we try to apply our lessons to positions that don't warrant it. Subconsciously, we believe that every position has some stunning combination in it that will allow us to win. When we look for it, if it's not there (most often the case), we try to force one, causing a lost game.
"Studying tactics in setup positions is a VERY necessary part of learning chess, but, knowing when to apply tactical knowledge is, at this point in my education, to me even more important. My friend's opponent instinctively makes "better" moves because my friend is making weaker moves, and so am I. Given a setup position, he would most likely find the solution much faster than his opponent. In a general position, we would both likely find a combination that wasn't there." -- Gene THOMPSON, The Search for Great ChessPart V, Chess Scene
(By the way, Gene is in my view also suffering from using false positives', that is, tests which include tempting tries but no actual winning tactic.)
Spielmann said something that alludes to the same problem:
"I can see the combinations as well as Alekhin, but I cannot get into the same positions." -- SPIELMANN
So, combinations do not come out of nowhere, but out of previous good play, or out of the characteristics of the position, and if you don't play with that in mind, you can end up in trouble.
Positional factors also explain how and where come combinational blows actually fall. We nowadays speak of a cutting-point combination (a sacrifice at the crossroads of two lines which we control - for example, if attacking the Black castled King's position with your Nf5, Bb2 and Rg1 all focussing on g7, the sacrifice Nxg7 should immediately be considered. One might also cite Rubinstein's Immortal (Black against Rotlevi):
22. ... Rxc3! 23.gxh4
if 23.Bxc3 Bxe4+ 24.Qxe4 Qxh2 'mate, or 23.Bxb7 Rxg3 24.Rf3 Rxf3 25.Bxf3 Nf7+ 26.Kg1 Ne4+ 27.Kf1 Nd2+ 28.Kg2 Nxf3 29.Qxf3 Rd2+ etc.
23. ... Rd2!! 24.Qxd2
if 24.Qxg4 Bxe4+ 25.Rf3 Rxf3 etc, 24.Bxc3 Rxd2 with Rxh2 'mate or Bxe4+ 'mate to follow, or 24.Bxb7 Rxe2 25.Bg2 Rh3! etc.
24. ... Bxe4+ 25.Qg2 Rh3! 0-1
'mate in three follows, 26.Rf3 Bxf3 27.Bd4 Bxd4 and Rxh2 'mate.
Here we can see that Rubinstein's well-posted pieces are as much the heart of this combination as his insight; without accumulating control of the open files and diagonals, none of it would work. And the combination, once launched, works like clockwork - based mostly on the power of the Bishop on the long diagonal but also the Rook on the seventh rank. One attraction of the combination for me is the way the two groups of Black pieces are brought into a working geometric mechanism.
So, positional advantages not only let us know when, but also where, to strike with a combination. Moreover, Steinitz' theory has some important corollaries:
1. The right to attack belongs only to that side which has a positional advantage, and this is not only a right, but also a duty, otherwise there is the risk of losing the advantage. The attack is to be directed against the weakest spot in the opposing position.
2. The defending side must be prepared to defend and make concessions, e.g making a weakening pawn move. However, the defender should avoid making concessions until forced, and then should make only the minimum concession necessary to meet the threats.
3. In level positions the two sides will manoeuvre, trying to tilt the balance of the position, each in their own favour. With correct play on both sides, level positions keep on leading to further level positions. Any attempt to undertake an attack without an adequate positional basis should lead to a disadvantage, if parried properly.
(after Kotov and Chernev)
So, we can now say more clearly what is wrong with a diet of studying only tactics. We can also understand how Steinitz could contain someone like Zukertort or Blackburn (see games below, in particular the accumulation of advantages against Blackburn). And we can look back at the old nineteenth-century games and see how a Steinitz might have handled them too:
"Playing through this beautiful game, we can see why lovers of the romantic era speak so highly of such games and the era in which they were played. ...(But) these combinations should never have been allowed to come into being. In an opening in which both players relentlessly pursue their respective aims - without acknowledging the requirements of the position - rapidly changing situations are produced, culminating in (a sacrifice.)" -- KONIG
So, there is a lot to be said for this argument of Lasker (and Steinitz), but he did overstep the mark when talking about combinations, and Purdy was one who pointed this out most forcefully. He had a lot of fun at Lasker's expense about this "utterly mad advice", and indeed wrote an article entitled 'The Steinitz-Lasker "Law" exploded'.
He shows by looking at two famous games (Reti-Alekhin 1925, and rather ironically the game from the Lasker-Capablanca match in 1921 that put Lasker two points behind) that combinations are sometimes available without there being any considerable plus, perhaps no plus at all. You might say that you know of, or can devise, a scheme for assessing positions which gives the advantage to Lasker or to Alekhin in the two games, but I know of none such. In any event, surely positional evaluations cannot be made irrespective of any immediate and concrete tactical possibilities; moreover, it is difficult to say whether the familiar geometrical motifs that lie behind combinations - like a weak back rank - should be called positional or tactical considerations. For the club player this is all academic:
"The question that matters to you in actual play is simply, 'What is my best move?', and if you can decide without being sure who has the theoretical advantage, so much the better" -- PURDY
Now, Purdy's criticism of this Steinitz-Lasker law is pertinent, but not absolute. There is no doubt that the majority of favourable combinations do appear in positions where one side has the advantage.
My objection to the "Tactics, tactics, tactics" school of thought is not to say that tactics are not important or that most games are not decided by tactical blows. Indeed, what is often at fault in the game of the club player is a failure to check for their opponent's opportunities in reply. Moreover, given the rather static manner of play and poor level of defensive skill amongst club players, they are probably as well advised to imitate Zukertort or Blackburn than Lasker or Steinitz. Seizing the initiative, going for an attack, and having an eye for random chances are probably at least as important as positional judgement in club play. But I would still not wish to call for one type of study as being important - in particular, not for tactics being more important than strategy.
Lasker once gave a scheme for studying chess, which is much more convincing and pragmatic than his theorising about combinations:
"Chess rules and exercises - 5 hours
Elementary endings - 5 hours
Some openings - 10 hours
Combination - 20 hours
Positional play - 40 hours
Practical play with analysis - 120 hours
"Having spent 200 hours on the above, the young player, even if he possesses no special talent for chess, is likely to be among those two or three thousand chessplayers [who play on a par with a master]. There are, however, a quarter of a million chessplayers who annually spend no fewer than 200 hours on chess without making any progress. Without going into any further calculations, I can assert with a high degree of certainty that nowadays we achieve only a fraction of what we are capable of achieving." -- Em. Lasker, Manual of Chess, Book IV
Notice that "Practical play with analysis" comprises over half of the hours of study. What I would take from this is not that 'positional play at 40 hours is more important than combinational play at 20 hours', but rather that each are to be integrated into a study of real games, both your own and those of the masters. There is surely a case for balance in your study: a balance between opening, middle- and end-game study, a balance between reading, doing exercises and analysing your own games.
I sometimes think studying is actually the easy bit. Knowing what to study, based on an honest analysis of your own strengths and weaknesses, is the hard bit. However, the goal may be more clear:
"However obviously the majority of Chess-players may be divided into two big classes of combination- and position-players, in the Chess-master this antagonism is transformed into a harmony. In him combination play is completed by position play." -- Em. Lasker, Manual of Chess, Book IV
Steinitz pioneered the defence of the Queen's Gambit Accepted, and used this blockade which is still recognised as the standard and best plan for Black.
12.Bg3 Qa5 13.Rac1 Bd7 14.Ne5 Rfd8 15.Qf3 Be8 16.Rfe1 Rac8 17.Bh4 Nxc3 18.bxc3 Qc7 19.Qd3 Nd5 20.Bxe7 Qxe7 21.Bxd5 Rxd5 22.c4 This metamorphosis to hanging pawns is also now well-known. 22...Rdd8 23.Re3 Determined to attack! 23...Qd6 24.Rd1 f6 25.Rh3 h6 26.Ng4 Qf4 27.Ne3 Ba4 28.Rf3 Qd6 29.Rd2 Bc6 30.Rg3 f5 31.Rg6 [31.Nd1 Lasker] 31...Be4 32.Qb3 Kh7 The tension mounts. 33.c5 Rxc5 34.Rxe6 Rc1+ 35.Nd1 Qf4 36.Qb2 Rb1 37.Qc3 Rc8 38.Rxe4 Qxe4 0-1
A dramatic finish, but it was all decided beforehand.
"If Zukertort has a plan in mind, he is a match for Steinitz, possibly even his peer. ... Every move of Zukertort's pointed towards a vigorous cooperation the pieces united to attack the King. This is the old Italian plan; Zukertort found it ready made, and in the tactics of execution he was a great master. Steinitz, however, discovered sound and successful plans over the board. [...]"
"Zukertort relied on combinations, and in that field he was a discoverer, a creative genius. For all that, he was unable to make use of his faculty [in the majority of games in the match], the positions yielding no response to his passionate search for combinations. (...) Zukertort, the great discoverer, searched in vain, while Steinitz ... was able to foresee them. Zukertort could not understand how Steinitz was able to to prevent combinations... he tried for four years to solve this riddle, but he never approached its solution by even one step." -- Em. Lasker, Manual of Chess, Book IV
A) 17...Nxf6 18.Ng6 fxg6 (18...Rfe8 19.Rxe6!! fxe6? 20.Bxe6+ Kh7 21.Nf8+ Kh8 22.Qh7+ Nxh7 23.Ng6#) 19.Rxe6;
B) 17...Nxc3 18.Bxe7 Ne2+ 19.Rxe2 Rxc2 20.Rxc2;
C) 17...gxf6 18.Ng6;
D) 17...Bxf6 18.Bxd5 exd5 19.Ng4! (19.Qf5 was given by Lasker, ignoring Breyer's move) 19...Bg5 (19...Bd8 20.Qf5) 20.f4! Bxf4 21.Qf5 Bc7! (21...Bb8 22.Qxd5 a6 23.a4 Rfd8 24.Qf5 g6 25.Nxh6+; 21...Bg5 CJSP 22.Qxd5 a6 23.Qxb7 Qb4 24.Nxb5 axb5 25.Re2) 22.Nxd5 Kh8 23.Nxh6 gxh6 24.Nf6 Kg7 25.Nh5+ Kh8 (25...Kg8 26.Qg4+ Kh7 27.Qg7#) 26.Qf6+ Kg8 27.Qg7#]
17...Nxd5 18.Bxe7 Nxe7 19.Qb3 Bc6 20.Nxc6 bxc6 21.Re5 Qb6 22.Qc2 Rfd8 23.Ne2 Rd5 24.Rxd5 cxd5 25.Qd2 Nf5 26.b3 h5 27.h3 h4 28.Qd3 Rc6 29.Kf1 g6 30.Qb1 Qb4 31.Kg1 a5 32.Qb2 a4 33.Qd2 Qxd2 34.Rxd2 axb3 35.axb3 Rb6 36.Rd3 Ra6 37.g4 hxg3 38.fxg3 Ra2 39.Nc3 Rc2 40.Nd1 Ne7 41.Nc3 Rc1+ 42.Kf2 Nc6 43.Nd1 Rb1 44.Ke2 Rxb3 45.Ke3 Rb4 46.Nc3 Ne7 47.Ne2 Nf5+ 48.Kf2 g5 49.g4 Nd6 50.Ng1 Ne4+ 51.Kf1 Rb1+ 52.Kg2 Rb2+ 53.Kf1 Rf2+ 54.Ke1 Ra2 55.Kf1 Kg7 56.Re3 Kg6 57.Rd3 f6 58.Re3 Kf7 59.Rd3 Ke7 60.Re3 Kd6 61.Rd3 Rf2+ 62.Ke1 Rg2 63.Kf1 Ra2 64.Re3 e5 65.Rd3 exd4 66.Rxd4 Kc5 67.Rd1 d4 68.Rc1+ Kd5 0-1
26...Re3!! 27.Nf3?! cxb5 28.Qxb5 Nc3 29.Qxb7 Qxb7 30.Nxb7 Nxe2+ 31.Kh2 Ne4 32.Rc4 Nxf2 33.Bg2 Be6 34.Rcc2 Ng4+ 35.Kh3 Ne5+ 36.Kh2 Rxf3 37.Rxe2 Ng4+ 38.Kh3 Ne3+ 39.Kh2 Nxc2 40.Bxf3 Nd4 0-1
"Combinative vision manifests itself at an early age, and children are quick to notice and execute combinations which chance to turn up. Preparing combinations, however, is more difficult for them." -- ZAK, Improve your chess results.
PURDY, The Search for Chess Perfection
CHERNEV, Logical Chess
KOTOV, Play like a Grandmaster
KONIG, Chess from Morphy to Botvinnik