Monday, March 07, 2005
The Road to Perdition
Or: "An advice of the present me to the me two years ago"

I've mentioned that I studied positional play from books for about two years. Most of the books i've read quickly become a manual of positional "rules". I could remember it like yesterday, "you must not take the knight because the center will become weak", "you should place the knights here because it attacks five squares", Don't do this.. do that.. blah3x..

The effect of all these rules was a gradual descent into mechanical thinking until I lost all creativity. Original thought having been replaced with a rigid approach. But then playing thru master games, I noticed something - Do you know that the games dont seem to follow the rules? At least not the rules as taught by those darn books.I mean imagine this, Here I am ignoring my kids ("No son we cant' play, I'm busy with chess") so I can learn something that no-one uses? At least no chess player of significant strenght do. So why do these very same masters write all those rules? Please, can somebody tell me why? Please?!

"We'll I dont really follows positional rules, In fact I dont know any master that follows them either. Even an expert don't use this stuff. But since your a beginner, here is a set of 100 positional rules to memorize. It will help you get better, promise. Did I fail to mention that I dont use them myself?" Eeeaargghhh!!! Rant! Rant! Rant! I am getting angry just thinking about the 2 years I've wasted. You say that for beginners it is necessary that rules be taught - I say that you sir, are insulting my intelligence. Do you know that telling me to use something that no self-respecting master uses, is maybe the single most harmful thing that hindered my development!?

Consider the Josh Waitzkin tutorials in Chessmater. In them he takes the reader thru what goes on in his minds while playing a chess game. Particularly instructive is the way he chooses a move. It goes something like this.

1. Bg5 - We could try this but it doesnt work because of Nxg5, hxg5, Qd2+, etc..
2. Bc7 - This one is good because of Nf3, Qd2+, Kh1, etc.. etc.. but leads to a complicated position
3. Re1 - Bad because after the pin Bc2, a6, Qe5, Nf7
4. h3 - So all the moves above doesnt work. Lets play this and see what he
does next.

See, he doesnt talk abour rules. knight on the rim is dim, etc. He always talks about variations, ideas, plans.. on and on he goes, explaining the things he saw and the variations he considered. This is what real chess is like. And these things, (particularly the calculation of variations) are the one that should be studied if somebody wants to improve.

I'd trade all the positional rules I've memorized for seeing just one more move deeper. No scratch that, I'll just give those lousy rules away to anyone who will take them. Rules, rules.. Bah, Humbug!!!

The role of Tactics in positional play!

You know, the telling thing with Mr. Waitzkin is that you get the feeling that he is one of those "positional player". He never talks about wild sacrificial attacks. He's always talking about slowly improving the position and "letting the game grow
organically and let the win come naturally". But as can be seen from the example above he never makes moves out of just positional considerations. Sure he has a strong bent to play positional moves, but he never made one without checking first for tactics. Never. - listen to the man himself

"You see, all the quiet moves have very long tactical justifications".

There can not be a stronger indictment than that. This is maybe what CelticDeath means when he said that all moves should be based on tactics. What did you say? Some positions require a quiet move? a positional move? Didnt you just heard what Mr. Waitzkin said? Werent you listening? Where is your sense man! Fact is, at any given point in the game - how did you know there was no tactics there? C'mon now be honest. Answer me like I'm a two year-old. How did you know that there was no tactics in the position? Because everything looks calm? Because all the pieces are protected? Nothing is hanging? All the pawns are intact? Is that how you knew? Lets quote from Mr. Waitzkin one more time:

"To an outsider the position seems calm, but a srong player knows that everything can erupt in chaos any moment... A strong player senses the underlying tension of the game. The stronger you get, the more tension you sense"

Ohhh, bet that hurts, and do you want fries with that? Admit it already, by just thinking of strategy you dont really know if a position contains tactics or not do you. In fact you'll never know, not unless you specifically look for it like Mr. Waitzkin is doing. Of course you'll never be able to see tactics until you've master tactics. I've seen enough GM games to think that maybe most of the time, the moves they make have devious tactical shots buried somewhere five moves deep.

So drop those books and start the delamaza program already.

But - dont despair, should you choose to hinder a persons chess development, a rival perhaps? I know of a way to inflict this particularly painful thing on somebody. It is very easy, just give him your books on positional play, and tell him that tactics is not everything..
posted by Nezha at 1:01 AM | Permalink |


  • At 5:23 AM, Blogger Temposchlucker

    Very good observations.
    I came to the same conclusions 3 years ago. In you find an article about the 5 stages from novice to expert in skill acquisition. It describes that on a certain moment you have to drop the rules and find the way yourself.

    Don't be angry at the grandmasters, they don't know themselves how they became so good.
    Most of them were too young at that moment.

    John Watson takes great pains in his "secrets of modern chess strategy" to explain that the rules can be broken at any moment when there is a good variation possible in the position. Which happens more often than not in modern chess.

  • At 6:09 AM, Blogger Jens

    I would not be so quick at dismissing the past century of chess wisdom, as represented by various chess maxims (don't place the knight on the edge etc.). Certainly one should always be concrete in looking at a position, but there always comes a point in your calculations when you need to make a judgment based on features such as 'a passed pawn' or 'an inactive piece'.

    Even though your 3 years may seem wasted at the moment, I am sure that it will eventually make you a stronger , more complete player. Certainly there is some truth to the saying that "To know when to break the rules you first have to familiarize yourself with them."

    I think you are just being a bit impatient now because you did not see any immediate benefit from pouring through all of those positional manuals. We all want to reap the benefits of our study time right now, but please consider that chess is a game for life :)

  • At 3:46 PM, Anonymous logis

    You are forgetting that you have to build up a position with positional play before you can even think about tactical play.

    How do you think they decided which move is best in x opening? Not by tactical play but by taking in consideration the positional aspects of the position.

    With other words; i wouldn't say that all these positional rules are garbage. A GM may not mention them when he describes his thoughtproces but he certainly takes them in consideration.

  • At 6:16 PM, Blogger Nezha

    > "I think you are just being a bit impatient now"
    Perhaps I am, Admittedly I have never been an overly patient man.. But I think two years is time enough. I mean, some marriages dont last that long.

    > "i wouldn't say that all these positional rules are garbage."
    This may be right also - Maybe some people win via these rules? I dont know of any, the people that used to defeat me before used to break all of them - and I know they do, because I'm the one that learned them, however they are the ones who always wins. So this winning via rules hasn't been my experience really. One of my favorite players shirov said that the only thing that matters is what position dictates not based on rules but on concrete analysis. At this point of my chess development, I tend to agree with him more.
    But I am a weak player, maybe if I become stronger it will all makes sense? I'm clueless remember - but until experience proves me otherwise - then yes, I would say that right now for me these are garbage.