Balance Is Everything, Part 1

  • IM Silman
  • | Aug 20, 2013

Amateur chess players are always discussing their style, or claiming that tactics is more important than anything else, or arguing that drug testing is important in top level events, or insisting that Bobby Fischer was actually a Reptilian alien, or claiming that chess was initially brought to earth by the Little Grays over two thousand years ago (it was actually the Tall Whites!), or doing their best to prove that Paul Morphy was black (a gentleman in Los Angeles pushed this theory for many years, even selling T-shirts with a Paul Morphy Was Black logo). Such conversations keep things snappy and fun, but do little for one’s playing strength.

A more sensible Morphy T-shirt

Though you can enjoy chess if you fully embrace “beat-down-tactics” or “Shaolin-boa-chess-style” (positional chess designed to smother your opponent via going after a space advantage), the simple fact of the matter is you’ll get more from chess and become much stronger if you seek some degree of balance. This doesn’t mean you have to push away your stylistic preference, but it does mean you have to become as conversant as possible with every phase of the game. For example, Tal always strove for active play, tactics, and wild attacks, but to win the World Championship from Botvinnik he needed to mix those things with solid endgame play and world-class positional understanding. And it’s not just Tal! Virtually every IM or GM can show top quality positional and tactical highlights in their games.

Here’s a position from one of Anatoly Karpov’s games. He’s a positional player, right? Yet, even a positional genius has to obey the board, and if the board says, “Sacrifice!” then he has to sacrifice. So, if Tal can play quiet positional chess and Karpov can go berserk and sac the house, shouldn’t you consider emulating them?

To Sacrifice or Not to Sacrifice

Karpov, in his excellent book My Best Games (1978), had this to say concerning this position:

“Some of the solutions I select are not the simplest, however, but the most purposeful. If I have several different continuations at my disposal, my choice depends in large part on who my opponent is. For example, against Korchnoi or Tal I prefer simple positions that may not be to their artistic tastes, and against Petrosian I choose something more complicated. But if I realize that there is only one correct route to take, then I have no choice and I take that route.”

A Quick Jump Away From Our Topic

During my travels in China (2004) I actually went to the Shaolin Temple (which is in the middle of nowhere). I fully expected to see David Carradine there, welcoming me. But no, instead it was a holiday and one million people were crushing each other as they checked out the Temple (NOT a good experience!). Extremely uncomfortable, I became bad tempered and made the epic mistake of (loudly) telling a friend (who was a big Dragon Sicilian devotee) that the Chinese Dragon (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 0-0 8.Qd2 Nc6 9.Bc4 Bd7 10.0-0-0 Rb8 – this system was quite young at this point and nobody knew if it would hold up theoretically) looked a bit strange, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually came crashing to the ground. 

Classic Dragon

Do These Two Dragons Look Similar?

Unfortunately the monks misunderstood and thought I was talking about their iconic monster lizard! My punishment was most unpleasant. The two photos below show me wishing I had kept my mouth shut!


Anyway, sorry about the digression! Where was I? Oh yes! Seeking balance in chess.

This two-part article will show (in puzzle form) how World Champions can beat you with a tactical hammer or positional silk (you will have to figure out if it’s a positional or tactical solution).

Though I always implore people to look at the hidden comments in the puzzles, in this case you REALLY should do so since I end each puzzle with the positional and tactical points.


[Most of the puzzles offer invisible prose and variations. After you try and solve the puzzle, click SOLUTION followed by MOVE LIST so you can see all the hidden goodies.]

Puzzle 1:

Puzzle 2:

Puzzle 3:

Puzzle 4:

Puzzle 5:

Puzzle 6:

In our next puzzle find a silky, pure positional move that should be something you would play in your sleep.

Puzzle 7:

Puzzle 8:

Puzzle 9:

Puzzle 10:

Puzzle 11:

Puzzle 12:



  • 3 years ago


    thank you sir...great balance article,,i understand some point of balance,is there any article or video about key square,,exp puzzle 5,,,control b6 and f6 and gaining space...understand key square is confusing for me to make a plan or idea

  • 3 years ago


    Oh yeah, and to Mr. Silman: I really like your book "Reassess your chess" but I am >1900 otb and still find it really advanced and hard to understand some of the concepts and apply them in my games. I don't think 1400s could really get too much out of this one, but that is just IMO, ofc. I consider my positional understanding stronger than my tactics.

    But anyways, saving this one for when I get 2000! :)

  • 3 years ago



  • 3 years ago


    Great article!!

  • 3 years ago


    Very entertaining article and keep the humorous images coming. These puzzles are eating my morning.

  • 3 years ago

    IM Silman

    kromhawk_31 asked: "Why is Re4 not playable in puzzle 7??"

    First off, PLEASE clarify which move you're talking about! In future I'll just ignore any question that isn't clearly defined. 

    Anyway, I'm guessing you are talking about the first move (move 20). The right move was 20.Nxf7, but you want to know about 20.Re4 (I guess, maybe, perhaps!?). Yes, Black can't take the Rook, but 20...Qd2 (threatening both 21...Qxg5 and 21...Qxb2) seems a good reply.

  • 3 years ago


    Why is Re4 not playable in puzzle 7??

  • 3 years ago


    I was too dense before to get the positional concepts you were trying to convey but the balance idea finally clicked because tactical shots are easier to grasp on my level and with them the positional element is less mysterious. Not sure if that is plausible but a whole lot of such series of articles, close to that level of complexity, would definitely be enjoyable. Feels really good to be able to learn something slightly more advanced yet still accessible!

    And the Shaolin monks, I am glad you did it for me since now I don't have to pine over this childhood dream anymore, the crowds would simply drive me crazy:)

  • 3 years ago


    Informative as ususal. Thank you Silman.

  • 3 years ago


    Poster below me:

    Thanks! Death in sleep is the best, most painless, way to go :).

    EDIT: Since applejax deleted his comment to kill me in my sleep and calling me a stupid idiot, I'm guessing he won't do it. Though I wouldn't mind. Junior year in Hs is coming up :D.

  • 3 years ago


    Bet it really stunk to be checkmated by a pawn in puzzle 8.

  • 3 years ago


    At least I'm decent enough that I could solve the "in your sleep" puzzle in 1 second. The dark sqaures are the weaknesses to be occupied, so just trade his dark squared bishop.

  • 3 years ago



  • 3 years ago

    IM Silman

    ancor3 said: "Either I'm hopelessly bad at positional chess or these puzzles are simply more than I can handle. I'm betting on the former."

    First off, positional puzzles are much harder to solve than tactical puzzles. One usually calls for a dynamic, forcing continuation while the other calls for strategic understanding and picking the best positional move out of several reasonable looking ones.

    The idea of the puzzles is not only to solve them (solving them isn't really important), but to get closer to the position by TRYING to solve them. Then, when you look at the solution and notes, you'll absorb the pattern/lesson offered by that particular puzzle. In other words, puzzles are both fun and a learning tool.

  • 3 years ago


    @Splane - The photo is of a martial arts demonstration not torture LOL

  • 3 years ago


    Polugaevsky later claimed Karpov's 17.Qxd5?! was unsound, but that he failed to find the correct continuation due to a distraction at the playing hall.

       "Moscow authorites later informed me that several flying saucers had been hovering over the venue," Lev said in an interview on CNN, which didn't exist yet. "As you know, the aliens delight in shooting their neutron beams at my head. Ordinarily, this would be no problem...... But I had forgotten to line my hat with tin foil that morning! Phooey!"

  • 3 years ago


    @ ulfhethinn:

    "Beginners are not intellectually capable of working on all aspects of their game."

    I take exception to that.

    I am a beginning player -- no doubt about that! -- but even to me, I can see that balance is important.  I am taking the same approach to learning chess as I did when I was learning to become a competitive fencer: all aspects of the game are important, BUT you have to learn some basics first.  Without learning proper posture and parries, one opens oneself up to injury and defeat.  Since injury interrupts training, it's best to learn certain things right the first time.  And if one doesn't know how to defend oneself, frustration takes over and students quit. 

    That being said, I agree that studying one aspect of the game while ignoring the rest is futility; but to expect oneself to become a GM/IM/FM within, say, two years is equally unsuccessful.

    Chess is a game for life.  Age matters not one bit.  It is not an athletic competition that relies on physical ability.  It does, however, require quite a level of maturity to learn and to play.  It requires significant concentration, patience and forethought.  These are not qualities commonplace in very young people, nor should they be.  It may very well be that in the top ranks of chess players, one is considered a "has-been" if he or she is over 25; but why let that dissuade you?  So what?  It doesn't mean you can't learn to play if you're older; it just means you have less time to do it ;)

    Younger players, take the time to appreciate the nuances of the game.  Personally, I really appreciate IM Silman's articles.  They give me something to think about, and his suggestions for further study are most welcome.  Patzer though I may be, I understand the significance of taking things one at a time and correlate my learning to play chess with how I learned to fence.  At the time, I was nationally ranked in the top ten in my sport and was alternate to our Olympic team for a couple of years.  In retrospect, I didn't do that badly then -- and it is a direct reflection of how my coaches taught me.  I'm grateful for that, believe me :)

  • 3 years ago


    And your goal is to get all the humans to believe you. (jk!)

  • 3 years ago


    Its not tourture... its a demonstration of Qi Gong / Kung Fu 

  • 3 years ago

    NM Splane

    Please keep torture pictures out of your articles.

    BOOOO!!!!! NOT funny.

Back to Top

Post your reply: