Brutal Tactics and Positional Tactics

Brutal Tactics and Positional Tactics

| 35 | Tactics

The year was 1969, I was 15 years old and had just made the trip from San Diego to beautiful Santa Monica to participate in the American Open (which, at that time, was held in the luxurious Miramar Hotel). I got there early, checked out the playing room, and noticed a guy (a couple years my senior named Roy Ervin) looking at some openings. Being young, it didn’t occur to me that he might want to be left alone, and I sat across from him and began commenting on the lines he was exploring. He took it in stride, a conversation began, and we quickly stepped into other chess spheres like chess history and, of course, our favorite players. Tal was mentioned, I said, “My favorite Tal game was against Gurgenidze.”

Ervin looked at me and replied, “You mean the one from Moscow 1957?”

Surprised that he was so well versed in chess culture, I nodded yes, set up the pieces, and played 1.d4, which was the first move of the Gurgenidze – Tal, Moscow 1957 game. He quickly replied with 1…Nf6, I continued with 2.c4, he played 2…c5 and it became clear that we had both memorized this game! After 3.d5 e6 we discussed the Benoni, which I was using at that time. Then a rapid string of moves followed: 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.Nf3 g6 7.e4 Bg7 8.Be2 0-0 9.0-0 Re8 10.Nd2 Na6 11.Re1 Nc7 12.a4 b6 13.Qc2

After making the Qc2 move I looked up and smiled, and he responded by gently sliding the f6-Knight to g4 – it was obvious that he now viewed himself as Tal while my role was that of the victim. Fair enough! Even the loser can appreciate a work of art!

13...Ng4 14.h3??

It actually hurt to play this move since I knew that I was about to be splattered over the board. Clearly, I was about to feel Gurgenidze’s pain!


I expected Roy to do this in a violent manner, but he played it slowly, ecstatically, and with great reverence.

15.Kxf2 Qh4+ 16.Kf1

Since Roy was getting so much pleasure from the game, I decided to fully embrace the role of human-piñata. I took 16.Kf1 back, said, “Well, 16.Kg1 Qxe1+ isn’t what White wants, but what about 16.Ke3?”

He tossed out 16...Bxc3! (even better than 16...Qxe1) 17.bxc3 Nxd5+ 18.Kd3 (18.Kf3 Qf4 mate) 18...Nf4+ 19.Ke3 (we had a good laugh over 19.Kc4 Be6+ 20.Kb5 a6+ 21.Kxb6 Qd8+ 22.Kb7 Rb8+ 23.Kxa6 Qb6 mate) 19...Nxg2+ 20.Kd3 Nxe1+ 21.Ke3 Nxc2+ and we stopped. It’s not a surprise that there’s a forced mate: 22.Kd3 Ne1+ 23.Ke3 Qg3+ 24.Nf3 Rxe4+! 25.Kxe4 Bb7+ 26.Ke3 Re8+ 27.Kd2 Rxe2+ 28.Kxe2 Bxf3+ 29.Ke3 Bg4+ 30.Kd2 Qf2 mate.

Good times! We went back to the game:

16...Bd4! 17.Nd1

Stopping ...Qf2 mate. 


Ervin was now in some sort of quasi-religious state of bliss.


No bliss for me! 18.Nf2 Qe3 forces mate. Of course, 18.gxh3 allows 18...Bxh3 mate.

18...Qh2 19.Ne3 f5!

An instructive move: Black wants to rip open the center so his pieces can pour into the enemy position along the e-file.

20.Ndc4 fxe4 21.Bxe4 Ba6

I had always looked at this game from the Black side, and it was only after Roy played 21...Ba6 that I fully appreciated the sheer helplessness of white’s position: White’s King is in the firing line, his Knights are frozen in place, and all of black’s pieces (except for the a8-Rook and c7-Knight) are in full assault mode.

22.Bf3 Re5!

There are other good moves too, but this is very strong, very instructive, and very human: Black prepares to get his “forgotten” a8-Rook into the game by doubling on the e-file.

23.Ra3 Rae8 24.Bd2 Nxd5!!

What a move! Now ALL of black’s pieces (except his King) are taking part in a brutal beat-down of the enemy position.

It turned out that both Roy and myself had first seen this game in the P.H. Clarke’s classic book, Mikhail Tal’s Best Games of Chess. Clarke’s comment: “Such a mighty clash of pieces is a rare sight. It gives us a wonderful opportunity to study the comparative strengths of aggressive and defensive pieces. Although all white’s are in play, they are absolutely helpless.”


25.Rd3 Nxe3+ 26.Rdxe3 Rxe3 27.Bxe3 Bxe3 28.Rxe3 Rxe3 and, thanks to the pin along the a6-f1 diagonal, the game is over.

25...Rxd5 26.Ke2 Bxe3 27.Rxe3 Bxc4+, 0-1. A good time to resign since 28.Qxc4 falls on its face to 28...Qxg2+ 29.Kd1 Qxd2 mate, while 28.Kd1 Rxe3 29.Rxe3 Qg1+ 30.Re1 Qf2 (threatening 31...Bb3) 31.Kc1 Bb3 32.Qxb3 (32.Re8+ Kf7) 32...Qxd2+ 33.Kb1 Qxe1+ leaves Black with an extra Rook and three pawns!

After this tournament we occasionally ran into each other at chess events, and we even played on several occasions (he had three wins to my one, with a couple draws). He was a very sweet man and an extremely strong player (solid IM strength). Unfortunately he suffered from some severe psychological problems which led to multiple attempts at suicide, and when the LA Times announced his death, I wasn’t surprised (sad, but not surprised). Oddly, I got my IM title at the Roy Ervin Memorial (1987) in San Francisco, only to discover that he was still alive! Recently I read (on!) that he eventually did pass away in 2001, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see him again at some chessboard, alive and passionately moving pieces about. If so, perhaps we’ll look at this game one last time.

The Tal game is an illustration of how the study of master games can deeply enrich your understanding of chess. That one example taught us that one always has to be aware of a potential sacrificial Knight explosion on f2 or f7, that it’s important to (if possible) bring all your pieces into an attack, and that opening the center (even if it calls for a sacrifice) allows the more active army to enter the enemy position with, quite often, decisive effect.

Roy Ervin and I enjoyed sharing Tal’s tactical magic, and though my one win against Roy was based on tactics, it was a far cry from the kind of tactics most people are familiar with. Instead, we both used sacrifices and tactics to gain positional perks:

Roy Ervin – Silman, Berkeley 1976

I hadn’t played the opening particularly well and now was facing slow suffocation due to my lack of counterplay (it’s almost impossible to attack b3 in any meaningful way), white’s two Bishops, white’s superiority in space, and white’s long-term chances against my King. Realizing that the situation was critical, I thought for an hour and came up with a very interesting plan.


Setting up a strategic pawn sacrifice.

20.Qd2 Nf8 21.g4 Ne6 22.g5 Nd7

It was only now that White realized what my intensions were!


His intended 23.f5 would be met by 23…Nd4 24.Nxd4 cxd4 25.Bxd4 Bxd4+ 26.Qxd4 Qc5 27.Qxc5 Nxc5 with a good position since b3 is very weak and white’s Bishop is clearly inferior to black’s Knight.


Now the point of 19...Rfc8 can be seen: by making the f8-square accessible to my Knight, I was able to maneuver this piece to d4 where it can take part in an assault against b3. If White chops on d4 and wins a pawn, the newly opened queenside lines and my remaining Knight’s access to c5 gives Black tremendous compensation and active play.

24.Nxd4 cxd4 25.Bxd4 Bxd4 26.Qxd4

The purpose of white’s “odd” 23.Kh1 is now clear, since Black could force the trade of Queens by 26...Qc5 if the white King still stood on g1. Why would Black want to exchange Queens when he’s down a pawn? Because Black is doing very well on the queenside, while white’s main hope is a counterattack against the black King. A kingside attack wouldn’t be possible if the Queens were no longer on the board.

26…Rb4 27.Qd1 Rcb8

Though a pawn down, Black has an excellent position. White can play the mundane 28.Rf3, but Ervin decided on a more artistic approach. Can you spot it?

As you can see, tactics are not all about brutal knockouts or traps. Tactics also help you make deep positional ideas feasible. If you want to be a good player, you need a good opening repertoire, you need to know basic endgames, you need to be able to attack, you need to be able to calculate, and you need an understanding of positional/strategic building blocks. All these things are important, all these things compliment and work with all the other things, and all of them mesh together to form a well rounded, powerful player.

For those that are curious about the Ervin - Silman game, here's the whole thing:

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