How To Play Positional Chess
You need a strong positional understanding of chess to truly improve as a player.

How To Play Positional Chess‎

GM Illingworth
56 | Strategy

What exactly is positional chess? 

I find some players get confused by the difference between tactical and positional chess, especially because both skills are needed to play a strong game. Therefore, I prefer to distinguish the two main approaches to a position.

Dynamic: The direct and immediate approach to the position, using the energy of our pieces to obtain or increase our initiative (the flow of threats that cannot be ignored), or acquire clear long-term advantages by force.

Strategic: The more long-term, building-up approach to the position. We improve the long-term strength of our position by improving the placement of our pieces, limiting the good moves for the opponent, and engineering favorable changes to the pawn structure. 

Of course, to win a chess game, we need to apply both of these mindsets to some extent, but I find this description to be much clearer than "tactical/positional." I've also described these approaches as short-term vs. long-term and direct vs. improving, which can help to further clarify the nature of our decisions in a chess game. 

chess decision

To my mind, the essence of positional play lies in three key areas:

1. Creating, fixing and eliminating the opponent's weaknesses (while minimizing/eliminating our own)

2. Preventing the opponent's threats/strongest ideas (especially by executing effective ways to ignore them)

3. Harmoniously coordinating our pieces toward common goals (especially by improving the worst-placed piece) 

The following win by Anatoly Karpov, which I have analyzed without an engine, effectively demonstrates a model of positional play that we can aspire to follow in our games. I have presented the game first as a series of puzzles, to develop your decision-making skills:

Now, a position from the actual game:
Another variation from the opening:
The next decision is quite simple:
The next puzzle is a bit more difficult:
Our next puzzle features a tense middlegame position: 
Now for a critical moment from the game:
The next exercise tests your skill in defending a worse position:
Finally, a test of your technique:
How did you go with the puzzles? Did you play as well as Karpov? Here are my full annotations of the game:
What lessons can we take away from this game?
1. The opening is not just about playing a general setup—it is also about setting as many problems for the opponent as possible and limiting their options (especially as White).
2. The way to exploit a lead in development is to open the position for our better-placed pieces
3. When we have a stable, long-term advantage, we don't have to be as concerned with our opponent's counterplay, and this gives us the freedom to improve our piece placement and execute our plans (usually in the form of a pawn break, or some other transformation). 
4. Pawn breaks are not always a good idea. If they are ill-prepared, they may only create weaknesses in your own position.
5. A direct confrontation tends to favor the side with better-placed pieces
6. If direct moves aren't working for you, look for a way to improve your worst-placed piece
7. It is generally a good idea to fix your opponent's pawn weaknesses so that they can't move. That way, our pieces can then focus fire on these weaknesses. Note that this can also be done with a piece (blockading an isolated or backward pawn) as well as a pawn. 
8. The way to take the initiative from the opponent is by executing threats of our own, such as counter-threats. Note that favorable exchanges of pieces (such as trading queens when our king is much less safe than his counterpart) also counts as a threat. 
9. It is often better to be down a pawn, but with active pieces and threats, than with equal material but your opponent in full control of the position (no counterplay for you). 
10. Strong positional play entails seeing small tactical tricks that keep control of the position.
11. When we have substantial long-term advantages (such as a material advantage along with another positional advantage), we may not need to radically change the position—using our advantages, such as by queening a passed pawn, may prove sufficient
12. If you have the time, you will learn more from games by thinking about them yourself first and using the engine only after your own analysis, to determine what you missed or failed to appreciate in your analysis.
Which of these principles will you apply in your next games? 

More from GM Illingworth
Master Files 3.5

Master Files 3.5