IM Silman
Jan 18, 2010, 12:00 AM |
30 | Strategy


Tom asked:

If I’m doing a tactical puzzle, should I be looking at the imbalances before I start calculating? Or does this not apply when you know there’s a tactical shot in the position?

Dear Tom,

Imbalances (space, material, pawn structure, weak squares, superior/inferior minor pieces, etc.) offer a player a firm grasp of what’s happening in any given position. Instead of looking at a position and not knowing what in the world is going on, you can train yourself to quickly recognize any and all imbalances for both sides. Then, any move you consider will have something to do with the positive features on the board.

Most players simply calculate. For example, when looking at their position (as the clock ticks) they internally say, “I go there and he goes there and I go there, etc.” However, if I were to ask them at that exact moment to lecture me on the ins and outs of the position, they will usually be way off, or in many cases even clueless. How can you find a move that conforms to the needs of a position if you don’t know what those needs are?

Tactics are another matter. Having the ability to calculate deeply is a huge plus, but few can do it. In fact, though you can work on and improve your ability to calculate to some degree, possessing the ability to calculate deeply, quickly, and accurately (at a minimum 2400 level) is a god given gift (don’t mix this up with learning tactical patterns – it’s relatively easy to vastly improve your tactical IQ by the study of each mating pattern, each basic tactical pattern [forks, pins, etc.], and going over all sorts of tactical puzzles).

I tend to place very high-level calculation under the umbrella of “talent,” while positional skills are something everyone can learn and excel at. Oddly, few players hone their positional skills, preferring to muddle through with a good tactical IQ and poor calculation. Sadly, many players that do have serious calculation mojo rely on that skill set while ignoring all the others (I’ve known several IMs that have grandmaster level tactical ability but 2200 positional skills).

When looking over a “find the tactic” type problem, you can indeed just look for the tactical solution (since it’s been announced that there is one). Be aware that almost all tactics are based on double attacks, undefended (or inadequately defended) pieces, and/or a vulnerable King – that will make it easier to find.

However, in actual play no voice of authority says, “Tom, there is a tactic here. Find the tactic Tom!” Thus (in a real game), it’s important to do that imbalance rundown so you know exactly what’s going on in every position you reach, while also asking (after you do the imbalance thing) if there are any double attacks and/or undefended/inadequately defended pieces, and if the enemy King appears vulnerable to a karate chop to the throat.

In some situations you’ll find that there is a tactic, but it gives you less than the correct positional move. Here’s an example:

Here’s a line in the Semi-Slav that used to be fairly popular: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 e6 4.e3 Nf6 5.Nf3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 Bd6 7.0–0 0–0 8.e4 and now 8…dxc4 is black’s best move since 8…dxe4 9.Nxe4 Nxe4 10.Bxe4 e5?? (10…h6, intending 11...e5, is a better try) 11.dxe5 Nxe5 12.Nxe5 Bxe5 (Black has an undefended piece, so White finds a tactic based on that and a double attack) 13.Bxh7+! Kxh7 14.Qh5+ Kg8 15.Qxe5 leaves White with a solid extra pawn and a huge plus.

An almost identical position was often reached by 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 e6 4.e3 Nf6 5.Nf3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 Bb4 7.0-0 0-0 8.a3 Bd6 (it seems that White got a2-a3 in for free … why would Black allow this?) 9.e4 dxe4 10.Nxe4 Nxe4 11.Bxe4 e5 and here, in the game  G.Kasparov - R.Huebner, Brussels 1986, the great K played 12.Bc2 Re8 13.Re1 exd4 14.Rxe8+ Qxe8 15.Qxd4 Be7 16.Bg5 Bxg5 17.Nxg5 Nf6 18.Rd1 Be6 19.Re1 Qd8 20.Nxe6 fxe6 21.Qe3 Kh8 22.h3 Qd7 23.g4 Re8 24.Qe5 Qd8 25.Kg2 Qb6 26.Rd1 c5 27.Ba4 Rf8 28.Rd6 Qc7 29.Rxe6 Qf7 30.Qxc5 Nxg4 31.Qxf8+ Qxf8 32.hxg4, 1-0. White regains the Queen with Re8 and ends up with an extra piece.

At this point, astute readers will be asking, “Wait a second! Did Kasparov really miss the same tactic from the previous example?” Let’s see if it still works: 12.dxe5 Nxe5 13.Nxe5 Bxe5 14.Bxh7+ Kxh7 15.Qh5+ Kg8 16.Qxe5 with an extra pawn. Yep, the tactic does indeed work. Of course, Kasparov saw that he could do this, but was also aware that this position (after 16.Qxe5), though a bit better for White, is basically drawn!!!

I can imagine that many of you are now shaking your head with pity. “Silman must have hit his head again! The poor fool doesn’t realize it’s the same position.”

But, is it really the same position? There’s one “small” difference: White’s a-pawn is on a3 in the Kasparov game, and on a2 in the earlier position with 6…Bd6. In fact, players with Black often chose 6…Bb4 7.a3 Bd6 hoping to get this very same pawn down (drawn) position, while the pawn down position with the a-pawn on a2 is more or less lost.

This still sounds like gibberish (thereby strengthening the concussion theory), but here’s the rub: All the tactical skill in the world won’t give you the answer, but a positionally trained eye will tell you that, with a2-a3 in, the b3-square is weakened and, after 16…Qd3, White is forced to push his c-pawn (in the position with 6…Bd6 White would simply play 17.b3), thereby giving black’s light-squared Bishop access to d5 (that, combined with the Bishops of opposite colors, makes it more or less impossible for White to win).  Many games were drawn from this position. Here’s one example: 17.c5 Be6 18.Bf4 Bd5 19.Rfe1 f6 20.Qh5 Bf7 21.Qg4 Rfe8 22.h3 Qc4 and Black drew without too much difficulty in B.Larsen - A.Bisguier, San Juan 1969.

You may see a number of tactics in various games, but is the pretty combination really the best way to play the position? If you don’t have a grasp of the imbalances, you’ll have no way to answer that question. Ultimately, high-level chess is a game that demands balance. Tactics without positional skills just won’t hold up, while positional skills without tactics will also fall on its face.

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