Positional Combinations

Positional Combinations

| 12 | Strategy

I will begin by affirming that the title of this article is deliberately oxymoronic. According to David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld's The Oxford Companion to Chess (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), a combination is "a series of forcing moves with a clear start and finish grounded in tactics." Furthermore, they mention that "a sacrifice is likely to be present and some, for example Botvinnik, say it is always present." As I've mentioned on a few occasions, modern chess, in my opinion, necessitates a reconceptualization of the link between strategy and tactics.

We all know today that they are inextricably bound together, but has this always been the case? Most top-level games from the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, can be unambiguously classified as either tactical or positional. Larsen-Petrosian, Santa Monica 1968 - one of the great Dane's most storied victories - featured an astounding sacrificial attack that spanned the entirety of the middlegame (from move 16 to Petrosian's resignation on move 30). Fischer-Taimanov, Vancouver 1971 (the fourth game in their match), in which Bobby displayed his astonishing endgame technique, was a positional masterpiece from start to finish. 

By contrast, today's battles between Super GMs truly epitomize this interconnection. If you browse through the games (especially resultative ones) from the recently-concluded Candidates’ Tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk, you will doubtless notice that practically every game oscillated between tactical and positional stages. Nowadays, nary a strong player will allow you to win solely through positional or tactical means; by and large, it is becoming progressively more difficult to succeed with a narrow range of positions in which you excel.

To this end, "positional combinations" - concrete, forcing sequences with an exclusively positional goal, feature prominently in a grandmaster's arsenal of skills. It is easy to underestimate the importance of a positional advantage because it is often not "tangible," but - once again - to win a chess game, you must learn to outplay your opponent in a litany of complex sub-battles that constitute the stuff of modern chess. 

I'll begin with the game that inspired me to write this article. It is relatively unknown, and it is a beautiful illustration of the positional combination. 

The position appears quite ordinary. White has developed some formidable central pressure, and although Black's position remains solid after something like 14...Be5 15.Bg5 b5 16.Bb3 a5, it is certainly easier to play White, who has a large space advantage and magnificently-coordinated pieces.

Ian Nepomniachtchi | Image Wikipedia

To nip White's initiative in the bud, Black clearly needs to eliminate the f5 knight and, if possible, trade another pair of pieces to lessen the effect of White's space advantage. In fact, the knight on d7 can move away with gain of tempo (...Nb6 or ...Ne5, attacking the light-squared bishop). After the bishop's retreat, Black can capture on f5, and, if possible, follow up by trading the dark-squared bishops with ...Bf4. All of this is well and good, but the bishop on d6 is currently under attack! The logical question, therefore, is if the bishop can move away with gain of tempo. The answer, as you can probably see, is yes! After the astounding 14...Bh2+! 15.Kh1 Nb6 16.Bb3 (16.Ne3? Nxc4 17.Nxc4 Be6=+) 16...Bxf5 17.exf5 Bf4 (diagram), the tables took a rather dramatic turn.

The transformation is drastic: White's pawn structure is ruined, the center is no longer under White's control, and the position has opened up in Black's favor. It is important not to overestimate Black's advantage - he has a slight edge at best - but he is clearly in the driver's seat now, and will be for the rest of the game. Nepomniachtchi defended admirably for a long time, but eventually succumbed to the pressure: 

Black's "combination" was not particularly flashy, nor did Black gain anything more than a small edge. However, Nepomniachtchi (actually, this tongue twister means "one who does not remember" in Russian!) was so thrown off by the sudden transformation of the position that he never fully recovered and eventually succumbed to Black's massive positional pressure.

Positional sacrifices, which I covered in my fourth article (deceptively titled The Positional Sacrifice), can seldom be classified as positional combinations, because they do not usually engender forcing sequences - but there are exceptions. In the following game, a tour-de-force that left me in awe of my opponent's positional and tactical abilities, I had just one chance to deviate from a course of events that ultimately led to my defeat. 

Such is the might of positional finesse! By the way, as you could see, White had to demonstrate keen tactical and calculational ability in order to hammer in the final nail. 

To be sure, positional combinations are often far more difficult to find and rationalize than their conventional, tactical counterparts. Indeed, a tactical combination seeks to exploit already present deficiencies or flaws in your opponent's position, while a positional operation seeks to create them. As Botvinnik demonstrates in the following game, there is no substitute for logical thinking. 

White's advantage is evident, but Black's position is surprisingly sturdy. For instance, the straightforward 27.Rc7 leads nowhere after ...Rf7 and 27.Nd3, aiming to encircle the d5 pawn with 28.Nb4, meets with 28...Kf7! 29.Nb4 Ke6 30.Rc7 a5! and Black has equalized. Botvinnik was never stubborn: when a tempting idea failed to work, he looked for other ways to make progress. Since the d5 pawn cannot be directly attacked and all of the squares along the c-file are covered by the rook or knight, White needs to switch his attention to the other flank.

Mikhail Botvinnik | Image Wikipedia

Botvinnik realized that Alekhine's kingside pawns were far advanced and lacked any kind of support. Of course, the pawns cannot be directly targeted (27.Rh3 h4), but who said that pawns aren't competent attackers? 

Obviously, when all is said and done, not everyone is capable of reaching the level of positional finesse that top grandmasters display in every game. However, you certainly can reconceptualize the notion that positional chess is inherently static. In fact, it can be and should be concrete - you should not assume that dynamism is synonymous with tactics. Stay open to the idea of "positional tactics" (not an oxy-moron after all), and who knows - perhaps you will produce a strategic masterpiece in your very next tournament


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