Positional or Tactical Chess?

  • GM Gserper
  • | Jan 27, 2013

Probably all chess players ask themselves at some point of their chess career: "Am I a positional chess player or a tactician?" Based on the answer to this question they choose openings and the general strategy of their games.  But if you say that it doesn't really matter, then you have a point since as a well known chess saying goes: there are no positional and tactical chess players, there are only good and bad chess players!"

What made me write this article is the usual situation when a very inexperienced chess player, practically a beginner, starts the game with 1.d4, 1.c4 or 1. Nf3. I face this situation almost on a daily basis and I need to explain to my students that they shouldn't play these kinds of openings.  Don't get me wrong, I like all of them and if you check the database, you'll see that I have employed exactly these openings during most of my chess career. So, why do I strongly advise inexperienced chess players against these perfectly normal moves?

Usually it goes like this: my student plays 1.Nf3 and when I ask him why he chose this particular opening he says: " Well, I think I am a positional player, my style is similar to Kramnik's, and this is exactly what he plays". My usual thought in moments like this is: " You are am 1100 player for God's sake!  Before you talk about being a positional or tactical chess player you really need to learn how to play good chess first, and the best way to learn it is to play open positions which start with 1.e4!"  Then I try to explain to my student that it is not a coincidence that the majority of the great chess players started their chess journey by playing 1.e4.  Later they might switch to the closed openings, but at first they played all kinds of sharp lines which really improve your tactical skills and teach you how the pieces cooperate with each other. Just look at the games played by future World Champions.

Mihail Tal was 13 years old when he played the next game:

You may say that this is what Tal was famous for, he played like this his whole life including the time when he became the World Champion.  Good point! So, let's take a look at the games played by future World Champions who were known as positional chess players.

 Vassily Smyslov was 14 years old when he played the following game:

Vladimir Kramnik was just 9 years old when he played this game:

It was an absolutely crazy game.  It is difficult to imagine that the same kid who played White later got the nickname "Drawnik".

Finally I don't want you to think that 1.e4 is the only way to play for young chess players. True, it is the easiest way to get a sharp situation on the board, but if you have a desire to start 'fire on board', then almost any opening will do!

Jose Raul Capablanca was one of the finest positional chess players in chess history, but look at how he attacked when he was 13 years old:

Capablanca's comment when he was already the World Champion is very instructive: "Today I would most probably play a simple move 29. Qd2 which was also enough for a win."  But this is the whole point, young chess players should try their hand in sharp, complicated positions first and only then try positional chess.

It was very common in the countless chess clubs of the former Soviet Union that coaches taught their young students to play gambits, sharp openings like the Greco Attack and the Sicilian Dragon. My recommendation for all my readers whose rating is about USCF 1300 or below: try to play open sharp positions as much as possible.  Even if you play 1.d4 or 1.Nf3 go for complications whenever possible! Only a chess player who is proficient in tactics can be a successful tournament player.  Don't forget the popular saying that "chess is 99% tactics".  Don't be discouraged if you lose a game or two, the most important thing is to learn how to calculate variations and visualize a position, and you learn it best in sharp open positions!

Good luck!


  • 4 years ago


    Thank you very much:)

  • 4 years ago


    bobby fischer played 95% e4 Laughing

  • 4 years ago


    Good article. By the way gucelli, after 20. Qxd3, white loses his queen in 2 moves: 20... Bh2+ 21. Kh1 22. Nf2+
    Chess is 99% tactics :)

  • 4 years ago


    Very interesting article.

    Sorry, in the game "K Gerassimov vs. Vasily Smyslov" i can't see the point: what's the problem for white to do 20.Qxd3 ?

  • 4 years ago


    This again shows that not every great player is a great teacher...If a player lacks tactical skills, he should train those specifically instead of restricting his opening choice and hoping for a crazy game.

    What if your students play e4 and end up against a Caro-Kann defense ? Or a Petrov ? Why exactly would that be more tactical than a sharp line in the slav or or the Blackmar-Diemer? I agree that every beginner should have some basic knowledge of open games, but your reasons are not very convincing.

  • 4 years ago


    Nice article!

  • 4 years ago


    Gr8 Article:)

  • 4 years ago


    Excellent article. really really enjoyed that. on top of the advice, it was a great showcase of some world champs from those early games. great games. great article.

  • 4 years ago



  • 4 years ago


    Even at a young age Capablanca showed amazing precision in the ending.   That was a very fun game to go over.

  • 4 years ago


    In playing chess, I will not always win if I follow my emotions and beliefs about chess. But to be effective I must react according to the dictate of the positions on the board.

  • 4 years ago


    Absolutely Fantastic Mr. Serper! I will take note of this when starting off my games

    Tongue Out

  • 4 years ago


    GM Gserper: at what rating do you think it is okay for somebody to start playing other openings than 1.e4?

  • 4 years ago


    Thank you for te article! And shame to those who called it nonesence, if somebody think different, please write your own article.

    It's very usefull what you write in your article!)

  • 4 years ago


    Play Open games first. Learn endgames first.

    Play gambits first. Don't play the Benko, or you'll have to retool at Master level.

    Prefer 1.e4 to 1.d4 to improve your tactics. Study old master games (like, perhaps, Frank Marshall).

    What's a poor beginner to do?  :-)

  • 4 years ago


    Tactics?  Pfff.  Tactics Smactics.

  • 4 years ago


    Complete nonsense was what you just said.

  • 4 years ago


    This article is complete nonsense. I never play 1.e4 and look at me. I flounder around the board with the best of them, and playing sharp lines like those the author suggests would only ultimately cause me to lose my title.

  • 4 years ago


    Thanks, Master!

  • 4 years ago


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