Tactics Or Positional Play? A Beautiful Imagination!

Tactics Or Positional Play? A Beautiful Imagination!

| 18 | Strategy

I’ve long insisted that the best way to improve (aside from playing stronger players) is to look at reams of master games. Most games between titled players have some important lesson hiding behind the moves, and I decided to make it easy for you by offering up a series of puzzles that can be either positional or tactical, quiet or dynamic (just like in real life!).

Many solutions are quite hard, but DON’T let that worry you! I have annotated all the games and pointed out the key instructive moments. So, give it your best shot, then look over the notes and see what you did or didn’t understand. 

Please keep in mind that the notes are the key components of this article, so DO look them over! Once again: the point of this article isn’t really about you solving or failing to solve a puzzle. It’s about learning something.

Previously I used games from some of the world’s strongest female players. Today I will focus on one particular woman: Vanessa West. Her USCF tournament rating fluctuates between 2150 to 2250 (a master). Why the fluctuations? And why focus on a “mere” master? 

I was talking to IM John Watson the other day and he told me about a game one of his students lost to a young woman. That woman was, of course, Vanessa. John looked at it and was surprised about the outrageous chaos she created. So much so that it was hard for anyone of any rating to really grasp what was going on.


The ability to create chaos from positions of seeming calm is very rare. I have no doubt that she would have been an international master or grandmaster if she had devoted herself to the game while very young. But how many children make that choice? After all, your life is ahead of you, and you want to experience it!

I have coached her on and off for years, and though I’ve taught and trained many people of many ratings (including masters and titled players), I have never seen a more talented player than Vanessa.


Vanessa West’s Killer Stare

So what held her back, other than vetoing total devotion to the game? A lack of work ethic (if you want to be a pro, you need to study chess morning, noon, and night), sub-par opening knowledge (this takes us back to that study thing), a propensity for horrendous time pressure (I’ve watched countless games of hers botched by time pressure panic), and a bit of practicality -- you can’t always go for the throat if you wish to reach the highest heights, but if your goal is to have fun, then why not play for a rush?

Though she didn’t reach her potential, there’s still hope! If she decides to seriously study, and if she decides to play in a lot of tournaments, mend her openings, and see just how far she can go, then a rating of 2350 or even 2400 are very real goals. 


Vanessa in a Deep Zen State (Photo by Chuck Ensey)

Puzzle 1:

A strange opening. Black deliberately allowed this position, hoping that the pawn sacrifice would open lines on the queenside and quickly let her pieces take up active posts. Sacrificing a pawn in this manner against an international master takes real courage!

What do you think about these two alternatives to 7...b6, namely 7...Qa5 and 7...Nc6?

Puzzle 2:

Returning to the same game (from puzzle 1), White outplayed his opponent and enjoyed a good position with an extra pawn. I’m sure he thought the win was just a matter of time.

Things look bad for Black, but you still have to fight and put up resistance. Sometimes you attack, sometimes you defend. You have to do everything in chess. What do you think Black’s best chance is?

Puzzle 3:

White has a won position after 12 moves. Her pieces are ready to overrun Black’s kingside, and Black’s extra pawn on d4 is a traitor since it’s blocking the c6-knight and c5-bishop. However, in her notes she wrote: “I wasn’t sure how to improve my position.”

I found that question to be fascinating since, to me, there is only one move to consider. I view this as a byproduct of her not studying like a maniac -– a lack of chess culture. In fact, I’m sure every titled player would instantly know the right move here. 


Though she didn’t recognize the right move, she had no trouble winning the game. But, even though she scored an easy victory, she should have found the right move in a flash. 

Can you find it?

Puzzle 4:

A 14-year old Vanessa West was battling a very experienced, very strong Hungarian master (he had a USCF rating of 2444 and played in the U.S. Championship in 1968). Black was calling the shots in the opening, but on move 19 missed 19...Bxf3! 20.Bxf3 Bh2! and instead played the reasonable looking 19...e5. 

How did the very young Vanessa handle the position?

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