The Positional Threat
When you think of the word "threat," what comes to mind? A threat of checkmate, perhaps? A threat to trap your piece? An indirect threat against your queen?
Whatever your specific mental representation, it is most likely tactical in nature. In a 2004 Chessbase Online article, Steve Lopez astutely defines a threat as "what a chess player would do if he was allowed to make two moves in a row."
This definition is accurate because it does not imply that a threat (i.e. the second move in a row) has to come in the form of a capture or a checkmate. In this article, I would like to introduce an important concept that figures prominently in a grandmaster's arsenal: the positional threat.
Like any threat, a positional threat aims to induce a serious concession from one's opponent, but this concession is positional rather than tactical. We will focus on positional threats that intend to either bring about a favorable trade, or induce a serious weakness in your opponent’s camp. From this description, it might appear that positional threats are too impotent to carry any weight. So what if a queen trade is marginally beneficial for one player? Does it really matter if your opponent has three weak squares instead of two?
This line of reasoning hinges on the faulty assumption that tactical considerations are more important than strategic notions. To this end, if you blunder a piece (tactical), the game is usually over, but if you leave your knight misplaced or enter a slightly worse ending (positional), most of the fight is still ahead. This is true on a general scale, but it is crucial to recognize that positional advantages can still powerfully influence the course of the game. Let the following two examples serve as statements of proof!
Positional threats to bring about a favorable trade:
The thought of a single trade deciding the outcome of the game may appear rather impractical. In reality, exchanging your opponent’s strongest (or most important) piece often removes the cog that makes his position run. Facing a strong Indian junior at the 2015 Qatar Masters, I was able to do just that by setting an unstoppable positional threat.
The position before 32.Kb2 did not look all that bad for Black. In spite of his cramped position and crippled pawn structure, he controlled the d-file and intended to mobilize his sleeping knight with …Nc8-d(b)6. The unsung hero in Black’s flimsy yet irksome construction was the queen, which covered all the holes and kept the passed a-pawn in check. As soon as it was removed, Black’s pieces turned into passive spectators, and the a-pawn acquired Walter White-like superpowers (to-do list: find a way to artificially insert Breaking Bad reference into article. Check.). Such is the might of a well-timed positional threat!
Positional threats to induce a weakness:
Faithful readers of this column might recall that my second article was called “Weak Squares? Who Cares?” In general, I believe that modern chess does not lend itself to dogma. Nothing is ever always true, and no positional precept is engraved in stone. Nonetheless, principles exist for a reason, and in the majority of cases weak squares are very significant indeed. Take a look:
Note that 27.f5 was a purely positional operation, even if the end goal was tactical (a mating attack). And this is no fluke: by reasoning strategically, you can often unlock the key to a successful attack or combination. Indeed, to unfetter yourself from the perceived distinction between the positional and tactical realms stands at the heart of continued improvement.
Of course, this articles provides only a cursory introduction to positional threats. Nonetheless, I hope that it has succeeded in demonstrating the power — and beauty — of positional thinking.