The Power of Positional Chess, Pt. 1 - Maneuvering

The Power of Positional Chess, Pt. 1 - Maneuvering

| 33 | Strategy

Chess isn’t just about playing a human or computer opponent. Chess history can become a lifelong addiction, chess news is avidly followed by people who stopped playing decades before, and going over master games can be exciting, relaxing, instructive, or just plain fun. However, while most amateurs can recognize and appreciate a snappy combination and/or sacrifice, subtle positional concepts aren’t recognized at all or are often viewed as boring. And that’s a terrible shame since if you can’t recognize positional concepts, you won’t enjoy the full master game experience. 

To me, seeing positional mastery at work is one of life’s great pleasures. I want others to feel the same way about positional chess. So I decided to write a series of articles that highlight a few slightly advanced but fundamental positional strategies.

Don’t worry about my tactical series! I’ll mix in those with the positional and who knows what else (perhaps a “How to Smash Children in Chess” series too!).

This week’s subject is maneuvering. This is something that can be very hard to grasp since maneuvering often avoids making threats, and even seems to be based on “doing nothing over a long period of time.” But, is it really nothing? Or, as is obviously the case, is the “nothing” just something you aren’t able to understand?

Please keep in mind that these things are very hard to do in actual play. However, my aim is not to turn you into a prime Karpov, but rather to give you enough positional insight so that you can look at a master game and say, “Wow, the way he improved his Knight while turning the enemy Bishop into a tall pawn was awe inspiring!”

In the following game you’ll see Petrosian, as if by magic, turn his opponent’s perfectly reasonable position into a total wreck. To quote Fischer in his notes to a game vs. Petrosian (from My 60 Memorable Games) “I was amazed during the game. Each time Petrosian achieved a good position, he managed to maneuver into a better one.”

Tigran Petrosian (2635) – Jack Peters (2370), [D41] Lone Pine 1976

1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 c5 3.g3 Nc6 4.Bg2 e6 5.Nf3 Be7 6.d4 d5 7.cxd5 Nxd5 8.0-0 0-0 9.Nxd5 exd5 10.dxc5 Bxc5 11.a3 

This line of the Semi-Tarrasch offers perks for both sides.


1) He would love to prove that black's isolated pawn is a weakness.

2) He would love to take control of the d4-square which would freeze the d5-pawn also allow the Knight to take up residence there. 

3) White would like to turn his Knight into a “destroy black’s isolated pawn” attacking force by swinging it to the f4-square when the Knight, g2-Bishop, and Queen would all be striking d5.


1) The d5-pawn gains central space, so Black prefers to look at his isolated pawn as a strength rather than a weakness.

2) The d5-pawn gives Black control over the c4- and e4-squares.

3) Black intends to place a Rook on e8 where it pressures the enemy pawn on e2.

4) Black's minor pieces are very active and he will do his best to avoid exchanging the Bishops and Knights since then the activity would be gone and only the weakness of d5 would remain.


This stops b2-b4 but potentially weakens the b5-square. A more fluid, active continuation would be 11...Bf5 12.b4 Bb6 13.Bb2 when White doesn’t have more than the usual microscopic edge after Black tosses in …Re8 and …Be4.


The Knight heads for d3 where it hits a number of important squares and also prepares for the a leap to f4 placing huge pressure against the d5-pawn. The Knight retreat, which frees the h1-a8 diagonal, also appears to threaten the d5-pawn.


Not the end of the world by any means, but a little panicky. Black gets the pawn out of danger, but placing the pawn on d4 blocks black’s dark-squared Bishop and completely opens up the h1-a8 diagonal for white’s g2-Bishop.

12...Be6 was playable, when white’s only slightly better after 13.Nd3.

An interesting “in your face” (“I’ll do what I want to do and not what you want me to do!”) sort of reply is 12…Ba7!?, offering the d-pawn: 13.Bxd5 (13.Qxd5 Nd4 gives White absolutely nothing after 14.e3 Qxd5 15.Bxd5 Rd8) 13…Be6 14.e4 Bxd5 15.Qxd5 (15.exd5 Nd4, =) 15…Qf6 16.Kg2 Rfd8 and Black has plenty of compensation for the sacrificed pawn (17.Bg5 is met by 17…Qxb2, =).

Since taking the d5-pawn doesn’t seem to give White anything, he would be wise to simply continue with his plan and play 13.Nd3.

13.Nd3 Bb6 14.Bd2 Re8 15.Rc1 Bg4 16.Re1 Rc8 

Though it looks as if Black has a very comfortable position, there are actually various “little” things that are nipping at his heels. Black’s pressure against e2 will soon be nullified, the d4-pawn is blocking the activity of b6-Bishop, the c6-Knight, and the black Queen. On the other side of the pond white’s Knight is always threatening to leap onto c5 or f4, the a5-pawn is eyed by the d2-Bishop, and white’s Queen will soon jump to b3 eyeing b6 and b7.

17.h3 Bf5

Not 17…Bh5? 18.Nf4 Bg6 19.Nxg6 hxg6 20.Qb3 when Black is quivering and quaking from a disease called, “light-squareus, sufferus.” Note that 17…Be6 would also be met by 18.Nf4.


18…Be4 19.Bxe4 Rxe4 20.Qb5

20...Na7 21.Rxc8 Nxc8

Not 21...Nxb5? 22.Rxd8+ Bxd8 23.Nc5 Re7 24.Nb3! a4 25.Nc5 Nd6 26.Bb4! and Black will lose a pawn since 26…b5 is still met by 27.Nxa4!

22.Bg5 Qd6

How would White punish 22…Qe8?

23.Rc1 Na7 24.Qf5 Re8

Possible was 24...Rxe2!? 25.Qf3 Re8 26.Qxb7 Rb8 27.Qa6 Qd5 28.Bd2 and black’s very much alive but, as usual, still under pressure. 

25.Bf4 Qd8 26.Rc2 Nc6 27.h4 h6 28.Qb5 Na7 29.Qf5 Nc6 

Stare at the diagram and see if you can find a plan!

White did a little “Cat and Mouse” in an effort to tire his opponent and see if an error would pop up. However, Black remained calm so it’s time for White to some up with some sort of plan. Here it is:

Since black’s pieces are passive and can’t threaten White, Petrosian decided that a “grand plan” (which is rare) was possible. His idea: Relocate his King by walking it to b1, and then using the kingside pawns to overrun black’s kingside position. Note that pushing the kingside pawns would be too risky if white’s King was still there, but on b1 the pawns will be free to roam!

30.Kf1!! Re6 31.Qb5 Na7 32.Qb3 Nc6 33.h5! Ne7 34.Ke1 Nd5 35.Qb5 Nf6 36.Kd1 Nd5 37.Be5 Ne7 38.g4 Nc6 39.Bg3 Na7 40.Qb3 Nc6 41.Kc1 Re4 42.f3 Re3 43.Kb1 

White’s King is safe, White enjoys an obvious advantage in kingside space, and (as usual) black is still under pressure!


When a player (from beginner to 2800) is under nonstop positional pressure he almost always cracks at some point. The defensive task is just too onerous and, especially if the game’s a long one, exhaustion sets in and concentration ultimately fails. 

Black should have retreated his Rook to e8 or e6 and prepared himself for a long, painful, drawn out defensive stand.

44.Bh4! Qd6 45.Bxe7

45.Qb5, threatening Qe8+, was also strong.

45…Rxe7 46.Rc8+ Kh7

The game was adjourned here and White had to seal a move. In the days of adjournments, it wasn’t unusual for the person sealing a move to make a noncommittal choice so he could look at the position in the comfort of his hotel room, and so he didn’t seal a losing blunder in the envelope!


No noncommittal move here! Petrosian seals the best move.


A better defense was 47…Qf6 though after 48.Nf2! intending Ne4 Black would be in terrible trouble.

Also painful for Black was 47…Qe6 48.Qxe6 Rxe6 (48…fxe6 49.Nf4 heading for g6) 49.Rxf7 Rxe2 and now both 50.Rxb7 and 50.Nf4 are very strong.

Was 47…Rxe2 a better choice?


 A very strong move. However, White had an even stronger one.


Nothing would save the game.

How should White meet 48...g6?


One way to win among many.

49...Re5 50.Rxf7, 1-0. I’ve seen this game dozens of times and I never tire of it. I hope you enjoyed it too.

For fun, I’ll add two quotes from IM Jack Peters (who kindly gave them to me an hour before I posted this article!), who played Black in this game:

“It took me a month to figure out where I went wrong!”

“After the game, Petrosian and I analyzed it for a while. We reached a point in the game where I was more or less helpless and he gently touched the tops of my minor pieces and then his hands spread out and violently pushed down on the tops of his pieces. He was illustrating how powerful his pieces were compared to mine.”

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