What In The World Is A Chess Style?

What In The World Is A Chess Style?

IM Silman
Apr 27, 2017, 12:47 AM |
54 | Fun & Trivia

The Chess.com member WackyJ1 wrote: "You hear about 'style' everywhere from chess books to chess articles. With statements like, 'You should choose your opening based on what suits your style' and, 'Steer games towards positions that are more suited to your style,' you hear about player categorizations based on style. Positional: Kramnik, Karpov, Aronian, Carlsen. Tactical: Kasparov, Shirov, Tal, Alekhine. How does one know his style? Is it something he chooses based on what he likes to play or is it something that is shown from his play?"

Photo: Boxer struggling with chess. Yes, the board is set up wrong

Jeremy Silman: That’s an excellent question! I’ll give my two cents, but I know that various players will scream the mandatory, "You’re wrong!" For those know-it-alls, gnash your teeth and scream your discontent all you want since I like the sound of squeals in the morning (a loose take on Apocalypse Now: "I like the smell of napalm in the morning").

Since I began with an aggressive stance (no, I’m not angry, but since I will leap into boxing I wanted to create an ambience of violence), I’ll start with a boxing analogy (because what could be more instructive than two people beating each other’s faces in?).

If people want to learn the ins and outs of serious boxing they don’t talk about their boxing skills or their boxing style (hmmm…okay, maybe they will. But after a few lessons all that nonsense will go away). Instead, they learn how to throw a punch, how to stand, footwork, defense, and how to do all the basics. Once they pick all those things up, the hopeful boxer will discover that their cherished "style" might have nothing to do with their real strengths.

For example, your favorite boxer might be Manny Pacquiao, who has extremely fast hands. You want to be like him but "fast hands" isn’t something you can learn; it’s something you do or don’t have.


Pacquiao, waving. 

You might find that you love the way Wilfred Benitez used to fight in his prime. This guy was a fantastic defensive fighter (Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Willie Pep were two other defensive geniuses). However, if your footwork isn’t anything special, and if your feet just won’t take up the slack, then you won’t be a defensive fighter even if you really wanted to be.

I would guess that many would-be fighters want to be a knockout king. Alas, if your hands are made of feathers then you have to embrace reality and find skills that you can be good at.

In other words, your style isn’t something you choose. Instead, your style chooses you.

So, let’s talk about chess. In my view players under master might want to embrace a particular style but if they don’t have the right skills to make that style work then they really don’t have a style at all; instead they have a FAVORITE style. Those are two different things. Once again, if you don’t have fast hands, you won’t ever have fast hands. There is nothing you can do about that. If you can’t calculate extremely deeply, you won’t be an Alekhine or Kasparov or Tal (that kind of calculation is a gift, not something you can learn).

Of course, I’m playing with semantics here, and this doesn’t mean you are trapped into one mode or skill. If you want to call your "favorite style" your "style," then go for it. For example, a 1500 player might have 2000-level endgame skills and 1700 positional understanding, but he wants to attack (though his tactical level is 1500)! Thus he sacrifices something every game (sound or not sound), chases enemy kings, and has a great time. If someone asked what his style was, he would most likely say (with a lot of pride!), "I’m an attacking player!"

The truth though, is that if he reached master level he would probably find that his true style is positional (with good endgame skills attached). Attacking is his favorite style, but like men that dream of dating supermodels, it’s just not going to happen in real life.


Tom Brady and the supermodel Gisele Bundchen.

Actually, I wonder how many real chess styles there are. In boxing you have many: the swarmer, the defensive fighter (also called boxer and even out-boxer), slugger, counter puncher, and my favorite, the boxer-puncher. Again, these styles are created by the boxer’s particular skill-set and talent.

In chess, though, we mostly view style as tactical or positional. I might add dynamic to this list (kind of like the boxer-puncher, this would be a well rounded ,aggressive chess player who can do just about everything well. I would put Fischer in this category). Other style names are used sometimes ("calculating," and "intuitive," and even "practical"), but all they really do is point out a particular skill among all their other skills. In general you would not say, "His style is a calculator!" Instead, you would point out that he’s a great tactician/attacking/positional player with an incredible ability to calculate very deeply.

I guess it’s time to answer Mr. Wackyj1’s questions!

Question: You hear about "style" everywhere from chess books to chess articles.

JS: Books and articles that mention styles usually point out a titled player’s style, not an amateur's. The titled player’s style wasn’t created by a wish, it was created by the skills that made him a strong player. Also understand that though a player might be labeled "positional," he can play in any style if the board demands it. Keep in mind that the titled player doesn’t care what people say his "style" is. In fact, usually the player’s style is given by someone else to explain that particular player’s strengths.

Personally, I never talk to my students about style. Grandmaster/IM styles, yes, but that’s it. It’s just not important. However, I DO discuss what kinds of positions strong players like to create, and what kinds of positions would help my students get stronger.

Question: How does one know his style? Is it something he chooses based on what he likes to play or is it something that is shown from his play?

JS: As I said in my very long preamble, you don’t have a style. Instead, you have a favorite style. You will only have a personal style once you become a strong player, and even then you won’t pick your style, you will just know what it is (while also realizing that thinking about your style is pretty much useless). Why is it useless? Because many different kinds of positions will occur, and (much of the time) you’ll have to react in a specific manner that has nothing to do with the position you would prefer.

Here’s an example:

It’s clear that Black is on top due to White’s inferior pawn structure. To make matters worse, you view yourself as an attacker and here there is nothing to attack! Fortunately, just because you love going after the opponent’s king doesn’t mean you’re ignorant about other parts of the game. White, thanks to his endgame studies, understands that passive defense here probably won’t stave off the wolves. But if he can trade off the queenside pawns he will be able to make a draw. Thus:

As you can see, being a good player is important, but coveting a style label of "attacker" is completely useless.

Let’s take a look at a game that Wackyj1 lost. His demise occurred due to his lack of basics.

Here’s another:

Please don’t get me wrong. Everyone goes through this learning phase. But I want you to know that games like this, though painful, are actually worth their weight in gold! That’s because your teacher or chess engine will show you these patterns and you’ll cease to fall for them and actually use them against your opponents!

What WackyJ1 learned:

  • If you’re ahead in material but behind in development, it’s usually a good idea to trade queens since it makes enemy attacks far less probable.
  • Don’t create gaping holes in your pawn structure. Your 10…e6 blunder should remain in your mind and help you for the rest of your life.
  • In your second game, the lack of the f7-pawn leaves the black king very vulnerable. If you have a bishop on d3 or a knight on e5, and if your queen is able to leap to h5, mate or massive material gains is often the result.

Mr. WackyJ1, as I said in a previous article, "If you can’t walk then you can’t run." Instead of putting your energy into a label ("positional" or "attacking"), work on your basic tactics (a LOT of tactics!), basic endgames, and positional concepts. Only then can you "walk" on the chessboard and, after a while, start to "run."

I also recommend that you (and everyone else) try to pick up some chess culture. It makes chess all the more fun and also teaches you a lot about history. As for discussions about styles, who's the best of all time, and did aliens invent chess 4,252 years ago, all the other internet noise shouldn’t be taken seriously but can be quite entertaining. Discussing various players’ styles and what kind of alien (the little grey, the tall white, the purple troll, the reptilian, and other alien races) created chess can put a smile on everyone’s face, but it has nothing to do with chess improvement.

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