The pitfalls of chess style

The pitfalls of chess style

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There seems to be a plethora of articles about chess styles on the major chess websites. If you read those articles, you get an embarrassingly long list of different styles to pick from. Just to name a few, you could be:

  • tactical,
  • positional,
  • agressive,
  • defensive,
  • hypermodern,
  • classical,
  • creative,
  • intuitive,
  • tricky,
  • technical,
  • dynamic,
  • practical;
  • an activist,
  • a reflector (whatever it means),
  • a pragmatic,
  • a theorist,
  • an endgame specialist,
  • a calculator, etc.

My advice is to forget all this. These categories might make some sense at higher levels (although some of them make me reach for the bullshit flag, to be honest), but are certainly useless when applied to club level players.

Here is the thing: If you are a club level player, you do not have a recognizable style yet, because you simply don’t play chess well enough. The above list for you is not a list of styles, but a list of basic skills you should acquire (I mean the items that make sense, of course). That is, among other things, you should:

  • learn to play tactically and positionally
  • learn how to attack and defend
  • work on your creativity, intuition, calculation
  • learn to play actively and dynamically
  • learn to play endgames well
  • work on your technique
  • learn your opening theory. 

Your style will start to emerge only when you have reached a pretty decent level in all of those areas. For example, if you learn to play endgames well and successfully, but you still don’t enjoy playing them, then OK, it really says something about your style. But at lower levels, talking about style almost exclusively serves as an excuse for weaknesses - weaknesses that could be improved or simply eliminated by studying and training. 

As a coach, I hear such statements quite often:

I am a tactician, I don’t like dull endgames.


I enjoy sharp, attacking openings. like the King’s Indian.

Which normally means:

I have no clue about endgames, I always lose them, and it is really frustrating, especially at OTB tournaments when everybody is watching. So I do everything to avoid endgames.


I have no idea what to do in a complex middle game, so I prefer openings like the King's Indian, where I simply push my pawns and attack the king, while mostly ignoring my opponent’s moves.

Working on your style is actually a fascinating area - but it is a higher level thing. For example, this is the story of Arthur Jusupov (from Mark Dvoretsky’s For Friends and Colleagues):

"I saw Artur Yusupov on occasion at the Pioneer Palace, at the training sessions of the Moscow youth team where I was invited as a coach, and at the Botvinnik chess school, where I helped Mikhail Moiseevich for five years. In late 1974 or early 1975, Yusupov’s father and Artur himself asked me to work with him individually. I thought that he was a very nice guy, so I agreed. However, at first, I was not particularly impressed by Yusupov’s chess abilities. He played tediously and monotonously, almost never making sharp, clever moves and avoiding active pawn advances. In his games, there were very few tactics. On the other hand, in his age group, Yusupov was the strongest in Moscow. Could a chess player with little talent achieve obvious competitive success? I began to think and figured out what had happened. Before working with me, for several years, Artur had a coach who played uninspired chess, and, in spirit, this coach resembled a boring school teacher. From childhood, Artur was a “proper” boy. He played boring and careful games not because he was afraid of something but, instead, because he thought that this was the right kind of play, not knowing of any other kind. My main goal for that initial period was clear: to expand my new student’s creative arsenal, to demonstrate the beauty and diversity of ideas in chess. Soon, Yusupov’s style began to evolve towards richness of content and dynamism."


Dvoretsky with Yusupov

(...) "Yusupov utilized the World Junior Championship for training purposes. At the time, our work was aimed mainly at improving his tactical skills, enhancing his ability to avoid getting lost in irrational complications, having him learn to sacrifice material and to confidently navigate unbalanced positions. To make the most headway in this area, working through examples and exercises in class was not enough. It was important to put this new style of play to the test in tournaments, if not regularly, then at least occasionally. At the 1979 World Championship, Artur played very aggressively; in thirteen games, he sacrificed, by my count, 15 (!) pawns. Of course, at first it did not go well, and the final result was modest – only “plus two.” But the accumulated experience contributed much to his great success in the next two tournaments: the First and Higher Leagues of the USSR Championship. There, Yusupov reverted to his usual style, but supplemented with new useful knowledge."

(...) "We continued our work in the same direction and in the same spirit. Thus, in the very strong 1981 Moscow Championship, Artur sacrificed pieces rather than pawns – again, without too much success. In the national championship, out of the 17 games he played, 12 were decisive: 6 wins and 6 losses. But, in the beginning of the next year, Yusupov confidently won the zonal tournament for the world championship in Yerevan. By that time, his play had become truly harmonious and versatile."

An interesting story - but as Dvoretsky mentions, 14-year old Yusupov was already the strongest player in his age group in Moscow. In my estimation, that would mean a 2200-2300 FIDE rating nowadays. This is the level when style really becomes a thing.

So, how to deal with the question of style? Simple - just forget it. Work diligently on your weaknesses and don't call them your "style".  

I hope you enjoyed the post. If you are looking for no-nonsense coaching with a professional coach, feel free to send me a private message here or on, and we can arrange a non-committal video call to discuss your goals and get to know each other.