Play the Flag, not the Board (Part I)

Play the Flag, not the Board (Part I)

GM Illingworth
Oct 12, 2015, 5:06 AM |

Of all the things one can discuss in chess, players (especially club players) tend to be most attached to the concept of their 'chess style'. Early on in your chess career you surely heard Player A say that Player B 'is a good positional player' or 'Player C is very tactical but doesn't understand chess' (maybe you even heard this as an excuse after someone lost a game!).

Early on you probably felt that you had to join either the 'tactical' or 'positional' chess faction and perhaps you even based your entire opening repertoire around this nomenclature. At least if you look at chess forum discussions on the opening, a common question is 'what openings should I play?', 'what is the best defence to 1.e4 for a positional player' and so forth. 

In truth, looking at the concept of chess style from only the perspective of tactical vs. positional means you are focusing on just one of several elements. 

I think the clearest definition of style in chess is:

Your chess style is the representation of the positions you feel comfortable (or conversely, uncomfortable) playing. 

Let's say your rating is 1500, then you don't play every single position at that level - there are some positions where you have a better idea of what you are doing and play above your rating. And there are other positions where you are a fish out of water and play below your usual standard.

Now I want you to consider the following philosophical quote by the late GM Miguel Najdorf:

But you see when I play a game of Bobby, there is no style. Bobby played perfectly. And perfection has no style. 

For the best players in the world, style takes on a different meaning, and represents the decisions a player will take when there is more than one equivalent option in a position, but below this elite level, style is indicative of the vulnerabilities of the player - namely what positions they will feel most uncomfortable in, and therefore where they will make the most (and most serious) mistakes. 

Style is also representative of the influences on a player - from who their favourite player is, to who trained them, and even which country they are from.

Of course, you can't always know your opponent's favourite player or who is coaching them (or if they are self-taught), but you do know your opponent's country! Even when you start a game on's server, you can see your opponent's flag. And that information could give you a head start, if you understand the 'chess culture' of that country.

So for the remainder of this post I will give you some examples of the general chess style of different groups of players. Not just so you are ready against such players, but to demonstrate what patterns to look for among players of a particular country. Even so, not all players from one country will play exactly the same way. 

I will be focusing on the opening segment as this is where you have the greatest control over what type of position will arise. 

1) Filipino Chess Players

Many players struggle somewhat against the general style of players from the Philippines, as they are generally very tricky and good at setting practical problems, and are quite strong when they have the initiative. This is to a large extent due to the influence of Eugenio Torre, Asia's first Grandmaster, who was very successful by relying on his tactical acumen, which made up for his (compared to other players of his level) lesser knowledge of opening theory. 

The following game is a pretty effective illustration:

Now you can see the full game (without annotations) below:
One weakness I noticed among Filipino players in my games against them is that, when they are in an unfamiliar situation early, they tend to be a bit slow with completing their development and move one of their pieces several times instead of getting every soldier on to the battlefield. With the next puzzle, you'll have the opportunity to exploit your lead in development:
The opening I've found to be most effective against Filipino players is the Trompowsky (1.d4 Nf6 2.Bg5), since they generally have no theoretical knowledge of how to meet it, yet White's plans are relatively straightforward and therefore it is very easy for Black to go wrong or at least end up in a structure lacking in attacking chances for them. Now for the full game:
To conclude this section I'll leave you with a puzzle to test your skill in exploiting a lead in development. This time my opponent didn't manage to castle at all!
I've run out of time as I need to board a flight (I just played the Isle of Man Open and am returning to my home in Sydney), so I will conclude this post for now and write up the second part when I am back home! 
As usual, you can check out my website or my coach profile on