Intermediate & Advanced Levels: Positional play: Carlsen–Radjabov, Tata Steel 2015
A positional game
Most chess fans are used to the term “positional play”, although its meaning may not be as transparent as it should. For starters, positional isn't the opposite nor completely aside from tactics. If anything, positional play is tactics seen from afar.
Let’s say someone is thinking on applying for a job in an English speaking country, and he doesn’t speak the language; then, studying the language prior to the application seems reasonable. Someone else is thinking on traveling alone through the desert; then, his main concern should be having enough water for the entire journey.
Positional play is like that. It’s about thinking of where should the pieces and pawns be to create the necessary conditions to prevail in a close combat (which in chess receives the name of tactical battle, or tactics). Rather than hoping for the best once full tactics arrive, the player prepares his forces and works on the conditions necessary to succeed, prior to opening lines and allowing the tactical battle... while, at the same time, denying the same preparations to the opponent.
Then, positional play is about not engaging into complicated tactics until the conditions are favorable and, when the position isn’t mature yet, to continuously improve the own position by placing the pieces and pawns in even stronger posts.
The goal is to ensure superiority of forces in the sector where the battle is about to –or may– take place, or to prevent the opponent to engage into a tactical battle in a given sector, as the positional conditions for his success doesn’t exist, or doesn’t exist yet.
These conditions are often called “general principles”, “positional principles” or “positional rules”. There are several, and they're useful to make a raw or precise evaluation of the situation on the board. Working around visual aspects of the position, such as the pawn structures, open lines, space control, weaknesses, etc., these rules can help to penetrate into the position's inner logic. In turn, it's the position's inner logic which determines the relative value of the control or occupation of lines and squares, where the lines represent the routes inside and between the armies, and the squares may be from valueless up to strongholds where to place the attacking or defensive forces.
Of course, when playing positional the opponent will "likely" (if a strong opponent, "definitely") object our continuous accumulation of positional gains (small advantages). Then, although positional play is about delaying large tactical operations until they're favorable, small tactics (in the form of threats and pressure), are necessary to enforce positional concessions from the opponent. That said, the threats can also involve an immediate opening of lines and, or sudden increase in the piece activity by coordination, with immediate, massive and favorable tactics, to which the opponent has no better choice than to accept a positional concession. And it becomes clear that the quality of the positional play is based, by far, on the ability to evaluate tactics –be it simple or complex.
Another explanation –of what positional play is about– comes from thinking of the value of chess pieces (Q=9, R=5, B=3, N=3, P=1). These come from an estimation –of their area of effect and their mobility– in thousands of games, meaning they’re statistical estimations. Then, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that these values don’t always apply to every single position, as the true values depend on the pieces' current effective area of effect and coordination against the opponent’s, their mobility to reach the battle zone in time, and their capacity to remain there; in sum, their activity. Which leads to the conclusion: Positional play is about increasing our pieces value –as a whole– while decreasing the opponent’s, before large tactical operations begin.
Of course, all of the above is easier said than done, because the course of a chess game rarely resembles a straight line. For example, in the development of a typical game, there won't be many opportunities to switch successfully from positional into tactical play, and missing them may drop the advantage. Also, switching from positional into full tactics isn’t a must in all situations. Or, in other cases, the opponent realizes he’s about to be squeezed to death by positional means, and charges ahead, even if positional conditions don’t favor him, looking to complicate matters for the side with the advantage.
The above is probably the reason why, games like the following, make such an impact in our understanding of how a chess game should be played.