Strategy Guides Tactics

Strategy Guides Tactics

Dec 22, 2009, 6:45 PM |

Most chess books advocate developing a plan for your game once you get through the opening.  This plan is your strategy for the middle game, and there are a great number of texts with a wealth of knowledge on the subject of strategy.  A well-founded strategy will be one that conforms to a proper theory of chess.  These are the topics I have discussed in my last three blogs that begin with The First Scientific Theory of Chess, continues with Steinitz’ Theory of Perfect Play, and is elaborated upon in Strategy for Perfect Play.

I would now like to move to the next logical topic, which is, of course, tactics. I will not attempt to give a lesson on tactics in this short blog, nor would you want me to if you were to watch me play.  If you want to become better at tactics, then I would urge all players below expert level to study what I believe to be the best website on this topic:  Predator at the Chessboard by Professor Ward Farnsworth.  The URL is easy to remember:

I will, however, ask a simple question about tactics.  If theory guides strategy, then is it not natural to ask if strategy should guide tactics?  This question should be answered in the affirmative, because I believe this is what players at the highest levels do.

Before we consider an example, let us first define our terms.  If strategy is the plan for the middle game, when how do we characterize tactics?  Farnsworth defines tactics as “spectacular chess moves,” the first three words in his online book.  However accurate that may be, I find it unsatisfying.  In their book on Chess Tactics for the Tournament Player, GMs Palatnik and Alburt define tactics as “the battles that take place when the two players create threats against each other’s men.”  This is more descriptive, but also not to my liking, so let me make my own feeble attempt at a definition:

Tactics refer both to the creation and opportunistic exploitation of weaknesses in the opponent’s position.

Let us now consider an example discussed by Alburt and Palatnik in their other book Chess Strategy for the Tournament Player.  In 1904 Tarrasch played Black against three opponents who consulted with one another.  For our purposes the key move is Tarrasch’s 24th where he sacrificed his rook.


The point of Tarrasch’s tactical rook sacrifice on move 24 is that it conformed to his strategy for the game, which was clearly to leverage his advantage of the two bishops.  By sacrificing his rook, he opened up the position for a ferocious attack by the combined strength of those bishops supported by the queen.  There are many other tactical nuances in the game as discussed by Alburt and Palatnik, but I think the point about strategy guiding tactics is beautifully illustrated by this game.

In The Tarrasch Formula authors Palatnik and Ishee include a brief discussion of Steinitz’ theory, noting that Lasker, who unseated Steinitz as world champion, was a dedicated student of Steinitz’ ideas.  Recall that Steinitz’ theory was that a perfectly played game will end in a draw.  An imperfect game is obviously one in which an error is committed.  Tactics can induce your opponent to commit this error. 

Palatnik and Ishee include the following observation, which fits nicely with this theme.  They write that  “Lasker’s tremendous success as a player was founded on his adoption of Steinitz’ theory: he excelled at intensifying the struggle by constantly posing difficult practical problems for his opponents.”

Nearly two years ago I wrote about this idea, which I dubbed ‘tactical entropy.’  The idea is to deliberately make a position more complex as a means of inducing your opponent to make an error, which you can then capitalize on.  After all, no one wants to play a perfect game if the result is a draw.  And the most satisfying way to avoid a draw is to win.

We began this exploration of Steinitz’ ideas with a discussion of theory, followed by strategy, and it is fitting that we now conclude with tactics.  After all, according to Richard Teichmann “Chess is 99% tactics”.