Strategy and Tactics

Strategy and Tactics

Sep 23, 2012, 7:05 PM |

It's often said that chess is 90% tactics. If so, then our strategic plans are of little value, or are they? Firstly though, where is the dividing line between strategy and tactics? Usually, tactics are seen as the implementation of strategy, or else simply as what happens in the short-term. The distinction is not a clear one. Responding to, or initiating immediate threats, including long sequences of forcing moves, is tactics, while a plan, such as a kingside attack that requires preparation, is a strategy. Since it is the framework that guides our tactical initiatives, strategy is often what makes tactics possible. On the other hand, tactics always override strategy. A capture or mating threat must take precedence over the execution of a long-range plan. Strategy and tactics operate in a feedback loop: while strategy guides tactics, tactical considerations act as a modifier of our strategic plan.

One way to see the importance of strategy is to realise that we may win the battle but lose the war. Thus we may be successful at grabbing two or three pawns, yet our premature attack might leave us vulnerable to a fatal counter-attack. The problem with purely tactical play is that it has a limited horizon. In particular, it generally ignores endgame considerations. Thus we may win a piece, only to find that we are saddled with a losing endgame.

Strategy becomes more important in quiet or drawish positions. When there are no obvious threats or weaknesses on either side, some deeper thinking is required to generate action. On the other hand, in a cliffhanger situation, where each player is just one move away from disaster, strategy is irrelevant.

All too often, strategy is what we think about and tactics is what actually happens. At the beginner level, the players' horizon is often just one move, so there is no strategy as such. As a chess player matures they try to look more than one move ahead, tactics become more complex, and rudimentary plans take shape. At the master level of play, strategy and tactics are probably evenly balanced.

Robbie has asked for examples, so here goes:


Playing White in my game against jeremslove, I reached this position at my move 25. Can you see a simple tactic that wins a pawn?


It is 25 Rd4 followed by 26 Ra4, winning the a-Pawn. That was pretty easy, but some strategic thought was needed in the same game at White’s move 51, I thought "His Bishop is perfectly placed, however am I going to win this?"


The problem is that my three joined pawns are blocked by his Bishop and Pawn, whereas my a-pawn cannot queen without help from my King. What would you do as White? Think about it for a moment before reading on.

My King cannot get past his Bishop on the right side (if I try he'll just keep his Bishop on g6), so it needs to penetrate on the left. Since his King blocks that side, the only way I could see to do this was to sacrifice my a-pawn. By forcing his King to capture it on the a-file I could slip my King past on the c-file and walk it to f6. Then he has to sacrifice his Bishop for a pawn and the other pawn will queen. The only other problem is that I have to be able to stop his passed e-pawn from queening, by controlling its queening square with my Bishop. To do so I had to rearrange my King and Bishop before pushing the a-pawn. It worked out as planned but it took another 21 moves. Note that he can eventually get my Bishop in exchange for his e-pawn, but this does him no good, as by then my pawns are close to queening.

I'm pretty sure this position is a forced win for White, but beware of opposite-colour Bishop endgames - they are notoriously drawish, even when one or two pawns up.

The entire game, with blow-by-blow computer analysis is here:

Although this game was not exciting, it is the only game I have played that wasn’t a draw and where neither player committed a real blunder. Black’s biggest error was failing to castle.