Sunday, August 3, 2008

The False Dicotomy of Tactical vs Positional players

This is an interesting one, because you hear it all the time. What player hasn't described him or herself as a 'tactical' or 'positional' player? I've certainly done so (tactical, in my case) without really thinking about what it means.

What chess game isn't tactical and positional? These are really just levels of thinking about a position, aren't they? Positional considerations relate to longer term structural and strategic factors, and tactics are the way we execute the plans we form while thinking positionally. Every game, we do both.

What I think the description is trying to capture is whether a given player prefers closed or open positions. Think about it: usually d pawn openings are described as more positional and e pawn openings as tactical. But this is silly. Kasparov cut a swath of rampant attacking destruction opening with either pawn, and Karpov player very prophylactically when opening with the e pawn earlier in his career. What's more accurate (though still questionable) is that e pawn openings result in more open positions, while d pawn openings often create closed positions. Tactical and positional considerations are important in each, but he nature of the play is different.

Perhaps what we should ask rather than 'tactical or positional?' is 'open or closed positions?'. I for one have a strong preference for open positions with easy piece play, and I play closed positions pretty badly (the exception being the King's Indian, which I seem to do pretty well against for some reason). Still, I open primarily with 1.d4 and do just fine in the opening. I just make sure to play the most open lines. I'd be interested to know if anyone else thinks 'open or closed' describes style better than 'tactical or positional'.

Credit has to go to Garrett Smith for pointing out to me that this was really a rather non-critcally accepted false dichotomy.


natec said...

I had a similar conversation with a strong master one time. He pointed out that strong, sound positional play creates positions where there are strong tactics. Games are never won by positional play alone. I think this especially applies to closed games where a piece or pawn sac to open the positions is often the means to the end.

Caeruleum Canis said...

wasn't it Spielmann who famously said that he could see Alekhine's attacks, but just not get his positions? Even players typically regarded as positional were extremely strong tacticians, very good at calculation. Petrosian for instance was considered to be one of the best tacticians among his peers, even though his style was very slow and prophylactic. Sometimes attackers (Tal for instance) claim they don't even calculate that well, and play mostly by feel.

Grandpatzer said...

I don't know, to me the whole tactics vs. strategy thing has been pretty clear.

In the sciences, you can proceed from concrete facts (e.g. math, 2+2=4) to laws that are mostly true but not absolute (Newton's laws of motion vs. quantum mechanics and relativity), to more general concepts (certain chemical reactions tend to proceed a certain way)to speculative (animal behavior and archaeology sometimes strike me as "scientist comes up with a good story that matches the evidence and that's good enough for TV").

Tactics fit the first category. Some endgame strategy matches the second category. A lot of positional chess falls into the third category. A lot of game annotations fall into the fourth category.

Strategy is just admitting that you can't calculate everything, and using less concrete evaluation methods in order to arrive at a move that has the greatest odds of success. In general, you use both tactics and strategy to choose candidate moves and evaluate them. Usually, tactics takes priority over strategy.


Caeruleum Canis said...

the question though is whether there is such a thing as a 'tactical' versus 'positional' style. I would say these are very bad characterizations, and, as I said in the post, I think they're really trying to get at whether someone favors closed or open positions. I would agree though that tactics alway s dominate. What is strategy? Just outlining a plan and directing your play to that goal. Only tactics can tell you how to get there, or if your plan is flawed.

CHESSX said...

Tal and Larsen were tactical players i think, and sometimes their sacrifices were not properly worked out.
As you say play by feel.
Petrosian was a great tactical player when playing speed chess,it is just a shame he could not play like that in long games more often.
All great players are both types.
Some like karpov and petrosian would get a small advantage then grind out a win.