What is chess strategy? Isn’t a chess game all chess tactics?

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Many people, specially the less experienced lot but including some good players also, hold that a chess game is all chess tactics only. Well, everyone is entitled to his/her opinions. But I would not subscribe to that as I have said in a previous article on chess strategy and chess tactics. This point was reiterated in “Chess Strategy and Chess Tactics: How they go hand in hand” that one needs the other for consistently effective results! I stressed ‘consistently’ because you may sometimes get through on the strength of excellent skills in chess tactics, but more often than not you will fail to prevail against players of some standing.

Even though chess strategy and chess tactics work side by side in many games, what you mostly see is the role of chess tactics – simply because the sequence of moves in a combination and their outcome is readily visible and you can recognize the chess tactics in action. The chess strategy that prompted the launch of a combination lies underneath and may not even become apparent to you as you get blinded by the fireworks of a brilliant combination!

If you study chess history of matches and tournaments, you will find a great many players including Grandmasters who were essentially chess tacticians and produced brilliant games. But look at their record of World Championship and you will realize that very few of them reached that pinnacle, and even when they did, their stay at the top was for a brief period only. Against this fact, you will find that all the great masters holding sway at the top for a length of time had an excellent grasp of chess strategy.

Are we decrying chess tactics or lowering its importance? Not at all. It is self-evident that a plan or strategy, however grandiose it may be, will not come to anything unless you can take a proper course of action, read chess tactics, to implement it.

The most significant differences between chess strategy and chess tactics lie in their spread on a time-scale and in their goals. Chess tactics, or what is commonly described as chess combinations, take place on the chessboard from time to time during the course of a game. The goal of one combination can be the creation of an extra pawn. The next combination will probably aim to ensure the promotion of the pawn, and so on. Chess strategy on the other hand may be formulated much before the start of a game and may continue in the background well into the endgame. Chess strategy is focused on the ultimate win and takes into considerations outside of what happens on the chessboard, like the personality and playing style of the opponent!

To cite an example, Botvinnik lost the World Championship match in 1960 to Tal because he found that it was extremely difficult to tackle Tal, arguably the most brilliant chess tactician in history of the game, when he had space to create his superb combinations. Of 21 games in this match, Botvinnik lost 6 against Tal’s 2, rest 13 being drawn, with average of 44 moves per game. But in 1961, Botvinnik, himself an excellent tactician, decided on frustrating Tal by denying that space through playing ‘closed’ games and won back the championship. Though this was not the only determining factor, but this chess strategy by Botvinnik formulated even before the first game must have helped! The result of 21 games, Tal losing 10 and drawing 6 with average 52 moves per game, tells the story. But when Botvinnik played next championship against Petrosian in 1963, he certainly needed a different strategy as Petrosian was essentially a positional player and is regarded by many critics as the most difficult player to beat in the history of chess. Among the top masters, he had the maximum number of drawn games against players of comparable strength. The effect is there to see in the results of Petrosian winning the championship with 5 wins and 15 draws in total 22 games at average 45 moves per game (the last 2 games accepted drawn after 10 moves only).

We will see later that players with predominantly tactical games tend to get frustrated when they cannot give free rein to their combination ideas and bring about their own downfall by playing risky moves due to impatience! You have already been told about such chess strategy in the concluding paragraphs of “Chess Tactics: more on attacking techniques”.

To people who think chess is all about chess tactics, I will ask one question. When you open the game with d4 or e4 or whatever, where is the chess tactics? But there can be a chess strategy in it. If you know that your opponent hates e4 (someone like Gruenfeld who played it only once in his career), possibly because of his dislike of open games, you can play it as a strategy (assuming you know how to handle such opening) to create some discomfiture for your opponent!

In our next article on understanding differences between chess strategy and chess tactics, we will list the differences as we see them.