Positional Play

Morphy, Paul (1837-1884), American chess player, whose innovations during a brief but brilliant career added new dimensions to the game. His strategic approach to chess foreshadowed the use of positional play, a strategy that has been used by many grandmasters in the modern era. In 1858 Morphy traveled to Europe, where he played three grandmasters: János Löwenthal of Hungary, Daniel Harrwitz of Germany, and Adolf Anderssen of Germany. He defeated all three of these leading European players within a six-month period, assuring himself a place in chess history. His strategic approach to chess foreshadowed the use of positional play. Instead of using outright attacks during play, as was traditionally done, Morphy slowly moved his pieces into positions of strength. This attention to positional play allowed him to arrange complex combinations of pieces that ultimately overwhelmed opponents

There are, it would seem, a number of amateurs to whom positional play appears to be meaningless. A typical and wide-spread misconception is the assumption of many amateurs that each single move must accomplish something directly; so that such a player will only seek for moves which threaten something, or for a threat to be parried, and will disregard all other possible moves such as waiting moves or moves calculated to put his house in order, etc. Positional moves are in general neither threatening nor defensive ones, but rather moves designed to give to our position security in the wider sense, and to this end it is necessary for our pieces to establish contact with the enemy's strategically important points or our own. This is especially true when we are considering "over-protection," and the fight against enemy freeing moves.

When a positional player, that is one who understands how to SAFEGUARD HIS POSITION in the wider sense, engages one who is a purely a combinational player, the latter who has only attack in his thoughts, is preoccupied with but two kinds of countermoves, and looks only for a defensive move from his opponent, or calculates on the possibility of a counter-attack; and now the positional player dumfounds him by choosing a move which will not fit into either of these categories. The move somehow or other brings his pieces into contact with some key point, and this contact has miraculous effects; his position is thereby imbued with strength, and the attack on it comes to naught. A similar disconcerting effect is also often produced by a move which protects a point which is under no sort of attack. The positional player protects a point not only for the sake of that point, but also because he knows that the piece which he uses for its defense must gain in strength by mere contact with the point in question.

Another erroneous conception may be found among the Masters. Many of these and numbers of strong amateurs are under the impression that positional play above all is concerned with the accumulation of small advantages, in order to exploit them in the end game. This mode of play is said to demand the finest intelligence and also to be aesthetically most satisfying.

In contradiction to this we would remark that the accumulation of small advantages is by no means the most important consituent of positional play. We are inclined rather to assign to this plan of operation a very subordinate role. Moreover the difficulty of this method is very much overestimated, and lastly it is not quite easy to see how the petty storing up of values can be called beneficial.. Does not this procedure remind one in some sense of the activities of some old pinch penny? And so we here note the fact that there are quite other matters to which the attention of the positional player must be directed, and which places this "accumulation" wholly in the shade.

What are these things and in what do you see as the idea of true positional play? The answer is short and to the point: it is "prophylactic."

The conception of positional play as such: the idea of the accumulation of small advantages is only of second or third significance; of much greater importance is a prophylactic applied both externally and internally.

! Prophylactic measures

Aron Nimzovich proclaims that neither attack nor defense is a matter properly pertaining to positional play. It is rather an energetic and systematic application of prophylactic measures. What it is concerned with above all else is to blunt the edge of certain possibilities which in a positional sense would be undesirable. Of such possibilities, apart from the mishaps to which the less experienced player is exposed, there are two kinds only. One of these is the possibility of the opponent making a "freeing" Pawn move. The positional player has accordingly so to arrange his pieces that enemy freeing moves may be prevented. In connection with which it is to be noticed that we must examine every case that arises to see whether the freeing move in question really is freeing. Many times there are unfavorable, premature opening up of the game, whereas other freeing moves should be considered as normal reactions, and as such must be calmly accepted; for it were a presumption to wish to fight against natural phenomena.

We note then, that the prevention of freeing Pawn moves, as far as this appears necessary and feasible, is of great importance in positional play. Such prevention is what we wish to be understood as an exterior prophylactic. It is much more difficult to grasp the idea of an interior prophylactic, for here we have to do with an entirely new conception. We are in fact now concerned with the warding off of an evil, which has really never been understood as one, yet which can, and in general does, have a most disturbing effect on our game. The evil consists in this, that our pieces are out of, or in insufficient contact with our own strategically important points. The strategical proposition is that one must over-protect his own strategically important points, that is, provide defense in excess of attack; lay up a store of defense. Weak points, still more strong points, in short every thing that we can include in the collective conception of strategically important points, ought to be over-protected. If the pieces are so engaged, they get their reward in the fact that they will then find themselves well posted in every respect.

The rule for over-protection applies, as is natural, most particularly to strong points, to important squares in the center, which are likely to come under heavy fire, to strong blockading squares, or to strong passed Pawns, etc. Ordinary weak points should under no circumstances be over-projected, for this might very well lead to the defenders getting into passive positions. However a weak Pawn that forms the base of an important Pawn-chain may and should be well over-protected. To illustrate this, the Pawn-chain made up of the QP and KP on each side. In the former the Rooks protect the weak base of the Pawn-chain, every such base is in a certain sense to be classed as weak since the one sure defense, by a Pawn , is wanting. Yet this protection stands the strong Pawn at K5 also in good stead; for, as we know, the strengthening of the base involves at the same time a strengthening throughout the whole chain.

The law of over-protection applies in general only to strong points. Weak points can only lay claim to over-protection in such cases where they help to support other and strong points.

Side by side with the idea of prophylactic, that of the collective mobility of a Pawn-mass is the main postulate of the position play.

In the last resort positional play is nothing other than a fight between mobility (of the Pawn-mass) on the one side and efforts to restrain this on the other. In this all-embracing struggle the intrinsically very important device of the prophylactic is merely a means to an end.

It is of greatest importance to strive for the mobility of our Pawn-mass; for a mobile mass can exercise a crushing effect in its lust to expand. This mobility is not always injured by the presence of a Pawn that has possibly remained behind in the general advance i.e., by a backward Pawn, who can perhaps be used as a nurse to tend his fellows at the front. In the case of a mobile Pawn-mass we must therefore look for collective and not individual mobility, each Pawn for itself.

The Center

We will now turn our attention to that terrible region in which the amateur (and on occasion the Master) only too often trips up , namely the center.

Insufficient watch kept on the central territory as a typical and ever-recurring error. The center as the Balkans of the chess-board. On the popular, but strategically doubtful diversion of the attack from the center to the wings. On the invasion of the center. The occupation of central squares.

It may be taken as common knowledge that in certain positions it is necessary to direct our pieces against the enemy center; for instance in positions characterized by the presence of White Pawns at K4 and KB4 and of Black Pawns at Q3 and KB2 (or White at Q4 and QB4; Black at QB2, and K3). On the other hand it is not so well known that it is a strategical necessity to keep the center under observation even if it be fairly well barricaded. The center is the Balkans of the chessboard; fighting may at any moment breakout there. The proper course of action runs thus.
1. Watch the center.
2. Over-protect the key points
3. Do not divert your attack prematurely
4. After the Pawns are gone the key points must be occupied by pieces.

The motif of correct strategy is the over-protection of the center with, further, a systematically carried out centralization of our forces. Wing attack met by play in the center.

Centralization is ever a characteristic of Master play. Alekhine makes use of this strategy with special predilection, and this (with play against enemy squares of a particular color) forms the motif of all his games. Even when the knife seems actually to be at his King's throat in a King-side attack, he yet finds time to mass troops in the center.

The Surrender of the Center.

It is not a new idea that the center need not necessarily be occupied by Pawns; that centrally posted pieces or even lines bearing on the center could , take the place of Pawns; the main point being to place the enemy center Pawns under restraint.

When Black in the much disputed variation of the French Defense 1.P-K4, P-K3; 2P-Q4; 3Kt-QB3, plays 3.....PxP, he gives up , according to the current opinion, the center. This view seems to rest upon and incomplete grasp of in fact a misconception, of what the center is. In what follows the attempt will be made, that this view is based on a prejudice.

First the definition of the concept "center". Here we have simply to abide by the meaning of the word. The "center" consists of the squares in the middle of the board, squares; not Pawns. This is fundamental and must never under any circumstances be lost sight of.

The importance of the center, that is to say the complex of squares in the middle of the board, as a base for further operations, is beyond question; and a note of Emanuel Lasker's to a game is worth recalling. "White, he wrote, "does not stand well enough in the center, to undertake an operation on the wing." This is finely conceived, and at the same time illustrates the close relationship between the center and the wings, the center being the dominating principle, the wings subordinate to it.

That control of the center must be of great significance, is, other considerations apart, clear form one thing, that if we have built up our game in the center, we have from thence the possibility of exercising influence on both wings at one and the same time, and of embarking on a diversion should opportunity offer. Without healthy conditions in the center, a healthy position on the wings is definitely unthinkable.

What are we to understand by this? How is this conditioned?

Current opinion holds that the center should be occupied by Pawns; P at K4 and P at Q4 is the ideal, but in fact the presence of one of these two Pawns postulates occupation of the center, provided the corresponding enemy Pawn is wanting.

But is this really the case? Is the P at Q4, after the moves 1.P-K4, P-K3; 2.P-Q4,, P-Q4; 3.Kt-Q?B3, PxP; 4.KtxP, justified in speaking of a conquest of the center? If, in a battle, you seize a bit of debatable land with a handful of soldiers, with out having done any thing to prevent an enemy bombardment of the position, would it ever occur to you to speak of a conquest of the terrain in question? Obviously not. Then why should you do so in chess?

It dawns upon us then, that control of the center depends not on a mere occupation (placing of Pawns), but rather on our general effectiveness there, and this is determined by quite other factors.

With the disappearance of a Pawn from the center (e.g., 3.....PxP; 4.KtxP as above) the center is a long way from being surrendered. The true conception of the center is a far wider one. Certainly, Pawns, as being the most stable, are best suited to building a center; nevertheless centrally posted pieces can perfectly well take their place. And, too, pressure exerted on the enemy center by the long range action of Rooks or Bishops directed on it can well be of corresponding importance. We meet this last case in the variation 3.....PxP. This move, so wrongly described as a surrender of the center, as a matter of fact increases Black's effective influence in the center very considerably; for with the removal by .....PxP of the P at Q4, which is an obstruction, Black gets a free hand in the Q file, and the long diagonal Qkt2 to KR8, which he will open for himself by .....P-QKt3. Obstruction! That is the dark side of the occupation of the center by Pawns. A Pawn is by nature, by his stability, his, so to speak, conservative spirit, a good center builder, but, alas he is also an obstruction.

That effective influence in the center is independent of the number of Pawns occupying it, appears from many examples, and of their abundance.

The cases in which pressure is exerted on the enemy center are with out number. Where the course of events will lead either to a blockade with consequent destruction of the KP (for movement is life), or to uncomfortable positions for the defending pieces, which will lead to the downfall of the "lucky possessor" of the center.

All this teaches us that by counting the heads of the Pawns in the center, nothing, literally nothing, is gained. To make mere arithmetic the starting point of a philosophy of the center can only be characterized as a mistaken proceeding.

A word on the genesis of this prejudice, which is closely bound up with the history of a position play.....First came Steinitz; but what he had to say was so unfamiliar, and he himself was so towering a figure, that his "modern principles" could not immediately become popular. There followed Tarrasch, who took hold of Steinitz's idea and served them up diluted to the public taste. And now to consider the application to our case. Steinitz was, we repeat, deep and great, but deepest and greatest in his conception of the center. When in his defense to the Ruy Lopez (.....P-Q3) he was able to transmute the enemy P at K4 which was to all appearances so healthy, into one whose weakness was patent to every eye, this was an unsurpassable achievement. Nothing lay further from his thoughts than a formalistic, arithmetical conception of the center.

Nuts and Bolts Positional Play

Each advantage no matter how small is important because a few small advantages added together can mean a winning position. Steintz called this the accumulation theory. If you play to accumulate small advantages you're playing "Positional Chess"

Examples of these small positional advantages include control of the central squares, good pawn placement or good pawn structure, few or no doubled pawns, backward pawns, isolated pawns, early development of the pieces, control of open files, rooks on open files, development of knights before bishops in the opening, trading off two knights for two bishops, trading off a bad bishop, taking the initiative, few pawn islands, a space advantage, castled and safe king, advanced pawn chain, good bishops, control of the center, control of diagonal by bishop, Knights on outposts, control of weak squares, no outposts or weak squares in your camp and others.

In your games, try to accumulate advantages. Build up your position gradually. Play to control the center. Avoid weakening pawn moves. Develop all your pieces quickly and pointedly. Safeguard your king by castling early. Activate your rooks, placing them on open and half-open files where possible. Double them on one of the files. Make a plan.

Play POSITIONAL CHESS! Seize open diagonals with your bishops. Seize open or half open files with your rooks, Induce weaknesses in your opponent's camp, then use them to launch an invasion. The weight of your accumulated advantages will be too much for your opponent to bear. Do all these good things and there'll be many victories in your future.

Positional Playing Style