What is the definition of tactics and its role à propos strategy? We’ll also discover that little something about the main principle of tactics here as promised last time (everybody’s talking and using tactics, but go Google on “main principle of tactics” and you’ll get just few hits, probably twenty or so).

Kircher's Seeschlacht bei Lissa. Heavy use of tactics indeed: Austrian empire force engaged with the Italians, in the Adriatic sea, near Croatian island of Vis, 1866

Tactics should be a good servant of strategy

Here’s the definition of the tactics from Britannica online:

“Tactics, in warfare, the art and science of fighting battles on land, on sea, and in the air. It is concerned with the approach to combat; the disposition of troops and other personalities; the use made of various arms, ships, or aircraft; and the execution of movements for attack or defense”.

It seems to me that even Britannica gives a loose definition of tactics. “Approach to combat” probably belongs more to strategy, “disposition of troops” appear to blend both strategy and tactics, but whatever.

My favorite is this one from Business Dictionary.com:

“Tactics, a means by which a strategy is carried out; planned and ad hoc activities meant to deal with the demands of the moment, and to move from one milestone to other in pursuit of the overall goal(s)” – this beats Britannica hands down.

To talk tactics, the two opposing armies must first be engaged in some sort of contact. Secondly, everything before the contact is by definition strategy, so the tactical actions after the engagement should be:

1) planned, supporting that strategy, but also

2) ad hoc as strategy is adjusting to the demands of the moment when the two strategies are competing (there’s another side in the conflict? and they also want to prevail? go figure) .

From the above follows that strategy and tactics are blurred and often overlap after the armies get engaged. The key here is that tactics is behaviors through which objectives and, ultimately, the strategic intent is achieved.

Tactics in chess

“Tactics is the practical move-to-move play which ensues when the pieces of the opposing sides come into contact with each other or threaten to do so”, Euwe.

There are two things here that need clarification:

1) What does “coming into contact” mean in chess? When the armies get engaged. Once an attacking contact is established. Simply put, when two enemy pieces are lined up.

2) What does the threat of attack mean? It’s simply that an actual attack is just one-move away (for example, with white Rook on e1, black Pawn on c7 is under a threat of attack, or concealed attack, or indirect attack). Averbakh considers the threat of attack as one of the basic contacts, together with attacking, protecting, and restricting one.

Battle of Coronel. German Kaiserliche Marine engaged with Royal Navy forces, off the coast of Chile, 1914 (by the way, what were they looking for off the coast of Chile was another issue - to help out Chilean fishermen perhaps?)

The main principle of tactics

We know that the main principle of strategy is defeating the other guy’s strategy (if they have one! 98% people never really define their goals and start towards them, not only over the chess board, but also in life!?!).

The purpose of tactics is basically two-fold:

1) It is just a tool to promote your own strategy.

2) It is the best way to fight the other guy’s plans! (=the supreme principle of strategy)

But how can you make the other guy play the game you want and not the game they want to?

By using force! You want to restrict their options by using threats and coercion. You make forcing moves so they may start losing ground. By using force you limit their options which in turn may result in some tangible gain.

The advantage of this lies is the fact that the opponent is absorbed with your attack and their main focus would be solely placed on performing defensive activities. Taking initiative and grasping your chance to mount an offensive at the right moment is thus the essential principle of tactics. With this approach chances are their strategy is going to fail. Once their strategy failed, your plan (you should always have one!), now unopposed, goes through with full force.

Simple, huh? All this is easily understood as principle, but its application is a little bit more difficult though (otherwise, we seem not to be enjoying this wonderful, absorbing game of chess).

Again, the grand principle of tactics is this:

You don’t let the other guy breathe when you’re chipping away at him. You just keep the pressure on him all the time in heads-up play.

I’ll tell you a secret: the above is a piece of advice from a poker player, but it perfectly describes our supreme principle of tactics to be used in chess and elsewhere! By the way, every field has a fitting description – for example, in marketing they say the tactics is techniques for turning strangers into paying clients:)

Again, the age-old first principle of tactics teaches to engage the enemy at their weakest point with a sequence of moves that restrict their options basically.

Finally, Journal of Royal United Service Institution in its Volume 27, p.449, in 1884:

Our old principle of tactics is here as peremptory as in any other case: to bring a superior force against an inferior force of the enemy at the right time and place.

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Next time about how to apply this general principle of tactics in chess.

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