Beautiful attacks coupled with big-time tactics are the reason millions of people play chess. That’s what pulls them in, that’s what gets them hooked into it. Yet, tactical fireworks don’t come just like that. You have to work on it a little. You need to be improving strength of your position up to a point when preconditions for that game-winning tactics are met.

Affiche de Championnat de France, 1925

Tactics is just building blocks of strategy. They should blend together all the time – become a skillful builder which sure will make Caissa smile upon you (the 3rd French Chess Championship poster, Nice 1925)

To get to that critical point a chess master is methodically building up his position until it is overwhelming (we know that building up strength is called strategy[1]). In chess there is the law: No combination without a considerable [positional] plus, no considerable plus without a combination… Prior accumulation of small positional advantages brings about a tension, discharging itself like an electric current, producing the conditions for a combination.[2]

I can see the combinations as well as Alekhine, but I cannot get into the same positions. – Rudolf Spielmann, The Master of Attack

We tend to study chess tactics out of the context, then we examine positional themes separately to understand what strategy is all about. Maybe it seems to be easier to study that way, but it is rather wrong — they should be presented together. The truth is, chess masters blend together the tactical and positional all the time.

Chess players should channel their inner Spielmann, or Tal by solving tactics, but they should also channel their inner Alekhine, or Karpov by learning how one builds up his position and sets up a deadly tactics.

Masters use tactics as strategy building blocks. First they use the so called little tactics to gain positional pluses one by one, then, when the time is ripe, they use game-winning big tactics to finish off the opponent. Chess moves, or any other execution in real time is 100% tactical by definition, but we should never forget there must be some strategy behind it. In fact, chess masters look at the board and sense what kind of positional pluses they’d like to get three or four moves ahead. To that end they use small tactics that is forcing by nature. Remember, every chess master is a positional tactician.

Petrosian is first and foremost a stupendous tactician, –Boris Spassky

Now the question is how you can reach a position where a deadly tactics may (if you see it!) release that potential energy having been accumulated on solid positional grounds? That is the key question of playing winning chess.

In general, you can do it by:

1. Improving placement of your pieces/worsening placement of enemy pieces,
2. Exchanging pieces favorably,
3. Improving strength of your position/weakening opponent’s position,
4. Using prevention to limit opponent’s possibilities/blunt the edge of his counterplay.

We have seen examples of #4, the most sophisticated one, in previous posts. Today, here is a #1 from the opus of the Marauding Viking, Bent Larsen.[3] You’ll see how use of small tactics turned an “=” game to “+/-” in just three strokes (moves 28-30). Astonishing!

You may underestimate slow build-up approach using little tactics because the changes they bring about, such as repositioning the bad bishop above, or forcing the trade of a dominant enemy piece, may look trivial to you.

Yet, that seems to be the art of winning in chess. Just ask masters. And try building up your construction skills from them.


1. The issue of “construction design” in chess is intimately linked to piece harmony, or the problem of order – how to prevent chaos so that everything hangs together. Your men should be mobilized and allocated to achieve unity and cohesion toward defining strategic objectives. They should work together in order for your team to run successfully, each piece having its role in keeping your position healthy and stable.

2. Lasker’s Manual of Chess, Dover 1947, p.198.

3.  Bent Larsen (1935-2010) was famous for his imaginative and unorthodox style of play and the first Western player to pose a serious challenge to Soviet Union’s dominance in chess. He disdained draws and often sought to create unbalanced positions where both players had good winning, and losing, chances (as we saw in the above game). He was well aware of the risks of this approach, “To win, it is necessary to accept lost positions,” he said. The game presented is taken from his Master of Counter-Attack, Batsford, London, 1992.

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