Bruce Springsteen? No, Jose Raul Capablanca!

Petite combinaisons were Capa’s big business

How is the outcome of a chess game decided?

Normally, you build up your game positionally until your opponent is unable to meet a tactical threat. In other words, the game is played on positional lines, but the decision of it is, as a rule, effected by tactical shots/combinations.

The question is, how you get there, how you reach the point when your position is overwhelming and ripe for this big tactics? The so called little tactics is the answer. It brings little improvements to your position, taking energy from its forcing nature (as you have seen before, forcing is the primary law of tactics).

Vojo Stanic

Vojo Stanić (1924) is a Montenegrin painter and sculptor.
His paintings are small drama stories from everyday life, full of spirit. They bring back to life the spirit of Renaissance comedies, presenting human weaknesses and at the same time he shows understanding for them. Topics from cafes, sea or home are often a mixture of surreal details or imaginative relationship of characters and objects. He admits he has never learned chess!

Strategy and positional play and big/small tactics are not opposed, rather they are supporting each other. As GM Soltis put it, you can’t put them in separate boxes (and that’s exactly why we introduced Test your positional skills tactically puzzle here at www.iPlayooChess to sharpen your overall understanding of the game and how it should be approached – you don’t just wait for that tactical opportunity to happen, you must work on it positionally, using strategic methods, typically with help of small tactics; our puzzles give you the best of both worlds – you get the whole package).

Baby steps

Little tactics can be executed in two ways. Either you make a threat to which your opponent’s must respond; or, you make a non-forcing move that doesn’t threaten your opponent, but leaves your pawn or piece under threat! Luckily, there’s little tactics to provide justification for it.

Essentially, both ways of using small tactics are strategic in purpose and secure some positional advantage tipping the scales, sometimes almost unnoticeably, in your favor (it could be mundane things, such as opening up a line, creating a passer, improving piece placement, etc., so amateurs may not appreciate it much; yet this is so important for their improvement in chess).

Today you are going to see a, so called, petite combinaison, or little combination, that offers a sacrifice for positional gain. It was Capablanca’s favorite weapon, something he was famous for.

White just played 16.e4. “Quite plausible, as after 16…fxe4 17.Bxe4 White has visions of continuing either with 18.b5 and 19.c6, or 18.Rfd1 and 19.d5, with a good game.” wrote Chernev.

Can you spot a little combination/sacrifice the great Capa made here that led to a small positional improvement for him?

The next Capa’s move is part of a strategy already underway. 12…Na6 was played before to provoke the advance of the c-pawn (which effectively lost control over d5) and with his next move Capa is provoking the advance of the e-pawn, apparently leaving the f6-bishop without retreat square.


Capa is offering his bishop! The point of this little tactics is to tempt White to advance his e-pawn and cause further weakening of White’s pawn structure; this creates a favorable pawn formation in the center for Black, and increases the value of the b7-bishop and the knight that is going to occupy the d5-square now.

Again, possibility of these positional gains is justified by tactical means (little tactics!).

17. e5

“White leaps at the chance to simplify the position on the K-side, and be left undisturbed to operate on the Q-side. But he reckons without his host, as the novelists used to say.” (Chernev)

17…Nd5! 18.Bd2

The critical line for our small tactics discussion is 18. exf6. Black then replies 18… Nf4 19. Qd1

The other option is 19. Qe3 Nxg2 20. Qg5 (20. Kxg2 Qg4+ 21. Kh1 Bxf3+ and White must give up his queen) 20… Qxg5 21. Nxg5 Nf4 22. fxg7 (22. f7+ Rxf7 23.Nxf7 Nh3#) 22… Rf7 23. Bb5 Rxg7.

19… Nxg2 20. Ne5 Qh3 threatening to mate or win the queen by 21…Ne3

21. Qd2 gxf6 22. f3 Nh4 23. Nc4 (23. Nxd7 Rf7) 23… Kf7! and Black’s attack prevails easily (Tartakower).

18… Be7 19. Ne1 Qf7 20.f4 Rab8 “A quite unassuming move that most players wouldn’t even think of in a week, yet a master would spot its hidden potential in a flash. Keep your eye on this rook!” (Chernev in Capablanca’s Best Chess Endings.)

Morrison-Capa 1922b

Capa is preparing to open two files for his men to operate on: the b-, as well as g-file, after g7-g5 (the undermining move clearly indicated by the current pawn set up), when his long distance pieces along g-file and the h1-a8 diagonal may find cohesion1 (targeting g2).

Over time, the players get in the endgame where White’s inferior pawn formation was the determining factor. The d4-pawn is the main support not only of the White’s pawn structure, but of his entire position. Should it fail, White’s whole game will fall apart.

Little tactics, huge lasting gains — the positional advantage created by the petite combinaison was decisive for the outcome of the game.



1. Here I’d like to turn your attention to Capa’s genius who always had in mind the big picture, which was giving him clear hints at where his men should go for a harmonious, most effective set up. Curiously enough, here I’m going to use the words by another great artist, the Montenegrin painter Vojo Stanić (see the picture above)

“The picture must have integrity, no matter how the details are being done,” wrote Stanić. “Danger lurks in the little things that can detract attention. While doing the details, thoughts should always be on the whole. It looks easy, but what looks easy, is often the hardest. The hardest thing is to be a genius, but for him – everything is easy.”

Indeed, for Capa, everything was easy.

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