Elements of style

From art and literature to design and fashion the question of what constitutes style has been debated for centuries. Likewise, long since the days of early chess champions we have argued about their playing styles.

We use the word style freely without giving it much thought. But what does it really mean? What elements do define a style?

Nikolai Lagoyda

What is your playing style at the chess board? art by Nikolai Lagoyda

Two main playing styles are commonly recognized in chess, the attacking-tactical and the positional one. But we have trouble defining style by using strategy and tactics as its constituent elements. In the post on GM Vladimir Simagin we saw that Simagin was called the “hero of combinations” by GM Kotov, while on the other hand the super-coach Mark Dvoretsky placed Simagin with several instructive examples of his highly original games in Positional play, Batsford 1996.

Likewise, the playing style of the great Bent Larsen was hard to define. Some called him the Great Deceiver, arguing that he only set tactical traps to his opponents, yet others believed that his main advantage was his keen positional understanding.

Are you confused?

Well, grandmasters blend strategy and tactics as different weapons from their toolbox to express their personal style. Contrary to the popular belief, Tal was a great positional player while he was preparing his fireworks before setting them off. On the other hand, Petrosian, the archetype of a positional player was a great tactician too; his positional style concealed “first and foremost a stupendous tactician,” Boris Spassky.1

So if the tactical and positional seem not to constitute a style, what does?

Risk and aggressivity

This quote by Petrosian may give us a hint:

“If it is true that a player’s style is his person, then everyone plays as he is intended to by nature. I am naturally cautious, and I altogether dislike situations which involve risk.”

It clearly indicates that chess style emulates the player’s personality and character. Simply put, style is you, it’s how you express your inner being outwardly. While you may be unaware of what and how you are communicating to the outer world, your style is how world sees you.

The above quotes also suggest one of character traits that may be very important element of chess playing style: the willingness of taking risk. Risk is our intentional interaction with uncertainty through exposure to potentially harmful situations and ultimately loosing something, weighed against the potential to gain something of value.

Risk is related to aggressivity. They both are needed for survival and are inherent aspects of courage and creativity. Healthy aggression fuels an independent and exploratory spirit.2

Mikhail Tal, cartoon by I. Sokolov

Way of thinking

The way of thinking and making decisions is also another essential element of style – this is basically analytical/rational versus intuitive thinking model. We’ll come back to this in a future post.

Will to win

Many men, many styles; what is chess style but the intangible expression of the will to win.–  Aaron Nimzowitsch

GM Yuri Averbakh shared his thoughts on chess playing styles with Macauley Peterson in Chess Life, February 2012. You will see that some of the groups below feature strong motivation and will to win. Here are players stylistic archetypes according to the oldest living GM in the world:

Killers: marked by the desire not only to win, but to score decisive knockout blows (Alekhine, Korchnoi, Botvinnik)

Fighters: have an extreme will to win, but not necessarily by knockout (Kasparov)

Sportsmen: view chess like any other game; they play to win but lack any obsessive tendencies (Capablanca, Spassky).

Gamblers: enjoy many games, such as billiards or cards (Karpov)

Scientists/explorers: approach chess scientifically with a particular fondness for analysis; they seek to understand chess and accumulate knowledge (Nimtzovich, Rubinstein).

Artists: want not only to win, but to do so artistically (Simagin).

Usually, players don’t fit neatly in these categories; for example, Tal and Bronstein are artists and fighters.

* * *

We saw that chess playing style didn’t have much to do with elements of strategy and tactics as it did with the player’s character, especially his will to win and tendency to risk. The life’s vital energy expressed through imagination, creativity and originality resides there.3

Next, the way we think and make decisions at the board (calculation versus intuition) tailors the playing style significantly.

Having said all this, how would you describe the style of the current chess crown holder, Magnus Carlsen?

Think of all the key notions mentioned above on which a definition of his style would plausibly depend.


Related reading:

Is Magnus Carlsen Playing Chess?



1. In his last interview, Tal gave a hypothesis of what might affect developing one’s style, the life as we had led it. He lived a relatively quite life in a problem-free family, while Petrosian’s life was harder, in particular during the turmoil of the WWII…

2. Pablo Picasso, one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, observed, “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction. One must destroy familiar ways of perceiving and behaving to see, contemplate, and design anew.”

3. Think Misha Tal here, despite his poor health and long suffering from a serious illness, he embraced life to its fullest with spirit of adventure and high-risk sacrificial attacks that will be remembered forever.

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