It is no secret to anyone who has played chess more than a few times, or even just spent some time reading about how chess works, that there are many different ways you can go about playing the game of chess. There are schools of thought for just about every style of play, both regarding which styles are the best, which are the worst, and which just do not make any sense at all. However, virtually all styles of chess play can be broken down into two major categories. These are positional chess players, and tactical chess players. Between those two groupings, you can account for nearly every possible way to play the game of chess.
In this article, we are going to discuss the first of those two options. We are going to talk about what a positional chess player is, what it means to be one, what kind of thinking applies to the positional chess player, and why a chess player might consider this style of game play. By the end of the article, we hope to have given you a better indication of not just what a positional chess player is, but how they differ from a tactical chess player, and how you can recognize their style of play if you are to find yourself playing against a positional player.
First, let us discuss what a positional player is, and what they are not. Positional game play in chess is the idea that accumulating small advantages over the course of the entire game – rather than simply going all-out in attempting to enact a much larger and more complex strategy – is the most effective way to play the game. A positional player will, while still thinking ahead, think about how short-term gains can be used to effect long-term action and development. Even something as simple as winning a pawn can be turned into a victory in the long run for a very good positional player, and it mainly comes down to patience and observation.
To be a good positional player, you have to be able to patiently and steadily go for small victories. You have to be willing to whittle your opponent down one move at a time, rather than ignoring the less valuable pieces in order to try and lure out their assets. You must also be able to observe the strategy of your opponent, and react to the moves they make in real time. This is the main difference between a tactical and a positional player; the willingness to go into a game with a quiet strategy, and simply attempt to overpower your opponent one small step at a time.
Now, many players scoff at this idea. After all, chess is supposed to be a game of tactics. You should have a formulated plan about how the entire game will play out – seeing ten moves ahead at all times – and using that plan to crush your opponent. But do not underestimate the power of positional play. Sun Tzu said in The Art of War, “Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.” The idea here is that while you should have a plan, you must be able to adapt that plan to the position in which you find yourself at any given moment. If you cannot adapt, you die. Even nature bows to this principle.
Positional players take this notion to heart, and they often spend time ensuring they have control of the center, gaining as much of a space and material advantage as possible, and doing their best to neutralize their opponent’s opportunities before they can be taken advantage of. They also play positional openings such as the Queen’s Gambit, or in broader terms an opening which doesn’t necessarily come into contact with one another as quickly as they might with a more tactical approach. In principle, positional players simply aim to hurt their opponent at every turn, and steer each of those small advantages they gain into a victory.
So, which is best – tactical or positional? As with many aspects of chess, the answer here is up to you. Whichever style makes you feel most comfortable is going to be the best approach you can take. If you find that you relate more to positional play, then you should go and study some of the most famous examples of positional games in chess. If you don’t have the patience for positional play and would rather depend on tactics, you can do that as well. Neither solution is inherently better or worse than its counterpart; it is entirely up to you and how you use the style.
One thing you should definitely avoid doing, however, is deciding right off the bat which style of player you are. While you might relate better to one side or the other, it will still benefit you greatly to study both positional play and tactical play in order not only to figure out which is right for you, but so that you can recognize what kind of player your opponent is, and work to counter their attempts at overpowering you. If you decide too early which type of player you either perceive yourself to be or would like to be, you could risk painting yourself into a corner and neglecting an entire aspect of the game. This, in turn, could cost you victories.
There are many opportunities for you to study positional play on this website. You can learn more about each of the 7 Skills in our lesson plan, as well as read more in-depth articles about what styles of play exist in chess for each stage of the game. Further, you can practice your tactics, learn to develop strategy, and see examples for each of the lessons we teach. When it comes down to it, practice makes perfect with chess as with many things in life. Keep practicing, and keep studying.