A big part of this shift from tactical play to positional play, from my perspective, is the ability to change the pace at which you play. I’m not talking about the clock here.
Short story to explain my screwed-up approach to chess. What I didn’t spell out in my tag post is that I was a very conservative player in high school. A dry and fairly risk-averse approach carried me up to a rating of around 1750, and then my progress stalled out. The summer before college I had the opportunity to play in the Region V Junior Invitational, which in 1985 was hosted in my state (Kentucky) and included two invited players from states in the USCF region – Indiana, Michigan, perhaps others I don’t recall. That was the tourney where, frustrated by rating stagnation, I decided to throw caution to the wind. I had a game against Joe Kennedy (many-time US blind champ) where as white I tossed a piece in pursuit of his king (unfortunately I chased him down to g3 where he helped trap and mate my king). Later I had a game versus the other Kentucky representative, Larry Foushee; Larry had me busted positionally and in desparation I started hanging/sacking material. After I tossed a bishop, a knight and a rook, Larry resigned. Yes it was bogus, but ah, imagine the adrenaline rush.
Finding success in tactics, I buried myself in Tal’s games and rocketed to 2150 over the next two years. Then I plateaued again. During this period I characteristically played the sharpest opening and sharpest moves I could find, though I knew not a lick of theory. Benonis, Blumenfelds, the Evans Gambit, the Boden-Kieseritzky, the Blackmar-Diemer.
Gambits are fun. They ratchet up the relevance of tempi: If you’re down a pawn and you don’t use each move to maximize the pressure – often heedless of additional material cost – you lose. So – here’s the point of the story – you play every game in fifth gear.
Chop chop. Toute suite. Zoom zoom.
What I have very slowly grasped, in large part by losing many games to IM Igor Foygel, is that this gear, this tempo, is inappropriate and unnecessary when you’re playing quieter positions. (This probably seems abominably clear to everyone else, but I am just beginning to understood it in a concrete way.)
Really simple example from a recent game against James Lung, a young kid who will be crushing me very soon. I’m playing black and it’s my move. Obviously I am undeveloped. As a gambit player, I am wired to look for the fastest way to develop my pieces. So my instinct is 13…Bd7 (and if 14.Nb5 to hit my c7 square, I just play …Bxb5, getting rid of the notorious French bishop). Then 14…Nc6. Then I castle and life is good.
But after 13…Bd7 14.Re1, life is not so good; my d-pawn is hanging. So maybe I have to play 13…Nc6 14.Re1 Ne7. File blocked, pawn guarded. Oh, except he just goes back to 13…Nc6 14.Nb5.
So then I truly revert to form and start thinking of a SACRIFICE! Fifth gear. Solve all problems through violence. Yay. 13…Bd7 14.Re1 Nc6! 15.Nxd5 0-0-0! and now with the knight en pris, I will win back white’s d-pawn.
Oh, except 16.Nf6 Nxd4 17.Nxd7 Kxd7 (else the Bf8 hangs) 18.Rd1 c5 19.c3 +-. Drat.
[Update: In the wee hours of the morning it occurred to me: 13…Bd7 14.Re1 Nc6 15.Nxd5 0-0-0 16.Nf6 Nxd4 17.Nxd7 Kxd7 18.Rd1 Ke7 holds. So white can opt for 18.Rxf8 Rxf8 19.Rd1 c5 20.c3 e5 21.cxd4 cxd4 and it’s your classic two minors versus rook and pawn. I think black is a bit better with the big pawn center. I haven’t put this on a board so I could be missing something. But if it’s accurate, then this temporary pawn sac line was indeed a much faster way for black to develop. Double drat. It’s the horizon effect again, my OTB calculations crapping out at the 11th half-move this time. Again I’d argue that in a highly forcing line, I need to be able to calculate 11 half-moves easily.]
Now you understand why I am always so far behind on the clock.
So I wind up playing 13…c6. Which is excruciatingly difficult to play for a gambiteer, and doubly so for a French player who lives for …c5, and which creates an inner feeling that I am being strangled.
But when I cast off my gambiteer’s goggles and try to evaluate objectively, I like the move. c6, Nd7, Nf6, Bd7, 0-0-0. As long as I pay attention to the e6 square, I will survive, and later I will contemplate a …c5 break and perhaps make a life for my unopposed dark-square bishop. How dreadfully positional of me.
Yes, I think white is better here. But sometimes when you play black, white is better and the appropriate response is not to disembowel your own position with crazy tactics but rather to move in second gear, defend the weaknesses, untangle slowly, try to equalize before trying to win.
Ever so slowly I am starting to implement this change in my games. As I do I think I will become a much better player.