Chess Styles

Long since the days of Ruy Lopez and Greco have players argued about chess styles. Personally, I believe that we should vary our style from game to game (or at least every few games) so that your opponent cannot exploit your play. For example, your opponent may have studied your games and try to take advantage the fact that you will not play aggressively even if the position calls for it.

My chess coach FIDE Master Geoff Saw once said to me, “I really doubt that [12th World Champion] Karpov would ever play an inferior move just because it’s more congenial to his style. But if the moves are objectively about the same anyway then it’s fine for personal preferences to take over… Way too many players wreck themselves by deciding that they are an ‘attacking’ playing or a ‘positional’ player, and this kind of self-labelling stops them working properly on areas of weakness.” A player must be careful that their style does not get in the way of playing the best objective moves.

It is often said that our chess style emulates our personality. For example, an outgoing person might be a warmongering chess player. Although we can’t draw anything extremely deep from this, it is one of those unique nuances that apply to chess.

Whilst I believe that we should maintain a ‘balanced’ style, there are two main playing styles that are widely acknowledged. Firstly, there is the attacking tactical player, who loves to play aggressively and craves fireworks. The second is the solid positional/strategic player, who plays like a boa constrictor, trying to deprive their opponents of air. The word ‘defensive’ shouldn’t necessary be applied to the latter, although the style is perhaps leaning towards defence since positional players like to minimise risk and put priority on king safety.

Of course, most players are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. It is interesting to ask your friends what your chess style is; sometimes you will find that their response is completely different to what you had expected! Personally, I would say I have a style that is leaning towards positional, although I do find that I play aggressive attacking games quite often if the opening dictates such play.

As examples, let us study several of the world champions. If a world champion is labelled a ‘tactical player’, I believe he only has a tendency to lean towards tactics, but obviously, since they were world champions, their positional play was extremely adequate as well.


The Positional Players

First World Champion Wilhelm “William” Steinitz, the picture on the front page of this website, was previously known as the ‘Austrian Morphy’ (an attacking genius), but in 1873, 13 years before you became world champion, he adopted a new positional style of play that served him very well. His important theories on principled positional play went on to be developed by his disciples.

9th World Champion, Tigran Petrosian was arguably the hardest player to beat in the history of chess. Lev Polugaevsky once said, “In those years, it was easier to win the Soviet Championship than a game against ‘Iron Tigran’.” However, his ‘positional style’ concealed his accurate tactical play.

The 12th World Champion Anatoly Karpov was the classic boa constrictor, reigning for 10 years with his risk-minimising style. Karpov once described his playing style by saying, “Let us say the game may be continued in two ways: one of them is a beautiful tactical blow that gives rise to variations that don’t yield to precise calculation; the other is clear positional pressure that leads to an endgame with microscopic chances of victory…. I would choose the latter without thinking twice. If the opponent offers keen play I don’t object; but in such cases I get less satisfaction, even if I win, than from a game conducted according to all the rules of strategy with its ruthless logic.” Keep in mind that Karpov is arguing on the grounds that there are two paths, both of which are objectively about the same value.

The Tactical Party

8th World Champion Mikhail Tal, ‘the whirlwind from Riga’, had a razor-sharp tactical and attacking style. His match against Botvinnik which won him the world championship showed that Botvinnik could not keep him under control. As a side note, Mikhail Tal holds the records for both the first and second longest unbeaten streaks in competitive chess history.

11th World Champion Robert James “Bobby” Fischer played with a style that was rational, aggressive and brilliant. At the age of 13, Fischer played a brilliancy that is known as the Game of the Century.

13th World Champion Garry Kasparov, widely considered to be the greatest chess player ever, held the No.1 ranking continuously from 1986 until his retirement in 2005. He also holds the record for the all-time highest rating of 2851. His dynamic attacking style took down Karpov, who had dominated chess for 10 years prior and whose positional style many had considered the best possible way to play a chess game.

Opening repertoires

To take advantage of your ‘style’, you should steer games towards positions where your style excels. Of course, the earliest way you can steer the game into such waters is through your opening repertoire. Although you cannot avoid obtaining positions in which your style fares poorly in, but having an opening repertoire that complements your playing style is generally considered to be quite productive.

Here are descriptions of several openings:

French Defence (1.e4 e6) – generally reasonably positional, although Black has some very sharp choices if White opts for the main line

Sicilian Defence (1.e4 c5) – Black cannot avoid some of White’s early positional tries, but the main lines (Najdorf, Dragon, Sveshnikov, etc.) are almost always quite sharp; this opening is great for counterattacking players

Caro-Kann Defence (1.e4 c6) – generally quite positional, although White has some early aggressive options (such as the Advanced variation) and the main line can get fairly complicated too; this opening can be coupled with the Slav Defence (1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6), since they both have a similar pawn structure, and although the Slav can be extremely tactical, Black players can choose to play it in a positional way

Alekhine’s Defence (1.e4 Nf6) – can be played both positionally and tactically, although White has more leeway to steer the game in whatever waters he likes

English Opening (1.c4) – generally relatively positional although White players can play it aggressively; useful for players who like ‘development systems’

For more information on opening repertoires, see my other articles “Building a Chess Repertoire” and “Openings Repertoire Suggestions“.

Of course, you will see top players playing openings that are the opposite of their styles. This is because, at such a level, playing the best theoretical choices can be important. Alternatively, they have prepared especially for their opponent’s pet opening.

Concluding Notes

As you become stronger, it becomes more important to either vary your style often or to maintain a balanced playing style. Borrowing an expression from poker, this prevents opponents from creating ‘reads’ on you.

At any level apart from the top 100, it is widely considered practical to base your repertoire around your style.

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