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Teichmann was Right! Chess IS 99% Tactics!!


To many students and Grandmasters alike the game of Chess is divided into two main types of study, that is positional/strategic play and tactics. In 1908 Richard Teichmann proclaimed that "Chess is 99% tactics." While some some masters agreed with him, many have scoffed at the notion, believing that positional understanding is what makes one a truly skillful player.

....Enter the 21st Century. Now almost 100 years later we are learning that Teichmann may indeed have been right! How do I make such a boast? Simple the advent of super powerful chess computer programs. A computer doesnt know what positional play means, it doesnt grasp concepts, or think abstractly like a human being, it simply calculates variations by brute force, it sees nothing but tactics! And the top programs play at GM and Super GM strength. Deeper Blue beat then World Champion Gary Kasparov in a match in 1997 and recently Deep Fritz drew with reigning Classical Chess Champion Vladimir Kramnik in 2002, and a lesser GM strength program Chessmaster 9000 beat reigning US Chess Champion GM Larry Christiansen in Sept 2002 in a short match.

Lets listen to the words of the worlds number one rated player, Gary Kasparov, from the IBM site on his loss in game 2 of his match with Deep Blue:

"What I discovered yesterday probably is now clear to everyone. Now for the first time we see the computer at chess and quantity becomes quality because the number of the moves this monstrous machine can play in fact prevents it from making bad positional mistakes within reach of its calculation." In other words it reaches good positions by tactical means.

One writer put it like this, "If you calculate thoroughly enough you will beat Kasparov and everybody else because "positional mistakes" simply don't exist: they are simply tactical errors with long term consequences."

While I feel that is a bit of an overstatement as positional concepts are a proven "shortcut" to obtaining strong positions on the chessboard, the tactical style has just as much claim to truth.

GM Yermolinsky put it like this, "The good old self-comforting thought, 'I did everything right positionally, so the tactics favor me' doesn't always ring true. Believe me, I know. I used to say this every time...but not any more...we should learn to accept the fact that the combinational style has the same right to exist as the positional approach."

Now where do most club players and improving players spend their time studying? Openings, or books on positional play. It may be fun to study theory but it will NOT make you a stronger player. It's all about tactics!

Consider the statement of FM Pelts and GM Lev Alburt in Comprehensive Chess Course (Vol II): "We beg students who are addicted to opening manuals to remember that most players who spend their time studying theory never reach A-level."

Now I can hear the critic already, "tactical study may be good but most GM games are decided by positional means" Wrong!

GM Reuben Fine in "Chess Marches On" said, "Thirty years ago (this was written in 1942), Teichmann said that chess is 99% tactics. And despite the enormous strides of chess theory since then, his percentage can only be reduced a few points. Many amateurs think that master games are usually decided by some deeply-laid plan covering all possibilities for at least ten moves. That is what they conceive the grand strategy of tournaments to be. Actually, however, strategical considerations, while quite important, do not cover a range or depth at all comparable to the popular notion. Very often, in fact, sound strategy can dispense with seeing ahead at all, except in a negative or trivial sense. And it is still true that most games, even between the greatest of the great, are decided by tactics or combinations which have little or nothing to do with the fundamental structure of the game.

The following is from an article "400 Points in 400 Days" by Michael de la Maza:

"Unfortunately, the myth that deep theoretical knowledge is required in order to improve permeates the class player community. I once saw a class E player carrying around Keres' "The Art of the Middle Game" at a tournament and studying it between rounds. This player would have been better off setting up random positions on the board and looking for tactics." (Or studying any number of good tactical puzzle books-MC)

Here are some other reasons to focus on studying tactics:

1. Tactical shots are easier to analyze. Suppose that you are reading a book that discusses a position in which positional factors, not tactical ones, are the over-riding concern. If you have a question about a variation that is not covered in the book, what can you do? Not much, unless you have a chess coach who is willing to answer questions ad nauseum. In contrast, you can receive GM-level tactical analysis by using a computer and can fully understand every variation.

There is an amusing experiment that you can try in order to verify the difficulty of understanding positional evaluations. Pick any analyzed position in Jeremy Silmanís Reassess Your Chess, the book that has become famous for teaching class players positional concepts, set up the position on your favorite computer program, and play the side that is winning according to Silman. After a few moves the computer will deviate from Silmanís analysis. Feel free to check Silmanís book or any other source for advice on what to do about the computerís "new idea." You will quickly learn that the computer has busted Silmanís plan and a new plan is required. Now what do you do? If you are a GM you can create a new plan (provided that you didnít reject Silmanís plan from the start), but if you are a class player there is little that you can easily do to learn about the new position.

2. Studying tactics gives you many things for free. For example, which is the better way to learn about the benefits of castling: (A) Learn a positional "rule" along the lines of "Castle early" or (B) Do ten tactical problems in which a king in the center of the board gets mated? Clearly (B) is superior. If you come across an opponent who fails to castle early and you know (A) you'll be able to say: "Jeepers. My opponent doesn't know how to play chess -- he didn't castle early." If you learned about the benefits of castling by following option (B) you will know 10 concrete ways to punish the opponent. The same thing is true of many other positional concepts. What is the best way to learn about color complexes, knight outposts, gambit openings, rooks on the seventh rank, etc.? At the class level, the best and easiest way is to learn tactics.

3. Positional understanding requires tactical understanding. Class players may find the right plan in the middlegame only to blunder away a piece because they fail to see a tactical shot. Or they continue pursuing their plan despite the fact that they have an immediate opportunity to win by grabbing an opponent's piece. Positional understanding without tactical ability is worth little." *****************

Analyze a game between 2 class C players, or 2 B players or 2 A players, the over-riding factor that decides these games is tactics not opening or endgame theory. True an endgame may be reached but often because one side missed a winning tactic earlier in the game! As Tarrasch said, "Before the endgame, the gods have placed the middlegame." Even at the master level Tactics are often the deciding factor.

In "How to Get Better at Chess: Chess Masters on their Art" GM Nick De Firmian is quoted as saying, "If youíre a GM you should be able to overpower the IM tactically. The GM will often blow out the IM in this area."

Tactics, Tactics, Tactics.

So you want to become a good chess player? Set up a training program based primarily on tactics training. Studying planning, positional concepts and basic endgames are certainly worthwhile but tactical training should be done on a daily basis and should be the main emphasis for any player below 2100.

Tactics! Name the best positional players you can think of at any point in history. Morphy the first player of "positional understanding" was a monster tactician. Steinitz and Lasker, the first players of deep positional understanding were both super tacticians of the highest calibre. Even Capablanca was a supreme tactician, though he tended to avoid complications, but how often did you see him make a tactical error? Not often! He has the fewest losses of any GM in history. Who else? Petrosian? Petrosian was a very powerful tactician, his strength/weakness was his rather passive approach to the game, but his defensive prowess was based on his ability to calculate variations and find good squares for his pieces. Karpov is no slouch at tactics either, believe it! And the strongest tacticians have often been the greatest players, Alekhine, Tal, Fischer, and Kasparov are some of the most powerful tacticians in history. How does Judit Polgar beat Nigel Short almost every time they play? You guessed it. Tactics!

Maybe one day when the game is played out (thanks to super computers) we will agree that Richard Teichmann was right after all. Chess is 99% tactics!!