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Introduction to Chess Strategy: Positional advantage

In chess discussion, you'll often hear mention of positional play, or how a particular player has a positional style. Positional play is the art of improving one's own position, while degrading the position of the opponent. Obtaining a superior position increases your ability to attack and increases your tactical potential. The early 20th century master Rudolph Spielmann once lamented that, although he could spot tactical combinations just as well as world champion Alexander Alekhine, he could never get Alekhine's positions. Alekhine's superior positional play gave him more advantageous positions with increased opportunities to find killer tactics. Even if there are no tactics in the position, having a superior position may enable you to win eventually in the endgame.

Evaluating a position

Before you can strive for a positional advantage, you need to be able to evaluate a position and determine who stands better. The ability to evaluate positions well cannot be learned in a day - it is something that is refined continually throughout one's chess career. You can start off with simple evaluations, and move on to more complex and subtle evaluations as you gain experience through play and study.

Material

The most simple way to evaluate a position is by counting the value of the pieces on both sides. Even a beginner can look at a position and see that the side with five extra pieces is most likely winning. Sometimes, there may be a material imbalance that makes a position hard to judge - for example, one player may have a knight and bishop while the other has a rook and pawn. Both are worth six points, but which is better often depends on the other factors in the position, and the ability to judge is something you must gain with experience.

Space

All other things being equal, the player who controls the most space has a slight positional advantage. Space is the amount of territory on the board that is safely available to your pieces, and how much territory each player controls in the other player's half of the board. Take a look at the following example:

Firstly, let's count the space controlled by white. The way to do this is to draw an imaginary line across the centre of the board, dividing it into white's half and black's half. We'll give white 1 point for each piece stationed in the enemy half of the board, and 1 point for each square in black's half of the board controlled (i.e. guarded or attacked) by white's pieces. If a square is controlled multiple times, we'll give an extra point for each additional piece that controls it. White's control of the board looks something like this:

White has a total space control of 16. Note that b5 is controlled by the bishop on e2 in addition to the knight on c3 and the pawn on c4 even though the bishop cannot move there directly, because if the c4 pawn captured a black piece on b5, it would then be protected by the e2 bishop. Now let's do the same for black:

Black's space control is only 8, or a mere 6 if you take into account the fact that the f6 knight is pinned and cannot move without exposing the black queen. So in this position, we can conclude that white has a large advantage in space. Having an advantage in space is usually a good thing, because it means your pieces have more room to manoeuvre, while the enemy pieces have less space and can end up getting in each other's way. With more space, you can quickly move your pieces into position to attack on either side of the board, while your opponent's cramped pieces are slow to respond.

Piece activity

There is a definite positional advantage to having well placed, active, and co-ordinated pieces. That means knights on central outposts, bishops on secure squares that command open diagonals, and rooks on open files. Well co-ordinated pieces are pieces that don't get in each other's way but complement each other's abilities, defend each other, and aren't on loose squares where they can be attacked and driven back.

In this position, white's pieces are wonderfully placed, controlling many squares deep in black's camp. The bishops command open diagonals, and the rooks control the open file and have penetrated to the seventh rank. By comparison, black's pieces are prisoners within their own camp, scarcely able to move at all. In this postion, it is clear that white has a large advantage in piece activity.

Central control

The battle for control of the centre is crucial in obtaining a positional advantage. Controlling the centre can often mean an additional advantage in space and piece activity, as your pieces have free reign to move through the centre on their way to different parts of the board, while your opponent may find their position almost cut in two, with pieces on one side of the board unable to easily move to the other.

On the board above, the dots show the four most important central squares, e4, d4, e5 and d5. The crosses show the peripheral centre. In general, you should try to control the four central squares with as many pieces as possible, and drive away or exchange your opponent's pieces if they challenge you for control.

In this example, white's pieces are perfectly placed to control the centre, while black has not positioned his pieces very well to challenge white's central dominance. As a result, white has an advantage in space and piece activity, and can transfer pieces to either side of the board easily, whereas, for example, black would find it very difficult to manoeuvre the knight from a6 to the kingside.

Pawn Structure

Another important factor in the evaluation of a position is the state of each player's pawn structure. A player's pawn structure is judged to be stronger if it contains fewer weaknesses such as isolated pawns, backward pawns, and doubled pawns. Here is a simple example:

Let's count the strengths and weaknesses for both sides. White has three pawn islands to black's two; fewer pawn islands are considered better, so this counts as a mark against white. White has an isolated pawn on a5 and backwards pawns on c3, f3, and h3. Black has an isolated pawn on a6, and a backwards pawn on h6. Black also has an extra centre pawn - this is often advantageous, as it allows one to more easily control the centre. We can conclude that black has the superior pawn structure.

Often in chess, it's possible to discern the correct plan (or at least, a good plan) by observing the pawn structure. In the above example, if it were black to move, a natural target of attack is the weak white pawn on c3. Black can attack this from the front by doubling rooks, e.g. by ...Rc4 followed by ...Rec8. Black could also move a rook to a4 via c4 to attack white's isolated a-pawn from behind.

King Safety

It doesn't matter what other positional advantages you may have if your king is exposed to attack. King safety is of paramount importance, and having the safer king will often give you the freedom to attack and take the initiative without having to worry about being checkmated.

In this position, black's king is very exposed, while white's is safe and sound behind a wall of pawns and other pieces. Black constantly has to be on the lookout against threats such as the white bishop coming to h6, or a white rook coming to e5, or any number of other manoeuvres white could perform that exploit the vulnerable state of the black king.

In general, king safety becomes less important as more pieces are exchanged, and the king usually feels much safer after the queens have been traded. In the endgame, the king normally takes an active part in proceedings, so in an endgame it is king activity rather than king safety which is more important in judging a position, but we will look at that in more detail in a later tutorial.

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