Is a Sound Strategy the Basis for Chess Tactics?

I got an interesting tweet the other day that says

@TacticsTime After reading Tal-Botvinnik (1960), I realized from Tal’s revealing notes that a sound Strategy is the basis for sound tactics.

This was in response to a tweet that I made, which said,

If you want to play like your favorite Grandmaster you must first master chess tactics

This is kind of the old “tactics versus strategy” debate, which is one of those things that chess players love to talk about.

The point I was trying to make is that all Grandmasters have an outstanding grasp of chess tactics.  They also have a ton of knowledge on top of this, but the tactics are the foundation.

Once you take two players at the highest level, the tactics are going to be less of a factor.  Because they are all really really good at tactics.  Therefore other things become more important in determining who wins the games – things like

  • opening preparation,
  • opening novelties,
  • creating a good strategy,
  • taking advantage of the smallest positional edge,
  • creating microscopic weaknesses for the opponent,
  • etc.

Therefore when these people are writing books about their games, they are talking about these sorts of things, because these are the types of things that determine the outcome of their games.

These are not necessarily the things that will determine the outcome of YOUR games.

The GMs know that their opponent is not going to miss a two move combination.

I have no doubt that Tal had to use all sorts of genius ideas in order to be able to get to the point where he could do a tactic against his opponent.

The problem comes in when amateurs extrapolate these ideas back into their own games. 

These assumptions and factors are not applicable in most amateur games.

Amateurs make stupid tactical mistakes. 

Most amateurs are TERRIBLE at chess tactics compared to the top players.


  • Hang pieces
  • Forget to recapture
  • Miss Mates in one
  • Make illegal moves
  • Don’t see that they are in check
  • Miss simple patterns like back rank mates
  • Etc

Comparing Grandmasters to the typical weekend tournament chess player would be like comparing two NFL football teams playing a game, compared to a backyard football game played between random groups of adults on a weekend afternoon.

In the NFL game things like

  • strategy
  • weather
  • coaching
  • home field advantage
  • etc

will determine which team wins the game.

With the backyard game the “winners” will probably be the slobs that are the least out of shape.

Like the Knight, Simpson jumps over the other pieces.

In the NFL *ALL* of the players are in unbelievable shape.  Their conditioning is not even a question.  They are some of the best athletes on the entire planet. 

People don’t even mention how athletic and in shape these guys are, because it is just assumed, and taken for granted.  Therefore most of the debate comes down to smaller things like strategy, coaching, home field advantage, etc.

If you took one team that was conditioned, and in shape, and another that was not, the game would not even be close.  Things like strength and endurance would dominate the game. 

You could take the worst NFL team, and put them against any college team.  Give the college team every small advantage like home field, coaching staff, unlimited time outs, etc.  Give the NFL players no coaches, no playbook, and only their natural ability.

The NFL players will crush the college team on brute strength alone.

No amount of the smaller things will make up for how much bigger, stronger, faster and more experienced the NFL players are than the college kids.

With random people, most of them will not even be able to play for half an hour without being extremely winded.  Strategy will have very little to do with who wins in the backyard football game.

It is the same with top Grandmasters.  They are ALL unbelievable at tactics.  Their tactical ability is not even a question.  People don’t even mention how good they are at tactics, because it is a given.

The tactical ability of the top players in chess is analogous to the physical conditioning in professional football.  It is so assumed to be there, that it isn’t even a factor, and no one talks about it.  But put any non professional against the professional, and it will be an obvious difference.

It is true for any sport at the top level.

No one talks about how good NHL players are at skating.

Because these things are just taken for granted.  If you aren’t good at skating, you will not be in the NHL.  But if you want to be good at Hockey, you need to be good at skating.  Being able to skate is the foundation.

Only after you have this foundation, do you even need to worry about things like understanding the different types of formations, and plays, and strategy etc.  If you have all the knowledge, but not ability, you might make a good coach, but you won’t be able to compete.

It is the same with chess.  Only after you have an strong tactical foundation, do these smaller factor start to matter.

Most all games at the amateur level are determined by tactics.

Tactics are the foundation. 

If you don’t know Tactics you are like the Football player who knows the entire playbook, but is weak, slow and totally out of shape.

If you don’t know Tactics you are like the Hockey player who can describe 100 different power play strategies, but can’t skate backwards.

I could make a million analogies, but I think you get the point.  Without the tactics, none of the other pieces work.

So I will stand by my original statement:

If you want to play like your favorite Grandmaster you must first master chess tactics :-)

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2 thoughts on “Is a Sound Strategy the Basis for Chess Tactics?

  1. Tactics are the foundation. Without good level of tactics nothing (serious) can be done (achieved). If your tactics is weak you are like a player with just one eye, hand and leg – you cannot defeat players with both eyes, hands and legs.
    The higher your level of tactics and focusing on the game – the better quality of the games you are able to achieve.

    When the position is safe – you can “hide” your tactical weaknesses, but most players play sharp, dynamic and no boring chess – they are creating as much complication as it is possible – sooner or later you will HAVE TO master tactics: there are many players called “killers” – they live by tactics, complications and total tactical mess.

    “…sound Strategy is the basis for sound tactics” – it might be that when you play against stronger players, they should play sound strategy and than show you how slow and weak is your plan (strategy). But in most case (up to 2000-2100) players are not so strong to play perfect strategy – you have a chance to use their mistakes to win something (some material). You will not be able to do that if your tactics is weak and your patterns database (in your head) is not so broad.

  2. It’s funny, but I can go both ways with this. Completely lacking in tactics means that your strategy is irrelevant. However, if you can only do one or two move tactics (but do them well!) and have great strategy you can often win more games than those players who know those “advanced” 7-move tactics with three piece sacrifices.

    Good strategy allows you to be in a position where the one or two move tactic shows up. You might miss some some tactical opportunities here and there but if your position is vastly superior you will often get more and more chances to finally make the tactical play and secure the win. However, if you only know tactics but completely allow your opponent to dictate the game, you will never get a chance to use your tactics.

    Anyway, love your advice, and I know you don’t really promote those crazy 7-move tactics anyway, just wanted to add that you don’t have to be a GM to benefit from good strategy.

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