Chess strategy and tactics are intertwined … but ask yourself this: which side of the equation receives most of the focus in lessons and classes?
Definitely tactics. And for a lot of coaches, it’s not even close. However …
What does it take for a student to gain proficiency in tactics? I only know one method: solving thousands of puzzles, and getting regular practice applying tactical ideas in games.
This experience cannot be gained solely through lessons. I assign tactics puzzles for homework (usually Chess School 1a) and rarely work on them during a private lesson. The exception is calculation practice, but that is different from developing tactical sight.
It’s perfectly fine to spend 10-15 minutes on tactics by checking tactics homework, and maybe doing a few warm-up puzzles — but that’s as far as it should go.
Puzzle solving alone is a terrible use of time for a 1-2 hour once-per-week lesson.
I also think it’s lazy! Beware, parents.
The Real Purpose of Chess Lessons
Chess lessons should mostly focus on strategy.
You can go to Amazon, buy a chess tactics book, and work independently. Diligent study will bring results, no question about it, and you won’t need a coach for improvement in this area.
But what if you want to improve your understanding of chess strategy?
If you go to Amazon and purchase a strategy book — even an excellent one authored by Euwe, Nimzowitsch, Dvoretsky or Marin, for example — there is a lot that you won’t “get” right away. Or at all.
Chess lessons or classes can really shorten the learning curve. That is what a teacher is paid for!
Example of a Chess Strategy Lesson
I recently taught an online class and showed the following position, which comes from the famous game Capablanca vs. Tartakower from the celebrated New York 1924 tournament, before White’s 23rd move:
I asked the students (roughly 800 to 1400 in strength) to give me ideas for the first player, and got what I expected: suggestions to attack or win tactically. Chiefly 23.d5 to open the center “for an attack,” and 23.c5, trying to skewer the Black queen and rook with a further 24.Bb5.
First, the d4-d5 advance will only lead to mass exchanges and the Black knight will be able to use the newly opened c5-square (probably with the maneuver …Na5-b3-c5).
Second, c4-c5 does not set up a skewer, as after 24.Bb5 Black can reply with 24…c6.
They were surprised to learn the World Champion played 23.h4!
The idea is to follow up with 24.h5, giving Black a very difficult choice: either allow 25.hxg6 which creates a permanent weakness on g6, or even worse to play 24…gxh5 when after 25.Rh1! White wins back the h5-pawn, is closer to getting a passed pawn on the kingside, and maybe wins the h7-pawn as well:
I could see the mental light bulbs going on through their Zoom cameras! Tactics and attacking play are not always the right tools for the job.
How well would most books explain these ideas, while anticipating your questions and being able to demonstrate exactly the variations you need to see in order to understand the position?
Richard Teichmann (1868-1925) was one of the best players of the early 20th century.
The German master was nicknamed “Richard V,” as that was often his tournament placing.
Karlsbad 1911 proved to be a different story: he rose to the occasion and achieved the greatest result of his chess career.
Teichmann won the 26-player round-robin by a full point over a string of current and future top players — Akiba Rubinstein, Carl Schlechter, Frank Marshall, Aron Nimzowitsch, Savielly Tartakower, Alexander Alekhine, and Rudolf Spielmann among them.
Here is a brevity against Theodor von Scheve, played at the Berlin Jubilee Tournament of 1907.
Black to play. How did Teichmann conclude the game in short order?
Faced with the Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5), many white players avoid the Open Sicilian that comes about after 2.Nf3 and 3.d4. Instead, they choose an Anti-Sicilian like the Smith-Morra Gambit (1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3)
At club level, an unprepared black player can quickly find themselves in serious danger. White aims for a menacing setup like this:
Of course, black needs to survive long enough to face even this!
The Smith-Morra Gambit player hopes their adversary will fall into a nasty trap, and there are many. For example:
Or this one:
Many black players look to turn the tables on white with the so-called Siberian Trap:
To avoid accidents, many black players decline the gambit or give back the pawn immediately.
I’m not one of them. If I knew all my opponents would play the Smith-Morra, I would always answer 1.e4 with 1…c5. If the line is so great for white, why do top players not use it?
In the traps above, black has problems on e5 and b5, and uncoordinated pieces. Knowing what you’re up against makes it far easier to deal with!
There are many viable setups for black, but I defend the Smith-Morra with the line 2…cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 a6! Don’t rush that …Nf6 move.
Let’s see some examples.
Debut by Transposition
According to the MegaBase, Dutch master Lodewijk Prins first reached the position after 6…a6 against Savielly Tartawkower in 1950, but couldn’t recover after his pieces got tangled early on. The game started as an O’Kelly Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 a6).
Battle of Titans
Fischer and Kortschnoj drew in Buenos Aires 1960, also after transposing from an O’Kelly.
San Antonio 1972
The Tournament Announcement for San Antonio 1972. Source: Chess Life and Review, October 1972
The Church’s Fried Chicken International, held in San Antonio, Texas in 1972 remains one of the strongest events ever held in the United States. Lajos Portisch, former World Champion Tigran V. Petrosian, and future World Champion Anatoly Karpov tied for first place with 10.5 points out of 15.
American master Ken Smith (the “Smith” in “Smith-Morra”) tried the gambit several times, but without success against such chess heavyweights.
Let’s take a look at two of those games. Both were played in the second half of the tournament when black could have expected the Smith-Morra Gambit.
Round 9 vs. Evans
We saw this American legend play a model game before. He does again here:
Evans also played in Buenos Aires 1960, so he would have known the Fischer—Kortschnoj game above.
Round 13 vs. Mecking
The future World #3 emulated the Kortschnoj/Evans treatment and then collected material.
The bottom line on facing the Smith-Morra Gambit
If you play the Sicilian you should be happy to face the Smith-Morra, or any Anti-Sicilian for that matter. Playable though they may be, Anti-Sicilians are inferior to the Open Sicilian,
Don’t use the common excuse “white knows their pet line better than I will.” Study! Learn how to deal with the annoying sidelines your opponent can throw at you, and thank them for not challenging you in the most critical way.
I don’t have a perfect record against the Smith-Morra Gambit, but I score better than 50%. Anytime you can say that with one of your black openings, that is a big success.