Your Chess Temperament

Winning With Chess Psychology
An old but interesting book by GM Pal Benko (1928-2019).

I’m by no means an expert in psychology, but my experience as a chess player and coach has given me a lot of insight into the temperament of others  through their chess.

Let’s discuss Passive vs. Assertive vs. Aggressive in chess. There is a place for all three, depending on the situation, though passive play is usually a good idea only in certain fortress positions.

In my view, this continuum mainly applies to: 1) opening choices; 2) middlegame style; and 3) degree of risk-taking in equal-ish positions. Tournament situation can cause a player to operate differently than they normally would, but we’ll put that aside in this post.


Opening Choices

At first, this seems to be the easiest way to quickly “read” a player, but the openings a player (regularly) employs can be misleading!

Many players trot out openings that don’t fit their style — or what should be their style, based on their strengths and weaknesses.

Mismatched opening repertoires pop up even more frequently in scholastic chess, due to coaches teaching their charges setups that don’t fit them. Maybe the instructor wants their student to play their opening, or an opening that worked for another student.

Aggressive openings tend to require more knowledge to play well, aside from an attacking mindset. The Sicilian Dragon is but one example.

Passive openings can resemble the “rope-a-dope” in boxing: hope the opponent overplays their position (punches themselves out), giving you a chance to score the point via counterattack. Setups like the Fort Knox come to mind.

Assertive openings are firmly in the middle: solid, and neither overly wild nor defensive. The Nimzo-Indian (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4) is a great example.

[Note that in the above examples I’m leaving aside gambits.]

My post on defending the Italian Game is an example of the decision-making that goes into choosing an opening line.


Middlegame Play

What you do here usually stems from your opening choice, but there are often choices to be made that can hint at a player’s overall temperament.

If you observe a young or new player who somehow always manages to bring a swarm of pieces near the enemy monarch — you have an aggressive player!

Say a player employs the Exchange Variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined as White. A typical position is one such as the following:

An aggressive player would, without fail, go straight for the plan with f2-f3, Ra1-e1, push in the center and go for a big attack on the black king.

The more assertive player would quickly play Ra1-b1, b2-b4, and go for a minority attack on the queenside. A positionally dangerous plan for Black, but not a game-ending one. Even if White gets a big advantage, winning might take awhile.


Risk Management

GM Nikolai Krogius (1930-2022) was trained as a sports psychologist. His book is also interesting.

It’s the age-old question: in a set of two games, would you prefer one win and one loss, or two draws? Is it more important to achieve victory, or avoid defeat?

It’s a very personal feeling! And for any coaches reading this, I advise you not to interfere with nature. Remember that you are coaching for your students’ benefit; your compensation is the payment you receive for your services.

The aggressive player will score many points by pushing hard to win every game, but will suffer some “accidents” in doing so.

Perhaps surprisingly, I would place Magnus Carlsen in this category. He doesn’t usually launch all-out attacks, but he is a very aggressive grinder in that he takes risks to win many positions where others would “keep the draw in hand.” He occasionally loses because of this, but scores several wins to compensate for each setback.


What do you think? I welcome feedback in the comments!