Techniques of Positional Play

For today’s post, I wanted to recommend a book I’ve been working through. Techniques of Positional Chess by Valeri Bronznik and Anatoli Terekhin is by far one of the most instructive books I’ve read, and while it may be a reach for many chess^summit followers, it’s definitely one to put on your future reading list.

My coach, Grandmaster Eugene Perelshteyn, suggested that I read this book in conjunction with 100 Chess Master Trade Secrets by Andrew Soltis to help me prepare for the US Junior Open this summer. To say the least, I’m glad he did, and today I wanted to share a few examples from the book with some of own my analysis and insights to show you why this is the book to read.

The “Padlock”

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So here I’ve constructed a position to help demonstrate the padlock idea. The goal with a padlock is to reach a position where the pressing side can’t make progress. Here, if Black tries to push one of his queenside pawns to open up the position, White can lock up the position by pushing the other. For example, should Black play …a4-a3, White can simply push b2-b3, and no more progress can be made. Understanding this concept is not only important in race positions, but also a key feature of endgames. This next composition is taken from Bronznik’s book and highlights the importance of the padlock idea. See if you can find it!

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White to move and draw

So where’s the padlock? In these kinds of endgames, it’s critical that the Black rook has points of entry to infiltrate White’s set-up. Because of the padlock structure on the a- and b- files, Black can never hope to open the queenside as long as White does not move his a3 or b3 pawns. That being said, the only way to secure the kingside is the incredible 1. Kd1!! Rh2 2. Ke1!! Rxg2 3. Kf1! Rh2 4. Kg1 Rh5 5. f3 = and Black will never be able to make progress. As long as the White king prevents the Black rook from entering e2, e1, h2, or h1, the extra rook is meaningless for Black. Again, it’s the padlock idea on the queenside that makes this possible.

I have to admit, that one study alone made me want to write this post today… but we must go on!

Fighting with the Rook Pawn

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Steincamp – Chen (G/60 Pennsylvania State Championships, 2015)

After being under fire for most of the game, my opponent offered a draw here, and without too much thinking here, I took the half point. Not too much in this major piece ending, right? Well not quite. In this position, I actually had one opportunity to press for more. The a-pawn. Here, I could have tried a3-a4-a5-a6 at no cost, securing the b7 square for my rook and with play along the 7th rank. It’s not clear if this is enough to win, but the lack of an active plan for Black here does make this promising. Let’s take a look at one of the book’s examples.

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Botvinnik–Smyslov (1954 World Championship)

Black to Move

White is definitely cramped but Smyslov will need a point of entry to find a way to take advantage of his opponent’s passivity. 1… a4! 2. Bd2 Qb6 3. Be3 a3

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And just like in my own game (rather what should have been), Black takes over the b2 square, thus securing the critical point of entry. For the sake of brevity, looks fast forward a few moves later.

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White cannot simply take the rook on b2 without creating a strong passed pawn and weakening a2, so White must succumb to a worse position. To get out of Black’s grips, White gave up the bishop pair in the game by trading on c5, and eventually lost the rook and minor piece endgame.

The “Wavebreaker”

The last idea I will discuss today is a prophylactic structure called the “wavebreaker”. In my post, Catching Up – A Season in a PostI discussed a game from the World Open where I actually used this concept to secure my kingside!

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Steincamp – Zinski (World Open, 2015)

White to Move

So White could try a “padlock” set-up with 1. h3?!, but that would be structurally dubious after 1… h4 2. g4 because now the White king is at risk of being exposed. Much simpler is creating a harmonious set-up with 1.h4!

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Stopping the h-pawn push in its tracks. I originally got the idea from watching Jan Gustafsson’s commentary during the 2015 Dortmund Sparkassen Meeting. Black ought not to get too carried away with his antics, as …f7-f5 would give me a great outpost on g5. You can check out my analysis of that game with the corresponding link above, as I got a slightly better position, misplayed the advantage, and then had a little luck to secure the half-point in the endgame.

Understanding the “wavebreaker” structure is not only important to understand defensive play, it’s also an important element of the 4 v 3 rook and pawn ending. Check out this position from the book:

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Capablanca – Yates (1930)

Black to Move

As Bronznik explains, if it were White’s move, Capablanca would play g3-g4! stopping Black from creating the wavebreaker formation. This idea of having a pawn on g4 is the easiest way to convert the 4 v 3 ending, with the idea of pushing the h-pawn in the hopes of creating a passed pawn. If you are more interested in 4 v 3 structures, you should watch this lecture by Yasser Seirawan:

For this reason, the book explains that Black had to try 1… h5= to equalize but after the inferior 1… Rc4? 2. g4! was played. While White is far from winning, he is well on his way towards making Black’s life miserable.

It’s been a while since my last book review on the site, so I’m glad I chose this one to break the silence. I’m still working my way through it, and I feel like I learn something every time I sit down to read it.

Isaac’s Mailbag

I decided over the weekend to add a new installment called “Isaac’s Mailbag”. In this post, I want to answer common questions that people have asked me about chess. If you wish to send me a question, feel free to leave it in the comments section, and I’ll answer it in the next installment of this post.

For this week’s post, I’m going to answer questions prompted by members on my school team at the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School.

1) What is a strong system to play against 1. b3 (the Larsen Attack)?

This was probably the hardest question I got this week, so I figure I would tackle this one first.

The Larsen Attack is a different opening, and is rarely seen at amateur tournaments. I sometimes will play 1. b3 in Blitz, but then will transpose to an English (c4 openings) or the Bird’s (f4 openings). I find that this seems to be the common trend with Larsen players, so its even rarer to see someone else play something different. While it means taking a theoretical approach, I find that the positional struggle is often better than the tactical melee for Black.

1… e5 and 1… d5 are the most common defenses for black, so I suggest looking at those first. 1… b6 is interesting but its symmetrical and can lack dynamic play. While I think its a good approach to play positionally, there are still many positional lines to consider. I suggest looking through these Grandmaster games and choosing a system that feels comfortable for you.

1      2      3      4      5


2) What is a good goal (for my tournament this weekend)?

Setting a goal is probably one of the most important things you should do before going into any tournament. Having an expectation for yourself and trying to meet it is healthy, and can easily drive your performance. Ideally, a good goal is to play good chess, but it is nice to gain a few rating points while doing it.

If you are the highest rated player in your section, you need to find stronger competition.

If you are within 100 points from the highest rated player, you should always aim to win the tournament.

If you are in the top half of your section, your goal should be to get a norm, in most cases meaning that you perform at over 200 points above your rating.

If you are in the middle of the section, I suggest aiming for at least a half point above equilibrium, so 3/5, 3.5/6, or 4/7 are all good results.

If you are in the bottom half (or at the bottom), push yourself to finish at equilibrium. This means a quality performance.

A lot to remember? That’s what I thought, play good chess and the goals above will happen!


3) Did Kasparov win that FIDE Election?

Unfortunately, the former World Chess Champion lost the FIDE election by a wide margin. While the election is over, he wrote a thought provoking article on chess24 that you can read here. While there are some politics as to how FIDE should be run, Kasparov does point out that there are some clear problems that need to be fixed with chess.


4) What is a good book for studying how to play the Smith–Morra Gambit as white?

For those who are not familiar with the Smith–Morra Gambit, it starts

1. e4 c5 2. d4 cxd4 3. c3

White sacrifices a pawn for development, and gets full compensation, if you are a Sicilian player, you ought to know a defense to this line, both inside and out!

Mayhem in the Morra by Marc Esserman is a clear first. Being a Sicilian player, the thought of looking through this book scares me. Esserman’s variations are very detailed and account for many ways that the Morra could go out of book. I have a friend from Maryland who won a game in 9 moves at the World Open last summer from knowing the theory present in this book. A lot of people say that the Evans Defense is the cure for the Smith–Morra, but I wouldn’t be so sure after giving Mayhem in the Morra a read.

Quality Endgame Resource

My favorite endgame book has to be Van Perlo’s Endgame Tactics: A Comprehensive Guide to the Sunny Side of Chess Endings. I think I first read this book when I was rated about 1000, and even though I am nearly twice that now, I still love to look through it and review endgames ideas and techniques. The organization of this book is superb, and the way it groups positions helps teach/reinforce pattern recognition. In the first edition (the copy I own), Ger Van Perlo covers over 1000 positions, and if you work with the book correctly, then you will learn something new every time you open the book. There are some subtleties in each position, and as you become a stronger player, you will be able to pick up on these ideas. I’ve owned my copy for at least five years (probably more), and its a worthwhile read. I know that a second edition has been published recently (2013), and while I have never seen this book in person, if it is anything like the first edition, then it is a great buy.

Thoughts of GM Greg Serper

This past week, I spent my time studying at Castle Chess Camp in Atlanta, GA, working with many different grandmasters (Akobian, Panchanathan, Fedorowicz, etc). Of all the grandmasters I had a chance to to work with, I spent the most time with columnist Greg Serper. If you’ve ever met him, you know he loves analogies to compare chess to real life. Here are a couple things he said this week:

“If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for life.”

In order to become a strong chess player, you have to learn how to study. Playing blitz all the time and memorizing theory will not improve your game.

“You snooze, you lose”

There are two types of advantages in chess: dynamic and material. Dynamic advantages, or initiative, is derived from finding forcing moves throughout the game. If you fail to find enough forcing moves, it is hard to expect to win.

“There are only two goals to become a master: Calculation and common sense.”

Chess is 99% tactics, so calculation is never-ending. While opening theory and endgame knowledge is ideal, common sense is encompassing, and is important for decision making.

“There are only 4 reasons to take a draw.”

Only take a draw if you are losing, not feeling well, in time trouble, or guarantees a prize.

“If it looks too good to be true, then it probably isn’t”

If you think you’re opponent missed something, don’t assume he blundered, you could be missing something too.

“Don’t invent the wheel”

Use thematic ideas with each opening you play. A way to test your knowledge on your openings is to do an evaluator test. An evaluator test works like this: Imagine that you are in an elevator with another person. You have 30 seconds before the elevator reaches the top floor, and the guy asks you “What is that opening?”. If you can not explain that opening in 30 seconds, you don’t have the right to play that opening.

“If you attack your opponent 10 times, he will make a mistake on move 11.”

This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you need proof, look at any game of Morphy.

While I learned a lot from GM Serper, one of my favorite teachers this week was LM Richard Francisco. His thoughts on chess were a little different than most players:

“You only learn from winning. People tell you learn from losing to make you feel better.”

Its kind of true. Studying is how you learn from losing, not losing itself. A lot of players make the mistake of only going over the game once or twice, and then never looking at the game again.

“There are 4 types of positions”

1. One side is a little better and has to convert.

2. Positional themes of board control are present. This is where doing your homework can come in.

3. Chaos. Double–edged, high stakes positions.

4. Taking the initiative. If you want to win, you have to win now.

Chess involves taking these 4 positions and constantly deciding which approach to take to the game.

LM Francisco recommends 3 books for everyone 1800+ from the Aargard series Grandmaster Preparation. There are three books: Positional Play, Calculation, and Strategic Play. These books will address your understandings of each of the four positions in chess.

Give Yourself 30 Minutes

Today’s Monday, so the school week begins for most high schoolers around the country. If you want to get better, you should try to force yourself to do 30 minutes of tactics everyday. Here are some of my top resources that you can use!

1. Tactics Trainer on

If you don’t let the timer rush your calculations, Tactics Trainer has a good supply of tactics. It focuses a lot on mover order after you reach 1600, which is different than many other online resources.


A good,  free resource that can hep you on your tactical knowledge if you are trying to reach the 1000–1200 rating range. I recommend this to a lot of my friends who are looking for something fun and easy.

3. ChessQuest for iPhone

You can find this app on the app store, and costs $4.99. Built by GM Leonid Yudasin, a world famous grandmaster from the USSR, this app is designed for players of all strengths. Since its easy to access, you can do tactics while on the bus or any other convenient point of the day.

4. 5334 Problems, Combinations, and Games by Polgar

If you’re looking for a book, this is a go to collection of puzzles. Across Mate in 1s, 2s, and 3s, Polgar teaches you tactical patterns and motifs. I used this book to help me reach 1300 years back, and I recommend it to everyone I work with below 1100.

5. The Magic Tactics of Mikhail Tal

This is one of my favorite tactic books of all time. Karsten Müller incorporates both chess history and quality puzzles to solve. This book is a fun read for anyone rated higher than 1600.


Just sitting down once everyday with one of these resources can really be a game changer. Try to do tactics during the week so you can focus on openings and endgame technique on the weekends.


Feel like I left out a good tactics resource? Feel free to comment!