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Roy DeVault has been an active writer of columns and books on chess for many years. He served as Games Editor for CCLA for 5 years in the 80's, in the process publishing small books on the first 7 CCLA closed championships. In 1992, Chess Digest published his first full-length book "The Leningrad Dutch," and he followed this with two later works for Digest, "Play the Dutch" (with IM Herb Hickman) and "Chess Openings Lexicon." Currently, he writes a column for Harding's Chess Mail and contributes to the "IECC Journal."

Roy has played correspondence chess since 1961, encompassing nearly a thousand games. In 1997 he switched over entirely from postcards to email chess. He is active in ICCF play, with over a hundred games completed, and holds a master-level 2235 rating in ICCF and a rating around 2350 in IECC.

Roy can be reached at devault@datasync.com.

On Style in Chess Play
by Roy DeVault

Over time, we all read many books and articles about chess. Here and there in our reading we encounter references to someone's "style" of play. Most of the time we feel that we know what the writer means by his reference to "style." But do we really? What is the essence of "style" in chess? What are the elements that define a style of play?

I believe that these are interesting questions, which are very basic to our enjoyment of the game. When we select games to play over, we prefer some types of games to others. After a bit of thought we may conclude that we prefer the games we like best because of our liking for the opening lines played. This, in turn, may be due the fact that we prefer certain openings which suit our "style of play." By a natural selection process, we begin to favor studying the games of a great player who utilized "our" openings repertoire. How many of us could state what our personal "style of play" is? Let us examine this matter further!

Perhaps the most easily recognizable style is that of Paul Morphy. It consists of rapid development in an open position, with the goal of overwhelming the opponent through superior piece activity, in a situation in which Morphy typically has more troops in the field than the opponent. True, defensive technique in Morphy's time was very crude, and the correct responses to gambits were still being worked out. Still, most players would agree that they could recognize Morphy-like play. And this is a key point. Most experienced players could imitate Morphy's style rather well. If someone challenged you to play an opening in his style, you could alter your personal move selection process to heavily weight matters in favor of rapid development, ignoring your opponent's threats to capture small amounts of material along the way.

This leads me to the conclusion that the style element we recognize in the games of a player is a unique method of utilizing the pieces and pawns; one in which we can discern a pattern.

So, for example, Tigran Petrosian was said to have a 'boa-constrictor' style, in which the pieces methodically encircle the enemy forces, restricting their movements in a gradual process until the victim succumbs. The contemporary GM Ulf Andersson delights in very slow-paced maneuvering from a hedge-hog type piece and pawn set-up. Retired GM Boris Spassky, in his prime, had a clear, natural method of developing his pieces and pawns to good squares; one which makes his best games seem so 'natural' that one exclaims "but of course!" when playing over the score.

At the turn of the century, GM Tchigorin exhibited a marked preference for Knights over Bishops, and, a few years later, Tarrasch warned us "Knights before Bishops," and didn't mind an isolated d-pawn.. But these are not defining elements of chess style. Rather, they are "rules of thumb" to aid players in the move selection process. Nimzovich, with his prophylaxis theory, tended to cluster his pieces and pawns towards the center, but, again, this is a general guide to a method of play, not a style. I submit that most players would have extreme difficulty in stating whether a game score, known to be from one of these last three players, belonged to one or the other.

This is to say, then, that the concept of chess style is only very vaguely defined. Clearly, most players play in a variety of styles, depending on the situation. R. J. Fischer and Em. Lasker are two that come quickly to mind in this context. A player known to have the absence of a recognizable style was Samuel Reshevsky. Arguably, the same could be said of A. Alekhine, and many other famous players as well.

Kasparov complained that Deep Blue had been tuned especially to play against him. Does this mean that someone, somehow, made a deep (pardon the word choice) study of GK's style, and determined a counter-style that would best challenge him? I think it more likely (I make this statement unsupported by any factual data) that the analysts adjusted some tuning coefficients (weights of various positional and material factors) known to have caused selection of inferior moves the first time around. This, it could be argued, causes Deep Blue to have a style of play. Indeed, for some years it was a given fact that computers were very materialistic, and this meets my criteria as a recognizable style of play. However, Deep Blue is far past the point of mere materialism. If the world's best computer programs have a recognizable style of play, I cannot detect it.

What conclusions can we draw from all this? My conclusion is that there is but a single element involved in chess style: a unique, recognizable method of utilizing the pieces and pawns. This principle is less than satisfactory, because it is rather vague. But isn't that the case in matters of chess style? In the words of numberless annotators across the years, "more investigation is needed."

Copyright © 1998 by Roy DeVault

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