Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tactics: space, time, or spacetime?

Recently as I've been playing gambits and attacking more and becoming less materialistic, the dimensions of time and its cousin activity have become forefront in my mind. This post offers a different (for me) spin on tactics. My argument will be that we can view tactics as moves that will gain material unless your opponent is given extra moves (i.e., given extra tempi or time). As I'll explain, this focus on time seems a useful complement to the usual space-centered approach. In the end I try to fuse the spatial and temporal aspects of tactics....

Beware the following is somewhat theoretical. I'll be the first to admit it may not be useful to many people. However, I'm not guaranteeing it is not useful, so you might read on.

Let me first stipulate that for this post I use the word 'tactic' narrowly to refer to a set of moves that forces a gain in material or game points (so a forced stalemate in a losing position is a tactic as it gains you half a point).

Most approaches to tactical classification use a space-based approach. To pick on a representative sample, Tempo, in his many treatises on the subject, defines tactics as duplo attacks, moves that make two threats which cannot both be met, and which gain wood. This is a spatial concept: you are making threats at two different locations in space. You can point to 'em. But this isn't sufficient: as Tempo pointed out recently it must be that both threats cannot both be addressed at the same time. That is, the opponent would require extra tempi to meet the threats. Only in such cases does a double attack make a real tactical threat.

Next consider traps, which are not double attacks. Traps can be looked at spatially, though in a different way than the spatial view of double attacks: you are attacking a piece that has no escape squares, no place to run. But traps can also be looked at from a temporal point of view: you are attacking a piece and it needs more than one move to get to safety, it has no time to run. If given more tempi, this is a threat that could be met.

Notice the description at the level of tempi is the same for both traps and double attacks: they are both threats the opponent would need extra tempi to address.

Let's consider a third tactic that is neither a double attack nor a trap: leaving a piece free to be captured. This may be the most elementary tactic we all learn--take wood that is given to you for free. It can be looked at in a spatial sense: there is a piece there, and you can take it. It can also be recast in terms of time: the opponent has zero tempi with which to protect wood: if you were to give him extra tempi he would be fine. Hey, wait, that's what I've been saying for all of them!

All of these tactics have one property in common: the defender would need to be given some extra tempi to save material. A simple, general, exceptionless definition of a tactic? Or the violent ramblings of a madman high on Thanksgiving fumes?

Note before everyone lines up to ram a chainsaw down my throat, I am not saying I think the spatial perspective is wrong. It is quite practical and useful. You can point to two attacked pieces. Try to point to time. And now describe time to a scholastic beginner. Time is subtle and weird. Space is concrete and fun.

Finally, most importantly, obviously space and time interact in chess. The trapped piece needs extra tempi because of the spatial characteristics of the position. Indeed, this may be the most general way to characterize all tactics: threats (which depend on the spatial layout of the material) that would require extra tempi to block.


Blogger Kevin said...


This is a tough topic, I think that tactics are much more than this though. Tactics to me are any ideas that radically change the nature of the position. They can be used to win material, space, or even a slight lead in development in the case of players at the highest level. They usually have long term strategic consequences which makes them much more complicated to evaluate and allows them to affect "game points". I don't really know if this makes any sense either though....

11/21/2007 03:26:00 AM  
Blogger Pawn Shaman said...

stepping out of comfortable territory on the board is a good catalyst for stepping into uncomfortable territory in your mind.

Pinpointing the true definition of tactics is more difficult than I would have thought. I dont disagree with your definition and I do agree that it is not quite sufficient. Their is something it is not encompassing.

Fred Reinfeld puts it this way "Tactics are the means whereby we enforce our will on the enemy. The goal of tactics is to bring more force to bear on one objective than your opponent can muster for defense."

Can tempi and will be substituted?

11/21/2007 09:43:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Kevin and PS: I probably could have been more clear by saying that if we narrowly focus on the material and game-point aspects of tactics (as we argued about here) then this is a useful way to look at things. I probably shouldn't have said I had a "definition" of tactics as that will evoke all the stuff from the previous discussion which I didn't mean to do.

Rather, assuming as Tempo and I have been doing that tactics is about points (wood or game), then here is a time-based perspective.

I'm not sure how useful it would be to generalize the view so that it would be something like 'A move that will gain X unless your opponent is given extra tempi (where X is anything you want such as material, game points, other tangible advantages like space).'

11/21/2007 11:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Liquid Egg Product said...

However, I'm not guaranteeing it is not useful, so you might read on.

This reasoning actually motivated me to read the whole thing through in one sitting.

Nothing constructive to add, but I always love reading novel approaches and thoughts to what seems obvious or mundane.

11/21/2007 12:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Christian said...

I'm usually a sucker for theory and abstract musings. But as far as tactics and strategy in chess are concerned, I stick to the traditional dictionary definition:

The manoeuvres used or plans followed to achieve a particular short-term aim.

A particular long-term plan for success.

Since chess is not a game of chance, it might be useful to think of tactics and strategy as two ends of a spectrum which measures "predictability": the more predictable (in terms of concrete moves) a plan, the more tactical that plan is.

11/21/2007 12:32:00 PM  
Blogger Chessaholic said...

Interesting discussion. BDK: I think with the generalization you give in your comment, your definition works better.

Think, for example, of an open position on the board where it would be an advantage to have the bishop pair. Say there is a forced sequence of moves that results in a trade gaining you the two bishops vs two knights for your opponent. Even though this does not gain you material, I would still consider it a tactic. Your more generalized definition would work here.

11/21/2007 01:19:00 PM  
Blogger Temposchlucker said...

But traps can also be looked at from a temporal point of view: you are attacking a piece and it needs more than one move to get to safety, it has no time to run. If given more tempi, this is a threat that could be met.

Ok, it took some time, but now I agree. Two tempos needed, zero available. You seem to be able to look at such things lose from their practical application. I can't.

To me the background of this point is the structure of the human memory. Time = step by step = sequential = short term memory overload. That's why I tried to express time in the form of space.

In order to make one spacial chunk of several temporal steps. Thus emulating the brainactivity of a grandmaster, as showed on brainscans. Using Long Term Memory in stead of Short Term Memory.

11/21/2007 02:40:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

LEP: :) lol. I was hoping that would grab at least one PBS-hater. :)

Christian: see above comment where I discuss alternatives. THis post wasn't meant to be about definitions of tactics, though I unfortunately posed it that way.

Tempo: the GMs see temporal patterns too, like your ability to recognize a musical score from just hearing just a tiny slice of it in time. No effort involved. Also there is complicated spatiotemporal pattern recognition, like our ability to recognize the 'shape' of humans walking from a tiny snapshot.

Chessaholic: interesting example. I think it would work too, but I'm less confident than with the simple stuff like wood and mates! :)

11/21/2007 03:08:00 PM  
Blogger Chessaholic said...

by the way, great choice of a picture for this post - if I'm not mistaken, this is from Salvador Dali's painting "The Persistence of Memory". How appropriate :)

11/21/2007 03:59:00 PM  
Anonymous takchess said...

And now describe time to a scholastic beginner. Time is subtle and weird. Space is concrete and fun.

But to a gambiteer, time is what makes things interesting and fun. Deciding how close you can play on the edge.

Just Gimme three steps gimme three steps mister.

11/22/2007 09:43:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Takchess: lol. Exactly why I've been thinking about things in terms of time lately. It feels less abstract, much more real since I've been playing gambits.

11/22/2007 12:50:00 PM  
Blogger likesforests said...

Happy Thanksgiving!

11/22/2007 03:22:00 PM  
Blogger slithytove said...

Interesting musings on the nature of tactics. Sometimes I stick with Christian and have a traditional view that separates tactics and strategy by the short vs long term nature of the goals. I think this fits nicely with considerations of the value of tempi: in a sharp situation with numerous threats, a tempo carries the possibility of piling up multiple threats and is relatively more valuable than in a quiet position. Likewise in the opening, tempos can be valuable because of the relatively small number of moves made by each side: you gain a tempo by move five, you essentially have had 20% more moves than your opponent, and thus the opportunity to pile up threats is greater.

At other times, I think of tactical moves as moves with concrete calculations behind them, and strategic moves as moves that are made with general principles behind them. That is why endgames are such a gret mix of tactics and strategy: the goals are concrete, but long term, and planning is very important for realizing your goals.

Finally, I am definitely in agreement with Christian that there is a spectrum, not necessarily clearly defined borders between strategy and tactics.

11/22/2007 11:34:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Slithy: I tend to take the latter view of tactics as involving lots of concrete considerations/variation crunching and strategy involving general principles in more quiet positions. But I agree there is not a clear fast line between the two. Each constrains the other in interesting ways.

11/23/2007 01:42:00 AM  
Blogger The Rise and Shine Good Knight said...

New Post! Anybody have any ideas?

11/24/2007 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger BlunderProne said...

I try not to think about them... I just do them... as in my newest post.

11/24/2007 08:59:00 PM  
Blogger likesforests said...

"Let's consider a third tactic... leaving a piece free to be captured. ... the opponent has zero tempi with which to protect wood: if you were to give him extra tempi he would be fine."

Not in my experience with beginners. They often leave a piece hanging for two, three, or even more moves!

But seriously, I think your point of view makes sense. I'm just not sure how this will help you to find more tactics on the board.

11/26/2007 04:58:00 AM  
Blogger chessloser said...

even the "violent ramblings of a madman high on Thanksgiving fumes" can have some insight and wisdom, and this has it. i like this post a lot.

11/26/2007 10:41:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Likeforests: as I said I am not sure it is helpful practically. But I still think it is cool. Like string theory.

In practice, does understanding time in chess matter? I think so. And this perspective on tactics, I think, helps illustrate the importance of timing.

Time is most palpable for me in those weird mating attacks where you have just one move less than you would like to defend against the mate. Where it seems he should not have mate, that you shoudl be able to defend (e.g., he just has a bishop or two and a knight that have been slowly creeping up toward your king but you assumed you would be able to stop them if they were crazy enough to go in for the kill).

At any rate, I am still not convinced it isn't practical at some level. We are so used to thinking spatially with tactics perhaps it just feels more practical. But thinking in terms of time may start to become more second nature, start to seem practical. What if we started with beginners by using a time-based approach, and then showed double attacks, traps, mates, en prise, as special cases of time-based tactics? Maybe that would help them get a better sense of time in chess from an early (chess) age.

11/26/2007 12:40:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Chessloser: thanks!

BP: That's all? You are usually so verbose in these theoretical discussions.

11/26/2007 12:41:00 PM  
Blogger BlunderProne said...

Have you seen my latest post?

Tactics is a dynamic beast. depending on your level of play, it could be as simple as a back rank mate or as complex as a removal of the guard combination. It can be a tactic that converts a temporal advantage of say an edge in development to soemthing more tangible like a material gain.

It could be a means to gain a pawn advantage so you can shift gears and play to a winnable endgame. It could be a mating net.

in the early days leading to thecompletion of the circles and some post circle phenom, i was envisioning tactics EVERYWHERE to a fault. I was a trigger happy. I since calmed down some and now focus on learning to visual the makings of a tactic... and settign it up ( like in teh game I just posted). I find that "simpler" tactics for "smaller goals" ( control of key squares or open files for instance) helps build the momentum for other "bigger" tactics.

I was able to play in a 1-day G60 event this weekedn and found myself holding ground with 1800 players ( 2 draws).I was able to follow these simple ideas as not to pull the trigger... even having a "near tactic" was threatneing enough that I was able to set up a different one. (I'll post later on i still have other priorities to attend)

My latest task in converting CT-ART to PGN/FEN so i cna play 3D against Fritz and go beyond the initial material win and actually try to win is very helpful as I play a lot of OTB and had problems with visualization of tactics. Not only is a visula exercise but i can also practice endgames i would typically see with imbalances. It paid off this weekend as i was down material and ( almost) drew my last game had I not given up control of the center. A lot of times, giving back the material at a strategic point in the end game is inevitable. On the flip side, knowing how to be a pain in the ass ( which is my strength) comes in handy if your opponent doesn't knwo any better. that verbose enough?

11/26/2007 12:58:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

BP: lol. I saw that post, and wasn't sure how it related to this one. I think it is amazing what you are doing with CT-Art. I haven't found a computer 3-D board I like yet. I wish they had good holograms.

Again, the definitional stuff unfortunately became the focus for a lot of comments, which is my fault. I should have more clearly posed it as a way of looking at move sequences that gain material or points, which I happen to call tactics.

At any rate that definitional stuff we discussed ad nauseum in my 'pins aren't tactics' post. Many converged on what you are using, and others converge on the more simple defintion. Neither is correct, of course, but it is good to be clear and consistent in our language and thoughts (even if it doesn't help me OTB).

11/26/2007 01:45:00 PM  

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