Karsten Müller and Luis Engel: The 4 Player Types model - A review

by Tanmay Srinath
6/29/2022 – The German Grandmasters Karsten Müller and Luis Engel developed a model that allows to classify players according to their playing style: The 4 Player Types model. According to Müller and Engel there are "Activists", "Pragmatists", "Theorists", and "Reflectors". Each group of players has distinctive strengths and weaknesses and knowing which type of player you are - and the opponents you play against - can be extremely helpful. Tanmay Srinath liked the model.

The 4 Player Types standard model - Find your strengths and weaknesses and those of your opponent The 4 Player Types standard model - Find your strengths and weaknesses and those of your opponent

Playing styles in chess are an important and thus often discussed topic. GM Dr. Karsten Müller and GM Luis Engel take up a model by GM Lars Bo Hansen based on 4 player types - namely ‘activists’, ‘pragmatics’, ‘theoreticians’ and so-called ‘reflectors’.

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As a correspondence chess player, I was always lead to believe that style plays no significant role in the game – you play the objectively best moves, test your opponent and see if he makes a mistake that you spot with the help of the computer. Such an approach worked for me until 2300 ICCF, but in recent times I have noticed a lot of players at my level who use powerful hardware and simply don’t make obvious mistakes. Then, the question arises – how do I force them into unpleasant positions where the engine is of no use, and they have to use their judgement to navigate the intricacies? This is a question I have been trying to answer for a while now, and thanks to an unlikely source of wisdom, it seems that I am one step closer to the answer.

Karsten Mueller and Luis Engel look at 4 different player types, initially popularised by the wonderful chess author Lars Bo Hansen in his 2005 book. They aim to break down each of those types bit by bit – their stylistic preferences, strengths, weaknesses and typical patterns. While the DVD (which was based on the 2020 book they wrote on the topic) and the book primarily focus on ‘Activists’ like myself – players with a direct combinative style who like to pose problems in both theory and in practice with intuitive sacrifices, the authors have ensured that enough attention is paid to the other 3 player types. As Karsten told me during our email correspondence, he is an activist as a player and a theorist as a coach (viewers of his Endgame Magic show and readers of his numerous exemplary books will agree!), while the young and promising grandmaster Luis Engel is a pragmatic. Thus, there is extensive coverage of these 3 player types, but the authors have also got Vincent Keymer, a Reflector, to write the foreword, so one can make the argument that all 4 player types contributed to the final product!

As an over-the-board player, I am primarily an activist who borders on hyper-activism, as illustrated by the following game fragment:

 

The game was quickly finished after 15.d5!! (strangely enough, this move, sacrificing another pawn to open lines, would take quite a long time for other player types. For me, it took only 8 minutes to see till move 20.) Nf8 16.Rxf6!! (The point behind my play. Black is defenceless.) gxf6 17.Ng4 Nd7 18.d6! (with a winning advantage for White that I converted in a few more moves.)

This tournament, my first in more than two years, was quite funny - I started off quite sedately with 4/6, thanks to the fact that I wasn’t playing openings that suited my style, and then proceeded to score 3/3 on the final day after switching back to 1.e4 and more direct play. Perhaps I should have taken a look at all the contents of the DVD prior to playing my games...

As a correspondence player though, I believe my style is more like a Reflector with a bit of activist thrown into it. This shows how one can have two distinct playing styles:

 

Knowing what pieces to keep and what to exchange is a key Reflector trait. Here I played 17...Re8! and confidently converted my endgame advantage.

Of course, in an engine-dominated field like CC, one can be influenced by the technology he/she uses. For example, I would say that without Fat Fritz or Leela, I wouldn’t have become the player I am today, since they opened up a whole new world for me in terms of evaluation and long-term strategy. However, unlike the common perception that CC players are engine copycats, the majority of the best players in correspondence also study the games of their opponents and try to look for positions that they struggle in. It is here that Mueller and Engel’s work fits in – their analysis of player types makes the dissection of any chess player an easier task by giving some ground rules about each player type.

I am not trying to create a rosy picture, so I should also mention the DVD’s flaws. I found the Reflector portion inadequate and disappointing, as it mostly consisted of games that I already knew about (Karpov’s famous Ba7!! and his opposite coloured bishop middlegame vs Kasparov). The use of famous games to illustrate Reflector qualities didn’t appeal to me, particularly as those games are known to any educated chess player. Also, just one Magnus game and no Keymer games rubbed some salt into the wounds, particularly since it was mentioned beforehand that Keymer is a reflector himself. Just one game from the greatest player in modern chess history in a section he should be dominating doesn’t bode well for the logic behind the selection. Another point of irritation was that the annotations were in German, which most of us in the world won’t be able to read.

However, I believe that the flaws I have stated must not take any credit away from what Mueller and Engel have tried to accomplish. Creating a generic model for a concrete sport like chess is a really hard task, but the German duo have managed to build on Lars Bo Hansen’s work and define a framework that works in most of the scenarios they have tested. Most importantly, they have done some solid work in a field of chess that really needs further exploration i.e. the subjective aspects of style and player preferences. This work is relevant to any serious chess player who wants to study his opponent and pose him the maximum number of problems in a game, be it over the board or in correspondence. I would heartily recommend the DVD to beginner and intermediate chess players across the globe. In addition, I would advise the more advanced and erudite chess folk to check out the original book (beginners and intermediates can also take away a lot from it, but the content is a bit more advanced) which in my view is far more detailed and extensive – in addition to greater coverage of each player type, the book also has a set of wonderful training exercises that I am struggling to get through. All in all, another seminal piece of work by GM Mueller and his wonderful apprentice GM Engel.

The 4 Player Types standard model - Find your strengths and weaknesses and those of your opponent

Playing styles in chess are an important and thus often discussed topic. GM Dr. Karsten Müller and GM Luis Engel take up a model by GM Lars Bo Hansen based on 4 player types - namely ‘activists’, ‘pragmatics’, ‘theoreticians’ and so-called ‘reflectors’.

Buy the 4 Player Types standard model in the shop...

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Tanmay Srinath has been writing for ChessBase India since quite some time now. His tournament reports and depth of analysis have been widely appreciated. Pursuing a full-fledged career in engineering Tanmay doesn't get enough time to pursue chess, but he loves to follow top-level encounters and analyzes those games with his Fat Fritz engine. We hope you find his analysis useful in your games.
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