Matthew Sadler thinks the "4 Player Types Model" is worth a look

by ChessBase
6/9/2022 – Are you an 'Activist', a 'Theorist', a 'Reflector' or a 'Pragmatist’, the four types of players identified by Karsten Müller and Luis Engel in their ChessBase course about player types? It might help to know, and in a review in the "New in Chess Magazine" English Grandmaster Matthew Sadler talks about the pros and cons of such a model and argues that it is useful to identify your strengths and weaknesses if you want to improve your game.

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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Working at your weaknesses

The chess world never stops! It's only been a couple of months since Magnus Carlsen retained his World Championship title but it already feels like a distant memory after the drama of the World Blitz and Rapid championships in Warsaw and the Tata Steel Chess Tournament in Wijk aan Zee. Perhaps the abiding impression of the Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi match is nothing to do with specific moves or preparation, but rather a psycho logical one: the difficulty in changing the type of player you are and the tendency of your weaknesses to rear their head under stressful situations.

Nepomniachtchi did a super job in many respects, but the big the defining factor. Working at your weaknesses is of course something that every (professional) chess player does, but embedding this corrective work into your practical play is akin to changing a wheel on a moving vehicle. Practical success is often the result of a personal (unique) blending of skills that opponents find difficult to deal with. Improving an area of your game can alter that delicate balance and even lead to a drop in strength.

For example, working at your positional game increases your awareness of the long-term risks your natural aggressive game entails. This new awareness inhibits your subsequent risk-taking, which means you put your opponent under less pressure ... and the flow of wins you took for granted starts to dry up.

Continually thinking about your weaknesses is also a dangerous approach for practical players. At some stage you have to believe in yourself and impose your strengths on your opponents. After all, the best way to hide your weaknesses is to guide your opponent towards fighting against your strengths. So there are two possible pitfalls: you might affect the strength of your overall game by tinkering with improvements, and you might reduce your confidence during practical play by excessive focus on your weaknesses.

It's often useful in such cases to shift the focus away from yourself and consider things more generally. For example, comparing yourself to other players with similar skillsets and understanding their strengths and weaknesses is a less confrontational way of identifying useful areas of your game to work on, and avoids blaming yourself unnecessarily for chess failings (because other people have them too!). This last observation made me extremely interested in The 4 Player Types standard model by Karsten Muller and Luis Engel (ChessBase DVD). This DVD builds on a 2005 work by Lars Bo worry before the match - that Ian's to guide your opponent towards fighting resilience to setbacks was markedly inferior to Magnus's - proved to be the defining factor.

Working at your weaknesses is of course something that every (professional) chess player does, but embedding this corrective work into your practical play is akin to changing a wheel on a moving vehicle. Practical success is often the result of a personal (unique) blending of skills that opponents find difficult to deal with. Improving an area of your game can alter that delicate balance and even lead to a drop in strength. For example, working at your positional game increases your awareness of the long-term risks your natural aggressive game entails. This new awareness inhibits your subsequent risk-taking, which means you put your opponent under less pressure ... and the flow of wins you took for granted starts to dry up.

Continually thinking about your weaknesses is also a dangerous approach for practical players. At some stage you have to believe in yourself and impose your strengths on your opponents. After all, the best way to hide your weaknesses is to guide your opponent towards fighting against your strengths. So there are two possible pitfalls: you might affect the strength of your overall game by tinkering with improvements, and you might reduce your confidence during practical play by excessive focus on your weaknesses. It's often useful in such cases to shift the focus away from yourself and consider things more generally.

For example, comparing yourself to other players with similar skillsets and understanding their strengths and weaknesses is a less confrontational way of identifying useful areas of your game to work on, and avoids blaming yourself unnecessarily for chess failings (because other people have them too!). 

This last observation made me extremely interested in by Karsten Muller and Luis Engel (ChessBase DVD). This DVD builds on a 2005 work by Lars Bo Hansen called Foundations of Chess Strategy (Gambit), which categorised players into 'Activists', 'Reflectors', 'Pragmatists' and 'Theoreticians' (I tried to get hold of this now outof-print book but quoted prices of $80-$200 sort of put me off!). A couple of these titles are intuitive, a couple need some explanation to make sense of them. The DVD takes them one by one, Karsten Miiller examining the 'Activists' (Alekhine, Kasparov) and the 'Theorists' (Steinitz, Botvinnik, Kramnik), and Luis Engel braving the 'Reflectors' (Petrosian, Karpov, Carlsen) and 'Pragmatists' (Euwe, Lasker, Fischer).

In each category, the authors draw general conclusions about the tendencies, strengths and weaknesses of the associated players. It's the beautiful thing about chess and the strong characters of our World Champions that I'm sure you already have some feeling for the categories just by seeing the names attached to them! For example, you see Karpov in the 'Reflectors' category and you know that deep strategic under standing of the game and intuition is a part of that skillset. A quick example (one of my all-time favourites!)

Slim Bouaziz
Anatoly Karpov
Hamburg 1982

 

position after 25.Kf2

25...Nb8

'A little early to start setting up the pieces again!' was the comment on Twitter after I shared this example! It's a beautiful move, regrouping the knight from c6 to cS. Why not activate the rook on a8 before doing so? Karpov has a plan! 26. Nf3 Nd7 27. Kg3 Nc5 28. Rd1 a5 29. Kf2 Ra6

 

That's it! Karpov had envisaged activating the rook on the 6th rank!

30. Ke2 Na4 31. d4 Rb6 32.dxe5 Rxb2+ 33. Kf1 Nxc3 34. exd6 cxd6 35. Rd6 Rb1+ 36. Ne1 Kf6 37. Rd2 b5 38. Rc2 b4 39. Kf2 Ra1 40. e5+ Kxe5 41. Nf3+ Ke4 42. Nd4 Kd3 0-1.

My feelings about the value and accuracy of these models varied significantly while watching the videos, but I eventually settled into an appreciative mood! Perhaps that's an indication that you have to get clear in your own head what you can get out of these models and whattheir strengths and limitations are. Once you do that, however, I think that they can be of significant practical value.

To start with, you mustn't take them too literally. In the modern era where elite players are significantly more universal than 'classical' players (that tag unfortunately includes players of my era!), assigning them to one category can feel like hammering a square peg into a round hole, and makes you want to take issue with the authors' choices! However, it's more useful to view these players as illustrations of skills in this category (for example, no one would question that Magnus is a great exponent of the 'Reflector' qualities) rather than bounded by the category. A related point is that you can intuitively (wrongly) assume that categories are exclusive, which can be confusing when the category role models are so strong. I guess I was a 'Theorist' as a professional player (someone who knew his systems and the associated middlegame schemes intimately and who liked clean games with a single dominating theme), but it's pretty clear that Magnus would be much stronger than me in this category too! A quick example of typical 'Theorist' play would be Botvinnik'sfamous victory against Alekhine at the 1938 AVRO tournament.

Mikhail Botvinnik

Alexander Alekhine

Amsterdam 1938

1. Nf3 d5 2. d4 Nf6 3. c4 e6 4. Nc3 c5 5. cxd5 Nxd5 6. e3 Nc6 7. Bc4 cxd4 8. exd4 Be7 9. O-O O-O 10. Re1 b6?

 

A bad opening mistake from Alekhine, that allows Botvinnik to switch the battle from a fight around White's isolated queen's pawn to a fight along the open files adjacent to the isolated queen's pawns. This new fight is clearly to White's advantage: White already has a rook on the e-file while 10 ... b6 has weakened Black's control of c6 making it impossible to maintain a piece barrier on the c-file.

11. Nxd5 exd5 12. Bb5 Bd7 13. Qa4 Nb8 14. Bf4 Bxb5 15. Qxb5 a6 16. Qa4 Bd6 17. Bxd6 Qxd6 18. Rac1

 

It couldn't be clearer that White is better equipped for the fight ahead. In particular, the c-file is a fruitful invasion channel for White's rook right to the end of the game.

18...Ra7 19. Qc2 Re7 20. Rxe7 Qxe7 21. Qc7 Qxc7 22. Rxc7 f6 23. Kf1 Rf7 24. Rc8+ Rf8 25. Rc3 g5 26. Ne1 h5 27. h4 Nd7 28. Rc7 Rf7 29. Nf3 g4 30. Ne1 f5 31. Nd3 f4 32. f3 gxf3 33. gxf3 a5 34. a4 Kf8 35. Rc6

 

It's a nice touch that the c6-square weakened on move 10 is still being exploited 25 moves later!

35...Ke7 36. Kf2 Rf5 37. b3 Kd8 38. Ke2 Nb8 39. Rg6 Kc7 40. Ne5 Na6 41. Rg7+ Kc8 42. Nc6 Even 32 moves later! 

42...Rf6 43. Ne7+ Kb8 44. Nxd5 Rd6 45. Rg5 Nb4 46. Nxb4 axb4 47. Rxh5 Rc6 48. Rb5 Kc7 49. Rxb4 Rh6 50. Rb5 Rxh4 51. Kd3 1-0.

Finally, some part of you always rebels at being categorised! A category doesn't take account of all your skills or of your development as a chess player. For example, in many positions I act more like an 'Activist' (someone who values the initiative and attacking chances above material - probably my first instinct before my brain kicks in to keep me sensible) or a 'Pragmatist' (which Engel defines as concrete players who like to calculate lines and base their actions not on intuition but on specific variations).

And yet for all that, it's a very interesting and worthwhile exercise to hold your play up to a set of chess and psychological characteristics gleaned from great players and see how it compares! For example, I was struck by Muller's insight that 'Activists' often make weakening pawn moves without taking proper account of the downsides and that they often defend poorly when passive defence is required. He illustrates this with a game of Kasparov's (the greatest 'Activist' of all time!) against Kramnik from their World Championship match in 2000.

Vladimir Kramnik

Garry Kasparov

London 2000 (2nd match game)

 

position after 34. Rb4

34...Rd7 34...Bd6 35. Rc4 Ra5

was the best chance to defend this (unpleasant) endgame according to Mueller. Kasparov manages to lose this endgame within six moves by what Muller calls 'pseudo-activity'.

35. Kg2 Rd2+

These are active attacking moves, but there is no attack in the position!

36. Kh3 h5

Muller points to this too as typical of Activists - making aggressive pawn moves but not taking account of the downsides. This pawn move feels as if it might help Black with a counter attack against White's king by taking away the g4-square, but this counter attack is simply never going to materialise. Black therefore essentially brings one of his pawns closer to White's position, making it easier for White to attack it.

37. Rb5 Kf6 38. a5 Ra2 39. Rb6+ Ke7 40. Bd5

 

And Kasparov resigned.

40...Rxa5 41. Re6+ Kd7 42. Rxe5 Kd6 43. Rxh5 (picking up the h-pawn on the way now it has been pushed to h5) 43...Rxd5 44. Rxd5+ Kxd5 45. Kg4 wins.

Obviously Kasparov was not in his best shape for this match (probably partially caused by Kramnik's stellar play and psychological insight) but I suddenly realized that I have defended positions in a similarly 'pseudo-active' manner on a number of occasions. Understanding this from the mistakes of others is much less painful than staring at the ruins of your own handiwork! The power of such models also lies in facilitating general reflections on how - for example - you as a 'Theorist' should approach a game against a 'Pragmatist'.

In summary, I think this DVD is worth a serious look and I think that some players might get a lot out of it! I suppose the one thing I was somewhat nonplussed about was that there didn't seem to be a common structure to the 4 categories: the 'Activist' section is huge and is divided up into an Introduction, Endgames, Strengths and Weaknesses, but the other chapters are not so well-structured. However, in general really interesting and got me thinking - 4 stars!

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’.

This review first appeared in New In Chess 2/2022 (Sadler on Books). Republication with kind permission.


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