While Steinitz and Lasker used positional chess as a platform to launch combinational attacks (both were excellent combinational players too), Aron Nimzowitsch showed that entire games can be won with positional play itself. His book "My System" is still a positional player's bible. Nimzowitsch collected all the elements of positional chess, brought his own innovations and gave it a shape of complete system of playing a new kind of chess which has later been adopted by many players including former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik. The elements proposed by Nimzowitsch can be found in almost all chess players' games at IM or GM levels. Moreover, positional chess has been the main weapon in the hands of many GMs to beat or hold advanced computer software which are too good in finding combinations.
So, what were Nimzowitsch's main innovations:
1. Centre Control with Pieces: Nimzowitsch suggested that centre must be controlled with one's pieces (where they will be most effective) rather than pawns. Any adventures by the opponents on sidelines (king or queen side) can be punished with centre control itself. Further, centre control helps in sudden switch of the attacks from one side to the other.
2. Prophylaxis: One shall understand and prevent opponent's plans.
3. Blockade: Nimzowitsch suggested that passed pawns must be stopped and Knights are the best pieces to block the progress of passed pawns. "First restrain, then blockade and finally destroy" was the call by Nimzowitsch.
4. Fianchetto & Horrwitz Bishops: Nimzowitsch suggested that bishops are most effective at diagonals. So, fianchetto development of bishops (bringing them on g2 or g7) has a lasting effect on the game. Also, Horrwitz bishops (bishops on adjacent diagonals) are very useful in attacking the opponent king and also supporting our pawn advancements while stopping opponent's pawn.
5. Open Files and Outposts: Open files are the files either having no pawns or rooks/ queen ahead of pawns. These are useful for rooks & queens. Semi-open files have only one pawn on them. Outposts are the squares mainly in the opponent's camp where our pieces cannot be attacked with pawns. Nimzowitsch stresses a lot on open files and creation of outposts where pieces (especially knights) shall be posted to have maximum impact.
6. Invasion of Seventh/ Eighth Rank with Rooks and/or Queen: Nimzowitsch found out that once our rooks (alone, in pair or with queen) invade opponent's seventh/ eighth ranks, there are very high chances of win or at least a draw. So, this must be a goal of our strategy.
7. Over-protection: Applicable in some positions are his ideas of overprotection that we shall protect our important squares or pieces with more pieces than required so that we shall not loose them in cases of eventuality.
8. Attack on the pawn chain: One shall attack the base of a pawn chain. However, defender can shift the base as well. In some cases, pawn chain is also attacked from front (i.e. by black f pawn in French advanced variation).
These elements created a complete system which can be followed to win a game. In this way, Nimzowitsch could show that goal of positional play is not just to create combinations or material gain alone but we can achieve mating positions also through positional maneuvering. In some games. Nimzowitsch could restrain his opponents in the begining 17-18 moves itself to the level that whatever move opponent was making, one or more pieces were lost by him.
Positional (Strategic) and combinational (Tactical) chess: Here it is important for us to understand the difference between the two. In management terms, strategy means a long term plan while tactics means day to day success. Therefore, Positional or Strategic chess means putting our pieces on the squares where they will have lasting effect while combinational or tactical chess means executing a short term idea which results in instant success. A combination is a set of forced moves which results in a mate, material gain or significant positional gain. Mostly, if exchange of pieces is involved in a set of moves, it is called combinational. But if maneuvering is being done without exchanging pieces, it is positional.
Another difference arises that chess consists of two elements, board and pieces. When we play for control of the board and its squares, it is strategic or positional chess and when we play for gain of the material or pieces (including pawns) it is combinational or tactical chess. The player who controls more squares especially on the enemy side can cramp the enemy and then create tactical combinations. But in the process, if he looses significant material, then he may loose square control as well (less pieces will not be able to control more squares).
One more difference arises from the fact of local imbalances. Tactical combinations arise locally in a limited area of the board (especially mating combinations). But Positional chess is often played across the board. However, tactical combinations also occur across the board many a times (and they are the most difficult to guess and so most successful) but their effect is mostly local (focused at some points).
So, an important difference emerges that positional chess stresses on control of more and more squares while combinational chess stresses on focusing at weak squares of the opponent and gaining material advantage through exchanges. But those weak squares in the opponent position are created through positional chess mostly.
The system of win emerging from this discussion is good opening (lead in development), then creation of weaknesses through positional play, attack through combinational play, material or positional gain, planning for endgame with positional play again and then mate or forcing opponent to resign.
Also, it is said that open games or openings are tactical (possibilities of exchanges are more) while closed games or openings are positional (possibilities of silent maneuvering are more) but many open games have been found to be a lot positional.
Chess thinking looks like propagation of light where positional play (magnetic field) gives birth to combinations (electric field) which in-turn gives birth to more positional gains (magnetism) and so on. This idea was best utilized by Capablanka (next section).
References: (As the goal of this site is to evolve a grand synthesis, example games are outside its scope unless they illustrate the final theory. Kindly purchase and read these important books for more details and examples for these introductory sections)
1. My System: New Translation by Aron Nimzowitsch, Quality Chess, Feb. 2007
2. Chess Praxis: The Praxis of My System by Aron Nimzowitsch, Quality Chess, Oct. 2007
3. The Blockade: Die Blockade by Aron Nimzowitsch, Hardinge Simpole, Oct. 2006