8 Tactical Targets in Chess

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There can be no tactics without targets. In other words, if there aren’t any targets then you must either look for a way to create new targets, or else the best you can do is to strategically improve your position.

In this lesson you will learn about the common targets that make tactics possible.

What is a Tactical Target?

In chess, a tactical target is, quite simply, a piece or square that you can threaten or attack.

Targets are a fundamental aspect of tactical patterns. Without targets there can be no tactics. Therefore it is helpful to first study the common targets that make tactical patterns possible.

Here’s a list of 8 common tactical targets in chess:

I’ll discuss each target at the hand of some examples.

Undefended Pieces

An undefended piece is, quite simply, not supported by any other pieces.

Undefended vs Hanging Pieces

Although these two terms are sometimes considered as synonyms, there is an important difference. An undefended piece is not currently attacked by anything. A hanging piece, on the other hand, is an undefended piece that is attacked and can be captured.

It’s important to understand that even if an undefended piece is not in immediate danger, it is still a vulnerable target because a threat against it will usually require an urgent response.

Since an undefended piece can be easily threatened, it often gives the opportunity to:

  • Win a tempo (gain time) by attacking it.
  • Exploit the undefended piece by means of a tactical pattern.

Here’s an example:

Hanging pieces are tactical targets.

Diagram above: White just played 1.Bb4–attacking the black rook on f8. However, the white bishop on b4 is now an undefended piece. Even though white’s bishop does not appear to be in immediate danger, black can exploit it by means of a tactical pattern known as a fork:

A hanging piece is a typical target in tactics.

Diagram above: Black plays 1… Qd4+, which simultaneously checks the exposed white king on g1 and the hanging bishop on b4. White will be forced to get out of check, after which black will capture the undefended bishop, 2… Qxb4.

It should be clear to you why it’s generally a good principle to keep your pieces defended even when they’re not immediate danger. There may be some situations where an undefended piece can be safe, but you should still be aware of the possible dangers.

An Exposed King

The example we just saw also illustrates a special case of a hanging piece–known as an exposed king. A king becomes exposed when it’s not complete shielded by other pieces or pawns. An exposed king is very vulnerable to checks and tactical threats.

An exposed king is a common target in tactical combinations.

Diagram above: White obviously advanced their f2-pawn at an earlier stage of the game. Even though it may not have been a mistake at the time, it was important for white to be aware that the missing pawn on f2 exposes their king and that it could be vulnerable to checks and therefore, a possible target for black.

Tactics that involve an exposed king are usually very effective because defensive options against a check are very limited. This is also, in part, why the safety of your king is an important strategic consideration.

Important Defenders

A defender is a piece or pawn that defends or protects other pieces, pawns or important squares. The white knight on c3 is a defender of the white queen on d5.

A defender is a target for tactical combinations.

Diagram above: A defender (white’s knight on c3) performs an important task, that is why it can itself become a target for an attack.

Remove the defender of white's queen.

Diagram above: Black plays 1… Bxc3+, which removes the defender of white’s queen on d5. On the next move black will capture the white queen. This combination also serves to remind us that an exposed king is a common target in tactical combinations. (Black could utilize the check against white’s king whilst at the same time removing the defender of white’s queen.)

The diagram illustrates why a defender is in itself also a target that can be exploited in tactical combinations.

Higher-valued Pieces

Higher-valued pieces, particularly the queen and rooks, can be threatened by any piece (or pawn) that has a lower value. With regard to targets, high-valued pieces are similar to hanging pieces in the sense that they are more vulnerable to threats.

Higher-valued pieces are targets too.

Diagram above: Even though black’s rook on d4 is defended by the pawn on c5, it’s still a target for white’s knight (due to it’s relatively higher value). White can use the awkward position of black’s rook to gain an important tempo.

Winning a tempo against the higher-valued rook.

Diagram above: White’s move, 1.Nf5! attacks the rook on d4. (Even though the rook is defended by the pawn on c5, black doesn’t want to trade the higher-valued rook for the knight.) However, white wins an important tempo for their knight because on the next move they can play 2.Ne7+, forking the black king (and rook on c8). Either way, black will lose some material.

You can now see that the one down-side of high-valued pieces is that they are vulnerable to threats from lower-valued pieces.

The geometric relation between pieces can turn them into potential targets. Such relation generally refers to pieces (or squares) on the same rank, file, diagonal or knight-move apart.

Since the geometric relation between pieces on a rank, file or diagonal is usually quite obvious, we’ll look at an example of a more complex relation–the knight-move geometric relation:

knight move geometric relation

Diagram above: The squares h8 and g5 are geometrically related to a knight-move. To the untrained eye this relation is not obvious. It is even less obvious how white could turn this relation into a tactical combination.

The knight-move geometric relation turns pieces into tactical targets.

Diagram above: The moves 1.Qh8+! Kxh8 2.Nxf7+ followed by Nxg5 demonstrates the knight-move geometric relation between h8 and g5. White exchanges the queens but wins the black rook in the process.

Pieces with Limited Mobility

If at any moment you notice that a particular piece becomes very limited in its mobility, you should investigate whether it’s possible to trap it.

chess tactics fundamentals trapped pieces

Diagram above: Black just played 1… Bb6? moving their attacked bishop to a safe square. However, on b6 the black bishop is very limited in its mobility and white can use another tactical idea (winning a tempo) to trap and win the bishop.

trapped piece

Diagram above: White’s move, 2.c4! wins a tempo against black’s hanging knight. On the next move white will use the extra tempo to play 3.c5! to trap and win the black bishop on b6.

It’s a good idea to be aware of the mobility of each and every piece on the board. If you can’t win the piece, you could also aim to restrain that piece for as long as possible. Restraining the mobility of an enemy piece can often give you a temporary advantage.

Important Squares

Targets aren’t always pieces. A square can have tactical or strategic significance if it gives you one more of the following:

  • increases your control in the center of the board
  • provides a base for your pieces from where you can launch an attack
  • allows you to infiltrate enemy territory and undermine their position
  • the square is vulnerable to a tactical threat

Here’s an example of a square being vulnerable to a tactical threat:

a square can be a target

Diagram above: White plays 1.Qe5. This move makes a threat against the hanging rook on b8, but it also makes a threat against the h8-square (Qh8#). This illustrates how even an empty square can be a tactical target.

Exchanges

Although an exchange (of pieces or pawns) is not a target in itself, it often is the forerunner to creating new targets in the position.

piece exchange to setup a new target

Diagram above: At a first glance the moves 1… Nxe3 2.Qxe3 appears to be a straight-forward piece exchange. However, after 1… Nxe3 2.Qxe3? black actually created a new (and better) target!

Diagram above: Black can play 2… Bd4, pinning the white queen (the new target) to white’s king.

The lesson here is that you should always calculate seemingly pointless piece-exchanges because they can sometimes reveal new targets in the position.

These are the common tactical targets in chess. Your knowledge of them will help you solve chess puzzles more readily and will further help you improve your tactical skill.