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The Fundamentals of Chess Tactics

Why should you study the fundamental building blocks of chess tactics? Because understanding the underlying mechanics of tactical combinations is the foundation for improving your chess tactics skill.

The Fundamentals of Chess Tactics

Table of Contents (Fundamentals of Chess Tactics)

How Do You Learn Chess Tactics?

Tactics is one of the 7 fundamental chess skills presented on CHESSFOX. As with developing almost any skill, the best way to learn chess tactics is to:

  1. STUDY the working principles of chess tactics and
  2. PRACTICE your tactical skill by regularly solving chess puzzles.

This page will specifically deal with the first item — to learn the fundamentals of chess tactics.

Tactical Targets

In chess, a tactical target is a piece or square that you can threaten or attack. Without targets there can be no tactics. It’s important to study and understand the common targets that make tactics possible.

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

  1. Hanging Pieces
  2. An Exposed King
  3. Important Defenders
  4. Higher-Valued Pieces
  5. Geometrically Related Pieces
  6. Pieces with Limited Mobility
  7. Important Squares
  8. Piece-Exchanges

1. Hanging Pieces

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

Since a hanging piece can be easily threatened, it often gives the opportunity to:

  • Win a tempo since you will be forced to spend time to deal with the threat against the hanging piece.
  • Exploit the hanging 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 a hanging piece (undefended). 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. This example also illustrated another common tactical target known as an exposed king.

You should now understand 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 hanging piece can be safe, but you should still be aware of the possible dangers.

2. An Exposed King

A special case of a hanging piece is 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.

3. 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.

4. 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 quite 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.

5. Geometrically Related 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.

6. 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.

7. 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 the latter:

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#).

8. Piece-Exchanges

Although a piece-exchange 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.

Direct Threats

We just saw that a simple piece-exchange can create a new target in the position. Similarly, a series of direct threats often precede new and unexpected tactical opportunities.

Study the example below to see how a few simple threats lead to a forced tactic:

direct threats

Diagram above: White’s move, 1.a3, appears to be a simple threat against the black bishop. However, this move leads to a forced tactical opportunity.

After the moves:

  1. a3 Bc5 (forced, else white will capture the bishop in anycase)
  2. Rc1 (threatening Rxc5+) b6 (to defend the pinned bishop)
  3. b4! (threatening bxc4) axb4
  4. axb4 and white wins material

The key moment:

Diagram above: White’s seemingly simple threats lead to this position where black’s bishop is pinned and white will win it.

The power of a move that carries a simple threat is often underestimated! Even when the threat seems too obvious to be harmless, it could be the first step towards a position that presents new tactical opportunities or, at the very least, improves your position.

Note: In some cases your opponent can deal with your threat and at the same time improve their position. In that case, your move was not a real threat – it was an imaginary threat. Imaginary threats are not always bad, but keep in mind that they don’t carry the same dominating authority that comes with real threats.

Counter Threats

A common mistake in chess is that you think about your own moves but neglect to consider your opponent’s ideas.

It’s tempting to think that your opponent is forced to respond to your threats right away. However, your opponent could make a counter threat (also known as a counter tactic) which can quickly complicate matters or even leave you in a worse situation.

Here’s an example from a game played between Jaan Ehlvest and Garry Kasparov in Moscow, year 1977:

ehlvest vs kasparov

Diagram above: White (Ehlvest) just played 1.Bf6 to pin black’s rook on g7. White is threatening Qxg7# on the next move. What did black do?

Garry Kasparov turned the tables on Jaan Ehlvest with this neat counter tactic:

counter tactics

Diagram above: Kasparov played 1… Qd1+! White resigned because the queen on g4 is pinned by black’s rook on g7. On the next move black will capture the white queen, 2… Qxg4+.

The lesson here is that you should also think about the moves your opponent could make.

Winning Tempo

Direct threats often result in winning a tempo. Winning a tempo refers to a useful move that improves your position and makes a threat at the same time – and forces your opponent to defend in a way that isn’t useful to them.

Winning a tempo can often lead to the discovery of new tactical opportunities which wasn’t already obvious in the previous position.

Winning a tempo against the higher-valued rook.

Diagram above: White plays 1.Nf5 (threatening Nxd4), winning a tempo against the black rook on d4. White’s idea is to use the free tempo in order to play 2.Ne7+ (forking black’s king and rook on c8) on the next move.

In essence “winning a tempo” means you get a “free move” which often gives you an opportunity to improve position, whilst denying your opponent the same.

Tactical Patterns

A tactical pattern (also know as a tactical motif or theme) is a known tactical idea that you can use to exploit targets. Pins, forks and discovered attacks are typical examples of tactical patterns.

The next example will demonstrate the power of tactical patterns:

chess tactics patterns

Diagram above: By playing 1.Nd7, white uses the fork pattern to exploit the knight-move geometrical relation between the two black rooks. Can’t black simply capture the knight?

It appears that black can simply capture the knight, 1… Qxd7. However, the knight is indirectly defended by another tactical pattern, known as a discovered attack:

chess tactics patterns

Diagram above: After 1… Qxd7? white can play 2.Bxh7+! This is a discovered attack on black’s queen because on the next move white will play 3.Rxd7.

As you can see, a good understanding of how tactical patterns work, can help you find more tactics in your games.

Full Board Awareness

Your tactical awareness helps you sense where and when it’s worth to spend extra time on calculating the variations. It relies heavily on your ability to keep track of the interaction between all the pieces–not only on a certain part of the board, but on the board as a whole.

The key to improving your tactical awareness is to:

  • study the fundamentals of chess tactics (this page),
  • solve tactical puzzles on a regular basis,
  • improve your calculation method,
  • study the known tactical patterns
  • and to do visualization exercises.