Chess Tactics


Introduction to Chess Tactics

In chess, your tactical skill refers to your knowledge of tactical patterns and your ability to find, create and calculate tactical combinations. Tactics is one of the 7 chess skills you should focus on if you want to maximize the effect of your chess training efforts:

The primary reason why you should study and train tactics is so that you can improve your ability to find winning tactical combinations in your own games.

Did you know? Many chess players aim to improve their tactical skill by trying to solve hundreds of chess puzzles. If you are like most people, chances are that you also spend time working through random tactical exercises–without being clear on what you are trying to achieve. This doesn’t help you train the patterns in an effective or efficient manner.

There is a lot of information on this page. If you study it attentively you will undoubtedly be on your way to improve your chess tactics skill in a highly effective and efficient manner.

Table of Contents

A Better Way to Train Chess Tactics

Solving chess tactics puzzles is actually very important BUT it is even more important to follow a structured approach:

At the end of this lesson I will give you a few examples to demonstrate how you can get the most value from the time you spend solving tactical puzzles.

The Fundamentals of Chess Tactics

In essence, a chess tactician wants to answer the question–How can I exploit the targets in my opponent’s position?

The primary way to exploit targets in your opponent’s positions is by means of tactical patterns (also known as themes or motifs). Therefore, the first step to improve your tactics skill is to make an in-depth study of tactical motifs and checkmate patterns.

Understanding the underlying mechanics of tactical ideas is the foundation of your tactical skill. All tactical combinations consist of one or more of these building blocks. A good understanding of them is essential if you want to improve your tactical skill.

They are:

You can use them to create brilliant tactical combinations.

Fundamentals / Piece Interaction

Types of interaction between the pieces.

Fundamentals / Targets

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 improve your position. Study the common targets that make tactics possible.

In chess, a tactical target is 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:

Fundamentals / Targets / 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 a 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.

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 hanging 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.

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.

Threats are tempo moves!

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.

Captures

Exchanging the pieces can create new targets.

Tempo Moves

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.

Sacrifice

A tactical sacrifice (in contrast to a positional sacrifice) is when you temporarily sacrifice a higher-valued piece in order to create a new target that you can immediately exploit. The point is that the value of this new target will exceed the value of the sacrifice you made.

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.

Board Awareness

Your tactical awareness relies heavily on your ability to keep track of the interaction between all the pieces–not only the pieces on a certain part of the board, but on the board as a whole.

The key to improving your board awareness is to do visualization exercises.

Tactical Patterns (Motifs or Themes)

A tactical pattern (also known as a tactical motif) is a move or combination of moves that resemble a recognizable pattern due to its rather frequent occurrence in chess games. Pins, forks and discovered attacks are typical examples of tactical patterns.

The next example will demonstrate the importance of tactical patterns:

chess tactics patterns

Diagram above: By playing 1.Nd7, white uses a tactical pattern known as a fork to attack two black rooks at the same time. But can’t black simply capture the knight on d7?

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 brilliant tactical combinations in your games.

There are many tactical patterns to learn–probably more than you realize… To effectively master all the tactical patterns, it’s helpful to study each unique pattern as a subject in its own right. My 20 Motifs Chess Tactics Course will help you do just that–to study all the important tactical patterns, one at a time. It’s important to study them all because the vast majority of tactical combinations that occur in chess will be based on one or more of the patterns presented below.

If I had to give examples of all the main tactical patterns here, then this page would be far too long. Tactical patterns deserve a page in its own right and you can find a list of chess tactics and examples here.

Checkmate Patterns

A checkmate pattern is a recognizable arrangement of the pieces that deliver checkmate. As with tactical patterns, there are unique many checkmate patterns and they deserve to be discussed on a separate page.

You can find the list of checkmate patterns here.

Tactical Combinations in Chess

It’s a great feeling when you can find a move (or rather a series of moves) that combine fundamental tactical ideas in order to produce a creative combination.

Below is an example of a tactical combination where you combine four tactical ideas:

  • Sacrifice
  • Tempo (with a check)
  • Pin
  • Discovered Attack

Diagram above: Black just played 1… Rh7 to help defend the vulnerable bishop on c7. Black now has three defenders to help defend the bishop. However, there is still something white can do to take advantage of the pinned bishop on the c-file.

Diagram above: 2.Rxc7+ is a temporary sacrifice because the white gives up the rook (which has a higher value than the bishop). This move technically also forks the black king and queen. Black is practically forced to play Qxc7, which means white is gaining a tempo by forcing black’s response.

Diagram above: Naturally black plays 2… Qxc7+ (what else?) but white’s next move will demonstrate two tactical ideas in one move!

Diagram above: 3.Qb1! By removing the white queen from the c-file white reveals, through a discovered attack, that the black queen is now pinned by the rook on c1.

Note that white’s last move (Qb1) was the only safe square from where the white queen could still defend the rook on c1 (else black could simply play Qxc1+). Also note that if black now plays Rd1+, then white can simply play Rxd1 and still win more material than they sacrificed in the first place.

Even though this tactic is relatively simple, you can easily miss it in your own games if you are not very familiar with the tactical ideas employed in it.

As with developing any skill, the best way to train this skill is to:

  1. Study the fundamentals of chess tactics (particularly patterns).
  2. Regularly solve chess puzzles to practice your calculation skill.
  3. Train your visualization skill so that you can visualize combinations.

How to Improve Your Visualization Skill

Best ways to improve your chess visualization skill. Best chess visualization training.

VISUALWIZE Exercises

How to Solve Chess Puzzles

The method you use to solve puzzles is an important part of your chess training. Think of your opponent’s options in the same way.

logical

How to Practice Blindfold Chess

How to Find Advanced Tactics in Your Games

How to find chess tactics in your games. Examine moves that smite. when to look for chess tactics. awareness. How to look for chess tactics in your games.

Advice – here it is:

! Keep track of the changing roles / consequences as a result of the last move.

How to Avoid Mistakes (Blunders)

An average game of chess will last around 40 moves. If you make just one mistake you can lose on the spot. That is why it’s so important to learn how to avoid blunders!

You can also read my lesson on how to avoid mistakes in chess.

Train Your Calculation Method

Chess Tactics Course (Patterns)

The 20 Motifs Chess Tactics Course by CHESSFOX is a video course that helps you make an effective study of the most important tactical patterns.

The tactics course is packed with hand-selected sets of tactical puzzles and detailed explanations of the motifs (Total playing time: 1h36min, no fluff, just to the point instruction).

Each section in the video will focus on a specific motif. You will learn how each motif works and will also improve your understanding of the tactical themes with puzzles ranging from easy to hard.

Get it here: Chess Tactics Course: 20 Motifs (Video)

Chess Tactics Training Examples

go through example/s using the method

100 Study Tactics

100 STUDY TACTICS is a hand-picked selection of tactical exercises that is worth studying because of their instructive value. What makes this collection unique is that each position contains a “key idea” that will improve your understanding of chess tactics.

Click here to read more about 100 STUDY TACTICS.

Chess Tactics Servers

To further improve your tactical skill, you should regularly solve puzzles using the methods you learnt on this page. There are a number of very good chess tactics servers available on the internet. Most of them are free, with an option to pay for more features.

Here’s a list of the best chess tactics servers where you can find tons of chess puzzles to train tactics and practice your calculation method.