In many ways chess is like a language: When you expand your vocabulary you improve your ability to verbalize ideas. Similarly, when you improve your chess vocabulary your understanding of the game also improves.
This article will help you expand your chess tactics vocabulary.
Important words in the language of tactics
The more words you know, the better you can express your thoughts. It’s the same in chess, particularly with regard to tactics. The the better your chess vocabulary is, the better you will be able to express your thoughts on the chessboard.
In this article I will put emphasis on the following words and terms:
- Winning a tempo
- Threats vs. winning a tempo
- Tactical motifs
In the diagrams below I will illustrate the meaning of these terms.
White to move. Whatever white decides to do, he must keep in mind that black is threatening to win the bishop on e3.
The point is that white can’t recapture the Ne3 with Qxe3, since black will then play Bd4! pinning the Qe3 to Kg1. Instead of dealing with the threat, white decided to make a counter-threat.
A counter-threat is a move that ignores your opponent’s threat since you believe you can make an even stronger threat.
A counter-threat can in some cases be a very powerful idea. However, you should be very careful when you consider making a counter-threat. Counter-threats can backfire pretty easily. Black will think like this:
“Okay, I have the threat Nxe3, but white attacks my queen. If I can move my queen and make a new threat with my queen, white will have to deal with 2 threats!”
In other words, black will try to make a move with his queen that wins a tempo.
Winning a tempo
In chess, tempo means “a move”. Winning a tempo then means you gain a free move by making a threat that forces your opponent to make a defensive move. At the same time you achieve something useful.
Now white’s problems are worse. On the previous move he had only one threat to deal with. Now he has to deal with two threats: 1.Qxh2# and 2.Nxe3, winning a piece. This is a typical example that illustrates how a counter-threat can backfire. There are now too many targets in white’s position and he can’t defend all of them.
Threats vs. Winning a tempo
What is the difference between a threat and winning a tempo? A tempo-move is always a threat, but a threat is not always a tempo-move. Here’s an example:
White’s last move, b2-b4, is a threat to the black queen but it is not a tempo move since black is not forced to make a defensive move. Instead, he responded in an aggressive way.
The move Qh5, on the other hand, gains a tempo since white is forced to make a defensive move.
A target is a piece or square that you can make a threat against. The diagram below shows the main targets in white’s position.
The targets in white’s position:
- The h2-pawn/square; Black is threatening Qxh2#
- Kg1; The king is always a target when he becomes (even slightly) exposed
- Be3; The bishop is already under pressure since it can be captured by the Ng4
- d4-square is a target since black can potentially place his bishop on d4, creating threats on the g1-a7 diagonal
- Bc4; An undefended (hanging piece) should always be considered a potential target
- Nc3; The knight is under pressure from the Bg7, and can become a potential target
When we talk about targets, we should in the same breath talk about defenders.
A defender is a piece that helps to protect targets. Since their role is so important, defenders then become vulnerable to tactics too.
- Kg1 defends h2 (though it’s not enough since black has two pieces attacking h2), he is also a target
- Qe1 defends the Be3 and the Nc3
- Be3 is the only defender of the d4-square, but he is also a target
A tactical motif is a known way to create or exploit targets.
How many motifs can you recall from memory? If you can’t name at least 6-8 tactical motifs from the top of your head, it’s an indication that you can significantly improve your tactical skill by making a study of the motifs.
Using an exchange to setup a target
White could also play h2-h4 or Qg3, but they all lead to the same outcome. Black’s response shows how a piece-exchange can be an effective means to create a new target.
White loses a piece. Objectively he shouldn’t play Qxe3, but for the sake of illustrating the point, let’s make white play the move Qxe3.
Black used the attraction-motif to prepare a pin. “The pin is mightier than the sword.”
By including more motifs in your chess vocabulary, you will be better equipped to express your thoughts on the chessboard.
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