Important words in the language of chess tactics

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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 which will in turn further improve your tactical skill.

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:

  1. Threats
  2. Counter-threats
  3. Winning a tempo
  4. Threats vs. winning a tempo
  5. Targets
  6. Defenders
  7. Tactical motifs

In the diagrams below I will illustrate the meaning of these terms.

Threats

White to move. Whatever white decides to do, he must keep in mind that black is threatening to win the bishop on e3.

Black is threatening Nxe3, winning a piece.
White to move. Black is threatening Nxe3, winning a piece.

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.

Counter-threat

A counter-threat is a move that ignores your opponent’s threat since you believe you can make an even stronger threat.

White ignores the threat and makes a counter- threat against the black queen.
White ignores the threat and makes a counter- threat against the black queen.

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.

Qh5! Black wins a tempo by moving his queen out of danger while making a new threat - Qxh2#
Qh5! Black wins a tempo by moving his queen out of danger while making a new threat – Qxh2#

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:

A threat (diagram left) does not necessarily force your opponent to make a defensive move. Black responded with Qh4! an attacking move that forces white to find a defense.
A threat (diagram left) does not necessarily force your opponent to make a defensive move. Black plays Qh5! an attacking move that wins a tempo by forcing white to find a defense.

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.

Targets

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.

chess vocabulary targets squares

The targets in white’s position:

  1. The h2-pawn/square; Black is threatening Qxh2#
  2. Kg1; The king is always a target when he becomes (even slightly) exposed
  3. Be3; The bishop is already under pressure since it can be captured by the Ng4
  4. d4-square is a target since black can potentially place his bishop on d4, creating threats on the g1-a7 diagonal
  5. Bc4; An undefended (hanging piece) should always be considered a potential target
  6. 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.

Defenders

A defender is a piece that helps to protect targets. Since their role is so important, defenders then become vulnerable to tactics too.

Red - Targets; Blue - Defenders; Yellow - A defender but also a target
Red – Targets; Blue – Defenders; Yellow – A defender but also a target
  1. Kg1 defends h2 (though it’s not enough since black has two pieces attacking h2), he is also a target
  2. Qe1 defends the Be3 and the Nc3
  3. Be3 is the only defender of the d4-square, but he is also a target

Tactical motifs

chess motifs
A common tactical motif – the pin.

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 played h2-h3, one of 3 ways to deal with the mate threat.
White played h2-h3, one of 3 ways to deal with the mate threat.

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.

Nxe3 wins a piece. Black uses the attraction motif (attracting the queen to e3) to setup a pin motif.
Nxe3 wins a piece. Black uses the attraction motif (attracting the queen to e3) to setup a pin motif.

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.

The queen is attracted to the e3-square, allowing black to demonstrate a pin.
The queen is attracted to the e3-square, allowing black to demonstrate a pin.

Black used the attraction-motif to prepare a pin. “The pin is mightier than the sword.”

Bd4 demonstrates the pin motif.
Bd4 demonstrates the pin motif.

By including more motifs in your chess vocabulary, you will be better equipped to express your thoughts on the chessboard.

3 thoughts on “Important words in the language of chess tactics

  1. Great information and well explained Thankyou !!! Some corrections Threat vs Winning Tempo Black plays Qh5 and not Qh4 oops : King become_ exposed “becomes”: White could also play
    h2-h4 or Qg3, but they all (come)(add this word)>the<–{delete the} to the same outcome.
    Do you download the 20 Motif lesson or you do you get a CD by mail?

    I enjopy being on your emailing list and receiving worthwhile tips and great chess ideas, Henry

    • Thanks. I too am happy to be on your emailing list, and have purchased several items over the past few years. Great stuff, thanks again.

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