In chess, specific tactical concepts can be likened to the building blocks of a language.
Think of it this way: just as words represent ideas in a language, tactical concepts act as the fundamental elements for creating powerful tactical combinations.
In the diagrams below I will illustrate and discuss the 6 most important tactical concepts you need to know. A good understanding of them will significantly enhance your overall understanding of chess tactics.
A threat is in a way the simplest form of a tactic. You have a threat and your opponent must do something about it. In the diagram below it is white’s turn to move and white must consider black’s threat:
Diagram above: Black is threatening 1… Nxe3. The point is that 2.Qxe3 allows 3… Bd4! pinning the white queen. White decides to make a counter-threat:
A counter-threat is a move that seemingly ignores your opponent’s threat since you believe you can make an even stronger threat.
Diagram above: 1… b4?! White ignores the Nxe3 threat and makes a counter- threat against the black queen.
A counter-threat can sometimes be a very powerful idea. However, you should be very careful when you consider making a counter-threat because a counter-threat can backfire!
Fore example, black will now think like this:
“Okay, I am still threatening Nxe3, but white is attacking my queen. Therefore, if I can move my queen to safety 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.
3. 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.
Diagram above: 2… Qh5! Black wins a tempo by moving his queen out of danger while making a new threat – Qxh2#
Now white’s problems are even worse than before! 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. 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 normal threat can sometimes be ignored but a tempo-move is a threat that cannot be ignored.
Diagram above: 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.
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 at the same time talk about defenders.
A defender is a piece that helps to protect targets. Since their role is so important, defenders themselves become vulnerable to tactics.
Diagram above: Red = Targets; Blue = Defenders; Orange = A defender but also a target.
- 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
6. Tactical Patterns
A tactical pattern, or motif, is a known way to create or exploit targets.
Diagram above: A common tactical pattern – the pin.
How many tactical patterns can you recall from memory? Pins, forks, skewers, interference, etc? There are more than a dozen common tactical patterns. If you can’t name most of them from the top of your head, it’s an indication that you can significantly improve your tactical skill by making an in-depth study of the patterns.
Combining Tactical Patterns and Targets
The following example illustrates how you can use targets and patterns to create tactical combinations:
Diagram above: White played h2-h3, which is one of 3 ways to deal with the mate threat, Qxh2#
White could also have played 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.
Diagram above: 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.
Diagram above: 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.”
Diagram above: Bd4 demonstrates concludes the tactical combination with a pin on white’s queen.
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