What happens when your chess tactics aren’t up to scratch?
Well, for a start, you miss out on elegant opportunities to win the game.
Or worse, you become the victim of a dirty trick (lose, and feel terrible)!
That’s why you should improve your chess tactics–to win your games in style and to spot your opponent’s tricks before they happen to you.
Many chess players want to improve their tactical skill (and rightfully so) by solving tons of puzzles. However, unless you are already an advanced tactician, this way of training is not optimal. On this page I will show you a better way to train chess tactics.
…why solving tons of puzzles is not the best for training tactics.
Here’s the thing: There are more tactical ideas (motifs) to learn than many people realize.
The main tactical motifs are well-known: pins, forks, discovered attacks, removing the defender, a weak back rank etc.
But the list goes on: Attraction, deflection, interference, x-ray, hit-and-run…
And going from one puzzle to the next is not an effective way to learn about all these motifs.
To effectively master tactical motifs, you should study them one at a time.
Why an effective chess tactics training method is an important aspect of your overall chess improvement
It’s a great feeling to achieve a good position, particularly when you achieve it against a strong player. But the same great feeling can quickly turn into frustration if you just can’t find a way to take advantage of your superior position.
On an amateur-level, tactics often become possible as a consequence of an oversight or a mistake. But among stronger players, tactical opportunities mostly appear only as the result of a better position. Bobby Fischer said it best:
Tactics flow from a superior position.
We can conclude that your ability to take advantage of mistakes (or of a superior position) relies very much on your tactical skill.
A more effective way to train chess tactics
Allow me to show you a chess tactics training method that will give you better results.
1. Improve your chess tactics vocabulary
In any field of expertise, a good vocabulary on the topic reflects the depth of your understanding. This fundamental idea is true in chess too. Expanding your vocabulary in the field of chess tactics is the foundation of an effective chess tactics training method.
Definition of Chess Tactics
A chess tactic is a move (or a forced combination of moves) whereby you achieve an objective. Even though tactics are mostly known as ways to win material or give checkmate, it can also be used to achieve strategic objectives.
If you want to get better at chess tactics, be sure to know and understand the meaning and implication of the important words and phrases related to chess tactics. It will serve as the foundation from where you can further develop your tactical skill.
A Threat. A threat is a move that threatens to obtain an advantage on the next move, such as capturing a piece, threatening a tactical combination or even securing a positional advantage.
- Counter-threat. A counter-threat is a move whereby you effectively ignore a threat against you but make an even stronger threat against your opponent. Counter-threats can be very effective, but there are risks involved and you should calculate the consequences carefully.
- 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. In essence it means you get a “free move”. Making tempo-moves can often lead to the discovery of tactical opportunities you couldn’t foresee in the previous position.
- Targets. A target is a piece or square that is vulnerable to a potential threat. Typical examples include an exposed king or undefended pieces.
- Defenders. A defender is a piece that defends/supports other pieces or squares.
- Exchanges. An exchange refers to the event where you capture an enemy piece and they recapture you in return. Exchanges bring about important changes to the position and can often be used to remove important defenders or to create new targets.
- Tactical motifs. A motif is a tactical idea you can use to exploit targets. Pins, forks and discovered attacks are typical examples of tactical motifs.
Note: Threats vs Winning a tempo.
Not all threats are useful. A threat only wins a tempo if it forces your opponent to defend passively. If your opponent can defend in a way that is also useful too, then your move didn’t win a tempo.
For a more detailed description on chess tactics vocabulary, refer to the article:
Tactics, targets and winning tempos
Moves that win a tempo are always moves that make a threat against a target. A good awareness of the targets in your opponent’s position can go a long way in helping you find effective tempo moves.
Examples of targets
Undefended pieces (or “hanging” pieces) often present opportunities for you to win tempos since it’s easy to make threats against them. Undefended pieces can sometimes be captured in a tactical combination.
An exposed king is often the most vulnerable piece on the board. Since a player’s responses are severely restricted when their king is in check, “check-moves” can be used to win tempos. You can also look for ways to combine a threat against the exposed king with threats against another target, such as an undefended piece.
A piece with important defensive tasks (a defender) is required to stay in it’s position to fulfill its defensive role. Logically then, this piece can itself can become a target.
A piece with severely limited mobility can sometimes be trapped or you can make a tempo-move by threatening to trap that piece. The trapped piece can be won by tactical means or you can further restrict that piece and prevent it from becoming useful to your opponent.
2. Study tactics by motif
The tactical combinations that appear in chess puzzles often share recognizable patterns and ideas. Such typical patterns and ideas are referred to as “themes” or “motifs.”
In essence, motifs are ways to create or exploit targets in your opponent’s position.
There is usually much more to a chess tactics pattern (or motif) than appears on the surface. By making an in-depth study of a specific motif, you will improve your understanding of how the motif works in different situations. Furthermore, this way of study will help you notice interesting and “less-obvious” ways in which these motifs can be used.
I will show you an example to prove my point:
Hidden idea behind the discovered attack motif
Let’s start by looking at the discovered attack motif in its simplest form:
Now let’s have a look at the next position:
The key to finding the solution in the above example, is to have a good understanding of the discovered attack motif.
The hidden idea: All the squares beyond the Bd3 (d4-d8) are indirectly attacked by the Rd1 (due to the possibility of the discovered attack, Bxh7+).
As you can see, a good understanding of how the motifs work, will help you find more tactics in your games. The best way to do this is to treat each motif as a subject on its own.
Tips on how to study tactics by motif
This is hard work, but well worth the benefit you will get from doing so. Here are some tips on how to study chess tactics by motif.
- Make a collection of tactical puzzles that feature the same motif. Try to find unique examples that illustrate various ways in which the motif can be used.
- Identify the targets that were exploited by the motif. A motif is in essence a way to exploit targets. By studying how the targets were exploited, you will will also get a better understanding of the motif.
How many of the important chess tactics patterns do you know?
Strong chess players know them all by heart because they know it helps them calculate deep variations. This is why many chess coaches say it’s important to train tactics, and it’s true. But, it is even more important to train patterns!
To make thing a bit easier, I made a list of the most important patterns that you should study:
List of important chess tactics motifs/themes
- Pin tactics
- Skewer tactics
- Forks (Double Attacks)
- Decoy (Attraction)
- Remove the defender (and overloading)
- Discovered Attack (& Windmill)
- X-Ray Attack
- Interference (Interposing, Block)
- Trapped Piece
- Weak back rank
- Passed Pawn
- Clearance sacrifice
- The Ladder Trick
- Checkmate Patterns
Check out the article to see which of these tactical patterns occur the most often in chess games.
3. Train tactics in repeat-cycles
How often do you go back to specific chess tactics puzzles that you did a while ago? For some strange reason, I’ve noticed that chess players tend to think it is a waste of time to repeat a puzzle they’ve seen before. This is very far from the truth.
Consider that a professional golf-player will practice one aspect of his swing over and over and over… Why then should we not do the same when solving chess puzzles? Coming back to a certain set of puzzles once in a while can help your mind to not only understand the pattern better, but also to speed up your mind’s recognition of the patterns.
Chess tactics should be studied in repeat-cycles. In martial arts, there is a famous quote by Bruce Lee:
I fear not the man who has practiced 10000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10000 times.
Your collections can be useful here. You can review them once in a while and repeat it until it becomes too easy!
Visualization refers to your ability to see in your mind the positions you will reach if certain moves were to be made. The point is that you can see this imaginary positions in your mind without moving the actual pieces on the board.
The skill to visualize possible tactics in your mind long before they actually appear on the board, gives you a serious advantage over any opponent who can’t do it.
Your visualization skill will improve over time by simply playing chess often and by spending a lot of time on training chess tactics. However, if you find that you often think about your next move and end up looking again and again at the same variations – you may want to give your visualization skill a boost. This is exactly what the revolutionary Visualwize training program will help you achieve.
A few more tips on how to get better at chess tactics
Here are few more things to keep in mind when you solve chess puzzles:
When you solve tactics, always try to understand the motif/s in the solution before you move on to the next puzzle.
- See if you can figure out any interesting aspects of the position that made the tactic possible. Was the opponent’s king exposed? Where your pieces in exceptionally good positions? Was your opponent’s last move a blunder? This approach to studying tactics will help you improve your “tactical awareness.” In other words, instinctively know when look for tactics in positions where you notice “telltale signs”.
- Study games by higher-rated players. This will improve your own creativity since you will observe neat tactics that happened in real games.
- Always study your own games. Games you played contain a wealth of learning opportunities. Hindsight is not only an exact science, it is a great learning tool!
Chess is 99% tactics. Or is it?
Chess is 99% tactics – R Teichmann
This quote has often been debated by chess players. Some claim that tactics being 99% is a complete exaggeration. It probably is, but it draws needed attention to the importance of training tactics – which believe was Teichmann’s intention when he said it in a manner of speaking.
In any position, your first question should always be: Are there any tactics in the position? One oversight can end the game right away. Always watch out for the tactics first! But of course you shouldn’t only focus your attention on tactics, you need to think about your strategy too.
The two most important questions in your mind should be:
- Are there any tactics in the position? (Refers to chess tactics)
- How can I improve my position? (Refers to chess strategy)
Did my opponent’s last move make any new tactics possible? If I play my intended move, will it give my opponent new tactical opportunities? These questions will of course be a lot easier to answer once you get better at chess tactics!
I recommend you use the training method I suggested on this page to train chess tactics. Your results will thank you for improving your training methods!