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How to get better at chess tactics

Many chess players try to improve their tactical skill by solving tons of chess puzzles. This is helpful, but there is a better way to train tactics.

Why Solving Tons of Chess Puzzles Is Not Optimal for Training Tactics

There are more tactical ideas to learn than you may realize! Maybe you’ve heard about pins, forks, discovered attacks, removing the defender, a weak back rank etc. These are the well-known tactical patterns (or motifs).

But the list goes on:  Interference, decoy, x-ray… And going from one puzzle to the next is not an effective way to learn about all these tactics. To effectively master tactical patterns, it’s a good idea to study each unique pattern as a subject.

A Better Way to Train Chess Tactics

Working on your tactics is indeed the quickest way to improve your chess. But to help you do it right, here’s a summary of what an effective chess tactics training method looks like:

effective chess tactics training method
Chess tactics training method – read on for the details…

1. Study Tactical Patterns (Motifs)

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.”

What is a Chess Tactics Pattern?

Qe4! Threatens Qxh7+ and Qxa8. A fork.
Qe4! Threatens Qxh7+ and Qxa8. A fork. It’s useful to know tactical patterns!

In essence, tactical patterns (or 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

Let’s start by looking at the discovered attack motif in its simplest form:

White plays Bxh7+ (discovering an attack by the Rd1 on Qd7).
White plays Bxh7+ (discovering an attack by the Rd1 on Qd7). Black must deal with the check, which means on his next move white will capture Qd7.

Now let’s have a look at the next position:

how to get better at chess tactics - discovered attack 2
White to move, what would you do?

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+).

White can play Nd7, forking Rf8 and Rb8. The point is that Nd7 is indirectly defended, ie. Qxd7? allows discovered attack, Bxh7+, winning the Qd7.

As you can see, a good understanding of how the motifs work, will help you find more tactics in your games.

More Reasons Why You Should Study Chess Tactics Patterns:

It’s important to learn chess tactics patterns because:

  • Your knowledge of the important patterns will help you calculate variations more effectively.
  • Your overall tactical awareness will improve and you will instinctively know when and where to look for tactical opportunities
  • You will make fewer mistakes and be able to take advantage of your opponent’s mistakes.
  • You can achieve strategic advantages by means of tactical combinations.

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.

  1. Study a collection of tactical puzzles that feature specific patterns (motifs). Try to find unique examples that illustrate various ways in which the motif can be used.
  2. 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 also get a better understanding of the motif.

How Many of the Important Chess Tactics Patterns Do You Know?

Motifs are ways to exploit the targets.
Tactical patterns (or motifs) are ways to exploit targets. Here black’s move, Qh5!, combines 2 threats, Qxh2# as well as Nxe3, Qxe3, Bd4! pin

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 created a chess tactics course that will help you master all the important patterns (motifs):

20 Important Tactical Motifs is an interactive video-course that helps you make an effective study of the most important chess tactic motifs.

2. 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.

Tactics vocabulary

The most important words and phrases in the language of chess tactics.
The most important words and phrases in the language of chess tactics.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Targets. A target is a piece or square that is vulnerable to a potential threat. Typical examples include an exposed king or undefended pieces.
  5. Defenders. A defender is a piece that defends/supports other pieces or squares.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

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.
White’s threat (bxa5, diagram left) does not force black to make a defensive move. Black responded with the attacking move Qh5! (threatening Qxh2# diagram right).

For a more detailed description on chess tactics vocabulary, refer to the article:

Chess vocabulary: Important words in the language of tactics

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

Targets are pieces and squares you can make threats against.
Targets are pieces and squares you can make threats against.

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 its 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.

3. Develop Your Tactical Awareness

How do you know when to look for tactics in the position?

In a real game you do not have enough time to be looking for tactical combinations with every move. Even if you do have enough time you will exhaust yourself to such an extent that your level of performance might even unknowingly drop.

Knowing when to look for tactical combinations is a skill which is just as important as the skill of finding tactical combinations. The key to know when to look for tactical combinations is to develop a tactical awareness. The exercises on this website are developed with this in mind. You will not only train the skill to find tactical combinations but you will train your mind to instinctively know when it is worth to spend time on searching for a tactic.

Here’s the best way to improve your tactical awareness:

Study the Solutions of Tactical Puzzles

  • Don’t move on to the next chess puzzle until you have a deep understanding of the patterns that made the tactics possible in the puzzle.
  • See if you can figure out which aspects of the position actually made the combination possible. This style of chess tactics training will hone your “tactical awareness.” You will begin to instinctively look for chess tactics themes in positions where you see telltale signs of these tactics.
  • Summarize the tactical solution with a short sentence. This short sentence will answer the essence of what the tactic in the position is all about.

Train tactics in repeat-cycles

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.

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.

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 or theme better, but also to automate your mind’s recognition of the patterns.

Chess tactics servers can be a great source of chess puzzles where you can do chess tactics training. One such place is the chess tactics server.

It is vital to make this knowledge your second nature. It is better to understand a few patterns deeply than to understand many patterns superficially. Patterns you understand deeply will be much easier to apply!

Understanding the tactical themes is useful… but training your mind to recognize the theme instantly and apply it in your game is only possible once you have turned your understanding into a skill. So how do you turn your understanding into a skill? Practice, practice, practice. Practice till you can apply your understanding almost without thinking.

4. Fine-tune Your Calculation Method

Your calculation method is another very important aspect of your development as a chess player. A well-developed calculation skill will help you avoid mistakes, but more importantly – it will also increase your confidence!

On Day 1 of the 10-Day Chess Challenge I present a 5-step calculation method. If you are looking for a guide on how to calculate chess tactics method will help you a lot:

Summary of the 5-step Chess Tactics Calculation process:

Here are the steps I demonstrated in the video.

  1. Find opponent’s threats
  2. Identify tactical targets and motifs
  3. Calculate all the checks
  4. Calculate all the captures
  5. Calculate all the tempo-moves

But you must also keep in mind that your ability to calculate chess tactics will rely heavily on your visualization skills.

5. Improve Your Visualization (Chess Vision)

Visualwize is the best way to improve your visualization skill. Click here to learn more about Visualwize

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.

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 as the result of a better position.

Bobby Fischer said it best:

improve chess tactics bobby fischer

We can conclude that your ability to convert a good position into a concrete advantage relies very much on your tactical skill.

So Then Chess Really is 99% Tactics?

Tactics are one the 7 fundamental chess skills you should train.
Tactics are one the fundamental chess skills you should train, but don’t forget about strategy!

Chess is 99% tactics – R Teichmann

This quote has often been debated by chess players. Some claim that it’s 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.

Tactics are critical, a requirement, because one oversight can end the game right away. But you need to think about your strategy too!

The two most important questions in your mind should be:

  1. Are there any tactics in the position? (Refers to chess tactics)
  2. How can I improve my position? (Refers to chess strategy)
Chess is not only tactics. Tactics and strategy work together to help you achieve your objectives.
Chess is not only tactics. Tactics and strategy work together to help you achieve your objectives.

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!

Tactics help you win games in style (and to spot your opponent’s tricks before they happen to you!)