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How to Solve Chess Puzzles

You will often hear how important it is to train tactics but rarely will you find guidance on how to solve chess puzzles. Solving chess puzzles is a good exercise, but if you use the method I’ll discuss on this page, you will learn a lot more from every puzzle you try to solve.

Here’s a quick summary of the method that I will discuss on this page:

8 Steps: How to Solve Chess Puzzles

Diagram above: Black to move. What would you do? (I’ll use the position in this diagram to present you with a logical method that will transform the way you approach tactical puzzles, for the better.) The point of this exercise is not to see how quickly you can find the solution, but rather to learn about a better way to solve chess puzzles.

Method to Solve Chess Puzzles

If you’re like most people, you will approach a chess puzzle by calculating a few attacking moves until you, hopefully, uncover the solution. This approach is not inherently bad and you can definitely improve your tactical skill this way. However, I want to suggest a puzzle solving method that will turn every tactical puzzle you do into an instructive exercise that will make a lasting improvement to your playing strength.

Although solving chess puzzles should be an important part of your chess training, there is a well-known problem with it. When you’re presented with a puzzle–you already know there is a tactic in the position. (In an actual game no-one will tell you when there’s a tactic to look for). Therefore, you must do more to make the process of solving chess puzzles as instructive as possible–and that is what this lesson is all about.

It should also be said that your improving your knowledge of tactical patterns will help you become more efficient in solving puzzles. My tactical patterns bundle deal is the perfect resource to master these patterns.

8 Steps to Solve Chess Puzzles

  1. Do a Quick Evaluation of the Position
  2. Determine the Likely Objective
  3. Consider Your Opponent’s Last Move
  4. Identify Possible Targets and Motifs
  5. Examine Moves That Smite
  6. Settle on Your Chosen Move
  7. Compare Your Answer With the Solution
  8. Study the Solution to the Puzzle

At a first glance the process may seem a bit long but since the steps follow a completely logical order, you will get used to it very quickly. Of course these steps won’t always be applicable to every chess puzzle you do, but they serve as a general guideline to help you get maximum training value from solving puzzles.

Example of the Method to Solve Chess Puzzles

I’ll discuss the details of each step at the hand of an example. It would be a good idea (optional) to pack the position on a real chessboard to help you study this lesson:

Example of the 8 Steps to Solve Chess Puzzles
Diagram above: White just played 1.Qe2. How should black respond?

Note: If you spot the solution along the way (before you completed all the steps), you should still follow the whole process, to the end, as to not miss the actual purpose and potential benefit of the lesson.

Step 1: Do a Quick Evaluation of the Position

When you’re presented with a chess puzzle you’ve never seen before, you have no point of reference–as you would have had if it were your own game. Therefore the purpose of the first step is to somewhat familiarize yourself with the position before you continue.

There is no need to spend a lot of time on this step. We are not looking to perform a comprehensive evaluation of the position here. Instead, we simply want to familiarize ourselves with the situation at hand by looking at two of the most fundamental aspects of a position, namely:

  1. the material count and
  2. the respective safety of the kings.

In our example:

Step 1: Do a Quick Evaluation of the Position
  • Material: White has a 1-point lead in material. (Rook vs Knight+pawn)
  • King-safety: The white king is clearly far more exposed than the black king.

We conclude the first step by determining that white has a small advantage in material (an extra pawn) but their king is rather vulnerable, which could lead to tactical opportunities for black.

Step 2: Determine the Likely Objective

Objectives guide our thinking process. Without an objective in mind, our search for a solution will be a very random process. You want to guide your thinking in the right direction and that is why it is helpful to determine your likely objective–before you start to calculate candidate moves.

To solve a typical chess puzzle correctly you should either:

  1. force a checkmate (in which case it doesn’t matter how much material you sacrifice in the process),
  2. achieve a material advantage (as a rule-of-thumb, you should generally end up at least two points ahead in material in order to solve a typical puzzle–without compromising too much on your position), or
  3. save yourself from a desperate situation (find a great defense to avoid immediate disaster).

In our example we determined that black is behind 1 point in material. This implies that winning a pawn or two would probably not be the solution to the puzzle. We’ll have to do better than that. We also observed that white’s king is vulnerable to checks.

We conclude then that our likely objective is to achieve a material advantage, probably by exploiting the vulnerability of white’s exposed king.

Step 3: Consider Your Opponent’s Last Move

Most online chess tactics servers will indicate the last move that lead to the puzzle position. This is very helpful because chess puzzles are generally based on a tactical idea that became possible as a consequence of the last move. Therefore it makes sense to observe such consequences as it may contain key information that will help you find the solution.

It is in any case a good thinking habit to always consider the consequences of your opponent’s last move (the threats and its down-sides) before you even start to think about your own move.

In our example:

Step 3: Consider Your Opponent's Last Move

The consequences of white’s move, 1.Qe2, are:

  • White is threatening to exchange the queens, Qxb5. (This is a real threat because the endgame will favor white, since white has a material advantage.)
  • By moving the queen, white clears the e1-square. (This gives the white king a new escape-route to the king-side, via the e1-square. White could also decide to develop their inactive rook to the e1-square). However, by clearing the e1-square, white’s back-rank becomes more vulnerable.
  • White’s queen now defends the pawn on b2. (Which defends against black’s threat 1… Qxb2).
  • White’s rook on h1 is now hanging (An undefended piece is always a likely target).
  • With the white queen now on e2, the black knight could potentially fork the white king and queen (if it weren’t for the fact that the pawn on b2 defends it.)

Of course, not all of the consequences, if any, will be relevant to the solution. Yet, we won’t know which consequences are relevant, or not, until we observe and investigate it.

Based on our observation of white’s threat (to exchange the queens), we can already conclude that whatever we do, we must not give white the opportunity to exchange the queens. Therefore we can immediately discard a move such as 1… Nf4, attacking the white queen, because it will allow white to exchange the queens, 2.Qxb5.

With the information we gathered till this point, the next logical step is to identify possible targets and tactical ideas.

Step 4: Identify Possible Targets and Motifs (Patterns)

It will be a good idea to study the lesson Tactical Targets in Chess after you studied this example of how to solve chess puzzles. For the moment you only need to understand that a tactical target is any piece or square that you can attack or make a threat against.

In our example:

Step 4: Identify Possible Targets and Motifs
  • White’s king is partially exposed to various checks and threats (a likely target).
  • White’s rook on h1 is hanging (undefended).
  • The geometric relation between white’s king and queen allows a knight-fork (motif), Nxc3+, but the pawn on b2 seems to defends against it.
  • White’s back-rank is weak (a possible motif)

The next logical step is to consider all the attacking moves at black’s disposal.

Step 5: Calculate Moves That Smite

Step 5: Calculate Moves That Smite
Cecil Purdy was an Australian International Chess Master. He won the first two Australian Correspondence Chess Championships, in 1938 and 1945.

What is a smite?

In chess, a smite refers to any move that strikes your opponent very hard. This where you give yourself the freedom to consider, for a moment, seemingly crazy moves–with zero concern for the material cost of the move. You want to investigate the potential of every check, capture and threat you can make. In many chess puzzles, this step is the key that helps you find surprising tactics in a position.

Of course, in an actual game you won’t consider only moves that smite, but when you’re calculating tactics or solving chess puzzles, observing all smites is a starting point to help discover tactical ideas.

In our example:

Step 5: Calculate Moves That Smite

For the sake of our example I’ll discuss 4 moves that smite:

  • 1… Qxe2+
  • 1… Qa4+
  • 1… Ne3+
  • 1… Nxc3+

You should then calculate each of these moves (smites) to see where they lead to:

1… Qxe2+ White will recapture your queen with their king, 2.Kxe2. After that it seems there is no more smites to calculate and black achieved nothing. So we discard this move.

1… Qa4+ White could play 2.Ke1 and their king will be running to safety. Black could then capture the pawn on a2, winning a pawn, but you will remember our likely objective is to win more than just a pawn. However, if we consider all other options and found nothing better, then 1… Qa4+ still seems a useful move. (Also note that if 1… Qa4+ 2.b3 Nxc3+ is good for black. Or 1… Qa4+ 2.Qc2 Ne3+ is winning for black.)

1… Ne3+ At a first glance this move seems utterly pointless because, 1… Ne3+ 2.Qxe3 Qxb2 leaves black even further behind in material. Thus we can confirm that 1… Ne3+ is, in fact, utterly pointless! We have to accept that the vast majority of “moves that smite” will turn out to be pointless. However, you will only find the exceptions if you are willing to consider them all–which is often where the solution hides.

1…Nxc3+ This move is easy to calculate because white’s response is essentially forced. White has to play 2.bxc3, else black will capture the white queen on the next move with Nxe2. If we consider the moves 1… Nxc3+ 2.bxc3, we will note that a new “smite move” becomes possible. Black can play 2… Qb1+, followed by 3… Qxh1.

Admittedly, for the sake of the example, this position is fairly simple. In more complicated positions there may be many more moves to calculate. There is no way around this fact, but regular practice will help you dramatically improve the speed and accuracy of your calculations. This is why regularly solving chess puzzles should be a very important aspect of your chess training.

Step 6: Settle on Your Chosen Move

At some point you have to settle on your chosen move. I highly recommend you always settle on a move that you would have played if it was your own game. In other words, don’t guess. If you are confidant in your solution-choose that move. But if you’re not quite sure, don’t settle for a guess.

Regularly guessing the solution to a chess puzzle will encourage bad thinking habits (you become prone to taking unjustified chances in actual games!) Furthermore, if you guess, you’re missing out on the real benefit of doing the exercise properly.

In our example, if you found 1… Nxc3+ 2.bxc3 Qb1+ 3.Kd2 Qxh1 then you go ahead and settle on your choice. However, if you didn’t find the solution, then 1… Qa4+ would have been a more practical choice.

My point is that even though 1… Qa4+ is not the solution, it is better to play a safe move rather than to comprise your integrity and revert to “hope-chess” by guessing.

Step 7: Compare Your Answer With the Solution

To help you visualize the solution, the diagrams below will illustrate it:

Diagram above: 1… Nxc3 forks the white king and queen. White is practically forced to capture the knight with 2.bxc3.
Diagram above: 2.bxc3 captures the black knight but also clears the b-file, allowing 2… Qb1+ on the next move.
Diagram above: 2… Qb1+ illustrates why black was willing to sacrifice their knight. White’s king must move out of check and then black will play 3… Qxh1

After 1… Nxc3+ 2.bxc3 Qb1+ 3.Kd2 Qxh1, black achieved a material advantage (to the value of 2 pawns).

Diagram above: In the final position it was important to note that black’s queen is temporarily out of the game. This compromise is acceptable for black because their king is safe and white has no “smite moves” that could pose a problem to black. This is in fact something you should have considered before playing the committing move 1… Nxc3+.

Step 8: Study the Solution to the Puzzle

Last but not least–take a moment to observe and reflect on what you can learn from the solution to the puzzle. If you rush through this step you will miss an ideal opportunity to develop your tactical awareness and get maximum value from the exercise!

In my collection of tactical patterns, I comment on the solution of every puzzle–making it the perfect resource to practice the method. If you do this, your understanding and knowledge of tactical patterns will improve dramatically.

Was there something you missed? If so, why do you think you missed it? Were you familiar with the tactical idea? Did you struggle to visualize the variations? Which positional factors contributed to the tactical solution? An exposed king? Hanging/undefended pieces? Allow your mind to freely ask questions about the position and try to find the answers yourself.

Whether you got the solution right or not, the simple act of reflecting on the solution will help you develop your understanding of tactical ideas and enhance your ability to sense where and when tactical opportunities may exist. In other words, you will develop an eye for tactics.

How Many Chess Puzzles Should I Do in a Day?

As you can see from this lesson, the quality of your training is far more important than how many chess puzzles you solve every day. It is generally better to solve a few puzzles with the right approach, than to rush through one puzzle after another. That said, and depending on your personal goals and available time, you could spend anywhere between 5 minutes to an hour, daily, solving tactical puzzles.