To improve your tactical skill it is essential to study tactical patterns, such as pins, forks, discovered attacks, etc.
However, before you study patterns, it would be very helpful to familiarize yourself with the various types of targets that make tactics possible.
This lesson will illustrate the common tactical targets that you should be aware of. Being attentive to them will help spark your tactical awareness at the right moment.
#1 Undefended Pieces
Diagram above: White just played 1.Bb4–attacking the black rook on f8. However, the white bishop on b4 is now an undefended piece (also known as a hanging piece).
#2 An Exposed King
Diagram above: Since white’s f2-pawn isn’t present, the king is exposed. (A king becomes exposed when it’s not completely shielded by pieces or pawns.)
We observed two tactical targets in white’s position:
- The undefended bishop on b4
- The exposed king on g1
Black can exploit these two targets by means of a tactical pattern known as a fork:
Diagram above: Black plays 1… Qd4+, which simultaneously checks the exposed white king on g1 and the undefended bishop on b4. On the next move black will capture white’s undefended bishop, 2… Qxb4.
#3 Important Defenders
Diagram above: The white knight on c3 is a defender of the white queen on d5. Since a defender performs an important task, it can in itself become a target.
Diagram above: Black plays 1… Bxc3+, which removes the defender of white’s queen on d5. Since white is in check, black will capture the white queen on the next move, Qxd5. This combination also serves to remind us that an exposed king (white’s king) is a common target in tactical combinations.
#4 Higher-valued Pieces
Higher-valued pieces, particularly the queen and rooks, can become targets since they are more vulnerable to threats from lower-valued pieces (or pawns).
Diagram above: Even though black’s rook on d4 is defended by the pawn on c5, it’s still a target for white’s knight (due to its relatively higher value). White can use the awkward position of black’s rook to gain an important tempo.
Diagram above: 1.Nf5! hits the black rook on d4. The point is that although black wants to save their rook, white is now also threatening 2.Ne7+. Either way, white will win material.
#5 Geometrically Related Targets
The geometric relation between pieces on the same rank, file or diagonal is usually quite obvious and can typically be exploited by pins, skewers and x-ray patterns. However, some other geometric relations are less obvious, particularly those relations based on knight-moves:
Diagram above: To the untrained eye it is not obvious how the geometric relation between black’s pieces can be exploited.
Diagram above: 1.Qh8+! Black is forced to play Kxh8, abandoning the rook on f7 and creating a knight-move relation between black’s king and queen.
Diagram above: 2.Nxf7+ followed by 3.Nxg5. Although white gave up their queen, they will get the black queen and also captured the black rook in the process.
This last example illustrated that the tactical targets in the position aren’t always obvious. The more you study tactical patterns the quicker you will be able to find potential targets.
#6 Restricted Pieces
Diagram above: White observes that the mobility of black bishop on b6 is significantly restricted by it’s own pawns.
Diagram above: 1.c4! wins a tempo against black’s undefended knight. On the next move white will play 2.c5! to trap and win the black bishop on b6.
#7 Tactical Resources
Tactical resources refer to tactics that “almost exist” and could potentially be achieved if you could force a few changes in the position.
Diagram above: If black could somehow land their queen on h1, white’s king would be in checkmate. This is a tactical resource that black can potentially use.
Additionally, white’s rook on b1 is undefended.
Diagram above: Black plays 1.Qe4, threatening both Qh1# and Qxb1.
Diagram above: Black’s king is exposed but there doesn’t seem to be any other obvious targets in the position.
Diagram above: By playing 1.Rxa4 wins the black bishop. If black plays 1… Rxa4, there will be a new target on the a4-square!
Diagram above: After 1.Rxa4 Rxa4, 2.Qb3+ forks the black king and the newly created target (the black rook on a4). The lesson here is that you should always calculate seemingly pointless piece-exchanges because they can sometimes reveal new targets in the position.