Tactical Targets in Chess

Tactical targets are the weaknesses or vulnerabilities in your opponent’s position that you are trying to exploit. Any piece or square that you can make a threat against can be a potential target.

In this lesson you will learn about common targets that make tactics possible. I’ll discuss each one at the hand of some examples.

Target #1 Undefended Pieces

Since an undefended piece can be easily threatened, it often gives the opportunity to:

  • Win a tempo (gain time) by attacking it.
  • Exploit the undefended piece by means of a tactical pattern.

Here’s an example:

A hanging piece is a typical target in tactics.

Diagram above: Black plays 1… Qd4+, which simultaneously attacks the undefended bishop on b4 and checks the exposed white king on g1. White will be forced to get out of check, after which black will capture the undefended bishop, 2… Qxb4.

Undefended vs Hanging Pieces: These two terms are sometimes considered as synonyms but there is, technically, a difference. An undefended piece simply refers to a piece that is undefended. A hanging piece, on the other hand, is an undefended piece that is also being attacked and can be captured on the next move.

Target #2 An Exposed King

The example we just saw also illustrates a special case of an undefended piece–an exposed king. A king becomes exposed when it’s not completely shielded by other pieces or pawns. An exposed king is obviously highly vulnerable to checks and subsequent tactical threats.

An exposed king is a common target in tactical combinations.

Diagram above: White advanced their f2-pawn at an earlier stage of the game. Even though it may not have been a mistake at the time, it was important for white to be aware that the missing pawn on f2 exposes their king to possible checks.

Target #3 Important Defenders

The next diagram illustrates why a piece (or pawn) that performs an important defensive role is in itself also a target that can be exploited in tactical combinations:

Diagram above: Black plays 1… Bxc3+, removing the only defender of white’s queen. At the same time black gains a tempo by checking the exposed white king.

Target #4 Higher-valued Pieces

Higher-valued pieces, particularly the queen and rooks, can be threatened by any piece (or pawn) that has a lower value. With regard to targets, high-valued pieces are similar to hanging pieces in the sense that lower valued pieces can attack them as if they were undefended.

Winning a tempo against the higher-valued rook.

Diagram above: White plays 1.Nf5! to attack the higher-valued rook on d4. The point is that white gains a tempo with this threat and on the next move they can play 2.Ne7+, forking the black king (and rook on c8).

The geometric relation between pieces can turn them into potential targets. Such relation generally refers to pieces (or squares) on the same rank, file, diagonal or knight-move apart. The geometric relation between pieces on the same rank, file or diagonal is usually quite obvious. However, to the untrained eye, the knight-move geometric relation isn’t obvious:

The knight-move geometric relation turns pieces into tactical targets.

Diagram above: 1.Qh8+! Kxh8 2.Nxf7+ followed by Nxg5 demonstrates a tactical pattern based on the knight-move geometric relation between h8 and g5.

Target #6 Pieces with Limited Mobility

In the following diagram, black’s bishop is very limited in its mobility. White finds a tactical idea to trap and win the bishop.

Diagram above: White’s move, 2.c4! wins a tempo against black’s higher-valued piece, the knight. On the next move white will use the extra tempo to play 3.c5! to trap and win the black bishop on b6.

Target # 7 Important Squares

Targets aren’t always pieces. In certain conditions even a square can become a target:

a square can be a target

Diagram above: White plays 1.Qe5. This move makes a threat against the undefended rook on b8, but it also makes a threat against the h8-square (Qh8#). This illustrates how even an empty square can be a tactical target.

Target #7 Piece-Exchanges

Although an exchange (of pieces or pawns) is not a target in itself, it often is the forerunner to creating new targets in the position.

piece exchange to setup a new target

Diagram above: At a first glance the moves 1… Nxe3 2.Qxe3 appears to be a straightforward piece exchange. However, after 1… Nxe3 2.Qxe3? black can play 2… Bd4, pinning the white queen (the new target) to white’s king.

The lesson here is that you should always calculate seemingly pointless piece-exchanges because they can sometimes reveal new targets in the position.


Your knowledge of the common tactical targets in chess is an important aspect of your tactical skill. Develop the habit to observe possible tactical targets!

You can further train your tactical skill with the exercises in the Tactical Patterns Bundle Deal (save 40%).