The 5 Most Common Tactical Motifs in Chess

In this lesson you will learn the 5 most common tactics in chess. These are the tactical motifs that occur most often in chess games and therefore it makes sense to pay special attention to them.

The 5 most common tactics in chess are:

Together, these 5 motifs represent a large chunk of all the tactics that occur in actual games. It’s good if you can make an in-depth study of numerous tactical motifs, but if your time is limited and you want to learn only the most important ones – then it should be these ones. I’ll give an example of each below.

Forks (Double-attacks)

A fork, or double-attack, occurs when your move makes 2 or more threats at the same time. A fork or double-attack is a powerful tactical idea because it’s hard (or sometimes impossible) for your opponent to defend against multiple threats at the same time.

Example of a Fork Tactic

fork tactic

Diagram above: Black to move. What would you do?

Solution below.

Diagram above: Black plays 1… Qxb2! The point is that if white captures the black queen, 2.Qxb2, then black will play 2… Nd3+, forking the white king and queen. Black wins a rook in the combination.

Diagram above: 2… Nd3+ forks the white king and queen.

Note: Technically, there is a subtle difference between a fork and a double attack. A fork is when a piece creates multiple threats, on its own. A double-attack, on the other hand, is when more than one piece works together to make multiple threats.

Pins

The power of a pin lies in the fact that the pinned piece essentially can’t move since doing so would expose another, more valuable, target. The point is that you can often find a way to take advantage of the immobilized (pinned) piece.

Example of a Pin Tactic

pin tactics

Diagram above: White to move. What would you do?

Solution below.

Diagram above: 1.Rxe6! is a surprising move that wins the black bishop. The point is that if black plays 1… fxe6, then 2.Rf3 pins the black queen to the king.

Diagram above: 2.Rf3 illustrates a pin tactic. The black queen can’t move out of danger because that would expose her king to check.

Removing the Defender

When a piece or important square is defended, then that piece or square can become vulnerable once you remove its defender. This is usually done by a trade, threat or sacrifice that removes the defending piece.

Example of Removing a Defender

remove the defender tactic

Diagram above: White to move. What would you do?

Solution below.

Diagram above: White plays 1.Rxd7, wins the black bishop. The point is that the bishop was the defender of the pawn on h3. White is now threatening 2.Rxh3…

Diagram above: If black plays 1… Rxd7, then white plays 2.Rxh3, pinning the black queen to the king. Note that the white queen on d3 defends the rook on h3.

Discovered Attacks

A discovered attack occurs when you move a piece away that reveals a strong threat from a piece that was behind it. The power of this idea lies in the fact that you can also use the moving piece to make a strong threat of its own.

Example of a Discovered Attack Tactic

discovered attack tactic

Diagram above: White to move. What would you do?

Solution below.

Diagram above: 1. Nxd4 wins the black bishop because 1… cxd4 will allow black to execute a discovered attack on black’s queen.

Diagram above: If black played 1… cxd4, then white can play 2.Bxf7+, a discovered attack on black’s queen, followed by 3.Qxc7.

Tempo Moves

A tempo move is a move that gains time by making a threat that forces your opponent to defend passively. This kind of move is particularly useful if you can use the tempo to achieve a tactical (or even strategic) advantage.

Example of Tempo Moves

The example below demonstrates how black uses tempo-moves (in this case checks) to eventually remove the defender of white’s queen:

tempo moves tactic

Diagram above: Black to move. What would you do?

Solution below.

Diagram above: 1… Bxf2+ forces the white king to the e2-square, where it can again be checked when black plays 2… Nxc3+ on the next move.

Diagram above: After 1… Bxf2+ 2.Ke2 Nxc3+, followed by Qxd5. Black forced white to make defensive moves–whilst eventually removing the defender of white’s queen.

How do I know these are the most common tactics in chess?

I researched chess databases to see which motifs occur most often. That, together with my experience as a player and coach, is how I concluded that these motifs are the most common ones. So while I don’t claim this to be a scientific result, the puzzles that appears in chess books and online databases will likely feature one or more of the tactical ideas you’ve learnt on this page.

It’s important to study how common tactical motifs work because a good understanding of them will help you create powerful combinations in your own games. So while the 5 motifs on this page are the most common, there are many other tactical ideas worth learning.

More on Tactical Motifs in Chess

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