It’s Tactics Madness week, so today, we are sharing with you ten sick combinations to get your appetite for tactics going. If you’re aren’t in the mood for mayhem, these ten combinations from master games will get you excited for some!
Since you can’t rate beauty, we list the following ten chess gems in chronological order.
Louis Paulsen – Paul Morphy, New York Chess Congress 1857
In this game, the American genius Paul Morphy was able to turn his development lead into a mating attack.
He turned his static advantages into dynamic ones by destroying the enemy King’s shelter: a tactical resource that you should always keep in mind when ahead in development.
Paulsen, a strong master for his time, had misplayed the opening, allowing the Black Queen to sit on d3, choking his development. He has just played 17.Qa6, stopping the mating idea 17…Qf1+ 18.Kxf1 Re1# while intending to alleviate his poor development with exchanges. After something like 17…Qb1 18.Rb2 Qg6 19.d4, Black would need to play 19…c5 to avoid the b6-Bishop becoming a sorry piece. He’d remain better after 20.bxc5 Bxc5 21.Qc4 Bd6, but White would be in the game.
Of course, it takes something special to enter today’s list, and Morphy did so by unleashing the brutal 17…Qxf3!!
This combination is an example of two common tactical themes: the destruction of the King’s shelter and the weakness of a color complex. In this case, Black’s Queen sacrifice opens lines for the rest of his pieces to penetrate through the light squares.
After the forced 18.gxf3 Rg6+ 19.Kh1 Bh3, he’s got a decisive attack because both Rooks weave a mating net through the g-file and the first rank.
Now 20…Bg2+ 21.Kg1 Bxf3# is threatened. The natural defense 20.Rg1 allows 20…Bg2+ 21.Rxg2 Re1+ 22.Rg1 Rexg1#, one of the main points of Black’s combination.
The toughest defense was 20.Qd3! but it would have only served to confirm Morphy’s genius. The idea is that White can sacrifice his Queen for the g6-Rook after 20…Bg2+? 21.Kg1 Bxf3+ 22.Qxg6 hxg6 23.d4, shutting down Black’s attack and remaining an exchange up.
Morphy would have had to find the cold-blooded 20…f5!!, ruling out White’s Queen sacrifice and preserving all the threats. After 21.Qc4+ Kf8! (not 21…Kh8? allowing the sacrifice on g6 after 22.Qf7!) 22.Rd1 Bg2+ 23.Kg1 Bf3+ 24.Kf1 Bg2+ 25.Kg1 Bd5+ it all ends.
Instead, Paulsen played 20.Rd1 and fell victim of a windmill 20…Bg2+ 21.Kg1 Bxf3+ 22.Kf1 Bg2+ 23.Kg1 Bh3+ 24.Kh1 Bxf2 threatening mate on g2. 25.Qf1 Bxf1 26.Rxf1 Re2 and the game only lasted two more moves.
However, Morphy had two opportunities to win quicker and classier:
In this position, instead of Morphy’s 22…Bg2+, there was 22…Rg2!! with a mortal threat over f2. For example, 23.Qd3 Rxf2+ 24.Kg1 Rg2+ double check! 25.Kh1 Rg1# double check again, but now it’s mate. Another nice illustration of the strength of Black’s combination is that 23.Qxb6 Rxh2!! reveals the second idea of 22…Rg2. There’s no stopping mate on h1.
But while this was the cleaner solution, maybe most beautiful was what Morphy missed in the next move: after 22…Bg2+ 23.Kg1, he had the elegant 23…Be4+! 24.Kf1 Bf5!! impaling White’s King. 25.Qe2 Bh3+ 26.Ke1 Rg1#
The fact that he ‘missed’ these opportunities doesn’t diminish the creative achievement behind 17…Qxf3. It only shows the intuitive nature of Morphy’s combinations and serves as a reminder of the depth of chess possibilities.
Johannes Hermann Zuckertort – Joseph Henry Blackburne, 1883 London International Tournament of Masters
This game is complete tactics madness because of the way White’s pieces came to life in what seemed to be a closed position.
It was so influential for its time that it got Zukertort (along with the overall victory in this strong tournament) a reputation as the world’s best player, together with Willhelm Steinitz. The matter was settled three years later with the first World Championship in history. Zukertort lost the match 5-10, but the creative achievement in this game secured his place in chess history.
Here White seized the opportunity of opening the position for his Bishop’s pair with 23.f5, hitting both e6 and g6. Weak is 23…gxf5 24.Bxf5 Ne4 25.Bxe4 dxe4 26.Rg3+ Kh8 27.d5+ e5 28.d6+-. So Black trusted 23…Ne4, which practically forces 24.Bxe4 dxe4, and here they may have thought they were off the hook as 25…Rc2 is picking up the b2-Bishop, so he would have time to take on f5 with an advantage.
But Zukertort carried on with his plan. 25.fxg6 Rc2 25…hxg6 26.Rg3 wins plainly. 26.gxh7+ Kh8 using the enemy pawn as cover. Easy would be 26…Kxh7 27.Rh3+ Kg8 28.Qh6, winning. 27.d5+ e5 Up to this moment, everything was going according to Blackburne’s plan. “The White Queen has to move, and the Bishop falls”. He probably forgot to think where the Queen would move to…
28.Qb4!! Luring the Black Queen, the only defender of the kingside! Now 28…Qxb4 29.Bxe5+ Kxh7 30.Rh3+ Kg6 (30…Kg8 31.Rh8#) 31.Rg3 Kh6 (31…Kh7+ 32.Rf7+ Kh6 33.Bf4+ Kh5 34.Rh7#; 31…Kh5 32.Rf5+ Kh4 33.Bf6#) 32.Rf6+ Kh5 (32…Kh7 33.Rf7+ is the same as in 31…Kh7 previously) 33.Rf5+ Kh6 34.Bf4+ Kh7 35.Rh5#
28…Qe8 29.Rf8+!! Qxf8 30.Bxe5+ Kh7 31.Qxe4+ wins similarly to how the game went. Blackburne played instead 28…R8c5, but that didn’t save him from another brilliant sacrifice! 29.Rf8!! Once more, deviating the Black Queen from defending e5. 29…Qxf8 30.Bxe5+ Kh7 31.Qxe4+ Kh6 (31…Kg8 32.Qg6+ and mate in the next move) 32.Rh3+ Kg5 33.Rg3+ Kh5 34.Qg6+ Kh4 35.Qg5#.
The game ended after 29…Kh7 30.Qxe4+ Kg7 31.Bxe5+ Kf8 32.Bg7+!! Kg8 32…Qxg7 33.Qe8# 33.Qxe7 and Black resigned.
The way the White attack crashed through the diagonals is impressive. Black never had a chance to carry on with his own threats.
Georg Rotlewi – Akiba Rubinstein, Lodz International Tournament 1907
One of the games that cemented the genius of Akiba Rubinstein, “the Great”. He may have never disputed a World Championship match, but as Kasparov remarks, in My Great Predecessors Vol.1, he was not inferior to Lasker in the period 1909-1912. This game was his calling card in the international circuit.
Black has just played 20…Ng4, creating the threat of 21…Qh4 with mate on h2 (note that 22.h3 Qxh3# would still be mate because the b7-Bishop is pinning g2. Now 21.Qxg4 Rxd3 and 21.Bxh7+ Kxh7 22.Qxg4 Rd2 both leave Black with the initiative and the Bishop pair in an open position. 21.Ne4 also fails to 21…Rxd3! 22.Qxd3 Bxe4! distracting the only defender from the kingside 23.Qxe4 Qh4 24.h3 Qg3! 25.hxg4 Qh4#
Rotlewi defended with the natural 21.Be4, shutting down the strong b7-Bishop and relying on the detail that 21…Qh4 22.g3 would “force” simplifications since two Black pieces are attacked at once, right? (22.h3 Rxc3!! is one of the key ideas in Black’s combination, threatening 23…Rxh3+. A pretty mate would be 23.Qxg4 Rxh3+! Still! 24.Qxh3 Qxh3+ 25.gxh3 Bxe4+ 26.Kh2 Rd2+ 27.Kg3 Rg2+ 28.Kh4 Bd8+ 29.Kh5 Bg6#)
22…Rxc3!! A brilliant strike that softens the e4-Bishop and opens a path for the Rook across the 3rd rank. 23.Bxc3 Bxe4+ 24.Qxe4 Qxh2# and 23.Bxb7 Rxg3 (followed by 24…Rh3) 24.Rf3 Rxf3 25.Bxf3 Nf2+ are winning easily. But how did Rubinstein follow on his Queen sacrifice? 23.gxh4 Rd2!!
Incredibly putting the fourth piece under attack, but White can’t address the mating threats on e4 and h2 at once. One thing that makes this move beautiful is that it isn’t capturing an essential defender. It’s just asking White where they are allowing mate. Note that the Queen can’t be replaced with 24.Rae1 because of 24…Bxe4+ 25.Qxe4 Rxh2#
24.Qxd2 Bxe4+ 25.Qg2 At first glance, it seems White holds the house, but Rubinstein’s end to this combination is no less brilliant than its 22nd and 23rd move 25…Rh3!! Again this pin! There’s no defense against 26…Rxh2#, so White resigned.
Note that a silent MVP in the whole sequence was the b6-Bishop. It never moved, it never sacrificed itself, but control of g1 was fundamental in every variation. So be mindful about moving the pawns around your King.
Edward Lasker – George Alan Thomas, London blitz 1912
Edward Lasker was a distant cousin of the second World Champion Emanuel Lasker but a strong player in his own right. This famous combination, played during a blitz game, immortalized him above any of his tournament victories (including, five US Championships).
There’s a convergence on h7, but the flat 11.Nxf6+ gxf6 defends it in time. Instead, the position seems hand-picked for the amazing combination that follows.
11.Qxh7+!! Wow! One can only wonder if Lasker calculated everything till the very mate or if he just let his intuition take over. Anyway, the rest of the game is forced: 11…Kxh7 12.Nxf6+ Kh6 It was already quite pretty 12…Kh8 13.Ng6#.
For a blitz game, seeing this variation and that the King has to go into the open is enough to decide for the Queen sacrifice. 13.Neg4+ Kg5 14.h4+ 14.f4+ Kh4 15.g3+ Kh3 16.Bf1+ Bg2 17.Nf2# was faster. If 14…Kxf4 15.g3+ Kf3 (15…Kg5 16.h4#) 16.0-0# would have been beautiful too.
14…Kf4 15.g3+ Kf3 16.Be2+ Incredibly, after the cold-blooded 16.0-0, there’s no defense against 17.Nh2#. 16…Kg2 17.Rh2+ Kg1 18.Kd2# Beautiful mate. Though, in a way, it’s a shame that Lasker didn’t finish with the more refined 18.0-0-0#.
Besides its imperfections, the King’s journey from g8 to g1 seems pulled out from a fairy tale. All White pieces played a role in the attack!
Richard Reti – Alexander Alekhine, Baden-Baden 1925
One of the two games that Alekhine considered his best creations (together with Bogoljubov-Alekhine, Hastings 1922), and one of the few games that fights for the coveted “Game of the Century” award.
In the position below, White seems the one dictating the events, with his minority attack on the verge of creating a weak queenside pawn to target.
Alekhine’s following move is more a resource to alter the nature of the game than the beginning of an attack thoroughly calculated till the end: 26…Re3! Creating an unpleasant threat on g3. 27.fxe3?? Qxg3+ 28.Bg2 Nxe3 is unstoppable mate, so White has to withstand heavy pressure, the change of scenarios that Alekhine needed!
27.Nf3? Going wrong already on the first move. White’s only chance to escape the whirlwind was 27.Bf3! after which they’d conserve an advantage indeed. 27…cxb5 28.Qxb5 Nc3! 29.Qxb7 29.Qc4 b5! and 30…Nxe2+ follows 29…Qxb7 30.Nxb7 Amazingly, the wandering Knight on b7 will cause the demise of White in this game. 30…Nxe2+ 31.Kh2 31.Kf1 Nxg3+! 32.fxg3 Bxf3 wins for Black.
31…Ne4!! Incredibly leaving the Rook en prise for the sixth move in a row! 31.fxe3? Nxd2 32.Nxd2 Nxc1 is winning. 32.Rc4 Nxf2 Now the Rook is safe, and Black gets a pawn for his attack. 33.Bg2?! Be6! Attacking the c4-Rook and setting the stage for the decisive blow. Reti has no escape as he’s caught in some sort of a windmill (a more sophisticated version than the one in Paulsen-Morphy).
34.Rcc2 There was no salvation, but from here onwards, Alekhine’s long combination is completely forced. 34…Ng4+ 35.Kh3 35.Kh1 Ra1+ wins. 35…Ne5+ 36.Kh2 36.Kh4 Ra4+ wins too. 36…Rxf3! Of course, 37.Bxf3 Nxf3+ 38.Kg2 Nxd2 is the easiest. 37.Rxe2 Ng4+ 38.Kh3 Again, if 38.Kh1 Ra1+ decides. 38…Ne3+ 39.Kh2 Nxc2 40.Nxf3 Nd4!
The incredible last touch. White can’t avoid a losing geometry, so he resigned. After 41.Re3 Nxf3 42.Rf3 Bd5 picks up the b7-Knight. In a way, this game features two combinations. The first, the one starting with 26…Re3, of a speculative nature. The second one, completely mathematical, began with 33….Be6.
Donald Byrne – Robert Fischer, Rosenwald Cup 1956
And right up, we have another “Game of the Century” candidate. One of the many incredible facts about this game is that Fischer was only 13 years old when he played it.
His opponent was the 1953 US Open Champion and the second-highest rated player in the country behind Samuel Reshevsky (against whom he had a favorable score). He played for the US in five International Chess Olympiads and became an IM a few years after this game, which tells you everything you need to know about his strength.
11…Na4! is an incredible shot, exploiting White’s lack of development. 12.Nxa4 Nxe4 13.Bxe7 White is forced to enter the Lion’s den as the Queen doesn’t have squares along the fifth rank to defend the g5-Bishop. 13…Nxc5 14.Bxd8 Re8+ 15.Be2 Nxa4 is one of the main points, as White can’t hold his queenside.
12.Qa3 A tricky retreat, keeping e7 under fire 12…Nxc3 13.bxc3 Nxe4 taking up the challenge! 14.Bxe7 Qb6! 15.Bc4 15.Bxf8 Bxf8 16.Qb3 Nxc3! is still better for Black, but Byrne understandably wanted to get his King out of the center and probably counted on his next move as a saving resource.
15…Nxc3! Further exploiting the exposed White King in the center. 16.Qxc3 Rfe8 gives Black two extra pawns and the compensation. But Fischer had to have a follow-up to 16.Bc5 Byrne can be forgiven for thinking he confused his teenager opponent, as the King now escapes via f1 and the c3-Knight is hanging… 16…Rfe8+ 17.Kf1
17…Be6!! An incredible move, the only one that refutes White’s trap! Disaster strikes in the a6-f1 diagonal. 18.Bxe6? Qb5! is similar to the motif in the game. 18.Qxc3 Qxc5 exploits a hidden pin. 18.Bd3 Nb5 19.Qb4 Qd8 Keeps it all together in time. 18.d5 Bxd5! renewing the threat! 19.Rxd5? Qb1+ leads to mate in the next move. White has no other practical chance than to accept the Queen and hope for a miracle.
What follows is what people think of when they say chess is art. 18.Bxb6 Bxc4+ 19.Kg1 Ne2+ Again, a deadly windmill. 20.Kf1 Nxd4+ 21.Kg1 Something like 21.Rd3 doesn’t break Black’s coordination as 21…axb6 introduces a new attacker. 22.Qc3 Nxf3 23.Qxc4 Re1# 21…Ne2+ 22.Kf1 Nc3+ 23.Kg1 axb6 24.Qb4 24.Qd6 Rad8 only helps Black. 24…Ra4! Defending everything! 25.axb6 Nxd1
What an incredible job the Knight has done! Fischer’s combination was not mating, but it certainly didn’t leave any hope for Byrne. The material disparity is abusive, not to mention piece activity and safety of the Kings.
Fischer easily coordinated his pieces and delivered mate in move 41.
Mikhail Tal – Arthur Feuerstein, Stuttgart simul 1958
If you blind-pick from a bag full of Tal’s games, almost certainly you’re going to pick a famous combination.
So, while this compilation wouldn’t be complete without a game from the Magician of Riga, we selected a ‘not-so-well-known’ Tal combination (if such a thing exists). It’s on the easier side of his combinations, but not for that it is less beautiful and creative.
The game was played during a simul display, and Tal’s opponent didn’t handle the Dragon Sicilian in the most orthodox fashion. Now 14.g5 almost forced 14…Ng8 to defend h6. Instead, the game went 14…hxg5 15.hxg5 15…Nh5 was the last chance for Black, but 16.Nb3 Qd8 17.Bd4 is still strategically crushing.
15…Rxh1 16.Rxh1 would have been the automatic recapture of 99% of players, especially as it keeps a steady advantage. But this game is remembered for the imaginative combination Tal uncorked now.
16.gxf6!! A hard to foresee intermediate move. However, its true beauty lies in the follow-up. Had Black spotted it, maybe he would have retreated with 16…Rh7 17.fxg7 Rxg7, but he’d still be lost, and the chess world would have missed a true gem. 16…Rxd1+ 17.Nxd1! Attacking the a5-Queen and the g7-Bishop 17…Qxd2 18.fxg7!!
Wow! Incredibly, all four minor pieces defend themselves and parry any back rank mate while the g7-pawn can’t be stopped from queening… with mate in one! The game concluded 18…Kd8 19.g8=Q+ Kc7 20.Qxc8+! Kxc8 21.Bxd2 and White is two pieces up. Black resigned.
The creativity behind Tal’s concept is remarkable. It takes something special to notice that the four minor pieces dominate the Black Queen at the heart of White’s position.
Jaime Sunye Neto – Garry Kasparov, Under-26 World Teams Championship, Graz 1981
One of young Kasparov’s best creations. White has just sacrificed his two Rooks for the Black Queen to reduce the momentum of the attack towards his King. However, the energy in Kasparov’s pieces is astonishing, finding soft spots in squares you wouldn’t imagine and creating mating threats in virtually every move.
41…Nf3+ 42.Kf1 One of the most beautiful variations arises after 42.Kh1. The brute 42…Bxe3! dismantles White’s defensive setup as the f4-Knight is loose and the Rooks connect on g2. For example, 43.fxe3 Rdxg2!! 44.Nxg2 Rg3!! Mating on h3! 45.Nf4 Rg1#. Another incredible variation is 43.Ne6 Rxf2 Threatening mate on f1 44.gxf3 Rf1+ 45.Kh2 exf3! Threatening mate on g2. 46.Nxg5 Bf4#
42…Bxe3! The same follow-up, with a different theme: there’s mate on f2 now. 43.fxe3 Rdxg2! Again this blow! Now there’s no immediate mate threat, but in vacating d2, the mortal 44…Nd2 winning the Queen becomes available. 44.Qc3 Rh2 Now with mate on g1. 45.Ne2 Kh7!
White’s only resource is the perpetual check after 45…Rgg2?? 46.Qc8+ Kh7 47.Qf5+. Kasparov rules out that idea with the text move while keeping all of his threats. 46.Qb4 f5! Holding the e4-pawn keeps the attack going.
46.Qc8 Rh1+ Now Black doesn’t need 46…Rgg2. 47.Kf2 Nd2!, setting a new mate threat on f1. In view of 48.Ng3 Rh2+ 49.Ke1 Nf3+ 50.Kf1 Rxb2, White resigned.
Magnus Carlsen – Li Chao, 2015 Qatar Masters Open 2015
World Champion Magnus Carlsen is better known for his ability to grind small advantages into victories than for his attacking prowesses. However, in this game, he showed an ability for attacking, counter-attacking, and calculating that you’d expect from the likes of Tal.
Both players have made progress in their races against the opponent’s King. Black has the straightforward plan of opening the a-file with a5-a4-a3, and the only way Carlsen can create similar danger is by bringing his Queen to the h-file, so he played 21.Bd1 allowing the Queen transfer to h2 and creating tension around the semi-loose Black Bishop.
To give you an idea of how wild this position is, 21.Ba6!! with the same idea but crucially slowing down Black’s plan, would have been winning. 21…a4 22.Qh2 Rfd8 Making room for the King is forced. 23.Qh7+ Kf8 24.d5
Attacking the b6-Knight and preparing e5-e6. 24.gxf5 was a simpler win, but after 24…gxf5, the counterintuitive 25.Bxb3! had to be found. After 25…axb3+ 26.Kb1, White’s attack arrives first because his Rooks join in faster. For example, 26…Ra5 27.Rcg1 Rda8 28.Qh8+! Bxh8 29.Rxh8 with mate in two.
24…Nc4 Preparing a4-a3, when it seems White is getting mated. For example, 25.e6? a3!! 26.Nxg6+ Qxg6! 27.Qxg6 axb2+ 28.Kb1 Ra1# shows the danger of Black’s threats. So White needs to be accurate, meaning all his moves have to come with check. 25.Ng6+ Ke8 26.e6 a3 27.exf7+ Kd7
Incredibly, Black is a full Queen down, but he is very close to delivering a memorable mate. There is no dealing with the threat on b2, while the natural 28.bxa3?, loses brilliantly to 28…Rxa3+ 29.Kb1 Bc2+!! The only way! 30.Bxc2 Ra1+ 31.Ka1 Bc3+ 32.Kb1 Na3#, while 30.Rxc2 Rb3+ 31.Kc1 Nd3# is a more hidden mate.
So, how did Carlsen escape? Well, the key to Black’s combination is the c4-Knight, so if it could be distracted…
28.Ne5+!! Bxe5 29.Qxf5+ Kc7 30.Qxe5+!!
The key idea! Now Black can’t avoid deflecting the c4-Knight. If 30…Kc8 31.Qe6+ Kb8 32.Bf4+ Ka7 33.bxa3 deactivates the attack. Black is forced to break his mating net, and the b3-Bishop finally falls.
30…Nxe5 31.Bxb3 axb2+ 32.Kxb2 Nbd3+ 33.Kb1 Nxc1 34.Rxc1
From a material point of view, Black should be able to resist, but the strong f7-pawn and the pin on the Black King make it a hopeless situation. For example, 34…Nxf7 35.dxc6 Nd6 36.Nd5+ wins.
Li Chao resigned after two more moves. You can learn more about this game and watch full analysis here.
Wei Yi – Lazaro Bruzon, Hainan Danzhou 2015
A modern-day classic; one of the early contenders to “game of the 21st century”. Still, we’ll be remiss not to include it in this selection. When you talk about the sickest of the sickest modern tactics, this is one has a special seat at the table.
Here White played 21.Nd5!, an over-the-board novelty, but a very natural move. Black’s best choice was accepting a strategically poor position after 21…Bxd5 22.exd5. Note that 22…Nxd5? still loses to 23.Rxf7! as in the game. For example: 23…Kxf7 24.Qxh7+ Ke6 25.Bxg6 and the computer announces mate in 9.
Luckily for the chess world, though, Bruzon played 21…Nxd5? directly, allowing one of the most dazzling combinations in modern times. 22.Rxf7!! From here onwards, the Black King is like a leaf on the wind. There’s no avoiding the journey that follows.
22…Kxf7 23.Qxh7+ Ke6 24.exd5+ Kxd5 25.Be4+!! The key move in the combination, dragging the King away from the escape route via c6. 25…Ke4 26.Qf7!! But the follow-up is no less important! This is the first of many silent blows in this game. The King is cut from d5 (and so, from c6), but more importantly, there’s mate in one with 27.Qf3!
26…Bf6 – the only move to block the Queen’s access to f3. 27.Bd2+ Kd4 28.Be3+ Ke4 29.Qb3!!
After a repetition of moves, Wei Yi goes for the kill with a second silent move, again threatening mate in one with 30.Qd3. Note that White needs to control d5 as 29.Qxg6+?? Kd5 allows the King to escape through c6.
29…Kf5 30.Rf1+ Kg4 31.Qd3!! Yet another silent punch, now mate in one is on e2, plus, g6 is falling too. 31…Bxg2+ The only practical try, but it doesn’t work. 32.Kxg2 Qa8+ 33.Kg1 Incredibly, the Black Queen is not in time to defend its King. 33…Bg5 34.Qe2+ Kh4 35.Bf2+ Kh3 36.Be1!! The final silent punch. 37.Rf3 and 37.Qd3 are two mortal threats. For example, 36…Bf4 37.Qd3+ Kg4 38.Qxg6+ Bg5 39.h3+! Kxh3 40.Qf5#
In this wonderful position, Black resigned. Read more about this game and watch full GM analysis here.
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