What are chess tactics? A quick guide for beginners

By Leon Watson / On / In Chess improvement, Learning chess

13 Shares

Ever wondered what people mean when they say things like “I can see a chess tactic there” and “the fastest way to improve is to practise your chess tactics”?

We’ve put together this quick guide to explain in simple terms what we mean by a tactic in chess – because it is a question we get asked a lot.

Basically, a chess tactic is a sequence of moves that limits the opponent’s options and can result in an immediate benefit like a capture or a checkmate.

Hikaru Nakamura: An expert in chess tactics
Hikaru Nakamura: An expert in chess tactics

More often than not, these are the little patterns that decide games and if you’ve been playing the game you have probably been using them whether you were aware of it or not. Think of them like punch combinations in boxing, or as a set-play in a football game – if you get the opportunity to play one, and you’re sure it will  work, do it!

Chess tactics are the fundamental building blocks of the game and if you want to improve they are definitely worth looking further into because if you can spot a successful tactic can blow away your opponent in just a few moves.

Magnus Carlsen’s famous Qh6 chess tactic

Sometimes chess tactics can be breathtaking in their power and beauty. For example, this famous winning move that Magnus Carlsen played to retain his World Chess Championship against Sergey Karjakin in 2016:

After Carlsen’s spectacular 50.Qh6+, Karjakin resigned here. Can you see why?

It is worth noting that there is a difference in chess terms between tactics and strategy. Sometimes, very subtle tactics can end in a result less tangible, like a positional advantage – this we call chess strategy.

Back to tactics. There are many different types of tactics and learning them will make a huge difference to your game. You begin to recognise the common patterns that crop up, and take advantage of them.

So, without further ado, here are a few examples (all taken from GM Susan Polgar’s brilliant Learn Chess the Right Way course). Can you solve them?

What does it mean to be pinned in chess?

A pin is an extremely powerful tactical tool, aimed to restrict the mobility of an enemy piece.

In a pin, pieces are always lined up, potentially on a file, rank or diagonal. There are two types, absolute pins and relative pins. Only the queen, rooks or bishops are able to create a pin.

In this example, the pinned piece is the pawn on d4. White can win a rook by capturing with…
1.♕xe3 Whether or not Black recaptures with 1… dxe3, allowing 2. Bxf6, White will be a rook up.

The pin
The pin

What is a skewer in chess?

Just like with pins, the pieces which are involved in this nasty chess tactic are always lined up on the same file, rank or diagonal; only queens, rooks or bishops are capable of making a “skewer”.

You can have two types of skewers, one where you check the enemy king and others where you attack a valuable piece and “x-ray” the piece behind it.

In this position, we can see Black’s king and rook lined up on the same diagonal. Given that White has a light-square bishop, this is a red flag. White can play 1. ♗g2+ creating a skewer. After Black moves the king to a7 or b8, White captures the rook on a8, winning at least an exchange. Blocking the check with ♘e4 or ♘d5 would make things just worse, as the White bishop can capture the knight with a check, renewing the same skewer idea of a move earlier.

The skewer in action
The skewer in action

What is a Zugswang in chess?

Now we’re getting onto some interesting concepts. Zugzwang (German for ‘compulsion to move’) is a situation found in chess and other games wherein one player is put at a disadvantage because they must make a move when they would prefer to pass and not move.

The fact that the player is compelled to move means that their position will become significantly weaker.  A player is said to be ‘in zugzwang’ when any possible move will worsen their position.

Here is a very basic example:

Zugswang
Zugswang

After Black plays: 1… c2 if White could say ‘I pass’, Black could not make progress to win.However, as White is in zugzwang ♔b2 …must be played. Allowing 2… ♔d2 followed by the promotion of the c2-pawn.

Ouch!

What are the different types of chess tactic?

  • There are thousands of chess tactics that occur in different positions on the board but most are based around these simple themes:
SkewerRemoval of the Defender
Mate in OneTrapped Piece
Smothered MateDesperado
Clearance SacrificeOverloading
Mate in TwoUnderpromotion
StalemateDiscovered Attack
Decoy/DeflectionVulnerable King
Mate in ThreeDouble Check
Mating NetPerpetual Check

 

Master these patterns above and you will be instantly improve your chess. Why? Because as we said above they’re the fundamental building blocks of the game.

Where can I learn more about chess tactics?

There’s a lot to learn but it can be easy, fun and bring you real, immediate results.

We recommend GM Susan Polgar’s Learn Chess the Right Way series, from which the examples above are taken.

GM Susan Polgar's Learn Chess the Right Way
GM Susan Polgar’s Learn Chess the Right Way

Put together, all five books give a comprehensive grounding in everything you need to know to take the next step. They are a structured, thorough and extremely well thought out course that is both fun and informative.

If you’re after something more advanced we’ve got plenty of good chess tactics courses in our book store here.

Of course, on Chessable all Learn Chess the Right Way books come enhanced with MoveTrainer™ so you can play through each puzzle until you know it back-to-front.

About Leon Watson

Leon is a national newspaper journalist from London, England. He is an avid chess fan, and writes regularly about the game. Apart from chess, he loves cricket, Tottenham Hotspur FC and spending time with his son.
13 Shares