Improve your tactics and become a beast at the chessboard!

By Bryan Castro / On / In Beginner Guides, Chess improvement

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Training guide for hardcore improvement

If you are a chess player, you’re probably aware that studying and practicing tactics is one of the best ways to improve. However, many players study tactics and aren’t able to apply them to their games consistently.

This problem is so prevalent that I would venture that most games below master level are decided by tactical oversight by one or both sides. It stands to reason that if you can become a tactical beast you will have a distinct advantage over your non-beastly opponents.

So in this article, I am going to discuss a series of methods on how to build your tactical skills up so that you can apply them to your chess games. The methods prescribed are not hard to implement, but they require focus and dedication. With effort and consistency, you’ll be devouring your opponents soon enough.

Basic Patterns

Take a look at the following position:

Position 1: White to Play

How long did it take you to find 1.c4! attacking the pinned d5 knight? If it took you more than 5 seconds to see that 1.c4 Nxc4 2.Rxd5+ wins a piece for a pawn then perhaps you need to spend more time building up your basic tactical pattern recognition.

An important step in becoming a strong tactician is having a master’s grasp on the basic tactical patterns. Basic tactics like pins, forks, discovered attacks, and skewers are the building blocks of more complicated tactics.

A boxer practices his jab, cross, hook, and uppercut hundreds of times a day. It’s not because he doesn’t know how to throw these basic punches. However, he doesn’t just want to have knowledge of these punches, he wants to have command so that he doesn’t have to think “okay, time to throw a jab” – it just comes out at will!

Admittedly, after I found I could solve these basic problems, I itched to move onto more complicated and harder problems. However, as I gained experience I realized that I should review these easier problems occasionally. Of course, this was all before Chessable – which makes it both easy and fun.

There are many good books on basic tactics but I highly recommend 1001 Chess Exercises for Beginners here on Chessable. Use Chessable’s Woodpecker schedule and go through the whole book several times in succession until the patterns pop in your calculations. After this program of training, you can review the tactics randomly and occasionally to keep sharp, but you can move on to other types of training. Speaking of which…

Beyond the Basics

After you’ve mastered the basics, it’s time to move to more difficult combinations. Here, you will combine the basic tactics you have at your command. You will also start (or continue) to develop your calculation ability.

Take a moment to figure out the following problem:

Black to play

This position comes from the classic game Hamppe-Steinitz, Vienna 1859. Were you able to find 1…Bxd4+ 2.Kh1 Rxg3! taking advantage of the pinned pawn that was created by Kh1? Extra points if you noticed that 1…Bxd4+ 2.cxd4 fails to 2…Qxh2# this time taking advantage of the pinned bishop on g3.

The next phase of your development in tactics should be to tackle these types of problems as well as occasionally reviewing the basics. Here also you can start to tackle problems that don’t have a specific theme indicated. This will make it harder, but will also start to prepare you to see these tactics in your game.

There are many good resources, including online servers that have thousands of tactics problems for you to practice. There are several good books on Chessable that also are great for this stage of development:

  1. The Woodpecker Method
  2. 1001 Chess Exercises for Club Players
  3. Tactics Time

You can use Chessable’s review functions to go over these occasionally, but over time this can be quite burdensome in terms of time. I will solve the problem and if I either got it incorrect or found it particularly inspiring or useful I will continue reviewing it using Chessable’s spaced learning feature. For Chessable users, you can pause the other problems. The purpose of this phase is to practice combining the basic tactical patterns over and over, so memorization is less crucial here (but feel free to review combinations you enjoy).

Once you are proficient with these types of problems, you can be fairly confident in your ability to solve tactical positions in your games if you spot them. However, there are many times when we miss tactical opportunities in our games. Let’s discuss that next.

Tuning Your Tactics Radar

Knowing when to look for a tactical shot in your game is something that often develops with experience – you just feel when there is a tactic. However, until that instinct develops, what are you to do? It is inefficient to try to treat every position like a tactical problem.

However, there are some “red flags” we can look for in our games that may indicate that a tactical solution may be possible. Think about the words of Bobby Fischer:

“Tactics flow from a superior position.”

~Bobby Fischer

For tactics to occur, there usually needs to be some type of weakness (or preferably more than one) in your opponent’s position. Some of these weaknesses can include:

  1. Hanging (undefended) pieces
  2. Underdefended pawns and pieces
  3. Vulnerable king position
  4. Pawn weaknesses
  5. Trapped pieces

National Master Dan Heisman calls these “Seeds of Tactical Destruction.” The more of these you see, the more you should be looking for some type of tactical shot.

Take a look at the following position and identify any tactical red flags that you see (and if a tactic is available, see if you can find it):

White to play

In this position from one of my games, there are a few red flags:

  1. Black’s king is fairly vulnerable, with the a1-h8 diagonal open as well as White’s rook on the back rank.
  2. Black’s rook on b2 can be pinned by moving the knight.
  3. Black’s rook is only defended by the queen and another defender cannot be quickly added by Black.

These red flags should indicate that you should look for some way to capitalize on these factors – most likely by moving the knight.

  1. Non-forcing moves like Nf3 or Nc2 allow Black to bring the knight in to reinforce the pinned rook: 1.Nf3? Nxf2 2.Ra2 (attacking the pinned piece) 2…Nd3 and White cannot gain an advantage.
  2. Therefore, we should look at checks – either Nf5+ or Ne6+. However, one of these allows Black’s king to break the pin: 1.Ne6+? Kh6! and now Black threatens to fork White’s queen and king with …Rb1+ as well as leaving a knight en prise.
  3. That leaves the other knight check to examine: 1.Nf5+! (covering the h6 square and vacating the pinning diagonal) 1…exf5 2.Ra2 and White wins the exchange.

So be on the lookout for the typical red flags you see in your games. Here is a specific exercise you can do to develop this habit:

  1. After each of your games, analyze to see what tactical opportunities you may have missed. You can do this for your opponent’s moves as well.
  2. Use a chess engine to make sure the tactics are sound.
  3. Identify which red flags you should have seen that you may have missed.
  4. Note these in your annotations to your game.

Of course, sometimes we see the tactical opportunity but we miscalculate the solution. Part of our training needs to involve building our calculation skills.

Building Your Calculation Muscles

The previous parts of this article discussed developing and learning to spot tactical patterns. The other aspect of chess tactics is calculation skill, which involves the following aspects:

  1. Choosing appropriate candidate moves based on the position.
  2. Accurately visualizing positions several moves ahead.
  3. Discerning how far ahead and how broadly we need to look.
  4. Evaluating the resulting positions.
  5. Choosing a move.

Fortunately, some of the skills you need for calculation you’ve been building all along if you’ve been following the advice from earlier in this article. In fact, building up your calculation muscles is more a matter of paying attention to how you train and not just what you study. With that in mind, here are a few key principles:

  1. Solve problems or analyze without moving the pieces. Visualization is like a muscle that gets stronger with practice but also a habit.
  2. Try to record what you see in your calculations. This can be a notebook or your can record it on a video. Then you can compare this with the solution or analysis checked by a coach or by using a chess engine.
  3. At the end of each line of analysis, try to come up with a conclusion or evaluation. This can be as simple as “White is better due to material,” using an informant symbol such as “+/=” or using an estimate of a computer evaluation – e.g. +0.3 pawns. The point is to develop your habit of evaluating positions.
  4. Try to find your opponent’s best replies to your candidate moves. In particular, make sure you have considered your opponent’s forcing moves such as checks and captures.
  5. Make sure you look deeply enough. This will help you develop your visualization skill as well as help you determine whether or not you are looking deeply enough as you review your analysis.
  6. Review your work and see where you can improve. Did you look at enough candidates? Is your picture of the position clear as you look deeper into a position? Did you miss any forcing moves of your opponent? Look for patterns of errors that you can focus on improving.

As an example of this, here is a page out of my training journal:

Training Journal
Record your work

This is from a position from Jacob Aagaard’s Grandmaster Preparation: Calculation. As you can see, I tried to write down everything I saw in the position. It isn’t always pretty, but after I looked at the solution in the book I can look for lines that I didn’t see as well as check the accuracy and evaluations of the lines I did see.

Much of this work can be done with the positions found in the books I mentioned earlier in this article. However, as you become better at tactics and calculation you will want to tackle more complex positions to strengthen your skills even further.

With that in mind, I recommend the following:

  1. Grandmaster Preparation: Calculation
  2. Endgame Studies, such as Dvoretsky’s Studies for Practical Players

Besides doing training exercises with these resources, another key source of material are your own games. Try to capture what you calculated during the game and annotate these into your game. Then go over your annotations with a coach or chess engine to see what you have missed. Be a detective and try to find out why you made certain decisions and how they can be improved in the future.

Personalizing Your Training

I have given you a lot of ideas on how to improve your tactics to beastly levels throughout this article. Hopefully, one of the lessons I hope you are learning is that it’s not only about doing the work of solving problems and analyzing, but also reflecting on the work you have done and planning how to improve from there.

Here is a position from one of my tournament games earlier this year. What would you play?

White to play

I was planning on Black capturing my knight on e6 and then gaining the initiative with Qxe6+. However, Black’s surprised me with 12…Bxf3 leading to the diagram above.

During the game, I made the following observations and calculations:

  1. I didn’t really consider 13.gxf3 because I thought 13…fxe6 14.Qxe6+ Rf7 led nowhere because the knight on f3 that I had planning on playing to g5 to attack the pinned rook was no longer available. I assessed that this line sacrificed the knight for two pawns without much compensation.
  2. I didn’t like 13.Qxf3 fxe6 because now my queen is in line with the rook on f8 and I’ve effectively sacrificed my knight for a pawn as I feared any discoveries after 14.Rxe6.
  3. With that in mind, I saw what I played in the game: 13.Nxd8 Bxe2 14.Nc6 Bxd3 15.Nxe7+ Kh8 16.cxd3 Nc5 17.Rd1 Rfe8 18.Nf5 and figured the position was about even (and post-mortem analysis would come to the same conclusion). There is more to say about this position, but the point is that the decision to go into this line was based on what I didn’t see.

Looking back at the original position, I had rejected 13.gxf3 because I hung onto my conclusion that I didn’t get anything from the combination after Black blocks my check with …Rf7. However, I didn’t even consider the simple line 13.gxf3 fxe6 14.Qxe6+ Rf7 15.Bc4! winning at least the exchange. This would force 14…Kh8 after which 15.Qxe7 leads to the same idea I originally had.

Actually, after analyzing the position extensively with my opponent after the game and then with an engine, 13.gxf3 is maybe only slightly better than 13.Nxd8 but the lesson for me was that I should have at least considered it so that I could make an informed choice.

So what conclusions should we draw from this example?

  1. The tactical idea I had was a good one – e.g. the knight sacrifice on e6.
  2. When considering sacrificing on e6, I should have considered my opponent’s forcing replies, which would have included 12…Bxf3.
  3. I rejected 13.gxf3 too early because I didn’t spend enough time to find 15.Bc4! and made an assumption that it wasn’t good.

And now that I have this information, what will I do with it?

  1. I seem to be okay with spotting tactical opportunities (although I had some difficulty seeing patterns several ply from the original position), so I don’t need to do additional training to tune my tactics radar.
  2. When solving tactical problems, I make sure I look for all of my opponent’s forcing replies to my candidate moves (particularly the one I’m going to pick as the solution). When recording my solutions to harder positions, I check to make sure I did this.
  3. I make sure that I push my analysis far enough to make a conclusion. When I spot myself making a snap judgment on a candidate, I try to push it a move further to see if there is anything else I may be missing. Again, if I record my analysis I check for these end-of-the-line evaluations.
  4. I will continue to work on my basic patterns by solving simple tactical problems to make sure my pattern recognition stays sharp.

This type of reflection on your own play and training can be very rewarding, but it does take some time. However, if you want to be a tactical beast, this is the type of self-discovery and awareness it will take!

A Lifelong Journey

Becoming truly beastly with tactics is an ongoing process. Like fitness, it is something that can atrophy quickly from disuse. However, if you think about all of the points you can win from punishing your opponent’s blunders I hope you will come to the same conclusion that I have – the journey is worth it!

Fortunately, Chessable’s library of tactics courses is continually growing, so you will never lack in quality training material. Combine that with Chessable’s review functions and the training methods I’ve shared with you today and you really have all you need to master tactics….the only missing ingredient is your desire and hard work!

About Bryan Castro

Bryan Castro is a businessman, writer, and chess enthusiast from Buffalo, NY. Besides chess, he enjoys practicing martial arts, playing piano, and spending time with his wife and children.
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