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.
Take a look at the following position:
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 Exercisesfor 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:
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:
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.”
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:
Hanging (undefended) pieces
Underdefended pawns and pieces
Vulnerable king position
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):
In this position from one of my games, there are a few red flags:
Black’s king is fairly vulnerable, with the a1-h8 diagonal open as well as White’s rook on the back rank.
Black’s rook on b2 can be pinned by moving the knight.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Use a chess engine to make sure the tactics are sound.
Identify which red flags you should have seen that you may have missed.
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:
Choosing appropriate candidate moves based on the position.
Accurately visualizing positions several moves ahead.
Discerning how far ahead and how broadly we need to look.
Evaluating the resulting positions.
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:
Solve problems or analyze without moving the pieces. Visualization is like a muscle that gets stronger with practice but also a habit.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
With that in mind, I saw what I played in the game: 13.Nxd8 Bxe2 14.Nc6 Bxd3 15.Nxe7+ Kh8 16.cxd3 Nc517.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?
The tactical idea I had was a good one – e.g. the knight sacrifice on e6.
When considering sacrificing on e6, I should have considered my opponent’s forcing replies, which would have included 12…Bxf3.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
Chessable developer William Hoggarth, a 1600 elo player originally from the UK but who now lives in Siberia, is on the hunt for new chess tips for beginners.
In June, William came in from the cold (quite literally) to play to his first over the board tournament for seven years and found the mental side tougher than he expected. Here’s how he got on and what he learned:
The inner battle of chess
Earlier this year I played in the Bristol Chess Congress which consisted of five OTB games over a long weekend. It was my first long time control tournament in seven years.
Afterward, I was left deeply impressed by my experience, in particular on the psychological aspects of the royal game and determined to boil down some of the good chess tips for beginners both for myself and to pass on to others. Afterwards I recorded some of my musings and observations and shared them. I’ve recently visited my notes and pulled together this article which I hope you will find both interesting and enlightening.
Outnumbered from the beginning
To play a good game of chess, you are not just pitted against your opponent, but you must also overcome yourself – bad habits, laziness, hastiness, emotions, distractions etc. This is something that becomes a lot more apparent in long play games when you have more time to become aware of these things and to try to deal with them.
It’s also perhaps an underrated and under-discussed aspect of chess skill and improvement. Maybe because it involves our own imperfections, rather than seemingly external knowledge or skill that just needs to be “learned”. As one person wryly pointed out to me, the good news is that your opponent is also fighting against two people!
A warm-up is indispensable
One dangerous point in the game is the moment you come out of theory, you’ve been playing quickly, and everything seems familiar. It’s all too easy to make a rash or natural but flawed move.
When playing in Bristol I got into the habit of starting to calculate lines and examine the position straightaway, so as soon as my opponent deviated or my book knowledge ended, I had already begun thinking, warmed to the position, and knew what was going on.
Intuition and the subconscious play a very important part in our thought processes. It’s what allows us to see tactics, ideas, plans, threats etc. Very little of that comes from our conscious reasoning. Indeed, they have been some recent chess books on this very subject, arguing that good moves are just good moves and the numerous principles and guidelines discussed at length in publications only really give us a language to discuss ideas rather than being the source from which they spring. Nonetheless, many appealing moves and ideas that come to mind straight away are not always such a dead cert as we think. They need to be vetted with careful calculation to ensure there are no overlooked defensive resources, counter-play or even blunders. It’s becoming ever more apparent to me that carefulness and thoroughness are key components to key play, but often one’s own instincts often rail against it especially when that blunder looks “obviously winning” or when tiredness begins to set in. Discipline is required for consistently good play.
The lure of fatalism
Building on the last point, the temptation to be lazy and take shortcuts is even stronger when you are under pressure. It’s too easy to think, “What’s the point? I’m going to lose anyway”. In round 4 of the Bristol Congress, I made a mistake in the opening which meant I was immediately under pressure, and probably losing against a strong player. I had to constantly fight the temptation to play quickly as all seemed lost. After a few moves, the situation seemed to get a little better, but there was that nagging feeling that I would dig myself mostly out of the hole, only to find that there would be that persistent and ultimately winning edge for my opponent at the end. I really had to force myself to keep analysing thoroughly and not to give into the idea that all was lost. By the time we got to a rook and pawn endgame, I even had winning chances, perhaps if I was able to restore my confidence, I may have made something of them. Still, I got a draw where a less disciplined version of myself may well have gone down in flames.
The reverse situation can be true of course. Just because you’re ahead by a big margin, it doesn’t mean you can’t throw it all away. In a recent 30-minute game I was an exchange and four pawns up and looking good, but I overlooked a tactic and was almost losing if it weren’t for a cunning counter sacrifice. Afterward, my coach told me to never relax until “the clock is stopped, and scorecards are signed by both the players”.
I found it was easy to fritter time away pondering which general principles take priority in a position instead of calculating. I caught myself in this sort of chess daydream more than once and made myself get back to calculating out the various possibilities that I was considering. Of course, these considerations can be helpful, but only really as a precursor to looking at the concrete realities of the position. Also, it’s better to do most of this thinking whilst it’s your opponent’s turn when you can’t be 100% sure what position you be presented with on your turn.
Know how to end the conversation
Sometimes ending a conversation can be awkward if you need to leave but your interlocutor shows no signs of stopping and doesn’t pick up on your subtle hints that things should be brought to a close. Likewise, when you feel you have thought long enough and that you need to make a decision, it can be tricky bringing that internal dialog to a successful conclusion. It can’t drag on, but equally an abrupt ending can have disastrous consequences. It’s too easy to go with what you were considering last rather than to properly compare the various options. This is especially bad when you spend a long time on one more or moves, decide that you don’t like them and then quickly play another move that you’ve not properly investigated. You may get lucky but there is a high chance of regretting your hasty choice. Simply being aware of this common pitfall and ensuring you find most, or all, of your candidate moves at the start of the process can help alleviate the problem.
All things in moderation
This is one of those beginner chess tips I have heard. But it was mentioned to me in Bristol that it is possible to calculate too much, getting lost in variations and become exhausted from the effort. My personal tendency is to calculate too little, but certainly one needs to be careful and thorough whilst at the same time being aware of the amount of time and energy being spent.
Takeaway chess tips for beginners
We’re all on the lookout for killer chess tips for beginners, but they’re not always easy to hit upon. I hope these ideas and thoughts have been useful or interesting to you, and that you’ve begun to reflect a little on this aspect of your game. This article is not meant to be a comprehensive discussion of the subject, and I’m sure others may have different experiences, ideas and remedies. While many problems are common, we all have to figure out and conquer our own weaknesses in psychology and thought processes. As ever we’d love to hear other people’s thoughts, there is some much to learn from each other and it’s great to know that we are not alone in our struggle to improve.
Castling is one of those special rules where to be a strong player you don’t just need to know how to castle in chess, you need to master how to castle in chess!
Thankfully, castling is not too hard to get to grips with but once you know the basic rules there are a few pointers you need to be aware of.
In this quick guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about castling, answer all the questions that often crop up and give you some exciting examples of games where castling made the difference. And there’s even a quick puzzle to solve to check you’re paying attention.
What is castling in chess?
Castling is one of those special moves in chess that you need to know to play properly. It is the only time you get to move two pieces at the same time and each player is only allowed to castle once, under certain conditions.
The move is crucial, but it is also simple to learn. There are two types:
King-side castling – where the White king goes two spaces to his right, and on the other side of the board the Black king can go two spaces to his left. See this diagram with the kings moving along the red line and the rooks along the green line:
Queen-side castling – similar in that the king moves two spaces but this time the White king goes left and the Black king goes right. See here:
In both cases, the rook jumps over the king and settles next to him. One thing to remember is that if you want to castle you need to pick up the king first – not the rook. This is very important!
The final positions should look like this if White castled queen-side and Black castled king-side:
But in short, if someone asks you how to castle in chess just say it is when the king moves two spaces to his left or to his right and the rook jumps over him and ends up on the other side.
However, as always there are a number of conditions that must be met to make it a legal move or it won’t be allowed and your opponent will say “hang on a minute!” But we will get onto the nitty-gritty a bit later on and answer a few questions first.
Why castle in chess?
Castling is primarily all about getting your king safe because, usually, the move takes your most important piece out of the center of the board and tucks him away behind a wall of pawns.
Games are won and lost by players deciding if and when a player to castle. In fact, when it comes to beginners a very high proportion of games are lost simply because a novice player doesn’t get their king protected. So it pays to castle.
But beware, the timing is crucial – sometimes castling may actually put your king in danger. So, as with everything in chess, be careful.
It is for this reason that while beginners are often taught to castle as soon as they can, you often see experts put off castling until much further into the games.
Let me repeat the point: timing is crucial.
What does castling achieve in chess?
Castling does two things: 1. it creates a safe haven for your king (or should, if you do play it at the right time) and, 2. it develops your rook, bringing it out nearer to the center of the board where it can get into the game.
Castling, therefore, is a very nifty maneuver. But like every move in chess, you have to judge when the right time to play it is.
Here’s a good example of a classic game where castling at the right time was crucial. Scroll through it and see how powerful White’s castling proved:
A quick puzzle – what happens if Black castles here?
In order to be allowed to castle, neither the king nor the rook (on a8) could have moved at any time earlier in the game.
This rarely happens in a regular game as it is generally advisable to castle in the early part of the game. Black checkmates by castling queenside (king to c8 and rook jumps over it to d8).
Here is another example of a real-life game played in London, 1912, in which checkmate by castling could have occurred, but the winner decided to play Kd2 instead:
How to castle in chess – the rules
Remember what we said before about the king moving two spaces to the left or right and the rook jumping over? That is how you make the move on a basic level, but we also said there are a number of rules that apply to make it legal.
Castling can only happen if all of the following conditions are met in a game:
The king has not previously moved;
Your chosen rook has not previously moved;
There must be no pieces between the king and the chosen rook;
The king is not currently in check;
Your king must not pass through a square that is under attack by enemy pieces;
The king must not end up in check.
But the idea of castling – or not, as the case may be – should be on your mind right from the first move. Don’t wait for those conditions to arise out of the opening – work to make them happen if you want to castle. And most of the time you probably will.
Remember for most players at beginner/intermediate levels there are three basic aims you should be trying to achieve in the opening. They are:
Occupy the center
Develop your pieces
Get your king safe/castle
So you can see that understanding castling and when to effect it should be a fundamental part of your training.
OK, I know how to castle in chess – but not when?
Now you know how to castle in chess, your king’s safety should always be on your mind. You should always consider castling if you want a safe king and are able to. However, there are points where it may be a bad idea.
One example of when castling may be a bad idea is if your king is already safe and it is a waste of time and put it off.
The reason for this is that at the start of the game, during the opening, developing your pieces is equally if not more important. It is hard for the opposition to directly threaten your king’s safety early on and if they don’t play any threatening moves then you may feel getting your pieces out and launching your own attack is more important.
In many ways, chess is like a race where you have to get your big guns out quickly if you want to hurt the opposition. Attack is sometimes the best form of defense.
The other consideration to make is whether, as we discussed before, you are putting your king in jeopardy. Opposite-side castling, that’s when one player castles king-side and the other goes queen-side, can often be a bit dodgy. Positions, where that has happened, tend to be very double-edged and benefit one player over the other. If that is you, then great, if not – be wary.
What is the code for castling on the king’s side in standard chess game notation?
A quick and easy answer here: 0-0 is the code for castling on the king’s side in standard chess game notation. And 0-0-0 is the code for castling on the queen’s side in standard chess notation.
When the castle comes crashing down! A famous game to enjoy
In this brilliant game from way back in 1862, the great Adolf Anderssen playing Black shows how to punish White for castling queen-side. White, played by Jakob Rosanes, failed to castle early and then got into trouble as Black’s pieces launched an attack.
On move 14 he castled queen-side (0-0-0 in chess notation) as a way to get his king safe and protect White’s double threat against the b2 pawn and the knight on g1. It didn’t help, scroll through this to see what happens:
Castling FAQs answered
What are the four rules for castling in chess?
We’ve tried to give a fuller explanation above, but the rules of castling are often boiled down to four points so they are easy to remember. Here they are:
The king and the rook may not have moved from their starting squares if you want to castle.
All spaces between the king and the rook must be empty.
The king cannot be in check.
The squares that the king passes over must not be under attack, nor the square where it lands on.
Is castling a good move in chess?
In the right circumstances, yes. Thankfully, those circumstances occur quite often so generally, it is a good move. But watch out! It can be a shocker!
Can you castle out of Checkmate?
No. Remember the golden rules above: you can’t castle through a line of check. Besides, it wouldn’t be checkmate if you could castle out of it, checkmate only occurs when it is the end of the game.
What is the advantage of castling in chess?
King-safety and developing your rook, which gets to pop out into the open and affect the game.
How many times castling can be done in chess?
Each side only gets to castle once in a game.
When was castling added to chess?
Castling was a relatively late addition to this 1,500-year-old game. It was only introduced around the 14th or 15th century and did not develop into its present form until the 17th century.
Can you Castle your queen?
No, don’t be silly. We haven’t mentioned the queen at all in this guide.
Can you castle if you have been in check?
If you have previously been in check, but are no longer, then yes.
What is the advantage of castling in chess?
Usually, it’s getting your king into a nice, safe cubby-hole and getting the rook out to attack.
How many times castling can be done in chess?
In total, twice – once each for Black and White.
Can you castle if Rook is under attack?
Yes, it’s only the king you have to worry about.
When was castling added to chess?
Same answer as above – in the 14th or 15th century.
Why is Castle called Rook?
It is believed to come from the Persian word “rukh”, meaning chariot. There are many theories as to how the present version was arrived at, but one possible explanation is that when the game was imported to Italy, the Persian rokh became the Italian word rocca, meaning fortress.
Can you castle through a knight?
Through a knight’s check? No. Over a knight? No.f
Can you castle on the queen side in chess?
Yes the king can castle both sides. See above for how.
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.
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