Building Your Tactical Shield

“A knowledge of tactics is the foundation of positional play.” — Richard Reti

When you play through a game between two masters, you may notice that they blunder less often than you do. Their games flow from strategic idea to strategic idea, occasionally peppered with tactical threats that support those plans. The games are often devoid of the big combinations we are used to solving on our favorite tactics server.

Of course, the reason behind this is that masters are much better at tactics, so they are better at avoiding blunders (although we’re all human). Their tactical ability protects their carefully laid strategic plans. Former World Champions Anatoly Karpov and Tigran Petrosian were known for their positional prowess, but they both had incredible tactical ability as well. This skill didn’t display themselves in the big thematic combinations, but in their ability to parry their opponents’ tactical threats while playing their positional chess.

Reflecting on this reminded me of my study of the Filipino martial arts. In the Filipino martial arts (also known by names Kali, Escrima, and Arnis), training is done with rattan sticks – which are safer to train with than swords. The beauty of the art is that the weapon is both a tool for offense and defense. The same can be said for tactics. They are both used to punish those who blunder as well as avoiding blunders.

Tactics is our sword – and conventional tactics training addresses this aspect fairly well. However, tactics is also our shield. In this article, we’ll discuss how to build your tactical shield.

Limitations of Conventional Tactical Training

In the beginning, it is important to learn the basic tactical motifs such as pins, forks, and discovered attacks. I think studying one of the many good books on the topic is a good start for beginning players. After we are familiar with the basics, solving combinations and checkmate problems is highly beneficial. I discuss more in depth about how to improve your tactics this way in a previous article I’ve written.

Most players understand the importance of tactics, and practice tactics regularly. However, in conversations with fellow players, I often hear a recurring theme: “I train tactics all the time (and do well), but I have a hard time finding tactics in games.”

There are a few limitations to conventional tactics training that help explain this.

  • Most tactical problems are offensive in nature. As mentioned above, we need to use our tactical skill to defend our strategic plans as well as punishing blunders. To use another martial arts analogy, boxers do not learn to defend themselves by practicing their punching only.
  • Most tactical problem solutions end with either a big material advantage or checkmate. However, a majority of the positions in our games start off in a fairly even position – until someone blunders of course.
  • Most tactical problems alert you to the end objective – e.g. mate in three, White to play and win, etc. You will not get such a warning in a game. I should mention here that others have written about how to address this issue – for example, chess author and coach Dan Heisman’s concept of “seeds of tactical destruction” (such as loose pieces, unsafe king, weak back rank, etc.
  • As a corollary to the above point, because you know there is a tactical solution, you think differently than you do in a game – where a tactical solution may not be present.

Solving conventional tactical problems is an essential part of your training, but it isn’t the only way, particularly when you’re trying to build your tactical shield.

Transference of Tactical Skill

In education, an ongoing issue is the transference of skill. This is the ability to apply what is learned in the classroom to real life. In chess, we are looking for the transference of our tactical skill (traditionally demonstrated through our ability to solve tactical problems) to our games.

There are several ways that educators increase the transference of skill.

  • Providing variation in the conditions or practice methods to gradually simulate real life situations. For example, learning basic math operations and then gradually introducing word problems using real life examples.
  • Maximizing the initial learning experience to ensure better understanding of the underlying concepts. “Teaching a man to fish” instead of just giving him the fish.
  • Activating prior knowledge. Using what was learned before to understand new things to be learned, and using new knowledge to further understand old knowledge.
  • Simulations. For example, instead of just talking about what to say in a job interview, practice answering job interview questions.

Get in the Kitchen

My martial arts instructor once told me, “If you want to learn how to cook, you have to spend time in the kitchen.” If you want to develop a broad and effective tactical shield, you need to train the way you play (or want to play). You need to get into the chess kitchen!

Here are a few ways to do this. They are listed roughly from basic to advanced, but feel free to supplement your current tactical training with the ideas in any order.

  • Build a tactical foundation by understanding the basic tactical motifs. Find a good instructional book on tactics and study it if you haven’t already done so.
  • Solve the standard problems on chesstempo.com. These problems are taken from real games and at the higher levels, incorporate the type of calculation we are trying to develop. There are other servers to practice combinations, but I have found the ones on Chess Tempo to be the most useful.
  • Play longer time controls. Although blitz has its usefulness, such as getting a higher volume of games to practice your openings, for this type of development, you need time to properly calculate and plan. Sometimes, the tactic you are protecting against is several moves away in your calculation of variations.
  • When you study master games or solving tactical problems, try to explain the solution or moves in your own words. We are so used to reading variations from chess engine analysis that we gloss over them sometimes, not taking the time to fully comprehend what is going on. If you can’t explain it, you don’t fully understand it.
  • Observe your thought process that you had during your games, particularly at points when you blundered. What moves or variations did you overlook or underestimate? What assumptions did you make that weren’t true? Which of your opponent’s responses did you consider? Store these positions and observations in a database or notebook for future review. Know thyself.
  • Play Solitaire Chess. This is the simulation mentioned above. The key for developing your tactical shield is to note when you make a tactical blunder as well as seeing how the original player navigated any tactical minefields while applying strategic planning to their moves. The annotated games of great tactical players like Garry Kasparov (annotated by the players themselves) provide excellent material toward this purpose.
  • Play against the computer (or stronger player). I am not a big proponent of playing against computer chess engines. However, for the purpose of building your tactical shield one thing is certain – the computer will spot your tactical errors. I recommend setting up positions from your opening repertoire.

By incorporating these methods in your chess schedule, you should see measurable improvement in your in-game tactics over time.

Final Thoughts and Test

The knowledge of tactics are indeed the foundation of chess strategy. I think most players, beginner and master alike, understand and agree with this.

The problem is being able to apply our skills in our games. Using concepts from the field of education, we can use a variety of training methods to practice tactics in situations that will increase our ability to use them in our games.

To conclude this article, I want you to consider the following position. Try to calculate the best moves before looking at the solution, understanding that tactics are not just your sword, but your shield as well. Until next time, good luck and better chess!

Bryan Castro

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About Bryan Castro

Bryan Castro is a businessman and writer from Buffalo, NY. When he's not spending time with his family or working, he can be found playing chess or practicing martial arts. He combines his interests of personal development and chess on his site Better Chess Training (betterchesstraining.com).