How to Study Tactics

Having spent years teaching and coaching young chess players (and oldsters as well), I’ve had the opportunity to not only see breakthroughs in my students playing but roadblocks as well. This is a great age, technologically speaking, in which to learn the game of chess. There are so many training materials available but this vast array of learning tools can make improvement difficult. While there is no “one size fits all” way in which to teach or learn, the beginning chess player often ends up taking on material that is above his or her skill set. Therefore, I’m going to present a few articles on more streamlined methods to studying an aspect of the game, starting with tactics.

Beginners often confuse tactics and strategy so we’ll define the difference between these two very different terms. Strategy is your plan, the end result you’re aiming for in a given position. When I’ve asked beginners what their strategy is, they’ll respond by saying “to checkmate my opponent, of course!” While this is the overall goal of the game, it’s not a strategy. Strategy is the series of plans you create in order to reach your overall goal, checkmating your opponent. If you were a General leading an army, your goal would be to win the war. To do so, you’d have to have a plan, or series of smaller plans, to reach that goal. I say series of plans because in chess, plans that seem plausible in one position, can become obsolete if the position changes in favor of the opposition. Tactics are the actions you take when implementing your strategies. To win a battle, a General might decide that cutting off the enemy’s supply lines will be the best way to win that particular battle. The actions the General takes, such as bombing the supply line using a specific type of fighter plane, is the tactical play. Tactics are key for the beginner wishing to improve, especially when it comes to younger players! What tactics should the beginner study? Here’s a list of the basics:

Forks
Pins
Skewers
Discovered Attacks
Discovered Checks
Double Checks

These are the absolute basics. There are additional tactics such deflection, the decoy, overloading pieces, etc, but the beginner should first become familiar with the previously listed tactics and only then, move on to more sophisticated tactical ideas. Here’s a brief definition of the tactics you need to study as a beginner. A fork can be employed the by pawns and all pieces, including the King. With a fork, one piece attacks two or more opposition pieces. Since your opponent can only move one piece per turn (except when castling), they’re going to lose whichever piece is left behind. This idea alone should enlighten you as to why forks are so useful. A pin occurs when a piece of lesser value is stuck in front of a piece of greater value and both are on a line (rank, file or diagonal) controlled by an opposition piece. Let’s say, as White, your Queen is on d1, your King-side Knight is on f3 and a Black Bishop is on g4 (with the e2 square being void of any material). If you move the Knight off of f3, the Black Bishop will swoop in and capture the Queen. With a skewer, you have a piece of lesser value stuck in front of a piece of higher value and, when the piece of higher value gets out of the way, you capture the piece stuck behind it on the line of attack (rank, file or diagonal). Pins are Skewers are performed by long distance attackers such as the Bishop, Rook or Queen.

Discovered attacks find one of your pieces in line with an opposition piece, except that one of your other pieces is blocking its line of attack. When you move the blocking piece, the attacking piece behind it is free to assault the opposition piece. A discovered check is similar except you deliver check when unblocking the attacking (or in this casing checking) piece. The double check is the most lethal of checks because two pieces are delivering a check to the opposition King simultaneously and, since you can only move a single pawn or piece per game turn, you cannot simply block both the checks!

Learn these basic tactics because, especially at lower levels of play, tactics can be decisive! The next step to learning tactics is to recognize the typical patterns that lead to tactics. A tactical play doesn’t just magically appear. Of course, with so many possible positions occurring within a single game of chess, the beginner looks at the games of advanced players and wonders just how they made those tactical plays happen. Good chess players know to look for certain patterns, the arrangement of pawns and pieces on the board as well as open lines, and exploit those patterns to employ tactics. Certain patterns or arrangements of the pawns and pieces allow tactics to be introduced. Take a look at the example below:

In the above simplified example, after move three for Black (3…Nf6), White sees a pattern forming, a pattern that allows a later tactical play by white, 5. Ng5. White sees that the Black Knight on f6 prevents the Queen on d8 from controlling the g5 square. Therefore, White moves his Knight to that square, setting up the next move (after Black plays 5…d6), 6. Nxf7. This move allows the Knight to fork the Black Queen and Rook. The point here is that White looked carefully at the board and set up his tactical attack. Because the White Knight on f7 is protected by the Bishop on c4, the Black King cannot capture the forking Knight. Beginners should start their pattern recognition training by looking at the Ranks, Files and Diagonals where pieces like the Bishop, Rook and Queen can employ tactics. It should be noted that the Knight is a powerhouse when it comes to tactics such as forks because you can’t block a Knight’s attack. When looking for patterns to exploit for tactics, always check Ranks, Files and Diagonals and ask yourself, “can I use any of these lines for a tactical play. When looking at a possible line on which to employ a tactic, also ask yourself how easily your target square can be defended. In the case of the above example, the Black King is the only defender of the f7 square and, since there are two attackers, the King cannot actually defend that square!

Tactics don’t appear magically although great chess players can make it seem that way. They require a set up which means a combination (of moves that is). Take a look at the next example:

In the above example, Black has a Queen to White’s Rook which should give Black the advantage. However, White sets up a combination starting with 1. Rb8. Black can either move the King and lose the Queen or capture the Rook with 1…Qxb8. Things look good for Black since he still has his Queen. However, the true intentions of White’s move becomes clear with 2. Nd7+ which forks both Black’s King and Queen. After the Black King moves, 2…Ke8, White snaps off the Black Queen with 3. Nxb8. White has leveled the playing field with a fork. This is a very basic example of a combination. Remember, a combination is a group of moves that sets up the tactical play. No magic trick, just seeing a potential tactical pattern and putting it to good use.

So the key to studying tactics is to first understand the basic types of tactics you can employ, developing pattern recognition and then learning how to develop combinations, a series of moves that create a tactical opportunity. It takes time to develop these skills but it’s well worth the time spent. I highly recommend scattering a bunch of Black pawns and pieces on the chessboard and then randomly placing a White Knight near the board’s center. Then, see if you can find any forks. If you can’t find a fork immediately, make a legal move with the Knight and see if any forks appear. This helps start your pattern recognition abilities. Do the same with the Bishops, Rooks and Queen. The idea is develop your ability to see potential tactical positions. After you move a White piece, play the Black side of the board, looking for opportunities White may have for tactical plays and making moves to avoid them (after all, you need to avoid opposition tactics as well). The point here is to develop your tactical eye. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).