Revisiting the Steps Method has encouraged me to think again about the best way to teach tactics. Assuming, of course, that our students have developed excellent chessboard vision and understand the basic principle that (other things being equal) Superior Force Wins.
Steps is very thorough at outlining every possible tactical idea to win material and providing excellent puzzles to reinforce each concept before the students move onto the next idea.
But there’s not so much, at least in the main part of the course, about the actual thinking process. I teach my pupils to look at every check, capture and threat by telling them to use a CCTV to look at the chessboard. The first C stands for Checks, the second C for Captures and the T for Threats. Checks, Captures, Threats and Violent moves, or, if you prefer, for those of you who correct children who ‘kill’ their opponent’s pieces, looking for Checks, Captures and Threats leads to Victory.
I think it was Purdy back in the 1930s who introduced the concept of looking for Checks, Captures and Threats. “Examine moves that smite!”, he said. “A good eye for smites is far more important than a knowledge of strategical principles.”
In the 1970s, Kotov’s book Think Like a Grandmaster was hugely influential. Kotov advised his readers to identify ‘candidate moves’ and form a tree of variations, taking each forcing move in turn and trying to analyse each sequence of checks, captures and threats until quiescence is reached, then assessing the resulting position. As time went on, though, Kotov’s work was criticised by other writers who claimed that this was not really how chess players thought.
Well, perhaps it was how Kotov thought. I certainly found it helpful for improving my play when I first read it 40 years ago, although I usually forget to look at all checks, captures and threats in my own games! My method of teaching tactics uses a similar approach at a much lower level. The Steps Method takes what I think is a slightly different approach, emphasising the different tactical ideas rather than the thought processes you might use. In a sense it’s the same principle as “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for life”. By using CCTV you can in theory solve any tactical position.
Perhaps, at least for some players, learning the thought processes will be more efficient. If you learn, say, Philidor’s Legacy you can remember it and use it yourself, but it won’t help you with any other position. If, on the other hand, you learn to analyse all sequences of checks, captures and threats, you will, in theory, be able to solve very many positions.
There’s a third method, as well, which might be used: intuition. You might well think of someone like Tal in this context. An intuitive player will play a move because it looks right, or even just because it looks interesting, without precise calculation.
Ideally, we need to use a combination of methods when teaching tactics. We need to teach the specific thinking skills – analysing all checks, captures and threats for both players. We need to teach visualisation skills to enable students to look ahead and calculate accurately. (As it happens, the Steps people are developing a new series of workbooks designed to develop this skill.) We need to teach the basic tactical ideas: forks, pins, discovered attacks, deflections and so on, which the Steps course does outstandingly well. We also need to encourage our students to develop intuition, creativity and fantasy, partly by encouraging them to play open games where tactical opportunities will abound: something that is encouraged within the Steps course.