Tactics Training

The use of tactics can give the player who employs them a decisive advantage. While tactics won’t always guarantee a winning game, it will give you potential advantage, materially speaking. Beginners often purchase apps or books with simple tactical problems which is a good way to start their studies. However, those puzzles have the tactic already set up, so all the beginner has to do is spot a single move that delivers the tactical blow. In reality, all tactics are set us using a combination of moves. Creating the combination of move is the really hard part. How does the beginner learn how to do this?

By actually starting with those simple tactical problems in which the tactic is already set up. You have to first learn to recognize tactical patterns before you can consider creating the combinations needed to create a tactical position. Pattern recognition is key to playing good chess. With tactics, certain patterns arise that lead to a tactical exploit. With forks, pins and skewers, you look for enemy pieces lined up on the same rank, file or diagonal. This is the pattern you’re searching for. Doing simple tactics in one move problems, you’ll start to develop an eye for spotting this type of pattern. Do as many of these as you can before moving on to tactics in two move problems. You have to spot a tactical opportunity in order to take advantage of it.

The tactics in two move problems are better that the tactics in one problems because you have to set the tactic up. However, the beginner who has just spent months on the one move problems will have a hard time (at first) because the tactical exploit will require making a move to set it up. To solve these problems, first identify enemy pieces lined up on the same rank, file or diagonal. Next, look for a piece that can deliver the tactic. In two move problems, there’s often an enemy piece stopping you from reaching your goal, getting a piece to the square where it can deliver the tactic. Can you either exchange material to remove the piece or force that piece off of the square its on? What if there’s no enemy pieces line up with one another? Then, the first move in the two move problem has to force the alignment of enemy pieces.

With more complex tactical problems, you have to spend a great deal of time examining the position. Sometimes, you’ll see a move that looks good. However, you’re looking at your pieces and not considering what your opponent can do. Examine the enemy pieces, looking for checks and possible counter forks. If you see that your King can be hit with a nasty check, making sure your potential move is forcing. Also reexamine the enemy pieces around the square your planning on using to set up the tactic to ensure your piece can’t be captured before it delivers it’s tactical blow.

Once you work through enough of these it’s time to start setting up tactical combinations in an actual game. I recommend that beginners start learning how to do this by playing a computer program at a low skill setting. The reasoning for this is simple. Playing programs perform badly at lower levels. This level of poor play will allow you to set up your tactics and see them through. If you try this with a program set at it’s highest level, you’ll never get a single tactic in. Most playing programs are extremely good at tactics and at stopping them so the beginner stands no chance. It should be noted that this low playing level should only be used to develop your combination skills. Eventually you’ll want to increase the level of play as your tactical skills get better.

I highly recommend books of tactical problems. Visually solving problems by playing through the moves in your mind helps develop your calculation skills. With books, you can work on problems while commuting or waiting in line. The best books use positions from real games and often present the tactic within a series of five or six moves. You get to see the full combination (of moves) and learn how to do deeper calculations.

You’ll find that the tactical play of strong tacticians works because their moves are very forcing. A forcing move is one that leaves your opponent little choice in terms of a response. When you limit someone’s reaction, you can force them into making a move that supports your tactical exploit. To create forcing moves you have to come up with the best opposition response to the move your considering. This means playing the position as if you were controlling your opponent’s pieces. Look for any way your opponent can stop or avoid the tactic. If they cannot do so, you have your forcing move. If they can get out of it, it’s time to consider another move.

Becoming a strong tactician is a long journey but a necessary one. You must become good at tactics to play better chess. However, don’t solely rely on tactics to win games. While learning tactics, you should also be studying closed positions. Why? Because you’ll face an opponent who creates positions in which tactic can’t be used. If you only know how to gain an advantage tactically, you’ll flounder in a position in which tactics can’t be used. Remember, the best chess players are well rounded, good at all aspects of the game. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy!

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).