Anatomy of a Tactical Puzzle

In a previous article, I discussed the importance of doing tactical puzzles to improve your overall game. Obviously, doing tactical puzzles will greatly improve your tactical abilities. The successful use of tactics can give you a game winning material advantage so it’s important to master them. The best way to improve your tactical abilities is by working through puzzles. However, working through these puzzles or problems will also help you with your board vision, the ability to see the interaction between all the pawns and pieces within a given position on the chessboard. You’ll also learn to accurately count attackers and defenders, an important skill to have if you want to come out ahead in material (pawns and pieces) when exchanges of material take place.

Now we’re going to examine how to approach solving one of these puzzles. The first step is to determine what tactic you should use. Most of the multi move tactical puzzles will not identify a specific tactic, only whose move it is (in other words, who gets to employ the tactic). Of course, you cannot identify the tactic type until you’ve examined the relationship between the pawns and pieces belonging to both players. In short, you have to use board vision. Beginners will often look at a position in terms of what can capture what and who comes out ahead in an exchange of material, only searching for moves that immediately do this. Multi move tactics puzzles require the tactic to be set up so the solution isn’t an immediate capture of material. You need to think about specific tactics, such as forks, pins and skewers,etc. Is there a potential solution using one of these tactics? To answer the Question, examine the position and see if any enemy pieces are lined up along Ranks, Files or Diagonals. Doing this will either provide you some insight regarding the tactic to employ or will eliminate these choices, forcing you to look at other options. Start with these three tactics and work your way through the other common tactics. Let’s say that Forks, Pins and Skewers are not part of the solution. What then? In the following diagram, click on move fifteen for Black.

While the entire game is presented above, tactical puzzles give you a position within a game so you don’t see the moves leading up to that position. Let’s look at the position in our game after Black plays 15…Nxd7. Remember, we’re first trying to determine what kind of tactic we should employ in this position. In this position, we don’t have any opportunities for forks, pins or skewers so we have to consider another idea.. The most forcing tactics involve a check because the check must be dealt with first. Always look at the King you’re trying to attack and note the pieces you could use to do so. In this position, The White Rook on d1 and White Bishop on g5 would both be attacking d8 if it were not for the Black Knight on d7. In fact if the Knight wasn’t there, White could deliver checkmate. This should give you a huge clue as to what tactic to employ.

Now that you’ve determined that we could checkmate the Black King if we could remove the Black Knight from d7, you should think about a tactic specifically designed for this job. The key here is to make a move so forcing that the Black Knight must vacate d7. As I just mentioned, the most forcing moves involve a check to the enemy King. Examine the position carefully and you’ll see that only one piece can check the King and force the Knight off of d7 and that piece is the White Queen. White plays 16. Qb8+ which is an incredibly forcing check because the only way to stop the check is by using the Knight to capture the Queen with 16…Nxb8. White has sacrificed it’s most powerful piece to dislodge the Black Knight from d7. White can and does play 17. Rd8#.

The point of this article is to get you to work through tactical puzzles slowly and methodically. First determine what tactic will work by using your board vision. Next count any potential attacks or defenders of the square you need to execute the tactic on. In our example, we didn’t need to do the count but in many puzzles you have to. Always count attackers and defenders! I work tactical puzzles very slowly. If I think I’ve found a solution too quickly, I double check the position. You’ll improve a lot faster by working tactical puzzles as opposed to simply reading books about tactics. See you next week!

Hugh Patterson

Author: 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).