Chess Problem Solving

One of the best ways a beginner can improve their game is by doing chess puzzles. Of course, there’s no substitute for playing and gaining experience that way, but chess problems are an excellent choice for improvement because they can be done during your down time, even if it’s only five minutes. However, beginners often have trouble when they first start doing basic chess problems, not because the basic problems are difficult but because the beginner doesn’t fully understand what they’re being asked to do.

The first key to solving a chess problem is to fully understand what you’re being asked to do. First determine which color is making the move. With problems found in books, you’ll be told whether it’s white to move or black. With some software programs, they don’t tell you via actual words but using a color indicator, either white or black, on the right or left side of the chessboard. Always start with knowing whose move it is!

There are different types of problems ranging from mates in one, two, three or four, as well as tactical and material gains. Here, you really have to pay attention. With mate in one problems, your job is to find the single move that delivers checkmate. This means you make one move and the game ends. With mate in two, you will be making two moves, the second of which delivers mate. The key to solving this type of problem is to look for pairs of pieces that attack a key square. This square is one adjacent to the enemy King (or near, in the case of a back rank mate). Mate in three and four will eventually involve two pieces but often require an exchange or two to get to the two piece solution. The trick to all chess problems is to look at all your pieces in relation to the opposition King and the opposition’s pieces in relation to your pieces (and King). Only then determine the best course of action. This course of action can only be considered after a close examination of all the material on the board (which helps to develop your board vision). Remember, the key is to take your time even if there’s a clock counting the seconds away, as found on many chess problem software programs and apps. It doesn’t matter if you solve the problem in thirty seconds or thirty minutes. Either way, you’ve solved it.

Then there are the tactical problems which can leave the beginner completely lost. When trying to solve one of these problems, consider the word tactic. In chess this can be a fork, pin, skewer, etc. However, the majority of beginner’s problems will revolve around forks. The first step towards solving the problem is to mentally note that this is a tactical play not a mate in one (unless otherwise noted). This means that you’ll be winning material. Beginner’s tactics usually only require you to make one move that forks the key pieces in the problem. Start by looking at the most popular forking piece, the Knight. The Knight is a powerful piece when it comes to forking because you cannot block a Knight’s attack due to its ability to jump over other pieces. Take a look at the example below:

In our example, White has two Rooks, one on b1 and the other on d1, as well as a Knight on e5. Black has a Queen on a8. White has to use a tactic to win material and ensure an easy victory. It’s White to move. The key here is for White to win material and since the only material to be won is the Queen, that’s the piece we target. This problem requires a fork. First we look at our material, the two Rooks and the Knight. We aim for finding the fastest way in which to accomplish our task. Look at the Knight first. The White Knight could move to d7 and check the King, but that’s a check not a fork. We look at the black Queen on a8 and think “if only the Queen were on b8, then we could fork King and Queen, winning the Queen.” How do we get the Queen onto the b8 square? Take a look at the Rooks, specifically the Rook on b1. If the b1 Rook moved to b8, black would be forced to use the Queen to capture the Rook, allowing the white Knight to then move to d7 forking King and Queen. That’s how you want to think through a puzzle.

Beginner’s tactical puzzles tend to be either one move tactical plays or two move combinations. The two move combinations are much harder because they require setting up the tactical play by making a first move that sets the stage for the tactic. The above example was a combination of moves leading to the tactic, a fork. I highly recommend working through tactical puzzles, starting with the simplest one move tactical problems. These puzzles will help you immensely when it comes to finding tactical positions during your games.

So the the secret to solving chess puzzles is to first understand exactly what is being asked of you. Then you have to methodically analyze the situation or position in this case. This analysis starts with looking at every single pawn and piece belonging to both you and the opposition. See where those pieces can move to and what the results of that move would be (from a tactical standpoint). Just working out problems, even if it takes you hours, will greatly improve your game. Try working through as many chess puzzles and problems as you can and you’ll see a positive difference in your improvement. Here’s a game to enjoy until 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).