Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Learning Chess Tactics

In this post, I present some chess positions that illustrate how being able to solve simple problems faster helps with solving more difficult problems.

Diagram 1 - Black to win

This is one of my favourite positions from Fred Reinfeld’s 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations (#264).  It is a very simple example, three moves, with no sacrifices. The underlying motifs are elementary, but the solution is not easy to see: 1...Bxh3 Kxh3 2.Qg1 and Black wins the B or N.  We have three motifs here:  line clearance, removal of the guard and double attack.

Diagram 2 - White to win

This position from Al Woolum’s Chess Tactics Workbook looks suspiciously like a simplified version of the previous example.  Here you just have to spot the queen fork on g8.  There is, however, also the easier to see queen fork on d6, which wins just a pawn. Woolum gives the d6 fork as an alternative solution, but it is really a false trail.  If you do not see the fork on g8 very quickly, you have very little chance of solving the previous example over the board.  However, if you spot the queen fork almost instantly, you should find the solution to the previous example.  You should certainly always look at all your captures, and your opponent’s captures in response.  You then just have to see that the g file has opened, and that target square for the queen and the knight have both lost their defence.  Bingo!

Diagram 3 - Black to win

I believe that this example comes from CT-ART.  It is very simple, but again tricky to see. The important things to note are that the White queen is defending c2 against a knight fork, and the White N on e4 is loose.  1...Qd5 attacks both the defender of c2 and the loose knight.  At first sight, it looks as though White can neutralize both threats by exchanging queens, but the recapture exd5 hits the loose knight, and the defence has gone from c2.  In his book Understanding Chess Tactics, Martin Weteschnik calls an exchange which replaces one attacking piece by another a reloader.  The replacement of the Black queen by the Black pawn as the attacker of the White knight is an example of a reloader.

Diagram 4 - Black to win

Here is a simpler example which forms the conclusion of a famous Tal combination (Tal - Evans Amsterdam 1964).  The full combination is discussed in Weteschnik’s book.  The important thing to note here is that the White queen is defending the White rook against the attack by the Black rook.  Black plays 1...Qf6+ forking the White queen and king. Again, at first sight, it again looks as though White can neutralize the double attack by exchanging queens and pick up Black’s hanging rook.  However, as in the previous example, the recapturing pawn reloads, rechecking the king and gaining the tempo Black needs to capture the now hanging White rook.  This example is very similar to the previous one.  We can say that they both have the same underlying pattern  If you can solve one of these problems very quickly, you should be able to solve the other quickly.

Diagram 5 - Black to win

Here is another of Weteschnik’s examples (Bellon Lopez - S.Garcia, Cienfuegos 1976). Black plays 1...Rg2.  If the White king takes the rook, the Black knight forks king and queen.  Otherwise, 2...Nf4# is threatened and White can defend against this threat only by giving up his queen for the knight.  How do you spot this one?  Lots of practice with problems where you leave pieces hanging, and lots of practice with rook and knight side file mates is going to help.  If you are playing a slow time limit game, it is always a good idea to make a quick check of all your alternative moves, no matter how silly they look.  If you do that, and you can spot the rook and knight mate almost instantly, you should find the solution.  (It is also a good idea to make a quick check of all your opponent’s replies before making your move, which should stop you falling down this particular hole!)

Diagram 6 - Black to win

Here is an example from Dan Heisman’s Back to Basics: Tactics.  In the previous example, we were able to leave a rook hanging because of a knight fork.  Here we can leave a knight hanging because of a discovered attack.  Black plays 1...Ne5.  White cannot take the knight on d4 because of 2...Nxf3+, and has to leave the defence of the pawn on c4.

Diagram 7  - White to win

Here is another example from Heisman’s book.  The Black bishop and h7 pawn are both attacked, but if White takes either, he looses his knight.  There is a simple solution: defend the knight with 1.h4.  We now have a double attack on the bishop and are threatening another rook and knight side file mate.  This is a very nice example of a defensive move creating a double attack.  Even simple examples have a lot to teach!

Diagram 8  - White to win

My final example is the spectacular conclusion of another problem in Reinfeld’s book (#407).  The solution to the position above is very simple, but not easy to see from several moves earlier.  White plays 1.Rb7+ Kxb7 (other moves drop the queen).  He follows this up with 2.Bc8+, which is double check, so the king must move.  If Black takes the bishop, he cuts off the defence of the queen, if he does not, the bishop cuts off the defence of the queen!  If you cannot spot the solution quickly from the diagram above, you have very little chance of solving the problem in Reinfeld’s book!


  1. Automatization has been seen as central to skill acquisition ever since Bryan and Harter (1899) claimed
    that higher level habits cannot be acquired unless lower level habits had been automated.

    I send you that link to make your blog-live a little harder... ;-)

    This paper shows some drawbacks of learning.
    If you learn a pattern, it becomes difficult to see an other pattern.

    Some other nasty factors:
    You will learn wrong things/habbits/pattern too,
    ( not everything you do while learning is 100% ok), they need to get "unlearned"

    And we forget.


  2. The ability to spot simple tactics quickly (and automatically) is clearly necessary for a strong chess player, but not is sufficient by itself to make you strong tactical player, let alone a strong player. However, it makes sense to learn to walk before you run, and learn as many lessons as possible in as simple a context as possible. Speed training from a diagrammed position has the disadvantage that you have to home in very quickly on the likely solution. You do not have time to study the position properly, or consider all the possibilities, and this can introduce bad habits. It makes sense to do thoroughness training as well.

  3. I just discovered this blog, and it's very interesting. I've been using spaced repetition to memorize my openings, and recently started adding problems as well, albeit on the other side of the tactical spectrum (I'm entering the problems from Hellsten's Mastering Chess Strategy in an attempt to internalize the lessons taught there). This blog is making a good case for adding a raft of simple tactical problems as well!

    Some errata for your post, while I'm here:

    Diagram 3 - all references to f2 should be c2.
    Diagram 4 - 1...Qf5+ should be 1...Qf6+.
    Diagram 7 - 1...h4 should be 1.h4.
    And, more trivially, all references to Heasman should be Heisman.

  4. Thank you very much for that. I have fixed the errors.

  5. I found the article unique and mind blowing!

    I will be happy to read more articles like this.
    Best wishes
    A. Weiler

  6. Thank you for sharing valuable information. Nice post. I enjoyed reading this post. The whole blog is very nice found some good stuff and good information here Thanks..Also visit my page chess training .

  7. Thank you for that. I had a look at your site. I like the PDF reader with the Alpha font. where did you find it?

  8. I will comment my approach to the problems presented in diagrams:

    1) I immediately have seen 1...Bxh3 2.Kxh3 Qg3+ "winning" the (f2) rook, but hey! What is doing this nasty knight at the corner?! I had great difficulty to spot the double attack at the LAST row and with this ridiculous placed knight! At practical game I would miss it without any doubt! And not because I do not know the motifs, but because of the rarity of setting!

    2) After reading the discussion before - I was SHOCKED when I saw the diagram "colour reversed". This time it "popped up" on me - I had no time to see any other motifs not "killer moves". And honestly I did not spot Qd6+ idea (winning a pawn).

    3) At first this position looked suspicious to me, but when I checked out that f5 idea did nor work... I decided to find undefended pieces and attack them. And voila! I know this motif, but it is very rare to me. And now thanks very much to introducing your new concept "reloader"! Even if is not a chess motif 'per se' - I like the concept's name very much. I hope I will use it more often when solving puzzles.

    4) This TYPE of position reminds me the double pinning position. I am really sure I would solve it. And a moment before I wanted to see "some shots" - the Qf6+ idea "popped up" on me again! Of course the concept of reloader helped me at this process very much!

    5) I know this position as it was one of the most difficult as I have ever solved! I remember that after many trials I finally gave up. What I have discovered at solution was "ridiculous" Rg2?! And I think now I am less prone to miss such moves (but not that I know them very well)

    6) I had quite tough time to solve it. I tried Ne2+ first, but after QxN, BxN Ra1-c1... I have not spot any advantage. As I have solved similar type of clearing the files (especially diagonals) - I KNEW it had to be connected with dark square bishop. And finally after 2 minutes of hard work I found Ne5 move!

    7) Quite hard nut! Not because I do not know the N+R mating idea (after 1.h4 to defend it). As I have solved it in a haphazard way - I tested if 1. Rxh7+ Kxg5 2.Rf1 (with the following h4 mate) idea works. This one I could not solve. After I read the explanation... I was quite shocked as I tested 1.h4, but rejected it. The most funny was to discover "the Bb7 is attacked, but not protected".

    8) I knew this kind of position. When I have been solving many "double check" puzzles - it was (exactly?!) the same type of position. However before I knew the concept of double attack to set up double check idea... I was struggling quite hard. Now it is not that difficult to me.

    BTW. I spot one small typo "Daigram 7" instead of "Diagram 7". Thanks for great post!

    1. Thank you for that. In Diagram 1, 2...Qg3+ would lose to 3.Nxg3. The Q fork on g1 certainly is hard to spot.