Tuesday 1 March 2011

Dan Heisman’s Basic Tactics Training

Dan Heisman discusses basic tactics training on his website:


He recommends that:

* All of the problems should be easy enough to eventually be solved on recognition, within reason.  They should also be basic enough to either be single motif, or very easy double motif.  They should be building blocks for more difficult problems.

*  Most of the problems should be to win material not checkmate.  In chess, most games are won by attrition, not checkmates with equal material (what percentage of the games has the reader won with checkmate from a position of even material?).  So a problem set that is 75% or more material wins ("X to play and win") and less than 25% checkmates seems about right.

*  Most of the problems should be from normal looking positions that may occur frequently in games.  No crazy positions; instead lots of problems featuring trapped pieces, removal of the guards, double attacks - normal stuff - not too many queen sacrifices, etc.

He thinks that there are about 2,000 basic tactics patterns, and recommends 7 tactics books that he says together may contain about 97% of these tactical patterns:

Chess Tactics for Students - John Bain
The Chess Tactics Workbook  - Al Woolum
Winning Chess Strategy for Kids - Jeff Coakley
Back to Basics: Tactics - Dan Heisman
The Winning Way - Bruce Pandolfini
Winning Chess Traps - Irving Chernev
Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess - Bobby Fischer

(This begs many questions.  How common and simple do tactics patterns have to be to be included?  How different do two configurations of pieces have to be to count as two patterns rather than just one?  Both the number of tactics patterns and the percentage of them in these books clearly depend on the answers to these questions.  The answers may lie more in statistics than in geometry.  Perhaps a tactics problem counts as both common and simple if most strong players can solve it very quickly.  Perhaps problem B can be held to have a pattern that is not present in problem A if we can find players who can solve problem A very quickly, but who take significantly longer on problem B.)

[See my later article Dan Heisman's 7-10 Basic Tactics Books for further discussion.]

For Bain, Heisman recommends going through the book repeatedly (in any order) until you can solve 85%+ within 10-15 seconds.  He says that typical time limits for each pass are 6 minutes, 3 minutes, 90 sec, 45 sec, 25 sec, 15 sec, and 10 sec for each problem on the 7th pass.  The goal is to recognise the patterns, not just be able to solve the problems.  He says: “You will be amazed how much this helps your chess - I am becoming more convinced that this homework is one of the most profitable you will ever do.”  (This is effectively a mini 7 Circles programme for easy problems, and most of the criticisms that I made in the 7 Circles section apply here too.  The main difficulty is that there is little value in becoming very fast at solving these problems, if that capability is short lived.  It should be possible to fix this problem by using the methods of the Reinfeld Experiment, but there may be some refinements specific to solving simple problems very quickly.)

Heisman advances a very plausible conjecture in one of his early Novice Nook articles:


“I would go so far as to conjecture that more basic the tactical problem, the more beneficial it is to do it multiple times until you can do it quickly, while the more difficult the problem, the relatively less benefit it is to do it over and over.  The reason is that more complex combinations usually consist of many basic tactical motifs, but not vice versa.  And secondly, you see the basic tactics in many combinations throughout most games, while difficult ideas are more complex, and so each one is more unique, and occurs more rarely - in fact, you may never have seen one just like it before - only somewhat similar.”

I had a go at Heisman’s Tactics Quiz:


He says that the purpose of this quiz is to test recognition capability for easy, common tactical problems.  It is a timed test of twelve problems.  Your tactical rating is calculated using the formula:

Tactical Rating = 600 + 150 * Number of Problems Correct – 2 * (Total Time
– 90 seconds)

If you get all twelve right in 90 seconds (an average of 7.5 seconds per problem), you get a Tactical Rating of 2400, which is the maximum for the test.  My Tactical Rating came out at only 1454.  Ouch!  I was in too much of a hurry, and did not check my answers.  I took 4 minutes 23 seconds (22 seconds per problem), but I only got 8 answers right.  On that basis, I appear to be a candidate for simple tactics training.  It makes sense to be really quick (and accurate) with this stuff!

The stated goal for Bain training is to solve 85%+ of the problems within 10-15 seconds.  I take this to be the time limit for each problem individually.  The average time per problem could be more or less, depending on how long you spend on the remaining 15%.  What rating would I get in the Tactics Quiz if I had scored 85% in an average of 10-15 seconds per problem?

85% of 12 problems is 0.85 * 12 problems = 10.2 problems.

For 10 seconds * 12 = 120 seconds:
Tactical Rating = 600 + 150 * 10.2 – 2 * (120 - 90) = 600 + 1530 - 60 = 2070

For 15 seconds x 12 = 180 seconds:
Tactical Rating = 600 + 150 * 10.2 – 2 * (180 -90) = 600 + 1530 - 180 = 2010

We have a simple and bold hypothesis here - that learning to solve the problems in Bain very quickly will improve my chess.  I decided to put it to the test.  Getting a copy of the book delivered at a reasonable price was not easy.  It does not appear to have a British supplier, but I managed to get a second hand copy from a supplier on Amazon (.com) for $1.25 plus $12.49 USPS shipping.  It is not the new 10th Anniversary Edition, but I do not expect that matters too much.  The book arrived in 2 weeks, despite the estimate of 4-6 weeks.  What the more frivolous amongst us would like to know is whether the author’s wife refers to him as "the Bain of my life," but I am afraid that I do not know the answer to that one.


  1. Great post! I'm starting on the same path and just replied on my blog: http://kingandpawn.wordpress.com/2011/03/01/lots-of-easy-tactics/

  2. I am a big fan of Dan Heisman, and found your blog from the Chess Tempo forum. Outstanding work. Thank you!

  3. It is extremally hard to achieve such master result if you are not an (at least) a strong expert at tactics.

    You wrote: "If you get all twelve right in 90 seconds (an average of 7.5 seconds per problem), you get a Tactical Rating of 2400, which is the maximum for the test".

    I wanted to make some fun and see how well I could do. It took me about 90 seconds as one of the task needs closer checking (problem 4). It is nice to think of myself as a master tactician, isn't it? ;) :). I have to admit that I have done this test a few years ago (when DH publishes his tests I solve ALL of them as I like them very much and appreciate their value). However I have not solved this test at least for 1,5-2 years. It looks like I have a good memory, but it is not the best explanation. The problems were quite easy to me as I have used them in my games MANY times and they contain quite basic tactical motifs - at least I have repeated such puzzles many times (when solving chess combinations and tactics).

    And what's the most funny - nowadays I am rated about 1600-1700 at tactics level. When I was younger I have solved many puzzles, but since 2009 this process has been stopped.

  4. On the spaced repetition versus 7 circles/Heisman, do you think what they may be trying to do is reduce memorization but train patterns?

    For example, unlike learning a language you are not trying to memorize a word list, but rather recognize things that look like OTHER words - as they would appear in a game.... Just a thought but love the site and all the work you've done.

  5. The objective is clearly to remember patterns rather than positions. However, it may be that this is better accomplished by training on lots of different positions containing those patterns, rather than repeating the same positions.