Tips for beginners: spice up your tactics!


"The pleasure of a chess combination lies in the feeling that a human mind is behind the game, dominating the inanimate pieces with which the game is carried on, and giving them the breath of life." Richard Réti

As you may guess from the title of this article or from the beautiful quote you have just read, today we are going to talk about the marvelous world of chess tactics. If you are familiar with chess, you surely know what a tactic is, despite not being able to put it into words. It is not an easy task at all, but we will help you out: a tactic is a sequence of moves, often forced, that limits your opponent’s options and that may result in a positional or material advantage.

Tactical combinations come in all shapes and sizes, and appear, at times, in the most unexpected moments or ways. That is the reason why it can be said that chess is art - some of these combinations and the tactical themes that are subjacent to them are truly beautiful and moving.

Any chess player, no matter how strong or experienced, appreciates the beauty of a combination and takes joy in being its author. 

In this article, we are going to discuss how to take your chess to the next level by training your mind to identify tactical patterns. There will be a lot of practical training, so buckle up and grab your chessboard so that we can get started!

Before we start, let’s warm up our brain with a little problem.

Black to play and mate in two. Solutions are at the end of the article.

When you were looking at the above position, what was going on in your brain? Obviously, this highly depends on your strength as a chess player, but, most likely, you looked at the position and tried to identify things that are familiar to you. That could start by counting the pieces on the board and trying to understand the material balance, or by looking at the pawn structure and comparing it with any of your previous games. Or, as is likely if you have already trained your brain with chess tactics, the first thing you noticed was how vulnerable the White King is

Knowing that the White King is vulnerable and that you must forcefully checkmate in two moves with the Black pieces, it is only natural that the next step was to consider any checks available.

All of this goes on in your brain automatically, without you even realizing the amount of information you are simultaneously processing. This explains our first and most important tip in which concerns training chess tactics: identifying patterns.

To explain this, here is one more chess problem.

Black to play and win.

At this point, you are much more aware of your thought process and trying to consciously identify what is going on in the above position.

If you have taken your time to analyze the position carefully and came to the right conclusion, try to look at the next position right away.

Black to play and win.

If you have dedicated yourself to the previous problem and solved it, the solution for this one will come before your eyes in a matter of seconds: and that’s what we call identifying patterns.

For these two positions, the winning theme is extremely similar, and once you have seen it on the first problem, your brain will quickly recognize it on the second one, and you will arrive to the solution much faster.

If you think about solving tactical exercises frequently and as a long-term project, you will realize that you will come across many patterns in those exercises. Your brain will start identifying them much quicker, and you will have a trained eye to find them in your own games.

Surely, the last two positions were extremely similar, although they came from two independent and completely different games. The pieces were similarly placed and Black was to play in both - which helps our brain identify the pattern even quicker.

However, tactical themes can, of course, happen with colors reversed, and in less straightforward ways. Let’s take a look at another position to exemplify this.

Black to play and win.

Before we say anything else, let’s present its “twin problem”. You can try to solve them both at the same time, or look at them comparatively to find similarities - although, we must warn you, they are not as obvious as the previous examples.

 White to play and win.

As you can see, colors are reversed and the position isn’t similar in any way. It may be hard to believe it before you calculate the solution, but these positions do have something in common: their tactical ideas

Once you start solving tactical exercises, which is obviously an exciting activity to any chess aficionado, your brain will start trying to see tactical ideas everywhere: you will dream of beautiful combinations and desperately try to find them in all of your games.

This is something to be aware of. Take a look at the following position - this time, there is no solution to calculate.

White to play.

If you have correctly solved the last two problems, there will definitely be something that catches your eye in this position. However, all of the tactical ideas that are crossing your mind right now are completely unjustified in this position.

One of the skills that any great tactician has is to understand when to start calculating, and when to abstain from doing so. In this position, White has a great advantage: he is a pawn up and has a much better position, with the more active pieces and Black’s King being in a vulnerable position. 

Simple moves like 1.Rad1 or 1.Rfe1 (click here if you don't know how to read this notation) would easily win the game for White due to the many threats of discovered attacks with the Knight or penetrating the seventh rank with the Rook. But, as you will find out at the end of the article, this is not what happened in the game.

Despite having to control the impulse to look out for tactical ideas to play all the time, there is no such thing as solving too many exercises - it is a great workout for your brain. Similarly to your body, the more you train it, the “fitter” it will be, and this has benefits outside the scope of chess itself. You may find yourself tackling problems in your everyday life with a lot more ease and quickness.

If all of this has made you want to train your brain, don’t refrain from doing so! Here are our best tips to solve tactical exercises:

  • If you are using a book, make sure to set up the position in your actual chessboard. This will make the situation more similar to an actual on-the-board game;
  • Try not to move the pieces while you are calculating - this also emulates a real situation in which you must find the continuation without touching the pieces;
  • Write down your solution with as many variations as possible - always watch out for possible defensive ideas you may not be considering;
  • If you are more of a digital person, many chess websites nowadays have tactical trainers - some of them are free, like lichess.org or ChessTempo. Others are limited and may be subject to a membership, such as chess.com or chess24. These websites will assign you a tactical rating. This is great because it not only means that you can track your progress, but also because you will find problems that are adequate for your level.

Why not start by applying those tips to a few problems? Here are five more for you. Write down your solutions and let us know in the comments - no peeking!

White to play and win.

Black to play and win.

White to play and mate in two.

Black to play and win.

White to play and win.

Remember that, no matter how interesting and beautiful tactics are, there is a whole world to explore in chess: check out our first article in the beginners series if you want to learn more about openings, and stay tuned for many others to come!

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Solutions to problems

  1. Black to play: 1...Ba4+ 2.Kc2 Bc2#
  2. Black to play: 1...Qd3 -+
  3. Black to play: 1...Qe4 -+
  4. Black to play: 1...Qxd4 2.Qxd4 Nxf3+ -+
  5. White to play: 1.Qxh8+ Kxh8 2. Nxf7+ +-
  6. White to play: White was winning with many moves, such as 1.Rad1 or 1.Rfe1. The blitz game went: 1.Qxh5? gxh5 2. Nf6+ with only a very slight advantage for White.
  7. White to play: 1.Nh6+ +-
  8. Black to play: 1...Rxd5 2.cxd5 Bxd5+ 3.Qxd5 Qxd5+ 4. Rf3 Qxf3# (or 2...Qxd5+ 3.Qxd5 Bxd5 4.Rf3 Bxf3#)
  9. White to play: 1.Ne8+ Rxe8 2.Rxd7#
  10. Black to play: 1...Ba6 -+
  11. White to play: 1.Bxf7+ Kxf7 2.Rxd8 +-

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