Two Systems You Need To Solve Chess Tactics Puzzles

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When it comes to chess tactics, there are two key components. First, there are tactical themes that immediately jump out at us. This is our intuitive puzzle-solving skill at work. Secondly, we have our deeper calculation skills. How far ahead can we think in a given position in order to solve a longer sequence of moves. In this post, we will discuss intuitive chess tactics and how to balance the two systems.

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Chess Tactics – Two Systems

The book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman really got me thinking about how we as chess players process new positions. I think there are really two important systems at play, and it isn’t required to split those into smaller sub-systems to fully understand what’s going into our thought process. I’m going to refer to the two systems as simply intuition and calculation.

Intuition, in my opinion, is the more important of the two systems. In a future ChessGoals survey, I plan to dive deeper into this subject by asking players how often they work on intuition tactics versus calculation tactics. In the chart below, time control is on the x-axis and tactical process is on the y-axis. Time control can also be replaced with time spent per move on the x-axis.

For any instantly played moves, they will be 100% intuition. Most bullet games (~1 minute per side) are played almost completely on intuition. Blitz games are mostly intuition, with a bit of calculation. You can see the trend in this chart below. I believe even at the classical level, the move played could be the intuitive move over 50% of the time!

Chess Tactics Plot
As time increases, so does importance of calculation

This is a very interesting quote from Magnus Carlsen explaining how important intuition is for him.

“Really, chess is mainly about intuition instincts. So when you play classical chess, at least for me, my intuition usually tells me something. It gives me an idea of what I want to play. Then I’ll have plenty of time to verify that and to calculate it in different variations, to see if I’m right. In blitz, we don’t have that luxury.”

— Magnus Carlsen (source)

Another thing to consider is how strong players only become slightly weaker as they move more quickly. Simultaneous exhibitions are a perfect example of this. A simultaneous exhibition (simul) is when one player walks around a room playing numerous boards at one time. The simul-giver is only spending a couple of seconds per move, and the opponents can often spend minutes per move. Typically the simul-giver has a performance rating only a few hundred points below their strength had they been given minutes per move.

By Stefan64 – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2097876

Improving System 1 – Chess Intuition

Now that we have an idea of the two systems, how do we improve our intuition? The best way to improve intuition is to work on solving problems that are easy enough to answer within a couple of seconds. I have two main recommendations.

The first is Chess.com’s Puzzle Rush. On Chess.com, each puzzle has a rating. Puzzle rush takes advantage of this by assigning the player puzzles in rating order so that they become more difficult with time. For intuition training, I recommend using the 3-minute puzzle rush until you find you can solve intuitively for the full three minutes. At this point, you can move on to the 5-minute puzzle rush. Keep working on beating your previous best score and improving your average score over time.

The second recommendation to improve intuition is to use the Woodpecker Method. This was developed by Axel Smith and Hans Tikkanen in their book titled The Woodpecker Method. We reference the Woodpecker Method across the site and many ChessGoals users have mentioned how much they love the system. The overall idea is to keep hammering away at the same set of puzzles, aiming to solve them faster and more accurately with each attempt.

Improving System 2 – Chess Calculation

Jesse wrote a fantastic post on How to Solve Any Tactics Puzzle that goes through a seven-step process to solving puzzles. I recommend you check that out as a first step to improving your chess calculation. For most players, chess calculation can be improved by solving difficult puzzles. This can be using a tactics book, endgame book, or online training tool.

My personal favorite approach is to use a two-pronged Chess.com method. First, work on solving the main tactics puzzles for rating points. Aim to spend up to about three minutes per puzzle, but after that take your best effort to solve it. These puzzles will simulate classical games nicely. The second activity is to go to custom puzzles and select a rating range that is about 300-800 points higher than your current tactics rating. Every so often, try solving one or two of these very difficult puzzles. Warning, my brain hurts after doing this for too long.

Balancing The Systems

I think this is more difficult to improve than the systems themselves. There is a very structured process to building each system independently. Balancing the two systems is complex and artistic in a way. You need to find a smooth state of flow for when to use intuition and when to kick on the calculation skills. Also, when to turn off the calculation and make a decision.

The easiest way to work on this is to review your games for time management while analyzing your own games. Look for critical moments and see if they align with the moves you spent the most time on. If you made an error in a critical position, was more calculation required? Also, check for moves that you spent a lot of time on that were not critical. In those situations, you could perhaps have relied more on your intuition.