Training tactics is one of the most fun and impactful parts of your chess improvement journey. In this post we are going to go over how to solve any and every problem you may face.
Step 1: Look For Checkmates
A checkmate will always be the correct solution to a puzzle. If you see a checkmate pattern on the board, nothing else matters. You don’t need to consider tactical patterns, material count or anything. A quick tip for solving for tactics is always to search first for a mating attack.
Here, it is white to play. White is down a piece and can re-capture with the b-pawn or the queen. None of this matters, of course, because white has a back rank checkmate with Qe8+. Black can block with the queen on f8, followed by Qxf8#.
Again, white to play. White is up an exchange for two pawns, making the material count equal. Black’s king is trapped, however. 1. Rg6+ Kh5 (only move) with Rh7# to follow- a very forced line. If we instead looked for combinations to win a bishop or pawn, we’d be stuck calculating for a long time before finding the winning checkmate.
Black is down a full queen, which should be an indicator that a checkmate should be found. We must prevent white from getting to the e6 square, where it can escape to safety. The f6 and g6 squares are covered, so Qh3+ forces white’s king backward. The only move is 1.. Kf4 which leads to the aesthetically pleasing g5#.
Each of these problems had material imbalances with plenty of tactical motifs (more on those later) on the board. However, everything was irrelevant with the checkmate available. There is no need to go into deep lines of thinking or analysis in this case. When tactics problems arise with an open or weak king, always look for checkmate attacks first.
Step 2: Evaluate Material Count
After we’ve established there is no checkmate on the board it’s time to start our analysis process. The first step is to evaluate the material. Why? Material count can give us clues into the position. If you are down an entire queen in a position the correct answer is usually to not win a knight. If we are down a rook in a position, it usually isn’t enough to win an exchange (leaving us still a piece down on the board).
Without doing any analysis of the position, take a count of the material in the following positions.
When evaluating the position, focus more on the pieces on board than the pawns. A shortcut here is to use the cancellation technique to equal out material. In the top position you can cancel out all the rooks on board and see easily that black has an extra bishop, rather than counting up the material for each side and subtracting their values.
Step 3: Evaluate Opponent’s Threats
Winning a piece does no good if your queen is hanging. Winning an exchange is bad if your opponent has a checkmate on the board. Your opponent’s threats can be big clues into the heart of the position. Sometimes an opponent piece may be hanging but due to their threats, you need something better or more forcing. Let’s look at a few examples.
White just captured a pawn on d5, but his knight is hanging. We have three recaptures, which all look about equal in value until you see that the Bishop on b4 is not defended. We can’t afford to play an inbetween move, such as Bxd2, because our queen is also under attack.
The only move here is Nxd5, since that also defends the bishop. If the dark squared bishops were off the board, any capture of the knight would suffice, as we would go up a piece. Since we recognized our opponent’s threat, we found that Nxd5 is the only move that capitalizes on white’s blunder.
In this position, black’s knight on a5 is not properly defended. After 1. Rxa5, however, black can insert the move Rxb2, and now our queen is overloaded. If we switch up the move order and play Rxb8 first, this removes black’s threat of taking our rook on b2. We are now free to take the knight on a5.
We must also recognize another threat of our opponent before we play this combination. Our back rank is weak, and at the end of the line 1. Rxb8 Rxb8 2. Rxa5, black has Rb1+. If not for our knight on f3, we would be mated, but we can block with Ne1 and save the day.
Oftentimes, winning a piece or an exchange is not enough. The position will give us indicators that this is the case. When our opponent has a big threat, such as capturing the bishop in the first opinion, winning a rook in the second position (or a checkmate threat, if we couldn’t block black’s backranker mate!), we must look for ways to win material while holding off our opponents threats.
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Step 4: Look for Hanging and Undefended Pieces
Hanging pieces, which can be captured directly with no consequences, and undefended pieces, pieces that have no defenders, are magnets for tactics. The more pieces your opponent has that are undefended, the more opportunities you will have for a double attack or fork (more on those later). Let’s try out some problems.
Let’s apply our steps to this problem so far.
- Look for checkmates
It is clear there are no checkmates in this position, white’s king is very safe.
2. Evaluate material
Using the cancellation technique, we can quickly see that material is equal.
3. Check opponent’s threats
Our opponent has no threats at the moment. All of our pieces and pawns are defended.
4. Check for hanging or undefended pieces.
Since we have not come up with anything high priority that needs immediate attention, we scan the board for undefended pieces. Here we see that white’s knight on c3 is undefended and can simply be captured by our queen.
If we scan the board, we can see that white’s d5 bishop is undefended. How can we exploit this? With a simple double-attack! Qf5+ attacks the bishop and forces black to address the check. Whatever black plays, white can play Qxd5 and win the bishop for free.
In this position, both light squared bishops are undefended. Playing 1. Bxg4 doesn’t help us, because our knight is also not properly defended (3 attackers vs 2 defenders), so we just swap pieces. Instead we must find the move Nf5, attacking the queen with check, and also threatening to win the exchange on d8 if black captures our knight.
Hanging and undefended pieces are magnets for tactics. After going through our first three steps, always look for undefended pieces. This will very likely give you a big indication at what the best move is to play.
Step 5: Look for Tactical Motifs
At the higher levels of tactic training, this is where you’ll spend a lot of your time. Often times you’ll spot a weak piece, an open king, a trapped queen but you need to figure out how to properly exploit it. It’s very difficult to get to this level of tactic problem without first going through the fundamental steps of analyzing a position like we did above.
There are too many motifs to go through in this post, but the chess.com learning tactic trainer lets you sort by all of these and by problem difficulty. This is available through a chess.com premium account. We have a guide on whether a chess.com membership is worth it to help you decide if it is right for you.
I highly recommend using the chess.com tactic trainer in learning mode to really drill these concepts at different difficulty levels to work your way up. We’ll cover just a few motifs here.
Fork/Double Attack (Easy)
This is when two pieces are attacked at the same time.
The move Ng3+ forks the king and queen. Leaving black with an extra knight.
Pins occur when a piece is lined up with a stronger piece and cannot move, due to the stronger piece getting captured.
Here, blacks e5 knight is “pinned” to the queen. If the knight moves away, for example, we would be able to win the queen. Usually we want to continue attacking the pinned piece, rather than capture directly. The best way to exploit this pin is with the move f4. We are now attacking the pinned knight.
If white captures our bishop with 1… Nxd4 we can play the move 2. fxe5. In the resulting position, black’s queen and knight are under attack and there is no way to save both pieces.
A skewer is when you attack a strong piece that must move, revealing an attack on a weaker piece.
This is a pretty complex problem, but one that illustrates the concept well. You can see white’s d2 knight is defended only by the bishop. The move Nh5 forks the queen and bishop, and we can remove the bishop from the d2 knight’s defense. When the queen recaptures (in the problem, white inserts Bxd4 before recapturing the knight, in which case we have to take with the b-pawn, since the d-pawn is pinned), we get the following position:
If you made it this far, fantastic! In this position we have the move Bg5, skewering the queen and the undefended knight on d2. The queen has no squares to go to that defends the knight, and black will emerge up a piece.
Learning and mastering tactical motifs is where a lot of your tactic chops will come from. It is essential to have a good understanding of these motifs in order to improve at chess. The steps that come before this one will give you clues into which type of move you’re looking to make. You may need something very fast and forcing, or something as simple as taking a free piece.
Step 6: Check for the Hail Mary
Some tactical positions look completely helpless. Maybe you’re down substantial material and need a miracle checkmate. If you’re completely stuck your last resort is to look for crazy sacrifices or forcing checks that may lead to a mating attack, even if you aren’t quite sure.
In this position, white is completely lost. Black’s rook is undefended but there is no way to get to it. The only forcing move here is Qb8+, which will eventually lead to a perpetual check. The only way to save this position is to throw up a hail mary check and hope it leads to a perpetual, a checkmate, or some kind of rook fork.
Training tactics is incredibly fun and rewarding. It takes time, patience and hard work to improve and grow your rating. We’ve come up with this system in order to help you take some shortcuts in your journey.
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