How to improve your tactics!?
I think this is a question that most chessplayers wonder about, but it is quite complex since there is no miracle method that works for everyone. The truth is that different things work for different people and different ages. As a grandmaster and chess trainer with more than 20 years playing experience, I have accumulated a lot of knowledge, tips and techniques that I would like to share with readers of this column.
- 1.Improve your Pattern Recognition
To be able to quickly spot tactics and combinational themes the brain needs to be aware of the various tactical motifs. Fortunately these chess motifs are limited in number, even though the individual combinations may have different characteristics and subtleties. I remember that Dutch Grandmaster Jan Timman once told me that there was not a single tactical motif that he had not seen before, which effectively means they can all be learned.
The first thing to do is to gain a working knowledge of all tactical motifs, or at least the majority of them, and then just get out there and practice!
The more you practice, the quicker your brain will become when it comes to spotting potential tactical motifs and carrying them out in a real game.
Then use either chess.com or the books Test your Chess IQ and Forcing Chess Moves where the tactical motifs are clearly explained one by one, as this is information your brain needs to process in order to improve your pattern recognition.
- 2.Look at the forcing moves
In his excellent book Forcing Chess Moves the American specialist in brain functionality, Charles Hertan, explains the methodology of why forcing moves should always be examined first in a position. Forcing moves are:
The logic behind the need to look for forcing moves is quite clear, since if these work your opponent will have almost no choice but to play specific moves - which is usually what you want! Thus if you have found a winning line based on forced moves your opponent will not be able to avoid it.
When using this method in training or tournament play, it is important that you consider all legal checks, captures and threats, since often the best moves are the ones that at first sight look ridiculous, like putting your queen en prise. It is also important that you use the same method when you are considering possible moves of your opponent.
The website Chess Tempo is an excellent online training tool that I can recommend. It is free of charge and gives the user the possibility to solve tactics and problems. I particularly recommend the tactics function where you will be served with random tactical problems, which makes it more like a real game compared to a dedicated book where combinations for solving are sorted into specific themes.
It is also possible to monitor your progress through stats, so you can see how your tactical rating increases and decreases according to your results.
In fact the more correct solutions you have, the harder the tactical problems you will have to solve. I recommend you make a regular visit to Chess Tempo for at least 30 minutes per day and if you can do more than that then it can only be to your advantage.
- 3.Play Rocket chess
Have you ever heard about or played rocket chess? Well, if not, then you have missed out! Rocket chess is like normal chess and with the same objective of delivering checkmate, but with one different rule: each side is allowed to move twice on each turn instead of once. The only exception to this rule is when there is a check, when the turn automatically goes over to the opponent. Thus it is not possible to put yourself in check on the first move and then use the second move to escape the check.
This chess discipline improves your ability to plan your moves ahead as well as to develop your calculation and visualization skills, since you need to be able to calculate more moves ahead than in normal chess. It will also give you a greater awareness of your opponent’s plans, since if you do not pay attention to these properly you will be at serious risk of quickly losing your queen!
- 4.Study endgames to improve linear calculation
Being a good endgame player requires good calculation skills, since frequently it is all about determining which side will win the pawn race and promote first. Thus good endgame books like Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual are excellent for training in linear calculation.
- 5.If it gets blurry, use the start–stop technique!
Have you ever tried to calculate a variation but suddenly the position fades from your mind and you cannot see clearly where the pieces are positioned. Don’t worry, this happens to all players and just means that you have hit your calculation horizon and need to carry out further training in calculation. However, I have good news for you: there is a technique to expand your horizon which works very well for most players. It is to use the start–stop technique, which means that if your horizon is to see 3 moves ahead, you calculate those 3 moves and then stop to visualize and verify mentally where the pieces are positioned. Then from that platform you continue to calculate another 3 moves ahead. In this way you will be able to double your horizon from 3 to 6 moves!
- 6.Read the right books!
It is always very important to read good books on specific topics and as mentioned above I consider it a must for every serious club player to read Charles Hertan’s book Forcing Chess Moves where he teaches his method on how to learn from computers and use forcing moves. Another good book for learning linear calculation is Mark Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual which contains tons of endgame positions where you might even have to calculate linear variations up to 20–30 moves ahead - all of which is good practice.
The last book I want to recommend is Test your Chess IQ by August Livshitz which in fact is a series of three volumes, graded from club to grandmaster level, where each combinational theme (forks, pins, etc.) is explained and handled separately. This is a very effective structured and pedagogic way to improve your pattern recognition and calculation skills.
- 7.The decisive move is often a quiet move
Being aware of this little–known fact is very important. It is not unusual for chess players to feel that there is a combination in the position but they just cannot get the variations together, since all the time something is missing. So, next time this happens, continue your analysis and try to find a little quiet move that may put your opponent into zugzwang, give your king a flight square or cut off an escape route for your opponent’s king, etc.
- 8.If the combination does not work, reverse the move order!
This is another simple but very useful piece of advice of what to do when you feel that there is the possibility of some combination but just cannot get the lines to work. Check to see if there would be any positive change to your intended combination if you first “exchange those pawns”, “delay that check” and so on.
- 9.Get it all together in a real game
This is probably the most difficult part of the process but also the most rewarding. To be an effective tactician you need to take into account all the above advice (apart from the book reading and rocket chess if you do not want to get suspended for cheating!) and make sure that you focus on the right tactics in any particular position. Using the forcing moves technique is very useful and I can highly recommend that.
This article is based on my webinar on tactical training. If you would like to know more about tactical training or chess training in general than visit my webpage pontus–carlsson.com and join my webinars!
Now get busy and start your tactical training!
Read more in American Chess Magazine.
Pontus Carlsson is a Swedish grandmaster, living and working as an economist in Prague, Czech Republic. He has played for the Swedish national team in several Chess Olympiads and European Championships. Fluent in several languages, Pontus names as his idols the following personalities – on the chess board Kasparov, off the board Nelson Mandela, on the soccer field Ronaldinho. He has been nine times Swedish Team Champion, twice Swedish Junior Champion, Nordic Junior Champion, Swedish Individual Champion, and winner of many international tournaments such as Soller GM, Vitoria Open, Open Balatonlelle, Swedish Easter Open, Pankrac Cup...