The “I Already Know That” Problem

One problem that I often see with the study of chess tactics is what Eben Pagan calls the “I get it mechanism”.

What happens is that a chess player decides that they are going to learn chess, and so they go out and buy a book like “Chess for Dummies” or “The Idiot’s Guide to Chess” (both of which are excellent places to start).

They read about tactical ideas such as

  • the knight fork
  • pin
  • back rank mate
  • etc.

So now they think “I know what a knight fork is!”

And they think they are now ready for more “advanced materials”.

They may even jump all the way to something like “How to Reassess Your Chess”, which is a very popular, and fairly advanced chess book.

Now they think “Wow, now I REALLY know a lot about chess!” 

They then

  • head down to the local chess club,
  • set up their pieces,
  • shake their opponent’s hand,
  • start their clock,
  • start the game armed with all of their new ideas,

and proceed to miss a knight fork on move 14!

And they are quite mad as a result!

What happened here?

After all, they know what a knight fork is.

And knowing is half the battle!

Unfortunately what G.I. Joe didn’t tell you is that the other half of the battle is being able to apply that knowledge!

With Chess Tactics Knowing is only Half the Battle

There is a difference between knowing something, and being able to APPLY that knowledge.

Neurolinguist Programming (NLP) expert Wyatt Woodsmall has an interesting idea:


If your behavior didn’t change, you didn’t learn anything.

Wyatt also has a great quote:

The greatest enemy of learning is the belief that we already know.

The “I get it” mechanism drives us to figure things out, which is very powerful and very important. 

But then, once we get the feeling that we figured it out, we say, “Okay, I get that. Now, I can go on to the next thing.”

When you feel like you get something, but you don’t, that’s when you’re the most in danger.

The challenge with chess tactics is that the basic ideas are fairly simple.  There are only a few basic tactical ideas.  So it is easy for a chess player to think “I know that”. 

But the real power is knowing these ideas inside and out, backwards and forwards.  And then applying the ideas TOGETHER, which really makes them powerful.

For example combining the idea of a pin and a back rank mate threat.

Or combining the idea of a fork and an overloaded piece.

The other challenge is that players think they know these ideas already, but they really do not. 

I remember looking at a game from a friend of mine a few years ago.  He missed a simple knight fork.  I told him that he needed to work on knight forks.  He was resistant to doing this, because he felt he “already knew what a knight fork was”.  I told him that obviously you don’t since you missed it in this game!

When I looked at the game the knight fork just jumped out at me.  I couldn’t NOT see it.  It would have been like if Pamela Anderson was walking down the sidewalk in a white bikini and high heels.  There is no way I could have missed it!

This is the level that you want to get to with your chess tactics. 

You want the chess tactics in your game to just pop out at you!

So remember to resist the urge to always learn something new until you are sure that you are actually implementing the things that you have already learned!  There is a big difference between knowing something at a theoretical level, and being able to implement it.


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