Tips for solving tactics problems

Here are a few quick tips for solving chess tactics problems.

  • Always look at checks.
  • Look for loose pieces (pieces that are undefended)
  • Look for ways to create some sort of double attack (attacking two pieces at the same time)
  • Look at the ranks, files and diagonals to see which pieces are lined up with each other, or on the same colors
  • Since it is a tactics puzzle, you know there has to be a good move.  So don’t spend too much effort looking at moves that just develop a piece, or positional type moves.  Look for a kill shot, that gives you at least a pawn’s worth of tangible advantage.
  • A piece by itself on the side of the board will often be part of a trapped piece motif.
  • Asking yourself questions such as “what pieces are pinned?” can be a good way to get your mental juices flowing if you are stuck on a problem.
  • Some tactics problems sets will tell you the theme of the problem, or give you a difficulty rating, which can be helpful.  I personally don’t like to do this in my problems, because I think that just knowing there is a tactic in there is enough help, and in a real game no one will tell you there is a tactic.  But these can be helpful if have a weakness, or area you want to work on.
  • Composed problems tend to be a lot different than positions from real games.  All of the pieces end up being on just the right squares in a lot of composed problems.
  • In positions from real games, the “tactics” can often involve a piece that is just hanging, and capturing it.  The tactics trainer has a lot of problems like this, especially at the lower levels.  Don’t get too clever, and miss moves like this.
  • There tend to be a lot more queen sacrifices in chess tactics problems than in real life. Same with smothered mates, underpromotions, etc. The people on like to joke:

    “When in doubt, sac your queen”

  • If you are really stuck, considering looking at all legal moves.
  • I never spend more than 5 minutes on a tactics problem.  If I can’t figure it out, I look at the answer, and go over the solution a few times in my head, to try and make sure I get it the next time.
  • Going over the same problems over and over again can be really useful, and this is what my tactics hero, Michael de la Maza, recommends.
  • Try to look for patterns in the types of tactics you tend to miss.  I have a hard time with pawn forks for example.  If you get stuck on a problem, you can refer to your mental checklist of problems that you have a hard time seeing.  Work more on these types of problems if possible.
  • Sometimes problems will have oddball answers, like capturing en passant.
  • Long range tactics can sometimes be hard to see.  For example a queen check on a4 that picks up a loose bishop on h4.
  • Look for pieces or pawns that are trying to do 2 things at once, to see if they can be overloaded.  For example a rook that is defending a pawn, and preventing a back rank mate at the same time.
  • Anytime you see a king with all of the pawns in front of him, this is a clue there might be a back rank mate.
  • Many tactics problems involve an attack on the f7 and f2 squares.
  • Bishops on the same file as a rook or queen, and in a place where they can give a check to the king are often some sort of discovery/double attack motif.
  • Knights always move to a different color, but attack the same color they are on.  So if you see a knight on a light square, and enemy pieces on light squares, there is a good chance they can be attacked in on the next move.
  • Sometimes chess problems do contain mistakes, especially in older books.  If you can’t figure it out, put the position into some chess software, and it will give you the best variation in a few seconds.
  • Most chess tactics tend to be rather one sided, but in some you have to consider your opponent’s threats as well, and act accordingly.

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