Are Tactics The Same As Combinations?

Are Tactics The Same As Combinations?

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member polydiatonic asked:

I’ve been reading a book by GM Soltis called: WHY LASKER MATTERS. In it, Soltis makes the following interesting point:

“What is truly typical of Lasker is that he relied on tactics, not combinations. There’s a difference (Soltis doesn’t say what this difference is!). He pursued his goals with the help of tactics, often just two or three moves deep, in much the same manner as Sammy Reshevsky, Anatoly Karpov, and Peter Leko.”

What’s the difference between tactics and combinations? 

Dear polydiatonic:

This SHOULD be one of the easiest questions I’ve ever gotten, but instead it’s rather complicated. The problem isn’t combinations; they are easy to define and understand. Rather, it’s with tactics, which often get definitions that are confusing and completely unhelpful. Nevertheless, let’s leap into the accepted definitions and then I’ll try to clarify.


This is how the great Emanuel Lasker defined combinations:

“In the rare instances in which the player can detect a variation, or set of variations, which leads to a desirable issue by force, the totality of these variations and their logical connections, their structure, are called a combination.”

Lasker’s definition is a bit ponderous, and also fails to mention the use of a sacrifice.

Here is Botvinnik’s definition:

“A combination is a forced maneuver or maneuvers combined with a sacrifice as a result of which the active side gains an objective advantage.”

The trouble with this definition is that it fails to describe incorrect combinations or combinations that, with best play, don’t change the status quo (in other words, a combination from an equal position might set the opponent some hard problems to solve, but if he plays properly the position would still offer equal chances).

Seirawan and Silman (from the book, WINNING CHESS TACTICS) came up with their own definition:

“A combination is a sacrifice combined with a forced sequence of moves, which exploits specific peculiarities of the position in the hope of attaining a certain goal.”

This definition makes the most sense to me, since it addresses sacrifice, and the possibility of it ending without an advantage.

Grandmaster Averbach, when addressing combinations, said that all combinations are based in some way on a double attack.

Personally, I agree with Averbach, and I’ve often said that a combination can only exist if the opponent’s King is vulnerable in some fashion, if the opponent has various undefended pieces, or if the opponent has pieces that aren’t adequately guarded.

If you notice one or more of these factors on the board, you should look for a combination. If none of these factors exist, then it’s highly doubtful that a combination will appear.

Finally, THE OXFORD COMPANION TO CHESS had this to say about combinations: “Combinations do not come from thin air. Usually a player will first have gained some kind of positional advantage, thus disorganizing the opponent. It is often said that when the advantage is marked the combinations will come of themselves.”

In a nutshell: A combination has tactics (and a sacrifice), but tactics don’t necessarily have anything to do with a combination. So, what exactly are tactics? 


There are a lot of definitions about tactics that are completely useless (and do more to cloud the issue than clarify it).

THE OXFORD COMPANION TO CHESS by Hooper and Whyld, says that tactics are “the means by which the strategic plans are carried out.” They also say that “…most, perhaps all, moves have a tactical ingredient, usually the preparation or prevention of threats.”

While “the means by which the strategic plans are carried out” might seem murky, the second part is quite clear: “…most, perhaps all, moves have a tactical ingredient, usually the preparation or prevention of threats.”

One IM told me that he likes to keep things simple, and thus says tactics are manifested on the board as eight motifs: double attack, pin, skewer, X-Ray, discovered attack, removing the guard, mate and stalemate.

Personally, I view tactics as a mix of all the tactical motifs, plus calculations (awareness) that allows you to know whether attacking an enemy unit is effective, while also knowing whether all enemy attacks are to be taken seriously (meaning you need to prevent the threat) or laughed at (meaning you can ignore it).


As for Soltis’ comment about Lasker depending on tactics, Lasker wasn’t famous for being a combinative genius (of course, he had his shares of great combinations), but he was known as a very deep and quick calculator who was always aware of the hidden dangers in every position. This awareness (tactical mastery) allowed him to safely actualize his strategic concepts (which were often extremely profound), without having to fear any unpleasant surprises. When you mix that skill (tactical awareness) with supreme calculating ability, Capablanca-level endgame skills (Capablanca felt that he and Lasker were about equal in the endgame), perhaps the greatest defensive talent of all time, a mind that could see beyond the norm and create incredibly original situations, and an unshakeable confidence in his own abilities (not a trace of any kind of mental/psychological weaknesses), you can understand why he owned the title of World Champion with an iron fist for a record 27 years.


Our first game contains one of Lasker's most beautiful combinations. It features a tactical operation (14.Nh5) followed by a combination (15.Bxh7+!).

Lasker,Emanuel - Bauer,Johann Hermann [A03], Amsterdam 1889

1.f4 d5 2.e3 Nf6 3.b3 e6 4.Bb2 Be7 5.Bd3 b6 6.Nf3 Bb7 7.Nc3 Nbd7 8.0-0 0-0 9.Ne2 c5 10.Ng3 Qc7 11.Ne5 Nxe5 12.Bxe5 Qc6 13.Qe2 a6 14.Nh5!

A move based on an appreciation of the position's tactical possibilities.


Alternatives also lose:

1) 14...d4 15.Bxf6 Bxf6 16.Qg4 Kh8 (16...e5 17.Be4! Qxe4 18.Nxf6+) 17.Rf3 Rg8 (17...e5 18.Bxh7 Bc8 19.Bf5 Bxf5 20.Qxf5 Qe6 21.Qe4) 18.Bxh7!

2) 14...Ne8 15.Bxg7 Nxg7 16.Qg4 Bf6 17.Nxf6+ Kh8 18.Qh4.

3) 14...Rfd8 15.Nxf6+ Bxf6 16.Bxh7+ Kxh7 17.Qh5+ Kg8 18.Bxf6 gxf6 19.Qh6 and the threat of Rf3 with Rg3+ to follow is decisive.


15.Qxh5 f5 doesn't give White anything. With 15.Bxh7+, White enters the heady (and, at that time, more or less unknown) waters of a double Bishop sacrifice.

15...Kxh7 16.Qxh5+ Kg8 17.Bxg7!! Kxg7 18.Qg4+ Kh7 19.Rf3 e5 20.Rh3+ Qh6 21.Rxh6+ Kxh6 22.Qd7! Bf6 23.Qxb7 Kg7 24.Rf1 Rab8 25.Qd7 Rfd8 26.Qg4+ Kf8 27.fxe5 Bg7 28.e6 Rb7 29.Qg6 f6 30.Rxf6+ Bxf6 31.Qxf6+ Ke8 32.Qh8+ Ke7 33.Qg7+ Kxe6 34.Qxb7 Rd6 35.Qxa6 d4 36.exd4 cxd4 37.h4 d3 38.Qxd3, 1-0.

Next we see a tactical operation (24.Bc5) that targets black's pawn weaknesses and puts Black under serious pressure. 

Lasker,Emanuel - Steinitz,William [C62], World Championship 1894

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 d6 4.Nc3 a6 5.Bc4 Be6 6.Bxe6 fxe6 7.d4 exd4 8.Nxd4 Nxd4 9.Qxd4 Ne7 10.Bg5 Nc6 11.Bxd8 Nxd4 12.0-0-0 Nb5 13.Nxb5 axb5 14.Bxc7 Rxa2 15.Bb6 Be7 16.c3 Kf7 17.Kc2 Rha8 18.Kb3 R2a4 19.f3 R8a6 20.Bd4 g6 21.Rd3 Ke8 22.Rhd1 e5 23.Be3 Kd7 24.Bc5

 A tactical operation that threatens to win the b-pawn by Bb4 followed by Rd5.

24...Ra1 25.R1d2 Ke6 26.Ba3 g5 27.Rd5 Rb6 28.Kb4 g4 29.Ka5 Ra6+ 30.Kxb5 h5?

 Losing. Black had to try 30...Rh1!  

31.Rd1 Rxd1 32.Rxd1 gxf3 33.gxf3 Ra8 34.Kb6 Rg8 35.Kxb7 Rg2 36.h4 Rh2 37.Kc6 Bxh4 38.Rxd6+ Kf7 39.Kd5 Bf6 40.Rd7+ Kg6 41.Ke6 h4 42.Rd1 h3 43.Rg1+ Rg2 44.Rxg2+ hxg2 45.Bc5 Bd8 46.b4 Kg5 47.Kd7 Bf6 48.b5 Kf4 49.b6, 1-0.

The next game features Lasker's usual tactical skills, and a pure intuitive sacrifice, but no combinations (his mistake on move 15 shows that he didn't calculate his sacrifice to the end - he just thought it looked strong, it was fun, and so he played it).

Lasker – Delmonte, Havana 1906 (simultaneous exhibition)

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bd7 5.Nf3 Ne7 6.Bg5 h6 7.Bh4 Bc6 8.Bd3 Nd7 9.Qe2 Bxe4 10.Qxe4 c6

10...g5 11.Bg3 f5 12.Qxe6 f4 13.Bg6 mate. 

11.0-0 Qb6 12.c4 Nf5 13.Qxf5!! exf5 14.Rfe1+ Be7

14...Ne5 15.Rxe5+ Kd7 16.Bxf5+ Kc7 17.Bg3 is crushing.


Typical for a simultaneous exhibition. If it was a tournament game, Lasker would have taken a bit of time and chosen 15.Bxe7! Qa6 16.Bxf5 Nf8 (16...c5 17.Bd6+ Kd8 18.dxc5 is also completely winning for White.) 17.Ba3+ Ne6 18.d5 wins.


15...Kf8 16.Rxd7 g5 17.Ne5 gxh4 18.b4 seems to offer White the better chances since 18...Qxb4?? (18...Rh7 19.a3 a5 [19...Qa6 20.c5 [[20.a4! intending c4-c5.]] 20...Qa4 21.Bxf5 Rg7 22.Rxb7 f6, =] 20.c5 Qa7 21.b5 is a nice illustration of the point of 18.b4.) 19.Rb1 wins.

16.Bxf5 Nf6 17.Rxf7 Re8 18.Rd7+ Kc8 19.Rxg7+ Kd8

19...Kb8 20.Bg3+

20.Bxf6+ Re7 21.Rxe7 Qa6 22.Ne5 Qxc4 23.Rf7+ Ke8 24.Bd7, mate.

Finally, one of the greatest defensive stands of all time … based on Lasker’s amazing ability to create ideas never before seen and on his tactical skills, which allowed him to peer into chess vistas that others were blind to.


This position (now and earlier) has been analyzed by teams of grandmasters and computers, and the mind-numbing complications (starting at move 70) still have many mysteries that have yet to be solved. Black’s an Exchange ahead and his King is going to the kingside where it will eat white’s pawns.

Chess engines say that White is dead lost, and the view of all the grandmasters (Alekhine, Capablanca, Reti, Marshall, Bogoljuboff, Tartakower, Maroczy, etc.) at that 1924 event (who were carefully watching each move, excited by the epic upset that was about to occur) was that White was indeed doomed.

I’ll avoid the usual reams of analysis and instead present the far more personalized account given by Edward Lasker (who was playing Black), from his delightful book, CHESS FOR FUN AND CHESS FOR BLOOD.

88.g7 Ke6 89.g8=Q+ Rxg8 90.Kc4 Rg3

“This is the move I had calculated would win my game after all. The other contestants also believed I had now a fairly easy win as White could not capture my pawn. I remember leaving the room at this stage to stretch a little and was congratulated upon my victory by Bogoljuboff and others who were in the pressroom and told me the story of the game was ready to be released. However, when I returned to the table, a rude shock awaited me.”

91.Na4 Kf5 92.Kb4 Kxf4 93.Nb2!

“I was certainly surprised when I saw this move. Examining the position carefully, I soon realized that I could not cross the sixth rank without exposing the pawn to capture! The first thing I did was to rush back to the pressroom and tell the reporters that they should kill their story. I was afraid they might have already released it, for everyone had been telling them I had an easy win. Then I returned for another analysis of the position. If I could reach d2 with my King by playing him in back of my Rook, I could still win. And I made a last attempt:

93…Ke4 94.Na4 Kd4 95.Nb2 Rf3 96.Na4 Re3 97.Nb2 Ke4 98.Na4 Kf3 99.Ka3

This foils my plan. After 99…Ke2 White would play 100.Kb2 and I could never approach.

99…Ke4 100.Kb4 Kd4 101.Nb2 Rh3 102.Na4 Kd3 103.Kxb3 Kd4+, ½.

“I felt quite discouraged, naturally, at seeing the win slip through my hands after more than thirteen hours of hard struggle. But when the excitement had subsided I came to regard this game as one of my best efforts; and whenever I think of it I smile, remembering the ‘equalizing injustice of chess.’” 

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