Spotting And Avoiding Tactics

Spotting And Avoiding Tactics

| 28 | Tactics

There are basically three ways a tactic can occur, both for and against you:

  1. The opponent makes a threat for a tactic (or a check or capture), which either can't be met, or can be, but is missed.
  2. There is no existing threat of a tactic, but the player makes an unsafe move, which allows the opponent a tactic.
  3. Due to a zwischenzug or players missing tactics on the previous move, the player to move is presented with a tactic left over from the previous move.

Obviously, a player's "safety" goal is to not create tactics for the opponent, or miss those presented to him. Let's consider in more detail each of the three above, especially from the defensive perspective:

  1. The opponent makes a threat for a tactic which either can't be met, or can be, but is missed.

This first case breaks down into the two sub-cases:

  1. threats that can't be met
  2. threats that can be met, but are not for any reason

In order for you to allow a threat that can't be met, you likely are playing what I have dubbed (and been misquoted) as "hope chess." I have used the term hope chess to describe the situation: "When you create candidate moves and don't consistently check to see if the opponent has a forcing move (check, capture, or threat) in reply and if these could safely be met on your next move."

Hope chess occurs when you fail to consider these dangerous replies by the opponent, the opponent then replies with a check, capture, or threat (the forcing moves) and, instead of having an answer already in mind, on your next move you hope you can meet his check/capture/threat safely.

If you don't look for forcing replies to your moves and the opponent makes a forcing reply and you can meet it, then you are not good, but just lucky. If you can't meet it -- and unstoppable threats are easy to generate -- then you are likely lost, or at least stand to lose material. If you can meet it but don't -- which falls under sub-case 1b -- then you are lucky but not so good (I have called playing too fast when you might be able to meet a forcing move but just give in to it instead as "acquiescing").

So, to avoid this predicament, you need to avoid hope chess and play what I call real chess:

Every time you consider a candidate move, you should ask "If I make this move, what checks, captures, and threats can my opponent make in reply, and if he or she does, how would I meet it?" (Note: real chess is only possible in slow games; in games with time controls, say, faster than 30 minutes per side, it would be virtually impossible for most players to do this for every candidate move on each turn.)

If you can safely meet all those possibilities, then your candidate is safe and should remain a candidate. If you make that move and your opponent does make one of those anticipated moves, you will already know that there is at least one safe way to meet it; however, that safe "fallback" move you can make on your next move is not necessarily your best move and you don't want to make it quickly. Its presence just means your previous move was safe; you still need to make sure your intended reply is as safe as you thought it was and, if so, still look for a better one.

Yes, this all takes time, but that's why good players almost always take all their time in slow games even though they are good at tactics and consistently make safe moves.

But what if your analysis reveals that your opponent can reply to your candidate move with a check, capture, or threat that you cannot meet? Then you likely, but not necessarily, have to reject that candidate move. However, it is entirely possible you are willing to accept the consequences of that situation. To purposely allow the threat and, say, lose a pawn, might be an acceptable sacrifice. For example, take the famous "Poisoned Pawn" variation of the Najdorf Sicilian:


Black threatens 8...Qxb2. If White is not playing book moves, then he or she might have calculated after 7.f4 that if Black plays 7...Qb6, there are ways to save the b-pawn such as 8.Nb3. But White usually purposely allows the threat and plays 8.Qd2, figuring that the time gained when Black plays 8...Qxb2 will be worth the pawn. Thus 8.Qd2 remains a candidate move and, if chosen, becomes a purposeful sacrifice.

An important final note: just because you don't quickly "see" a tactic with your tactical knowledge doesn't mean there isn't one. Tactical study is important and your pattern recognition of potential tactics is extremely useful, but it is not sufficient! 

  1. There is no threat of a tactic, but the player makes an unsafe move which allows the opponent a tactic.

Steinitz wrote that tactics flow from superior positions. And this is true. If both players are making consistently safe moves (this usually occurs when both players are at least 1700) then the one who strategically outplays the opponent is the one who will generate tactics.

But what if the opponent has a superior position but makes an unsafe move? In that case the tactic flows from the blunder, and the formerly inferior position is now the one with the tactic! An example of this was given in the diagram of our previous column (The Pilot) when White played 1.Ne5?

Before that move, White was clearly better but that unsafe move gave Black a tactic to win a pawn, starting with 1...Bxe5.


Since the great majority of players are rated under 1700 in slow chess, many, if not most, of tactics are not generated by superior strategic play, but simply by the opponent making an unsafe move. That doesn't mean that lower-rated players should ignore strategy, but it does mean that subtle strategic study is mostly worthwhile once you learn to consistently make safe moves.

So if your rating is well below 1700, learning to spot unsafe moves by the opponent and learning how avoid making unsafe moves yourself will bear a lot more fruit that learning subtle strategic play.

  1. Due to a zwischenzug or both players missing tactics on the previous move, the player to move is presented with a tactic left over from the previous move.

When two strong players meet, if one makes an unsafe move, the other almost always finds it and takes advantage. It's the rare "double-blunder" when one side makes the unsafe move and the other side fails to capitalize.

Not so in games with lower-rated players. I often see games featuring what might be called a "comedy of errors" where one side makes an unsafe move, the other side misses the chance to capitalize, and the potential for the tactic remains on the board for several moves.

In-between moves, or zwischenzugs, complicate matters. They may delay or even introduce a tactic. Here is a common "I can't be pushed around" zwischenzug, which creates an unsafe situation:


In this case, Black should simply have responded to 4.e5 by moving his knight to a safe square. By playing the "bad" zwischenzug 4...Bb4+? he ended up with two pieces attacked and had to move one. That was creating a tactic with a bad move, as in case #2.

Zwischenzugs can leave previous tactics on the board to carry over to future moves or, as in this case, create the tactic all on their own.

As a final note, when you are looking to see if you have a tactic, you can waste a lot of time if it is impossible for such tactics to exist. I have called the prerequisites for tactics "the seeds of tactical destruction," but other authors have other names. These are negative aspects of a position that tell the opponent that a tactic is possible, but not necessarily there. GM John Nunn has stated that most common seed is unguarded or under-guarded pieces, which in many cases can be considered "loose."

Thus Nunn's dictum is "loose pieces drop off," or LPDO.

Another major seed is geometric patterns that allow forks, double attacks, or skewers, such as an unguarded knight on the same open file as a king; a rook or queen moving to that file might get a double attack or pin. There are many other indications a tactic might exist, such as a weak back rank, exposed king, overworked piece, etc.

Only if one or more of these conditions exist can there be a tactic, so there's no use wasting time looking for a tactic to win material unless such a condition exists. Better to spend some time making sure your move does not create these conditions for the opponent on his next move!

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