Chess Tactics And The Hookah

Chess Tactics And The Hookah

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A Superior Tactician member Mzeekimaro wrote: “I am a big fan of you and your chess books. I am rated 1581 by FIDE. I want to be very good at tactics. What do you recommend I do? I want to be labeled as a superior tactician.”

Dear Mr. Mzeekimaro: Everyone would like to be a superior tactician. However, “wanting” and actually “getting” are two very different things. Though some people toss out long, elegant tactical sequences from birth, others try and try for endless years only to find that they simply don’t have the “tactics gene.”

World champions that were gifted with extraordinary tactical genius were/are (from 1900 to the present): Emanuel Lasker, Alexander Alekhine, Mikhail Tal, and Gary Kasparov (create a database of their games and look through them). Of course, other grandmasters and world champions calculate with outrageous skill, but those four (and perhaps Morphy) had a special “something” that can’t be taught or equaled. They were simply tactical gods.

Though natural talent is needed if you wish to reach pro-levels, hard work can take you a long way. There are myriad computer programs that will test your tactical acumen. Chess Mentor courses are great, and the tactics trainer should be used often. On top of that, there are many wonderful books on tactics.

Some old classics:

Combinations the Heart of Chess by Irving Chernev, Chess Traps, Pitfalls & Swindles by Horowitz and Reinfeld, The Art of the Chess Combination by Eugene Znosko-Borovsky (as a child, I gained 300 rating points after reading this little book), The Art of Attack in Chess by Vukovic, Chess Tactics for Advanced Players by Averbakh, The Art of Sacrifice in Chess by Rudolf Spielmann, and on and on it goes.

More modern books on this subject: 1000 Checkmate Combinations by Henkin, Chess Gems: 1,000 Combinations You Should Know by Igor Sukhin (this is actually a very special book since it not only shows you many of the best combinations throughout history, but how combinations evolved and what was discovered via the book’s timeline), Chess: 5334 Problems, Combinations and Games by Laszlo Polgar, The Magic Tactics of Mikhail Tal by Karsten Muller and Stulze, Chess Tactics from Scratch by Weteschnik, etc.

You can (and should) bolster your tactical study with Kotov’s Think Like a Grandmaster, My Best Games of Chess, 1908-1937 by Alekhine (Russell Enterprises), The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal by Tal, Mikhail Tal’s Best Games 1 – The Magic of Youth and Mikhail Tal’s Best Games 2 – The World Champion by Tibor Karolyi, Tal–Botvinnik 1960 by Tal (a classic), and other game collections by super-attackers like Frank Marshall (Marshall’s Best Games of Chess, also known as My Fifty Years of Chess, is endless fun), Authur Bisguier (The Art of Bisguier: Selected Games 1961-2003 by Bisguier), Alexei Shirov (Fire on Board: Shirov’s Best Games and Fire on Board Part Two: 1997-2004), Rashid Nezhmetdinov (do a study of his games from a database, or pick up a book like Super Nezh: Rashid Nezhmetdinov by Pishkin), and Yeffim Geller (Application of Chess Theory by Geller).

If you really want to reach your goal of “superior tactician” (though I’m not quite sure what that means –- superior to who or what?), use the offerings (mentioned above), read at least 40.382 percent of these books, and create an opening repertoire (an all-gambit repertoire is fun -– it’s not something you will use forever, but it will give you some exciting moments and allow you to make use of all sorts of tactical moments) that will be conducive to tactical opportunities.

Brotherhood of the Hookah member jpd303 asked: “Dear Sensei Silman, perhaps you may be so kind as to grace my query with cosmically enhanced pearls of wisdom, graciously dropped from the hookah-powered space ship that is your brain. How do you get past a plateau of understanding? How do you break through the wall that prevents you from going to the next level? My chess consciousness desires further enlightenment, but it lacks the necessary insights that would allow it to evolve.”

Dear jpd303: The key to chess perfection IS the hookah, and I was shocked that you were wise enough to understand that! Every titled player owns a hookah (Daniel Rensch will be very upset that I’m admitting this…in fact, I might lose my title by putting this in print), but before you brought this up, hookah knowledge was a secret, only known by specially anointed chess initiates. Since you and those reading this article are not chess initiates, I won’t discuss the hookah or its mystical powers. And, if you wish to live a safe, sane life, you would be wise to forget all about it.

However, I am allowed to bestow some pearls of wisdom upon the chess masses, and I’ll do so now. Everyone runs into a chess plateau. Children’s plateaus tend to be very short...a month, three months, six months...and then they leap to a whole other level. That’s why it’s scary to play kids; his rating might be 1200 but after crashing through his short-lived plateau he’s 1700 strength. Then, a couple months later, he’s 1900, and on and on it goes.

There’s no way to know what you’re really facing!

Adults, however, can be stuck on a plateau forever. They reach a certain level and that’s where they stay, sometimes for the rest of their lives. To crash through a “permanent” plateau, you need to make some serious changes. If you don’t, you’ll be stuck. So what are those serious changes?

  • Change your whole opening repertoire so it highlights your weaknesses. For example, if you are a pretty good attacker (playing various sharp lines with 1.e4), switch to 1.d4 or 1.c4 and pick up positional skills. In particular, if you love open positions, play openings that lead to closed positions.
  • If the reverse is true and you tend to have success with quiet, positional openings, try switching to far more dynamic systems. You might find that you lose more games than ever while doing this, but bit by bit you’ll improve in sharp situations and, if you eventually decide to return to more positional lines you’ll discover that you are noticing dynamic possibilities in those “quiet” positions.
  • If you never really cared about the endgame, spend several months doing a deep study of King and pawn and rook endgames. Start from scratch, pick up the basics, and work your way through more and more complex endgame situations. Once you have a firm understanding of various endgames, look at examples from the players that excelled in that area. Capablanca is an easy pick, Akiba Rubinstein was the master of rook endgames, Fischer was the master of bishop endgames, Karpov was the best at milking every drop from bishops of opposite colors, Geza Maroczy was the authority on queen endgames, and Emanuel Lasker was, like Capablanca, an overall endgame god.
  • If you’re simply awful at tactics, follow the advice I gave to Mr. Mzeekimaro.
  • If you don’t know anything about chess history, start to look into the lives of the chess greats. You might find that it captivates you and makes your love of chess burn brighter that it ever did before. Or, you might find that players like Paul Morphy, Joseph Blackburne (nicknamed the Black Death), Johannes Zukertort, Mikhail Chigorin, Wilhelm Steinitz, Emanuel Lasker, Harry Pillsbury, Aron Nimzowitsch, Vera Menchik, Alexander Alekhine, and others strike a personal chord which, as if by magic, shatters that plateau.

The truth is that if you want to escape a long-standing rut, you need to accept that hard work and dedication to the game is the only way out. And that brings up another question: If you’re happy where you’re at, then why bother seeking a higher rating or deeper understanding of the game when you’re already having fun with friends from your club or nightly online battles? And, if you’re not happy, then suck it up and accept that you have a lot of hard work ahead of you.

Oh, and leave that hookah alone. No IM or GM title, no hookah.


The Not-So Mysterious Chess Agenda member nuage_blanc asked: “I’m not sure I understood what the agenda of a chess player can be. Do you mean you have to follow a certain strategy in every game? Also, this would mean that you wouldn’t play according to what the positions needs, but according to what you want the position to need? Indeed, if you play according to an agenda, you want the position to reach some desired structure; you’re not satisfied with the actual position. Anyway I might be wrong on this, since I don’t fully grasp the concept behind 'agenda.' Thanks in advance to anyone who could help me understand this.”

Dear nuage_blanc: My friends often tell me that I overthink things, but I’m not close to your league! The “agenda” is what the board needs. And make no mistake, the board is indeed screaming for you to give it what it needs. Yet, most amateurs do what they want to do, ignoring the poor board and pieces entirely.

At times the agenda is mindlessly obvious, while at other times you will have to dig deep to discover its secrets. Here’s a fairly simple example:


Material is even, but Black is hopelessly lost. What makes this position an easy read is that Black has zero counterplay (terrible minor piece, no files for his rooks; all he can do is wait to die). So, if you’re White, will you be able to hear the board?

Remember: the agenda first, the moves second.



  • White’s rooks need to penetrate into Black’s camp. If you can’t do that, you can’t win the game.
  • White’s knight needs to participate.
  • It’s an endgame, so White’s king needs to show some muscle. 
  • Figure out what the most accessible target is in the enemy camp.

In other words: make sure all your pieces work as a team! An experienced player would see all this in a nanosecond, and in that same nanosecond he would understand that b2-b4 is the thematic move since it opens the a-file for White’s rooks. The target will ultimately be the c7-pawn which (when the a-file is open) can be attacked by Ra7 and, eventually, Nd5.


Since White is in no hurry (once again: Black’s helpless), all he has to do is place his pieces on squares that will ultimately aim at that basic agenda. Thus, White’s knight has two fifth-rank holes he can make use of (f5 and d5) but since the target is c7, d5 stands out as the knight’s correct home.

ONLY NOW DOES THE HUMAN FACTOR SET IT! White has many ways to win (always based on the a-file and the c7-target), so it’s up to you to choose the setup that is, in your eyes, most appealing.

For example, the immediate 1.b4 is very strong: 1...axb4 2.Ra7 Rc8 3.Rb1 followed by 4.Rxb4, 5.Rba4, and then the migration of the knight to d5 will win.

However, many people would prefer to execute Black by rushing the knight into the battle zone: 1.Nf2 Bf8 2.Rda1 Kf7 3.Nd1 (One of many ways to win.) 3...Be7 (The desperate 3...d5 tries to get the dead bishop into the game, but it fails to 4.cxd5 Bc5 5.Nb2 Be7 6.Nd3 followed by an eventual b2-b4 push) 4.Nc3 Kf8 5.Nd5 when b2-b4 will open the “highway” into Black’s camp, with deadly effect.

Personally, I might do things a bit differently. I would want to make sure my king isn’t a slacker by bringing it to the center: 1.Kf1 Ra8 (Another scenario is 1...Bf8 2.Ke2 Ke8 3.Kd3 d5 4.cxd5 Bc5 5.Rd2 Ke7 6.Kc4 Kd6 7.Nf2 Bxf2 8.Rxf2 Ra8 [Trying to create a blockade, but it doesn't work.] 9.Rfa2 Ra7 10.b4 Rha8 11.Ra1 [Zugzwang!] 11...Ke7 12.bxa5 bxa5 [12...Rxa5 13.Rxa5 Rxa5 14.Rxa5 bxa5 15.b6 cxb6 16.Kb5, 1-0] 13.Kc5 Kf7 14.d6 [14.b6 also gets the job done] 14...cxd6+ 15.Kxd6, 1-0) 2.Ke2 Ra7 3.Kd3 Rha8 4.Nf2 (It’s the knight’s turn!) 4…Bf8 5.Rda1 Kf7 6.Nd1 Be7 7.Nc3 Bd8 8.Nd5 Kg7 9.b4 Kf7 10.bxa5 bxa5 (10...Rxa5 11.Rxa5 Rxa5 12.Rxa5 bxa5 13.b6 cxb6 14.c7 Bxc7 15.Nxc7, 1-0) 11.Nb4 Ke8 12.Na6 Ke7 13.Rxa5 Kf7 14.Kc2 (Preparing to give the a1-rook some support.) 14...Kf8 15.Kb2 Kf7 16.Nxc7! Rxa5 17.Nxa8, 1-0.

Once again, the board’s agenda should also be your agenda.

At times, finding the moves that make the agenda a reality is difficult. At other times you have to come up with a series of must-do moves, and at other times the choice of move is purely up the taste of the player.

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