The Fastest Way To Improve Your Chess

The Fastest Way To Improve Your Chess

| 121 | Tactics

I bet most of our readers have heard the overused cliche, "Chess is 99% tactics." This catchy phrase underlines the importance of calculation in chess, but is chess really 99% tactics? Well, it depends.

The chess competition between humans and computers was effectively put to rest in the end of the last century after the silicone monsters convincingly beat the world's strongest players. As time passes, the computers' superiority is going to get bigger and bigger as the processors get faster and the playing algorithms get more sophisticated. The sheer power of calculations allows the top engines to give odds to human grandmasters and still beat them! Yes, for computers, chess is 100% calculation, and that's why they are so strong!

The picture is totally different for humans. If you try to emulate a computer and calculate every possible move in a position (and that's what computers do!), you'll quickly get extremely tired and probably lose on time by move 15!

A bit one-sided, don't you think?

So, if we cannot calculate all the possible moves like a computer, then how should we choose the moves and variations to calculate?

There is a very well known episode described by Mikhail Tal in his book. This is what he wrote about his postmortem with the Patriarch [Mikhail Botvinnik] after the ninth game of their world championship match in 1960:

"When I, in rapid-fire succession, began to show Botvinnik the different variations in which Black gets a good game, he said, 'At first, I thought that this position was better for White, but later I found the correct plan: I had to exchange rooks and keep the queens on the board.' At first, such an evaluation of the position seemed to me rather abstract, but when I began to go over the numerous variations, I came to the conclusion that Botvinnik was absolutely correct: In an ending without queens, White's well-shaped pawn chain with the support of the active bishop guarantees him a definite edge. With the queens on the board, Black can count on a strong attack in view of the weakness of g4."

How was Botvinnik able to find a key to the position even though he didn't calculate half of the variations analyzed by Tal? The answer is simple: He had seen this pattern before, and therefore he didn't need to calculate all the variations to see what was going to happen at the end. While I talked about Botvinnik's winning method in a separate article, this little episode convincingly demonstrates the fact that a human ability to recognize typical chess patterns on many occasions is more important than calculations! Therefore, channeling my inner Yogi Berra, I would say that chess is 90% pattern recognition, and the other half is calculations!

We have a wide variety of different chess patterns: tactical motifs, strategic ideas, endgame positions, etc. What should you study? 

While all of the patterns are essential for your chess development, the tactical patterns are obviously more important due to the simple fact that an executed mating combination will end the game instantly, while an executed minority attack will just give you a better position.

Let me demonstrate the idea using a popular tactical motif: the pin.

First, you need to see how it works.

Black cannot recapture the white bishop because the b7-pawn is pinned against the rook on a8,  and therefore, White simply wins a minor piece. There is no point in playing the world champion while down a knight, so Black resigned right away. As you can see, a tactical pattern can finish a game instantly! Yes, even grandmasters sometimes blunder like this in blitz games. Here is another example from a blitz game by Carlsen which is a small preview of the coming world championship match.

The last game illustrates this basic principle: When a piece is pinned and therefore cannot move, try to attack it and win it!

In the cartoons, the pinned person always escapes. Not so in chess!

Simple, right? Now try to play like a grandmaster in the following position where the tactical idea strongly resembles the game Carlsen vs Karjakin:

So, you see how it works. First your ability to recognize a tactical pattern helps you to determine the moves you need to calculate in order to execute the pattern. Only then do you start calculating all the possible ways to attack and defend. Sometimes this doesn't even involve much calculation if you have spotted the tactical idea.

I am sure that everyone understands how important it is for any chess player to be able to recognize and execute typical tactical patterns, but how should you train your ability to spot such patterns?

To train your brain, you'll need the right regimen and workout tools!

Throughout the years I have written a series for entitled Typical Patterns Everyone Should Know. You can find the first article in the series here, but probably the simplest and most comprehensive tactical pattern guide can be found here and here. And of course, the "tactics by theme" feature in Tactics Trainer has thousands of examples designed to test your ability to recognize and execute tactical patterns.

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