The Queen Of Blunders Takes On Tactics
In the beginning, tactics were a way to waste time.
They were something to do while I was impatient, waiting in line or while water boiled. I had never played chess before, but I had watched my boyfriend play it, and when he noticed my interest, he explained how it worked: the long, lancing reach of the bishops; the wheeling movement of the knights; the relentless progress of the pawns. He showed me how the force fields around the kings kept them from each other, the idiosyncrasies of en passant, and how you could promote a pawn to a queen.
I tried a few tactics. They asked so little of me, only a minute or two. So I downloaded the app.
The app set my initial rating at 1500. Before I knew it, I’d dropped hundreds of points. But I was hooked.
I played while waiting in line and standing in the kitchen, but also in the prime hours of the day, when I should have been working. When I played, I had no sense of time passing. The feeling of getting one right was a hit of satisfaction, and I could never get enough of it; getting one wrong was an inducement to do one more.
I had to start leaving my phone outside the bedroom when I went to sleep, because otherwise I'd wake up in the middle of the night, automatically open the app, and play for hours, only semi-conscious of what I was doing. I sat in the parking lot, forking pieces or entombing my king. I did tactics on Christmas morning while my family opened presents. “We’re worried about you,” my parents said to me. “This seems like an addiction.”
“It is,” I replied.
I had deadlines. I published a book. I moved cities. The weeks blurred together. Tactics would snap me into focus. At least once a day, I’d find myself calculating lines with monomaniacal focus.
At night, I’d dream I was a knight, cartwheeling across the board. Always the knight, I’d lament when I woke up. Never the queen!
I would spend an hour thinking about a single tactic. I would lose a hundred points in a day, or more, then gain them back. Eventually, I won more than I lost. I started to recognize patterns. Calculations became easier. The movements of pieces would flow into each other. I started to see the board as areas of energy, lines of tension. By June, eight months after I’d downloaded the app, my rating hit 2000.
I still could not reliably set up a chessboard for a game.
I knew from the start, of course, that tactics were supposed to be a tool to help your play in actual chess games. They weren’t intended as games themselves. For months, I ignored this. I’d played some games -- with terrible results. I’d give up pawns for no reason, hang my knights, and say here, have my queen.
I lost all the time.
For a long time, I never, ever saw a tactic during a game. I knew they were there, but the patterns I could see easily in the tactics trainer never emerged when I was playing a game. When I looked at a situation in isolation, I could grasp how the pieces worked together. I knew how to weave a mating net, how to guard against a blunder. Playing a game, though, the board was just a mess of pieces. I would crouch down behind my little line of pawns and then eventually, inevitably, succumb to an attack.
Part of the problem was obvious. I had to learn to deal with the pressure of time.
After I hit 2000 on the app last summer, I decided to do only tactics that were on the clock. At first, it was a disaster -- not unlike playing games. Tactics that I had done half-asleep were suddenly impenetrable to me when there was a time element. If I couldn’t figure out the answer immediately, I’d panic. And when I thought I saw the move right away, I was usually wrong. I could only win when I took my time, which usually meant that I’d come away with one point or two. (The slower the solution, the lower the score.) When I lost -- and I lost most of them early on -- eight or nine points would drop off my rating. That would make me more jangly and more determined to get them back as soon as possible, which, of course, only made me lose more. It was one step forward, nine steps back.
My rating fell to around 700. It took weeks for me to break a thousand, and a couple of months before I could stay above 1200. I knew I had to change my approach.
I had to be deliberate and methodical. First, I had to see everything about my position. I took stock of my material and my opponents’. I looked at king safety, for signs of how fast I had to move, whether the tactic might be a mating attack, whether I was looking for stalemate.
I had to see what pieces were guarding what, if anything was loose or hanging. I looked for double attacks or defenders that could be shoved aside. I tested for traps. I tried to see forcing moves first, and then looked at anticipatory ones. Every move would change the balance and shift the tension in the position. I had to get the order right. Finally, I had to see the sequence through the very end. It sounds like an easy and obvious checklist, but as the seconds ticked by, I wanted to skip a step (or three) and make a move immediately.
But slowly, I learned patience. My rating stabilized and then it began to rise steadily (though I am still prone to 100-point swings in a single day), creeping toward my goal of 2000. More surprising, I started to see patterns and tactics when I played games -- and then I started playing in a style that made tactics more likely, switching my opening as White from the English (which I played mostly because it is easy to remember!) to the more dynamic e4.
I looked for every opportunity to attack. Games became much more interesting. I’m still a beginner, and I’m much, much better at tactics than I am at chess, especially on shorter time controls. (I can’t play blitz or bullet to save my life.) I have a small hope, though, that someday that will change.
Two months ago, I reset my tactics rating so that going forward, I can monitor the percentage of problems that I get correct. To my relief, that also wiped out the tracked number of hours I’d spent so far. I can’t remember how many it was. It was so embarrassing that, in an act of psychological self-protection, my memory wiped it out. I could have written a book in that amount of time. Instead, I spent it sacking rooks.
And yet, I still do tactics every day. I’ll never regret a great sac.
Louisa Thomas is an American writer, author of two books (including Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams), a regular contributor to NewYorker.com, former writer and editor at Grantland.com, and "obsessed" with tennis and chess. You can follow her on Twitter.