The Tactical Detector
Tactics. After thousands of books written on this concept, after the development of several excellent tactical training tools (such as Chess.com's own Tactics Trainer), after the release of countless free engines that serve as paragons of tactical invincibility, what else can be said?
I'll answer in one word: plenty! Many players buy into the false assumption that the path to tactical mastery is rather straightforward: Just solve a few puzzles every day, read a book or two on calculation, work with a strong engine, and you will eventually become a virtuoso tactician.
In fact, every one of those things must form an integral part of an aspiring player's training regimen.
However, that is not the whole story. I've met countless ambitious and hardworking players who experience a disconnect between the effort they put in during training and the results they see at the board. They get better and better at solving tactical exercises, their calculation steadily improves, they remember and understand a wide variety of tactical motifs, but all of these improvements seem to be limited to the training session. As soon as they sit down at the board, they fall prey to the same oversights, blunders, and gross miscalculations again and again. Why does this happen? Why do some players experience this tactical plateau?
So much tactical study! Why isn't it working?!
In my opinion, one of the principal reasons that players are unable to sharpen their tactical vision and calculation past a certain level is that they have a faulty tactical detector.
What is a tactical detector, and why is it so prone to malfunctioning? I will illustrate with an example.
It does not take more than a few seconds to establish that Black is hanging on the precipice. White is an exchange ahead, but more importantly, his pieces are ideally coordinated and poised to deliver a fatal blow to the exposed monarch. Black's counterplay is not to be sneezed at, but he does not actually have any deadly threats. ...Rxa2+ Kb1 leads nowhere; ...Bxa2 is unpleasant, but there will be no immediately decisive discovered checks. Hence, White can devote his full attention to the attack.
Your tactical detector sounds when you intuitively sense that there is some sort of combination or tactical sequence in the position.
In this case, the combination of factors discussed above — especially Black's weak king — should instantly light up your tactical detector, no matter how much tactics training you do. Can you spot the decisive sequence?
The problem is that not all combinations spring up so naturally from the position. Hence, a weak tactical detector often prevents you from noticing latent characteristics of the position that make possible a hard-to-see combination or tactical blow.
The following game — which could have featured one of the most conceptually brilliant combinations I have ever seen — illustrates this crucial point.
Bravo! Bravo! Well done, encore!
"Well," I hear you saying, "even Magnus' tactical detector is probably not good enough to spot ...Bxd4 in a real game!" Maybe not, but that is beside the point. This game brilliantly shows that not all combinations have to float on the surface of the position. The tactical features of the position were masked, as they often are, by its entirely innocuous appearance.
As a slightly less extreme illustration, consider the following game. Note: I saw this game in GM Boris Gelfand's excellent new volume, Dynamic Decision-Making in Decision, written in collaboration with GM Jacob Aagaard.
"Alright, I get it. Tactical intuition is important. But how do I actually train my tactical detector?" As I implied at the start of the article, the fundamental deficiency of tactical puzzles (and studies) is that the solver knows, in advance, that a combination exists. He or she switches off his or her tactical detector and starts by already looking for sacrifices or blows. In an actual game no one will tap you on the shoulder and whisper, "Hey, treat this position as a puzzle!" In fact, realizing that the potential for a tactic exists is often more difficult than finding the tactic itself.
To actually answer the question, the good news is that you can hone your detector simply by being mindful of its importance during the game. As soon as you are out of theory, you should spend some time on practically every move examining the position for hidden tactical elements. This might sound like a terribly cumbersome operation, but it will eventually become second nature.
Make no mistake: I'm not suggesting that you waste ten minutes on every move checking every conceivable sacrifice. Rather, you should simply be mindful of the features of the position that might give rise to tactics at some point in the future. This might be anything. It could be as outwardly inconsequential as a loose bishop on a6 (remember GM John Nunn's acronym, LPDO: Loose Pieces Drop Off) to something as obvious as an exposed king. As the position transforms, you should make note of what has changed. Is the bishop now defended by a pawn? If so, it passes your detector. Is the queen now on d5 and the king on g8? That should now make your detector beep since it makes possible a future knight fork on e7.
Only if you are conscientious about going through this process will you make the most of your tactical training. In the following exercise, start off by applying this exact mechanism. Before looking for the combination itself, closely examine the position for possible motifs. The solution is not easy so this is a crucial step!
In conclusion, I'll mention that the notion of a tactical detector is my own invention, but the larger mechanism that it alludes to (i.e. the importance of general tactical awareness as opposed to concrete calculation) is an integral part of every grandmaster's thought process. Training intensively is one thing, but you can only unlock the fruits of your hard labor by adopting the right approach at the board.