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Chess tactics, or combinations, provide great training for chess improvement. For a start, tactical ability, the awareness and know-how to force a checkmate, material gain or other significant advantage, is key for any chess player. Becoming tactically competent is also the quickest way to improve at chess for players up to strong club level, and perhaps beyond.
Coupled with the convenience of being able to train tactics for a relatively short period, even just 5-10 minutes a day, and the fun of solving a tactical problem and we can see why this form of chess training is so popular. Even when a player has a good deal of experience with tactical motifs, he (or she) can use the problems to stay sharp between games.
So, we get it, tactical training is an all-round good idea.
Is there a way to get more from our tactical training? I say there is.
Firstly, we have to recognise that there are 2 types of benefits:
1) reinforcing tactical patterns in our memory
2) the learning of new patterns and testing our calculation
If we are able to solve, or see, the solution to a tactical problem very quickly then this demonstrates a strong familiarity with this pattern. Repetition of these problems is excellent for making the pattern obvious to us, especially in slightly different forms.
It is those problems that we get wrong or have to spend a long time assessing that are of the most use to us however, as these are patterns that we are either unfamiliar with or have some trouble seeing. This is the big opportunity to improve your tactical vision. If you get a tactical problem wrong, how do you react? Do you try again or immediately look up the answer? If you got the idea right but your variation was inaccurate, do you skip to the next problem? If so, you are missing the point of the training.
Solving tactics should not be just about feeling good about knowing so many patterns – the idea is to improve your ability. If you’re getting 70%+ right first time, then you need to find a tougher set of tactics!
Ok, so you find a set of suitable difficulty. Now, you’re training tactics and getting plenty wrong first time. What should you do? Look for all the clues in the position, undefended pieces, possible checks, discovered and multiple attacks and so on and see if you strike upon the right idea. Discovering the idea yourself will help in remembering it. If you cannot find it at all then look up the answer and play it through on the board. It is important that you do play it out so that you get to see the tactic “in motion” – this will help you remember it too.
Now we have the answer and know what it looks like – we should be able to see it from the original position. We are still not finished with it however! Look at the original position again and consider a question that, if somebody had asked you, would have given you a clue as to where to look for the solution.
For instance, if the tactic involves the trapping of a piece then you might have found the move if somebody had asked you “which of the opponent’s pieces has least safe squares to move to? Can it be attacked?”
Keep a list of these questions in a tactics notebook and refer to them whenever you get stuck on a puzzle. Soon you will be questioning positions automatically and finding many more solutions straight away.
A copy of the tactic should be kept too – this could be a computer screenshot, a hand-drawing or a position created and saved in a chess program. Many chess programs will allow you to create a database of games/positions that you can then return to and train on. Training a tactical set of problems that you have got wrong will give you bigger gains than testing yourself on patterns that you already know very well.
Keep repeating these practices and you will make much quicker progress with your tactical improvement.
There is another point to be made. Finding tactics in training is easier than in a game situation, mainly because you know there is a combination hidden in that position. The idea of tactical training is to get so familiar with so many combinations that the possibility of the tactic jumps out at you in a game situation. The tactical puzzle you see will probably have been computer checked to ensure it is correct and works in every variation.
In a game, however, there may be a hidden defence, especially with longer combinations. Collecting examples from real play where a tempting combination presents itself but, on deeper analysis, doesn’t work is a great way to keep your analytical brain and vision in top shape.
In many puzzles, we may see an idea and play it without thoroughly checking it, precisely because we know that the puzzle has a combination to be found. In a real game, we need to be 100% sure that the idea works. Mixing these ‘faulty’ combinations into a training set will make sure that we calculate accurately and don’t fall into a habit of guessing a tactic works because it looks right.