Solve Tactics Problems

Jan 25, 2015, 6:49 PM |

When I started my serious chess training program in July 2013, I created a Google Docs spreadsheet for tracking all of my chess activity. Over the past eighteen months I've logged over 1400 chess actions in my spreadsheet, actions such as playing a slow OTB game, reviewing a master game, doing a visualization exercise, but mostly, solving tactics problems.

I've made solving tactics problems my main chess activity because I knew from reviewing my games that I was losing for tactical reasons: Hanging a piece or a pawn; falling for a straightforward 2-3 move tactic; or, simply mis-counting a series of trades. Besides that, popular chess trainers like NM Dan Heisman highly recommend weak players do loads of simple tactics problems before spending a lot of time on other aspects of their game play.

In the spreadsheet above, I actually have two different types of tactics training that I do. One is called "Analyze 3 positions for 20 minutes each." In this exercise, the point is to improve calculation and visualization skills, so I use a more challenging tactics set (currently, Chess Training Pocket Book by GM Alburt) and I set the problems up on my physical chess board. I also explicitly give myself a total of one hour to solve three problems, taking most time pressure off of me so I can really just focus on seeing all the candidate moves, visualizing each variation, and trying to pick the very best move. I write down my chosen variation with any subvariations and, only then, check them against the book. I am currently trying to do this three times a week.

The other type of tactics training is labeled "Solve tactics problems" in my spreadsheet. I'm trying to complete twenty five per week, which might not sound like a lot. In the past, though, there were weeks when I did over a thousand. Cumulatively, I've done thousands of these over the past eighteen months. The purpose is to, first, add new tactical patterns to my pattern bank. Second, I am practicing picking candidate moves and calculating variations. Why not kill two birds with one stone, when it makes sense?

For these problems, I've used several tactics books, with the positions entered into SCIDvsMac files for easy use. I've also solved thousands of problems on Tactics Trainer here on

As of the beginning of the year, I'm trying out ChessTempo's Mixed Mode tactics set for this training instead of Tactics Trainer. This is based on recommendations from chess friends--so far, I'm extremely pleased.

The main problem I find with Tactics Trainer is that its timer simply causes me (and others, I assume) to rush my calculations and decision making to the point where I start taking thinking shortcuts. These shortcuts become counterproductive quickly.

Yes, of course, I could just ignore the timer and take as much time as I need. And often I do. But then, without fail, there is a point where I find myself again rushing to satisfy the ticking clock. And it is not the timer itself that is bad. It is that the time given is set based on how much time previous users took to solve the same problem. Given that is a blitz-centric site, it is no wonder that those times become depressingly short, way shorter then is healthy for non-blitz training. Also, the vast majority of problems on Tactics Trainer that I have seen are very tactical and there is usually at least a 2 point evaluation difference between the best move and the second best move--and only the best move counts! (Even if the second best is also a forced mate, for example.)

ChessTempo's Mixed Mode tactics set fixes all of these issues. Firstly, for every problem, you get five minutes to solve before you start losing any points. Then, like Tactics Trainer, you start losing points each second that goes by. But five minutes is a respectable amount of time, an amount of time that you would surely use in a long chess game for a critical move. This takes the pressure off, so to speak, and allows one to really look at candidates and variations.

Secondly, ChessTempo's Mixed Mode problem set contains a higher ratio of "typical" game-like positions versus amazing tactical shots. In fact, they are sometimes fairly pedestrian positions where the best move simply maintains an equal position or even a slightly worse position. But it is objectively the best move. In your games, how often are your moves like this versus spectacular queen sacrifices or smothered mates?

Tactics Trainer is still good software and is very handy for quickly going through lots of tactics problems and adding them to your pattern bank. Just make sure you are not also picking up some unwanted bad thinking habits in the process!