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Do you ever feel like you hear people mention tactics and calculation a lot when it comes to improving at chess? (Any of my students reading this are likely nodding their heads). Well, for those that like solving puzzles, the good news is that it’s true that they are super important. For those that don’t like doing puzzles, you are loved too, and this blog should still help in giving you additional ideas on how to improve in this area.

Before getting into it, I just want to say for those confused what I mean by “tactical play”. Tactical play itself isn’t really about solving puzzles as much as it is improving your ability to see moves ahead and properly understand and assess what is going on. This is vital since in chess you have to figure out what is going to happen before you move so you can understand what is a good move and what isn’t. For that, solving puzzles is simply one way you work on that (and there are others that I will talk about too). For myself, I really enjoy this part of chess because I really enjoy solving puzzles. That isn’t just a chess thing; I have always loved trying to break something down, look at the facts, and figure it out. It is logical! It isn’t about silly tricks or hiding some fact that you are later told in a “gotcha” moment. So now let’s get into it.

Introduction:

The first couple of things I want you to keep in mind through all of this are both things that absolutely need to be emphasized because they are so simple but so easy for people to stumble over! If you are not going to skim through any part of this blog this is the part right here!

First: Do not overcomplicate working on tactical play.

Second: Guessing is not working on your tactical play.

I see both of these all the time, and sometimes it feels like the first leads to the second. Let me clarify what I mean by both of them, but I am sure some of you already have an idea of what I am talking about.

So first, do not overcomplicate working on tactical play. This is something that can really be applied to any part of trying to improve your chess. I see time and time again that people spend so long trying to decide how to work on it that they do everything but actually work on it. As I shared in one of my blogs I believe in working smart and hard. However, sometimes it feels like people think theorizing all day every day and not working is “working smart”. It isn’t. It has to be both. Work hard, then sit back and reflect. What I am going to talk about in this blog is some ideas to fine-tune your work on tactical play. There is absolutely a place for that. But doing and experiencing is a vital way of knowing how to work smart. So if you are confused on how to work on tactical play, well, keep reading, but also, just do it. Find a program or book with puzzles and just start working on it, then reflect and improve as you go along.

Second, guessing is not working on your tactical play. I want to be very clear on this one since I think this can be a major problem with people that do puzzles here on chess.com. Now for one moment let me give you an example, and I am not talking about Puzzle Battle or Puzzle Rush, but when you are doing normal puzzles can you relate to the following: "You go to solve puzzles on chess.com, a puzzle comes up and you start to examine the position. Within a short period of time you see a move that “looks right”. A tactical move, maybe even a sacrifice, that just makes sense as an answer to a chess puzzle. So you play it. You haven’t thought it through all the way. You don’t know how it works. You just know that “it works” because it looks right." If you can relate to that then I want to make something absolutely clear. That is not improving your tactical play. If you really care about improving then treat it as you would if you were playing a game and that was the position you had. Actually think it through, do the work you need to so that you know or at least have a pretty good idea that it is right. I, myself, am guilty of guessing on puzzles just because something looks right, but at the end of the day, that just isn’t the right way of doing it. Does that mean you should expect to get every puzzle right from now on? No, you will still make tactical mistakes in puzzles and in games. But now you are actually at a point where you are training and working on your tactical play rather than working on your guessing.

So keep both of those in mind as I talk about working on tactical play in a very similar format to my previous blog.

How I would work on improving my tactical play right here on chess.com:

Solving puzzles: This is by far the main part of this, and chess.com has some great options for doing so. But with the options of solving puzzles it does beg the question of which one is the most effective. So I want to talk about each of them separately and end with the one I find to be the most effective.

First: Simply doing the rated puzzles. Yep that’s right. It exists! Sometimes it feels like there is such a focus on Puzzle Rush and Puzzle Battles that anything else is forgotten. Having been on chess.com for over 10 years I can honestly say I grew up doing the rated puzzles on chess.com. I think it is a simple and good method of working on Tactical Play. It is a very straightforward solution if you simply want to solve puzzles and work on Tactical Play. However, I do find for myself, and for others I have talked to that it is easy to slip into guessing rather than solving. One suggestion for this would be to set it up on an actual chessboard. Whether online or from a book, setting the puzzle on an actual chess board can help in taking it more seriously.

Second: Puzzle Rush 3-minute or 5-minute. For Puzzle Rush 3-minute or 5-minute, I am in the middle of the opinion that it is only fun or the opinion that it is super useful. I think this type of time-restricted puzzle-solving does have its place, but that it is different. This should never be your main source of working on Tactical Play. This to me is useful if you find yourself struggling to think clearly when you are low on time. Especially when you are missing basic tactics when you are low on time. No matter what time control (except probably correspondence) you play there will be times you get low on time and are forced to play faster, or just times even if you aren’t low on time that you are playing faster. Being able to pick up on tactics more quickly will definitely help in those times. So if that is something you need to improve on then go do some Puzzle Rush!

Third: Puzzle Battle. I feel like a lot of what applies to Puzzle Rush applies to this just add a little bit more anxiety. All jokes aside, for the possible benefits I mentioned above I would typically do Puzzle Rush more than Puzzle Battle, but if you want the pressure of actually competing against someone then this is a good option.

Fourth: Themed Puzzles. I really like the idea of this one. Being able to go and select a specific topic that you feel you need to work on is awesome. My personal experience with this has been mixed good and okay, but I would still highly recommend checking out. This is affected quite a bit by which category and the difficulty of puzzles you are looking for which hasn’t always worked out great for what I have been looking for, but other times it has been really nice and a fun experience to work on puzzles with a specific topic. The downside to this one I feel is it lacks a way of tracking your progress or something to push you to work for that next level. Of course you still could keep track of how many you get right and wrong, but it isn’t quite the same.

Fifth and what I feel is best: Puzzle Rush Survival. When it comes to the name Puzzle RUSH this feels like a totally separate thing since there is no rush with this one. Why I like this so much is because of all of these options I think it provides the biggest feeling of accountability, which is essential for effectively working on tactical play. With survival, you go until you get three wrong with puzzles getting harder each one you get right. Even if the first few or several are quite easy for you they will hit a point that is good for your skill level. Then push yourself to get higher and higher knowing one mistaken puzzle can end up being the cause of lots of other right answers going to waste.

Overall go try all of these and see what you think. I feel like each has its place for improving or just having fun!

Playing Blindfold: As I mentioned in the beginning tactical play is not just solving puzzles. Working on playing blindfold helps a lot because it is further practicing being able to see moves ahead without moving pieces. I was first introduced to the idea of playing blindfold when I was 6 when GM Igor Ivanov played me, my brothers, and my dad all blindfolded at the same time. Working on it back then was often being actually blindfolded, but now there are more resources that have made it easier to work on.

At the very beginning level you can start with vision here on chess.com. It is a good basic step to starting into blindfold so you have the coordinates and chess notation down. It is hard to do any blindfold if you don’t know how to “say/read” moves and this is a great resource for that. Once you have that down you can get more into more of the blindfold stuff.

I would recommend starting by playing a low level computer blindfold. Once you know how it is very easy to set up and will allow you to try actually playing blindfold without too much pressure. As you get better you can increase the difficulty of the computer or make it harder on yourself by adding a clock. Here is how you set it to blindfold:

Once you have the game set up to play, click settings:

Then click “Pieces Style” and change it to Blindfold:

Once set the pieces should disappear and you are ready to begin. You play as normal moving your cursor over the piece you want to move and moving it. One thing I like about working on blindfold on chess.com is that you can still see the moves that were played. So as you are just starting to do it you could check the moves if you forgot something along the way.

Lastly, you can start playing actual people blindfold. It is just as easy to change it in live chess following the same method, the settings icon just moved places:

I would recommend playing against people just like with the computer, try finding games against lower-rated players and work your way up. The time will also be a big way to change the difficulty for yourself and you can change that depending on where you feel you are at. My one recommendation with time is to make sure you are playing with an increment since “about to flag” time-scrabbles are a nightmare when you are trying to play blindfold. Also, one side note, turning your pieces “blindfold” will affect everywhere on chess.com. So make sure to turn it back to normal when you are done. Trying to do puzzles when you don’t know where the pieces are even starting is very difficult. That is a recommendation that comes from a place of personal experience. Once when I was playing online I started a 1-minute game almost out of habit before thinking about the fact I needed to turn the pieces back so I could see them. When the game started I decided to go for it anyway and it didn’t go so well. I imagine my opponent was really confused with how I played, but it was a fun one-time experience.

Videos/Lessons: This last resource for working on tactical play is one I think could get overlooked, but chess.com does have quite a number of lessons and videos that talk about tactical play and how to improve on it. If you are ever feeling overwhelmed by the task of improving on tactical play then these are great places to go. Go get some ideas/instruction from strong chess players and then come back to it.

Other Resources:

Books: This is actually one of my favorite ways to work on calculation. I will find a good book that is about my level,l set up the positions on an actual chessboard, do my best to solve them, and then mark if I get them wrong or right. For lower-level players, I would recommend checking out the well-known tactics book written by the father of the famous Polgar sisters: Chess: 5334 Problems, Combinations and Games. For intermediate players, I would recommend checking out the author Csaba Balogh. I bought his book Greatest 525 Puzzles and thought it had a good variety of difficulty (especially for intermediate players) that I felt a lot of books lack. For advanced players, I would recommend both Jacob Aagaard’s Calculation: Grandmaster Preparation and Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual (this is one I used to work specifically on endgame calculation and I would do it by going through and only solving the exercises). These are the ones I have liked over the years, but there are plenty of good books out there so feel free to share one you like in the comments. A couple of others I will mention that I have heard good things about are The Woodpecker Method and Art of Attack in Chess.

Blindfold Exercises: One basic exercise you can do if you have a board and someone else is having them tell you the coordinates of a square and you call out whether it is a light or dark square. As long as you have the board set up right with a dark square in the bottom left corner this is a good exercise to improve just “seeing” the board in your head. It is one I did when I was just starting to work on playing blindfold and found it to help.

Another exercise is playing blindfold, but make it easier. Have a friend set up a position where your goal is to take all the pawns with your rook or play a game against them with only pawns and no pieces. Be creative with this one and it can be a fun way to mix it up.

Final Thoughts:

I hope this all helps. I know the task of improving tactical play can feel like such a big one because it is so talked about and so important, but as I emphasized in the beginning don’t overcomplicate it. There are a lot of resources and figuring it out takes time. Start somewhere, start figuring it all out, and try to keep it fun. Then as I mentioned in a previous blog consistency is key. Consistently work on it and improve a little bit every day and you will see the results.

Thanks for reading! Sorry, this one took a long time, I promise the next two parts will not take me so long to do.

As always feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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