I can hear the groans already: "Oh no, not another Tactics-Solving Recipe promising to solve all my tactical woes!" (They're tucked in dark alleyways worldwide, after all.) But maybe -- just maybe -- this checklist/recipe/theory/whateveryouwannacallit will help you to more efficiently solve tactics (and, perhaps more practically, to find those awesome shots over the board when precious ELO and EGO points are at stake!) so maybe -- just maybe -- it's worth a gander.
Brief context: I jotted this list down after having a lesson with my diligent student, Jorge, last week. Really, it was the product of the subconscious made conscious and then verbalized -- yes, that's what chess coaches have to do! (And, personally, I enjoy the challenge!) In other words, my student was a bit frustrated and looking for a system for solving tactics. As we worked through some tactics together, I would prompt him by hinting at certain themes. Once Jorge recognized these themes (hitherto mostly subconscious to me and developed over time, but some learned verbally, i.e., through didactic methods like books and coaching) he was able to solve them rather easily. Hopefully these points will facilitate your tactics solving ventures similarly.
When you are frustrated and trying to solve a tactic, try considering the following. I begin with the most universal and obvious principles that you have likely heard many times (because they're very important and they work) and then get into some points that may receive less attention generally:
1. Look for forcing moves: capture check, check, capture, threat. Usually tactics are solved with forcing moves, so you can't go wrong by starting here.
2. Look for loose/hanging pieces. The bread and butter of tactics is the double attack. Also consider awkwardly placed pieces, e.g., a bishop being buried by a phalanx of angry pawns.
3. Look for a loose king and the possibility of creating/exploiting a mating net. Again, basic stuff. You're playing for mate; just don't forget to look for it. Often this will involve material sacrifice (even if you have to patiently wait a couple of moves for the mate to materialize) because, like a primal beast, you have a one-track mind and it's set on mate.
4. Defensive calculation. Now we're getting into territory that's often overlooked! Hungrily search for ways to stop your opponent's ideas so that yours can succeed. I strongly believe that one of the key elements separating experts/masters from less seasoned players is that they are intimately aware of their oppponent's position/capabilities/plans. Chess.com is wise to include many defensive-themed tactics in its tactics trainer since these are quite common in practical chess but all too often overlooked by those who become obsessed with their own plans at the expense of their opponent's! Remember: Your opponent is your other half--know thyself, thy full self! Or as Bruce Lee said: Be like water (which flows across the board and is not just confined to the selfish needs of your own pieces!). But it's not just defense. To find the most accurate line, you must be aware of your opponent's best responses to your most aggressive moves ("defensive" thinking to achieve utterly offensive ends--an aha moment!). This is important so I will find an example of this and include later when I have a tactical moment.
5. "Invert, always invert." --Mathematician Carl Jocobi and later adopted (ardently) by investor and Buffett sidekick Charlie Munger. Invert: reverse the move order. If one way doesn't work, the opposite way may. Ah, moving your bishop to threaten mate is too slow (because of of your opponent's strong defense that you carefully considered!) so sac your queen instead (the move which would've been your second in the faulty line), then move your bishop (your original first move) with decisive double-check, after which mate is forced! This logical method goes hand in hand with the process of elimination: start working your way through all forcing lines you can (adhering to the hierarchy of forced moves covered in point 1), then weed out the lines that don't work (usually due to opponent's best defense) until you stumble on something...and when that doesn't work, invert, always invert.
6. Overcome an obstacle; delete a glitch. For instance, there may be something wrong with a specific line you are calculating. When you recognize a glitch, try to find a move that eliminates that glitch. Many tactics I've seen are based on this concept. So yes, you may be looking for a basic motif like a fork or a pin or a mate, but, again, when you use defensive calculation (I can't stress the importance of this enough!), you will often see that your opponent has a neat resource you originally overlooked. So you search for a way to make your idea work, preempting your opponent's best defensive idea. Bam.
7. Look for points of tension. Where are your pieces and your opponent's pieces attacking? Imagine you're seeing arrows showing the scope of every piece if it helps (no mouse clicks allowed!). Relieve the tension -- "pop that blister." Maybe you do so by assailing a weak point with everything you've got (blood, sweat, tears included)! This one comes later on the checklist because you'll generally only have to do this if there isn't already something obvious, as mentioned in the earlier points.
8. Simplify complexity. Boil the position down to its constituent parts and look for general patterns that you recognize within it. The more you solve tactics (not to worry, just as good is failing to solve them and seeing the correct solution...so long as the pattern gets beaten into your brow somehow!) the more the basic patterns will get inscribed somewhere in your chess lexicon. You'll find them floating around. Just try not to get overwhelmed by all the noise of the position (or your chess filled brain). And if that doesn't work, try seeing the whole board, too...yes, try every single method and make some up as you go until you latch onto something, and don't give up! Indeed, the more tools, the better!
9. Take a step back. Look for the big picture and respond to the needs of the position. This is where you may step back from purely looking at forcing moves and begin to verbalize to yourself things like, "What's going on here (context)? Are there any loose/misplaced pieces? What's the material count? Where is the tension? Is my opponent attacking something that I need to deal with, i.e., is my material advantage great enough that I simply need to not get mated in order to render this a win (in which case looking for a mate or fork would be wasting your time...alas, you should be looking for your opponet's mate or fork!)? Can I trap that knight somehow? How can I get through that pawn so that I can reach my opponent's back rank? Often, the tactic won't be right there in front of you, but once you recognize the context and realize what you have to do, you can search for ways to create an environment in which your tactic will be successful.
10. Quiet moves. When all else fails, yes, there is this! See if there is a subtle move (the opposite of step 1) that you may have missed. Hint: often this will be discovered by carefully considering points 4-9.
Hopefully this will provide you with some tactics-solving tools that you didn't previously have in your set.
Let me know if you had any reactions to any of the above. Were you surprised by any of them? Do you find yourself using some of these techniques but simply haven't verbalized them? Or is your method pretty much the same as these? What methods have you learned or developed over the years?
If you have any examples that come up as you're solving tactics which mirror any of the approaches above, please include an image of it in your comment. I hope to have some examples up soon to further illustrate/elucidate these concepts.
Thanks for reading!