Tactical Thinking Process


I have been using a tactical thinking process to help my students learn when and how to think about finding candidate moves. A big problem in chess is that as the game progresses move selection goes from a fairly basic opening strategy of getting pieces out, fighting for the center and king safety issues to dealing with a ever mounting number of threats for both sides.
I found that my students search for moves and dealing with the tactical threats was fairly random and often they would unconsciously reduce the number of threats by simply trading pieces and there by reducing their current and future chances and often helping their opponent solve problems or improve their position.

A common thought process that I have heard in looking for tactics is to consider all checks and captures. Great, but that always seemed to be a big vague and confusing since there are a lot of checks and captures in any given position and still no way to determine which is the best one to start with. So I always thought there had to be a way to be more efficient when searching if a tactic theat exists. Another confusing big of advice was to " look for a bigger threat" when someone attacked a piece. Awesome advice but what is a "bigger" threat? Doesn't the ability to make a bigger threat  preclude that threats have some sort of hierarchy of threats?  If so what is this hierarchy of threats?

I do not know where this came from (the guy that I heard it from years ago said his Russian coach told him this) and it can be added to as a players tactical acumen increases but the list is as follows:

The hierarchy of threats:
1) Checks (note that checkmate on your move is a check)
2) Checkmate threats- if your opponent threatens mate you have to defend or check them. (capturing defenders is a defensive move but also a threat)
3) Capturing a piece 
4) Threats to capture a piece
The advantage of this is that if your opponent threatens something on this list your only option is to create a bigger threat or defend. [Avoid, Block, Capture, Protect]  Training yourself to look for threats first before defending helps build a feeling for the intiative.

There are some refinements to this such as pawn promotion which I group under capturing a piece (increasing material) or threats to capture a piece but this is the basic list. 
Try it out on some tactical problems you can not instantly solve and see how it works out? I have had great success in helping students solve very difficult problems by just starting with this list and  following it out to the limit of their abilities. If the problem is beyond your calculation ability then that is another issue. 
 Good luck

Good points to consider.

TonyH wrote:

Another confusing big of advice was to " look for a bigger threat" when someone attacked a piece. Awesome advice but what is a "bigger" threat? 

This is always the problem I have with these sorts of enumerated listings.  Another is that tactical exercises are not real-game positions (ie, not some real game of yours).  And of course if you're attempting to solve a problem, checks are exactly what you're not looking for (lol).


 leavenfish and you bring up some interesting points I can try to help clarify

"Doesn't a hierarchic of threats to calculate actually come about AFTER you have decided upon some candidates to calculate?"

"If a check possible, it could be first, but most tactics do not involve a check...most are about pieces hitting pieces "

 The most difficult task for a player of any level is trying to determine what are the candidate moves in a given position. You actually bring up the very idea I am attempting to address of what is a forcing moves . Not all forcing moves are created equal. What moves are "more" forcing than others?

Looking at  checks and captures is the easiest thing to consider in a given position and often used to orient ourselves in a given position but not the most efficient way to do so and still does not address the concept of forcing moves and the order of importance. One of the first things beginners learn is that a capture is illegal if a player has you in check. This is quickly followed by a capture being  irrelevant if their opponent is threatening a checkmate. We learn to only consider moves that defend against these threats but this is something subconscious and "obvious" to experienced players.   Agreed that most games are won because of simple tactics based on hanging pieces (Loose pieces drop off) but this is not the most forcing move in a given positionA check MUST be considered first, period, but as a player increases in strength they do this subconsciously so when asked about what they are thinking about there a filtering process has already taken place. 

 Strong players learn to consider checks first position and do so automatically and subconsciously. Some interesting studies have tracked how masters are actually looking at positions by following their eye movement. Strong players always looked at the position of the kings first then radiated out from there looking for pieces targeting the king positions. This was done in fractions of a second and when asked about the position they didn't even mention they did this. I use the analogy of being a driver and stopping at an  intersection, no matter who the driver is,  passengers that are experienced drivers almost always look both ways with out realizing they are doing so. 

@Andrew Clifton

Actually most tactical positions are gathered from actual game positions. Tactial training is just pattern building and using the list I mentioned helps to improve the thought process I mentioned earlier. The hard part of course is obtaining positions that tactical shots can occur but that is a separate issue. One of my favorite statements is Spielmann's  "I can see combinations as well as Alekhine, but I cannot get to the same positions."


You say looking at all the checks and captures is a bit vague because there are a lot of checks and capture in any given position?  Usually there are less than 5 and sometimes there are none.

"Create a bigger threat" is vague?  I don't know how it could be more clear.  I guess your list helps those who wouldn't know intuitively that threatening checkmate is a "bigger" threat than threatening a knight Tongue out

I think students/beginners trade pieces because they have no other way of evaluating moves.  After you learn the moves, the only way to distinguish between all legal moves is to divide moves into captures, threats, and non-captures.

As leavenfish said, tactical candidates usually flow from the available forcing moves on the board (checks and captures again). 


What do you teach your students when there are no tactics?


Loose pieces, exposed kings, immobile pieces, 'available squares' (my name for a square that appears to be defended but the defending piece is in some way unable to actually do the job)  and double attacks -- that's the stuff that produces combinations imo... good blitz players seem to have this vision in their blood... I have to stop and painstakingly search  :( 

I don't know how much utility there is in the hierarchy of threats... But I will say I have noticed, empirically, that from a defensive perspective players tend to be MUCH better at blunder checking loss of material than they are at blunder checking hanging mate -- particulary when time gets tight! In the hierarchy of threats from a defensive perspective many lesser players check for material and forget about their king.  I've swindled so many games this way.

Here's a nice combination:


I am trying to make it clearer so this is sort of a conversation in that direction

 Most candidate moves are not strictly 'tactical' in nature...

Actually the thing is players need to consider all forcing moves first in their search for a candidate move. Players often automatically filter moves based on knowledge (opening, endgame etc)  but at some point you are left on your own to find a move. Regardless of the idea all forcing moves need to be considered to the best of a players ability. This order helps a player consider what moves are the most critical in a position where there is a threat. For instance I have dealt with a lot of kids who when faced with capture automatically consider recapture first and dont look at creating a mate threat as an intermediate threat. 

For instance in the above example its simple because all the moves are check except for the last one that takes a moment to see that you need to generate a mate threat by moving the rook. The only annoying defensive idea would be to trade queens off with Qe5+ or defend the bishop with Qf1 so if the queen is taken out of action it would be mate. so where to put the rook to prevent the queen from moving? Rd1 

Again i suggest players try this idea out on difficult tactical problems where there are multiple variations it becomes easier to organize the calculation of lines....


Again you bring up a phrase I hear often but that is to me vague, "But certainly any 'reasonable' potential capture needs to be evaluated early in the process to see if it is a viable candidate that would then need to be examined. After all, in a game situation, time is ticking away." And no its not a puzzle situation persay just that we do this automatically and its oh those obvious but unconscious ideas that certain players apply that novices struggle with in their attempts to improve. 

 It is a lot like practicing free throws, golf swing, passing drills etc... You want your brain to automatically do something so you dont have to waste time thinking about it in a competitive environment. think how many times we tell kids (mine included) to look both ways at a street corner before crossing.. we tell them this so many times that it becomes a habit for us in later years, so much so we do it with out thinking about it but early on kids run into traffic lanes after balls, or in a parking lot to get to the store entrance with out thinking. Later we look both ways even if we are under stress.  I am essentially helping to break down a habit strong players have already learned. This habit has created a subconscious filter in place that is critical to move selection but noone explains it to beginners so they stumble around looking for forcing moves (checks and captures) with no real explaination or critiera of what a forcing move is. I have seen multple kids who stop a calculation because on the first move the queen can be captured but there is a check on the second move that allows a mate in 1 move, they see the mate if you show it to them on the board but the loss of a queen stops them too early to see it.

 It really shines when you are calculating deep lines(deep is relative to a player's strength) It allows a player to consider what is critical first actually saving time in the long run. exhaust all your checks in a given line first, then work on mate threats then finally captures. We sometimes click onto a pattern and shorten this but thats applying a knowledge base and different. Aagaard even mentioned in one of his books that in a certain game he felt there was something there tactically so he did a very basic (and he considered silly idea) search to look at every single check and capture on the board,.. he found a very nice winning line as a result. this can not be done every move to this extent at high levels but if a player learns to apply it early on for 2-3 moves it helps to build a good habit.

TonyH wrote:

Actually most tactical positions are gathered from actual game positions. Tactial training is just pattern building and using the list I mentioned helps to improve the thought process I mentioned earlier. The hard part of course is obtaining positions that tactical shots can occur but that is a separate issue. One of my favorite statements is Spielmann's  "I can see combinations as well as Alekhine, but I cannot get to the same positions."

Yes, but as I said, it's not some real-game position of yours (and that makes a big difference). Wink


I dont understand what your trying to relate?

This hierarchy applies to any position with forcing moves and is accuate. In real games you still do this but if you dont apply this then you are likely to miss something. 

A great deal of teaching involves explaining things that are just common sense to players at the next higher level.  Players often, intutitively, "figure things out" .They generate thier own set of guidelines to find moves but do so through a process of trial and error. The job of a teacher/coach (which are different) is to assist in this and hopefully accelerate the learning process, by recognizing a process, breaking that process down into discreet components and  explaining the process. 

 A tendency for players is to focus on a particular aspect of chess with out really bothering to understand it or break it down. They just figure they will learn it by doing.... Its sort of like trying to learn endgames by examining 100s of positions, it can work but its very inefficent. The goal of this list is to explicitly state what are threats in chess and the hierarchy of them to aid in learning and understanding. 

 Players are told to look for forcing moves (there is a recent book on this very subject) but what are forcing moves? What move is the most forcing in a given position? Not all threats are equal.To look for Checks and captures is overly simplistic and still doesnt tell you which threat is more critical in a given position. To jump around to each check or each capture randomly is very haphazard and illogical.  Players often learn through experience to prioritize certain threats first but this doesnt help those trying to learn with out having to suffer and learn it themselves. I will post an example of how this can help to follow


This is a good example (and one of my favorite games, please dont look it up to find the solution but try to work out what you would do. The idea is simple, attack the king  in the center but how to carry it out....?

Ok It is clear to me then you are missing the point of the list. This is NOT a way to find the best move in a position but an essential habit to be trained by players.  In all the above situations you mention (your 2300+ ex roommate, Tal, Karpov, etc) the players are strong enough to automatically considered all forcing moves in a given position, at some basic level, either consciously or unconsciously. In the case of your mentioned line in the Nimzo-indian,.. your roommate studied the positional virutes of the capture before playing it. This is not an answer to finding the right move in any given position, infact most positions where the forcing moves are 1) bad or dont exist, players MUST still consider ALL forcing moves to the best of thier ability and ONLY THEN assess the position and subsequent non-forcing moves. This is basic advice from any trainer from Kotov until today. The idea is to put into writing what what forcing moves to consider first then move on to other less forcing moves. If a player happens to find a shortcut based on pattern knowledge this is a seperate. It also gives a player an answer to the idea of if you see a good move look for a better one.. (ie more forcing) The creation of good habits is critical to improvement. I use this to teach my students locally and am pround to say that they show constant improvement even once they move past me by helping create the foundation of habits early on. (one is on all the top lists nationally for her age and has gone from 150 t0 ~1950 in 4 years of playing. Improving over 250 points a year for the last 3 years. Other students are top of their lists locally although they dont play in USCF rated events. 

TonyH wrote:

I dont understand what your trying to relate?