Monday, June 2, 2014

How to Improve Your Tactics

"In general I consider that in chess everything rests on tactics. If one thinks of strategy as a block of marble, then tactics are the chisel with which a master operates, in creating works of chess art." 
-  Tigran Petrosian

How can we sharpen the chisel which we use to create chess art? There are many specific regimens you can follow. I will approach this task from the viewpoint of what you are trying to accomplish, then suggest a template for a method you can use, but you can modify it for your own needs.

Two Main Objectives

When you want to improve your tactics, I think there are two main objectives that you are hoping to achieve. The first is to increase your pattern recognition. This is the ability to spot a tactical motif or operation in a position. The second is to improve your calculation and visualization in order to apply the tactics in a position. Both of these objectives are intertwined - tactical patterns are the bricks while calculation and visualization are the mortar that build a house of tactical mastery.

Here is an example:

White to play

1.Nf6+! here wins the queen after the king moves. The tactical motif is the ever popular fork. Spotting it should be fairly easy if you've ever been exposed to it before. This is a position that comes from a variation of one of my recent games. However, during the game I was presented with this position:

White to play

I had drummed up a decent attack on the king. Not wanting to exchange pieces, I played 1.Ne4+ which also leads to a slight advantage after 1...Kd5 2.Nf6+ Kc4 3.O-O Threatening Rxc1+However, I could have forced a resignation by deflecting the queen with 1.Bxe8! and if 1...Qxe8 2.Ne4+ Kd5 3.Nf6+ as in the first diagram above. If 1...Bh6 counterattacking the queen then 2.Nf6+ Kd5 3.Bxc6+ followed by 4.Qxh6 wins.

Although the pattern of a fork would have been easily found no doubt, the pattern of deflection (or decoy depending on what book you read) combined with the discipline of calculation and visualization was not with me when I played the game. Unfortunately, for other reasons I went on to lose (but that's another article for another time).

You need both pattern recognition and the ability to apply it through calculation and visualization to master tactics.

Training for Pattern Recognition

Although solving tactical problems will improve both aspects of tactical training, doing different types of problems in different ways will enhance each objective more efficiently. To improve pattern recognition, here are some suggestions:
  • Start with simpler problems that present individual or simple tactical motifs. Books like Winning Chess Tactics by Yasser Seirawan do this nicely. Chess servers like Chess Tempo are helpful too, because of the number of problems available.
  • Solve the positions fairly quickly. Do not spend more than 60-90 seconds on any particular position.
  • Stop after 15-20 minutes OR after getting 3-4 problems incorrect.
  • Whenever you make a mistake, study the position carefully and try to understand the elements of the motif.
  • If you are using a book, continue until you can solve the problems almost instantly, taking no more than 15 seconds to recognize the answer.
After several months of doing this, you will amass a great memory for these tactical motifs and will be able to spot them easily in your games.

Training Calculation and Visualization

The other side of the coin of course is applying this pattern recognition through calculation and visualization. In this case, you are practicing the skill of calculating and visualization. Here are some recommendations on how to do it effectively:

  • Choose a book of problems or use a chess server.
  • Set a time for the training session (I typically do this type of training twice a week in 30-60 minute sessions).
  • Treat the position like a serious standard or long game. If you play mainly over-the-board, you may want to to set a real board up to simulate the way you play the most.
  • Try to calculate all of the possible forcing variations before you make your first move.
  • As before, if you get the problem wrong, try to see where you made an error - e.g. did you calculate far enough? Did you miss a forcing response by your opponent? Over time, you may find errors in your thinking process that you can
  • Occasionally, write down your calculations in a notebook. As you do this, you will find that your mind will get more organized about your calculations. Also, when you play out what you visualized on the board (or computer) you will be amazed at what you both saw and missed. Whenever I do this exercise, I gain many insights into my own thinking process. However, sometimes it is good to practice without writing it down too, as it can also be a crutch as you look over your writing (since you cannot do this during your games)


It is helpful to practice both of these types of tactical training. However, depending on your specific needs, you may emphasize one more than the other. For beginners, it is helpful to train mainly for pattern recognition because these are the foundation of your tactical ability. As you increase in strength, you will need to improve your calculation skills to fully apply the knowledge of your tactical patterns.

Chess Tempo

Finally, I wanted to recommend a great resource. Chess Tempo is a great site that you can use both of these training methods to improve your tactics. Of course, it is not the only one out there, but it is the one I use and recommend. Here is a video summarizing some of the points I made above and applying them using Chess Tempo.


Improving your tactics is one of the best ways to improve your chess strength. As Petrosian felt, it is at the very foundation of all chess strategy. I hope you can apply some of my advice to enhance your tactical training. If you have any other ideas about tactics training that you have found helpful, share them in the comments section. Otherwise, I wish you good luck and Better Chess!


Chess Tempo: In my opinion, the best tactics server on the internet. Besides training tactics, there is also endgame training and a large chess database.

Winning Chess Tactics by Yasser Seirawan. A great book to teach you the basic tactical themes.

Building Your Tactical Shield: An article I wrote on GM Nigel Davies' Chess Improver site with additional methods to aid in transferring your skills from training to your games.


  1. Sounds like a perfect many points did you gain with this method at chesstempo in the last year?

    1. I'm not if it's actually a method as much as a philosophy. I think it can be implemented in many ways. I would experiment and see what works for you. Although I or someone else might do something in a specific way doesn't mean you need to copy it. I don't do the exact same thing every day. It vary depending on the time I have as well as my energy.

    2. Well, i dont get better in tactics, if it is timed tactics, like the blitz or the mixed mode at chesstempo ( my rating in CT-blitz ~1900 and CT-mixed ~2000) . When there is no watch limiting the time for thinking then i can solve very complicated puzzles, my standard rating at chesstempo is 2298, i just calculate that long till i have analysed "all" lines, which takes me some hours. A friend of mine rated elo<1700 had a standard rating of 2400 at chesstempo but he was calculating at least 6! hours at each puzzle.. often up to 2 days or even more.

      What makes a master strong and quick is his patternrecognition. That helps them to cut down the amount of calculations to a "minimum". And patternrecognition is seemingly extremly hard to improve, at least after say 4000 tactic puzzles.

      There is Board vision ( = you know that you have a bishop at b2 and that a bishop there attackes the square g7; both without looking at the board ) ; tactical vision ( = knowing all patential mating pattern, all potential tactical motives in a position...) ; visualistation ( more or less the ability to play blindfolded , to be able to see the position many moves ahead and to be able to answer questions like: which piece is attacked which id not defended ) and calculation ( = systematically walk through the tree of variations without getting lost ).
      While it seems to be "easy" to improve in visualisation, the improvement in calculation is harder and the improvment in the both "visions" phu.. extreme hard.

    3. Wow! That's a lot of time you spend on those problems. I usually spend about 5-10 minutes on the Standard problems. Sometimes, I'll do a timed 20 or 30 minutes as an exercise, but really no more than that.

      I also do sets of easier problems with tactical motifs using Chessable. This has had a good effect of building up the patterns. I created a video about this on my Youtube Channel.

    4. as longer you think as better the move. When you think twice as long then your move is statistically between 100-200 elopoints better.
      That is the reason why ratings without watch/timer are not relevant. Empiical Rabbit made a lot of calculations about that phenomenon. If you want to measure your progress you need a rating with watch like chesstempo blitz and/or chesstempo mixed.

  2. I'm not sure. I haven't used Chess Tempo very regularly in the last year. My standard rating is currently 2046. However, it's been about 6 months since I've used Chess Tempo regularly. However, I've been using's Tactical Trainer more and probably gained about 150 points in the last 6-7 months. I also use Chessity, and my rating there has gone from about 1850 to 2100 in the last 2-3 months.