Monday, November 26, 2018

Improve Your Chess Tactics with The Woodpecker Method

When it comes to improving your tactics, there are many methods available to you including chess tactics servers like Chessity and Chess Tempo, which I've talked about previously. There are also many books in print form. I think there is a third method that combines the online accessibility of chess tactics servers with the chess instruction of a good book - interactive ebooks on Chessable. In this article, I'm going to share my thoughts on one of the newest offerings on Chessable, The Woodpecker Method by GM's Axel Smith and Hans Tikkanen.

I actually created several videos to highlight this ebook so I will give some thoughts for those of you who would prefer to read and encourage you to check those videos out.


The Woodpecker Method is named after the repetitive nature of training the collection of tactics problems. Those of you familiar with Michael de la Maza's "7 Circles" may note its similarities. This book provides both the collection of problems (which de la Maza doesn't in his book Rapid Chess Improvement) as well as suggesting the repetitive solving of the set of problems. 

Within the Chessable platform, the reader may also engage in using the software's inherent spaced repetition system to review the problems - which I highly recommend. With this system, you do not wait until you have solved all of the problems before seeing them again. Instead, you will see a problem a few hours after you have solved it initially, and if you successfully solve the problem again, you will see it perhaps a day later. This time period increases as you successfully recall and solve the problems. It is like having a coach help you review the problems at the most appropriate time - before you have fully forgotten it but not too soon as to be cumbersome.

Here are some of the details on the sets of problems (from the ebook's description):
  • 223 x Easy Exercises (2.66 avg depth)
  • 255 x Intermediate Exercises (3.66 avg depth)
  • 255 x Intermediate Exercises II (3.59 avg depth)
  • 254 x Intermediate Exercises III (3.54 avg depth)
  • 145 x Advanced Exercises (5.55 avg depth)
One interesting tidbit about the problems is that one of the participants is a World Champion (or former World Champion). Sometimes they are even on the losing end of a combination. Because of this, some of the positions are fairly well known. I admit I had a thrill whenever I recognized the position, often followed by frustration when I failed to remember the right continuation!

I give a similar overview of the problems in the video below:

When it comes to the problems themselves, there is a comprehensive mix of tactical themes many of you will be used to, including:

  • Fork
  • Discovered Attack
  • Pin
  • Promotion tactics
  • Drawing tactics
  • Zugzwang
There were also some interesting concepts that may not be as familiar in name (although you may have seen the concept in practice):
  • Lifeline: Capturing a piece and then "rescuing" the capturing piece from recapture by using it in another combination.
  • The Magnet: I have often used the term decoy to describe this this tactic, where you capture or sacrifice a piece in order to draw another piece (often the king) onto a specific square, file, or diagonal.
The chapters are categorized by difficulty and not by theme. Within each chapter, the problems also seem to be arranged chronologically by World Champion - e.g. Starting with Steinitz and Lasker and finishing up with Carlsen.

Overall, I found there to be a good variety of problem types. For a sampling of some of the problems, check out the video below, where I present a few problems as sort of a tactics quiz!


Overall, I really enjoy this ebook and think that The Woodpecker Method can really help you improve your tactics. Here are the things I enjoyed about the ebook:
  • The selection of problems: The set was comprehensive across different tactical methods and motifs.
  • The analysis: The problems had good depth of analysis when the answer was not totally obvious. The authors also included short text explanations for many of the problems. The authors also note what you should have seen in solving the problem, which I thought was very useful in developing my thought process around tactics.
  • The historical factor: I enjoyed that they used the World Champions and their games for the source of all the problems.
  • The Chessable Format: Having this ebook on Chessable is a big plus, and these types of problems are perfect for the Chessable review system.
There are just a couple minor caveats you should be aware of:
  • Problem difficulty: Although most players can tackle the easy problems and a few of the intermediate problems, the more difficult problems are quite aptly named. I think this ebook is best for players at least USCF 1200 or higher, although I wouldn't discourage lower rated players to start tackling the first two or three chapters.
  • Lack of text explanation: As mentioned, the analysis is quite detailed especially for the more difficult problems, but for beginning players, the lack of text explanation might not be as helpful.
Overall, I highly recommend this ebook for intermediate players and higher who want to improve their tactical skills. 

If you enjoy watching videos, here is my final video in this series, where I summarize my recommendations (including an example from one of my games demonstrating my increased tactical vision):

I hope you found this review helpful. As always, my goal is to help you improve your chess. Sound tactics is a key foundation for any chess improvement efforts, and The Woodpecker Method is sure to help you with the tactical aspect of your game!


  1. Thanks for a good review of The Woodpecker Method! As noted in the Introduction, apparently the authors independently arrived at a similar approach to the MdlM Seven Circles (of Hell). Given the rather extensive "test' of that approach by the Knights Errant (with only modest improvements overall), I'm skeptical. Perhaps it will work; perhaps not. I suspect it has more to do with the focus and attention during the process than with any "magic" in the method itself, but that's an unprovable assertion.

    I note in passing that it is interesting that the magic number 7 is used for the repetition cycle:

    "The Magic number 7 (plus or minus two) provides evidence for the capacity of SHORT TERM MEMORY {emphasis added}. Most adults can store between 5 and 9 items in their short-term memory. This idea was put forward by Miller (1956) and he called it the magic number 7."

    My mother used to emphasize repeating things to be remembered at least 7 times in succession in order to be able to retain it. (I don't know if she was aware of Dr. Miller's assertion; she was a pretty knowledgeable woman.) I can attest that the "magic" repetition 7 times does work for a lot of different things. I've never tried it with chess knowledge and "patterns."

    1. You're welcome, Robert. My friends at Chessable recommended it to me and I'm so glad they did.