Tactics: combinations and blunders

[C/D] 10th July 2007.

1. Chess is 99% tactics , said Richard Teichmann.nbsp; However, 90% of the time, there is no tactic for either side.nbsp; So, as well as any difficulty presented by a complicated position, we also have to counter our natural laziness in not looking out for a rare event, as if each move we are crossing the a quiet country road, and not bothering to check for oncoming traffic.nbsp; When they think it's a quiet position, even the best players miss things .

2. Tactical ability can be improved, says Dvoretsky.  He described two elements: vision and analysis.  Both can be developed by completing exercises.  [An uncomfortable corollary: If you don't exercise, don't expect to get better!]

3. You need to have a good understanding of the varieties of tactics.  There are different ways of classifying and naming this variety; Purdy gives six simple headings of:- Jumps, Mates, Forks, Nets, Pins and Ties. These building blocks can be fitted together to make a combination, a set of more or less forcing moves, often with a sacrifice, resulting in your advantage.

4. The more combinations you see, the more you will be able to see.  Real examples are very helpful in developing your imagination, throwing up ideas that you can analyse.  Euwe doesn't call it imagination, he calls it combinational vision, but he and Dvoretsky both agree that looking at different problems helps.  The most obvious thing that it helps, which you would expect, is that you can develop depth and accuracy the same way; keep pushing yourself on speed and depth.

5. Purdy also advises us, when a href="http://exeterchessclub.org.uk/content/solving-tactical-problems" searching for combinations: examine moves that smite! These are checks and captures; both are forcing moves which limit the range of reasonable responses. The move that is right when a tactic is available is usually the opposite of a 'normal' sensible move.

6. You should always examine every position for 'accidental' tactics, but look especially hard if you think you have an advantage (if your position is better, your better pieces are more likely to work up a combination between you) or if you notice the clues for a combination: an unsafe king or loose pieces.

7. You should also be aware that there is another, less well-known, list: the list of difficult moves to spot: Long moves, Backwards moves, Declining to capture, an intermezzo or Zwischenzug, False endings, Coming back from the dead, Quiet ('creeping')moves in noisy positions, Switchbacks, Hesitations, and in John Nunn's uneuphonious coinage, Collinear moves (throwing yourself on the sword).

8. So much for the theory.  You can be good at a lot of that stuff and still lose games because of tactics.  You have two other pitfalls to avoid: [1] Going to sleep and ignoring the approaching fin until a shark bites your leg off, and [2] forcing the issue, trying to make combinations happen in positions which are not ripe.  If you have the first problem, you need to become more paranoid: they really are out to get you!

9. I have been bellyaching for a while that books of puzzles don't test you properly, because every position has a solution, and you can often guess what the answer is just because you know it has a solution.  One author in particular has tried to get around this problem, namely Chris Ward; an example is Chess Choice Challenge 3, but even here, the vast majority of the 80 positions have a ! or !! solution.

10. The last thing you need to do is make checking for tactics and combinations part of whatever routine you have for choosing a move.  I have written simply about a four-step THINking process: [1] checking for threats (and dealing with them if you have to using ABCD), [2] checking for your own opportunities (and using them if you can), [3] think about how you can improve your position, and [4], if you can, play with a plan.  Playing with a plan is hard, and your opponent will get in your way, but it is something to strive for.

11. I've been saying and writing things like the above for years.  What's new?  Well, ten years ago, there we didn't all own computers, and there wasn't the online help available.  There are online tactics servers, tactics databases, websites where you can download tactics tests, free database software which can administer tactical tests, and free analysis engines which can show you what mistakes happened in your games. 

12. There are still many good exercises for the computer-free.  In many magazines, you will find a feature like Spot the winning move; there are books full of these things.  Another good thing to do is try analysing real games: Byron Jacobs and Graeme Buckley have both published books of tough analytical exercises which are quite different to the 'spot the move' variety.  Another good idea is setting yourself 20 minutes to find all you can of some analysis in a known GM game which has been analysed; these rich positions are to be found in books by Kotov, Nunn and Dvoretsky. 

13. Lastly, the best clues are always in your own games.  For example, having just started playing the French, I notice that I'm very likely to overlook destructive combinations against my apparently solid pawn chain.