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Tactics training

Posted by pablito15 on May 29, 2010

You can load up your ICC games file in Fritz and get a list of your blunders very easily!

Thousands of them! Thousands of them lined up waiting for you. The game is won. A scatter of books from Nimzowitzsch, Soltis, Emms rejoyce in your mind as they have brought you safely up to this point…… But.. can you see it? A moment passes… Nimzowitzsch slowly stops his giddy dance Soltis puts away the celebratory crack pipe… they look at each other… “oh no… oh…oh come on! He… oh!!!!!”

That’s how I feel when I look through a tactics book! Thousands of positions where a win is waiting, a forcing combination, and.. after all the hard work has been done…………… can you see it? In a sense all of your chess training: opening, middle game, strategy, pawn structure has been leading up to it. I’m always astounded when I think of books full of readily won positions, page after page of them, and if you took them out of a tactics book I’d probably not even notice anything in half of them…

I’ve gone through 3 distinct stages in my relationship to “tactics”: To begin with, I thought of them as a dirty word. A cheap trick to beat a “poor, undeserving loser“, who was automatically assumed to be the embattled “true chess player” undeservedly beaten by this anomaly in chess- that we can be far worse than our opponent across the board, but if we’re stronger tactically we still can and probably will beat him.

Secondly, I came around to the view that tactics are a beautiful part of chess- “unique, imaginative, inexhaustable and never-ending”, and that as such, we should study as many different problems as we can to work on our imagination and ability to think out (with themes) these tactical brilliancies, rather than with some memory regime that sucks the beauty out of them. I think this view too is a little too utopic for the purposes of learning/gaining a tactical skill.

And finally, the point I am at now, where I believe that most tactical power is founded on a base of recognition rather than imagination. It’s sad to say, but an idealistic view where we’d like to analyse each position and tease out with words what tactical possibilities lie within it is not really going to work. I think it is fair to say that tactical knowledge is not verbal. David Beaumont wrote on ozchess.com.au

“What a lot of improving chess players need to understand is that chess is actually a language. Also it is not one language but two, Calculation and Positional judgement.
The calculative part is often done pictorially with the mind. This denigrates without practice. I have found that verbalising the process actually slows you down here, but helps comprehension.”…

I think this is true, and as such I’m basing my study of tactics far more on developing a base recognition of certain patterns than I once was. Whilst it is always very useful to keep account of a position verbally (“Ok the pawn is now pinned and the Knight is running out of squares…”), usually when we see a tactic what clicks is not verbal, it is something found in the very word we use to describe it- combinational.

From a recent ICC game: Fritz's "Blunder Check" option


Some Tactical resources:

(1) http://www.entertainmentjourney.com/tactics.htm

White to play

Black to play

A great site for elementary pattern recognition combinations. This is a site with positions that could be considered as elementary tactics, however it is much more than that too. The site progresses, showing you the basic forms of mating/capturing patterns in the first 3-600 problems, and then moves on to use those patterns in more difficult situations. Used in conjunction with a more difficult book, this is a GREAT resource to help ground your tactical ability (even for a 1700+ player). I also find the way he’s organised the problems very clever and great for memory.



(2) “The Encyclopedia of Opening Blunders!” (ELO 1400-2100)

Similar to CT-Art, "The Encyclopedia of Opening Blunders" can be a nice change.


Method & Results

My method basically revolves around diversifying how I study. This week I’ve been using Neil McDonald’s Mastering Chess Tactics (1700-1900 ELO, a long-explanation book using games and words) chapter 9 on Skewers. I’ve taken Susan Polgar’s (ELO 1400) tactics book sorted by theme and gone through the Skewers section, I’ve done some of the simple assorted problems from the link I gave above, and I’ve also done my weekly quota of Pandolfini’s Chessercizes, Checkmate. I hope that all these things combined compliment each other and I keep on seeing the patterns popping up. Next week, I might use another book with far more difficult unsorted problems.

There are so many questions on “how to best study tactics”:

  • Should you be like a weightlifter- lifting the heaviest weights he can in order to improve, or should you be focussed on simple patterns and drilling them in? After all, the end goal is too see the most difficult tactics we can.

Is just one. I’m of the opinion that we can only ever really approximate how we best learn in chess and therefore that diversifying our methods is the best bet.

  • I study 105 tactical problems a week
  • When my error count reaches 105, I go back and the next week’s study is the 105 errors I’ve made
  • Occasionally, like this week with skewers, I will devote a week to the study of a ‘problem’ theme.
  • When I don’t feel like doing tough problems I do 20 minutes from http://www.entertainmentjourney.com/tactics.htm to reinforce fundamental patterns.
  • I use Pandolfini’s “More Chessercizes, Checkmate” and “Chessercizes” to focus on mating patterns which so often reappear in tactical threats.
  • I do a mix of elementary, easy, difficult, theme based, verbal and non-verbal problems.

My rating is now around 1700 on the ICC which is not bad, as I’ve been so busy in the last 6 weeks I’ve only been able to keep up with the tactical part of my schedule.

In conclusion,

  1. learn the base patterns of combinations and mates, from there, diversify what and how you study.
  2. Set yourself a weekly goal for problems completed. The goal should be X number of the highest difficulty problems you can reasonably do. For me on a scale of 1-7 this is level 3, so I have a goal of 105 “level 3” tactics per week. This way, if I’m feeling tired or out of time, I can use some easier level problems to reach my goal.
  3. Keep a log of your errors and go back over them.


Post Script! A comment from IM David Pruess on learning tactical patterns:

…when i give players in the 1000-1800 range advice on improving their tactics, viz: 10-15 min per day of solving simple tactical puzzles. the goal is to increase your store of basic patterns, not to work on your visualization, deep calculation. remember that is your goal. you are not trying to prove that you can solve every problem. if you don’t solve a problem within 1 minute, stop. it’s probably a new pattern or you would have gotten it by now. (with private students i’ll take the time to demonstrate this to them: show them through examples that they can find a 3-4 move problem in 10 seconds if they know the pattern, and that they can fail to find a mate in 2 for 10 minutes if they don’t know the pattern). look at the answer, and now go over the answer 3 more times in your head to help the pattern take hold. your brain can probably take on 2-3 new patterns between sleeping, so you should stop once you’ve been stumped by 2 or 3 problems (usually will take about 10-15 min). there is no point in doing more than that in one day. and any day you miss, you can’t make up for. a semi-random estimate on my part is that you need about 2000 of these patterns to become a master. so you need to do this for 2 years or more.

You can find his writing at the Novice Nook, Chesscafe.com where he gives a lot of suggestions for the improving player, and make your own judgements. Personally i’m 50/50 on the guy due to some questionable book suggestions.

3 Responses to “Tactics training”

  1. SIgnalman said

    Very impressive ( both the post and the ratings climb in the past weeks ). Is that the Fritz GUI ? Have to say it looks more like Aquarium ! The same thing can be carried out in Chess Assistant ( which I have ) and it is useful to do at times. In short time games it is remarkable how many tactics are missed.

    I don’t seem to have the persistence that you have in sticking to self-study plans, particularly around tactics. I know its good for my chess overall, but there are lots of other things to do that take over.

    I will admit though, that on the few occasions that I have persisted with a tactics regime, it has paid dividends. I used Convekta’s CBT and also Martin Weteschnik (?spelling) “Understanding Chess Tactics” which is a great book.

    • pablito15 said

      Hey Signalman!
      What’s a GUI?! That’s the Fritz 12 interface (you’re right in saying it’s massively changed!), you get to that screen by pressing F12 – I think it’s the same in Rybka and older Fritz’s too:)

      I’ve also had a look at the German guys book, it does look good and i’ll use it in the future. As for the study plan, I’m surprised as I’m not at all that type of person- I’ve never been able to stick to a study plan with anything. But studying with a partner is great as it places certain expectations, challenges and friendly competition between you so it’s good motivation to keep up with the plans.

      As for rating jumps, tactics both holds us back and makes us jump forward towards 1800. Until we’ve reached a certain tactical level we can’t get over the 1650 mark as every second or third game we’ll get hit by a ‘cheap shot’ and it just means a percentage of our games are already lost. I think realising how important tactics are in reaching rating bump goals is crucial.

      • SIgnalman said

        GUI, yes the interface…I assumed Fritz was like chessbase reader/light, but obviously, its not !

        I agree with you that tactic improvement/spotting is very important to make those rating jumps…in blitz in particular I suffer so much and vary greatly from beating a 1400 ICC to losing to a 700. I have to accept that I am not a natural quick thinker in the 5 minute format !

        As in so many areas, a partner is very productive 🙂

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