Chess Tactics Explained

Chess Tactics Explained

During Nigel Short’s time as coach of Iran, one of the players asked the former World Championship challenger for a chess training play to improve her game.

She was expecting suggestions for her opening repertoire. Instead, Nigel gave her an intensive chess tactics training program. After studying for 2 hours a day, this 2070 player put in a 2430 performance at her next tournament just 2 months later.

This little anecdote teaches us a key aspect of chess improvement: Performing well in tactical calculations and constantly improving your tactical abilities is one of the most important skills of any successful chess player.

Nowadays, however, many chess players exclusively focus on openings, remember long, forcing lines and rely on computer evaluations. As soon as a complex position arises on the chessboard, these players have to stick to their own resources. They lack tactical skills, calculate poorly, lose control and finally their games.

For this reason, this article is devoted to the universe of chess tactics. What do we know about chess tactics? Which types of chess tactics exist? How can we spot hidden tactics in our games and how can we improve our tactical abilities in general? All these questions are going to be tackled in the following.

Chess Tactics Explained

Chess tactics play a crucial role in almost any chess game on any level. When talking about tactics, chess players usually mean move sequences in which the opponent is not able to defend against all threats. Hence, chess tactics usually confront your opponent with two or more problems at the same time.

Since each player can only make one move per turn, the opponent can just defeat one threat. On the next move, the other threat can be executed. It is important to note that tactical combinations do not necessarily need to lead to checkmate, but they can also result in material advantages, strategic and positional advantages, stalemate and so on.

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Chess Tactics Training As Part Of A Classical Chess Education

Chess Tactics ExplainedFor a classic chess education, it is essential to be familiar with the most important tactical motifs. FM Martin Weteschnik hits the nail right on the head when he writes in his book “Understanding Chess Tactics”:

“Although tactics sometimes can be very complicated, there is good news: tactics consist of basic elements that can be learned like a language or mathematics.”

Even the most difficult chess tactics consist of a series of basic tactical elements. Hence, if you want to solve complicated chess puzzles, you’ll need to be familiar with all the different basic types of chess tactics. Therefore, you first of all need to improve your chess tactics vocabulary and to study chess tactics separately by motif.

Top 10 Elementary Chess Tactics

The following examples give you an overview of the 10 most essential tactical motifs which reoccur over and over. In order to get the maximum from the following examples, you should first try and solve them yourself. Stop after each puzzle, try and work everything out (including all the different responses by the opponent) before reading the solution.

If you managed to solve a puzzle, fantastic! If not, make a note of what you missed or any mistake you made. The process of identifying these mistakes will help you fix them and make you a stronger tactician.

  1. The Pin

Chess Tactics ExplainedA pin is a situation in which a player’s piece is unable or is inadvisable to move. In the example on the right, Black can play 1…Rd8! White’s queen can’t leave the b1-h7 diagonal because the king would be put into check then. After 2.Qxf5, White gets mated with 2…Rxd1#.

  1. The Fork

Chess Tactics ExplainedA fork is a move that attacks two or more enemy pieces at the same time. In the example on the left, Black’s knight on g8 has to keep an eye on the f6-square, in order to prevent White’s knight on f5 from forking king and queen. Therefore, White can play 1.Bh6! After 1…Nxh6, White plays 2.Nf6+ and after 1…gxh5, White plays 2.Bg7 winning the rook on h8.

  1. Overloaded Piece

Chess Tactics ExplainedOverloading is a tactical motif which can occur if one piece has to fulfill too many defensive tasks. In the example on the right, White wins with the calm move 1.h5! Black’s queen is overloaded.

It can’t protect the knight e6 and capture the h-pawn in order to prevent White from playing 2.Qh8# at the same time.

  1. The Double Attack

Chess Tactics ExplainedA double attack is a tactical motif that combines two or more threats at the same time.

In the example on the left, we see the former World Chess Champion Anatoly Karpov losing in 16 moves. He had to give up after White move 1.Qd1!, attacking the bishop on d6 and the knight on h5.

  1. The Discovered Attack

Chess Tactics ExplainedNumber 5 of our essential chess tactics is the discovered check, which means giving check by moving a piece that was blocking another of your pieces from giving it.

In the example on the right, White can start by playing 1.Ng6! threatening mate on h8 in the next move. Black has no choice than to take the rook on b6 – 1…Rxb6.

But now White can use a discovered check to win back his material investment and even grab an additional rook. 2.Nf8+ Kg8 (Kh8 won’t change anything) 3.Nxd7+ (a discovered check!) 3…Kf7 4. Nxb6. White is a rook up and will easily convert his material advantage into a full point.

  1. Weak Back Rank

Chess Tactics ExplainedIf one player’s position is vulnerable to a back rank mate, we usually speak of a back rank weakness. In the example on the left, White has a weak back rank. Hence, Black can play 1…Rxd7! 2.Rxd7 Rb8! and White can’t defend the mate. After 3.g3, Black simply plays 3…h3 and if White plays 3.h3 himself, Black plays 3…Ng3 threatening mate on h1 on the next move.

  1. Mate

Chess Tactics ExplainedMate – short for checkmate – ends the game. In the example on the right, Black has a forced mating sequence – 1…Bg2+ 2.Rxg2 Qf1+ 3.Rg1 Ng3+! 4.hxg3 Qh3#.

  1. The Interference

Chess Tactics ExplainedInterference is a chess tactic where a piece is sacrificed to block an opponent’s piece from fulfilling an important task.

In the example on the left, White would like to play 1.exf6, but unfortunately, Black could answer with 1…Qxg5. Hence, White starts with 1.Nf5! threatening mate on g7. After 1…exf5, White wins with 2.exf6 followed by a mate on g7.

  1. Exchanging The Defender

Chess Tactics ExplainedExchanging the opponent’s most important defending piece is a useful technique in chess. In the example on the right, White can play 1.Bxd5 2.exd5 2.Qc3+! winning the knight on a5 on the next move.

  1. The Clearance

Chess Tactics ExplainedIf you have a chance to play a good move, but one of your own pieces is in the way, you can try to move it away with tempo and clear the way for the other piece.

In the example on the left, Black wants to bring his knight to f3 with check in order to give mate on g1. Therefore, he plays 1…Rxf2+ 2.Kh1 Rh2+! 3.Kxh2 Nf3+ 4.Kg1 Rxg1#.

Chess Strategy and Chess Tactics

“Tactics flow from a superior position.” – Bobby Fischer

Chess tactics are usually contrasted with chess strategy. The reason for this is that many chess players think that chess strategy is about realizing advantages in the long run, whilst chess tactics lead to the quick realization of an advantage. However, it is important to mention that chess strategy and chess tactics often go hand in hand.

On the one hand, you often need to make use of small tactical details in order to execute strategic ideas. On the other hand, you can play a strong positional game, but most of the time to finish off the game it requires a tactical blow which will convert your advantage into something more concrete. To provide some help, here are a few deadly chess tactic ideas.

Usually, you can only achieve this by using tactical ideas. Hence, it is false consciousness that if chess players think that Anatoly Karpov, for example, was above all a strong strategic player. Of course, Karpov was also good at chess tactics. If he had not been good at calculation and chess tactics, he would not have been able to perform at the highest level.

Chess Tactics Training

Of course, it is essential to train chess tactics. Here are some techniques for chess tactics training:

  • Use Chess Tactics Trainers – It’s highly recommendable that chess players of any level train tactics every day at least for 15 minutes.  The great thing about chess tactics training in today’s world is that you don’t need to have a tactics book at hand all the time. Solving chess problems was never so easy, as there are lots of free chess training tools to practice available all over the internet. Chess Tactics Trainer Websites provide its users with a variety of innovative advantages, such as opportunities to train specific skills, to track your results and to detect progress through rating systems. What’s more, you can solve tactics puzzles everywhere – when traveling in the bus, sitting in the tube on your way to work or lying at the beach on vacation.
  • Solving Chess Studies – Solving chess studies has a variety of positive impacts on chess improvement. It helps you to improve your visualization skills, your creativity and imagination to find complex tactical motifs and to develop a sense for your opponent’s counterchances.
  • Improve Your Calculation Abilities – Improving your calculation methods (e.g. looking for forced moves first) helps you to systemize your calculation. Finally, this enables you to check different lines more efficiently.
  • Read Chess Books Or Watch Chess DVDs On Chess Tactics – These training sources provide you with a huge amount of well-chosen chess puzzles and exercises which you can use as training material. What’s more, different strong chess masters give you great insights into their approach to improving your tactical abilities.
  • Follow The Guiding Principles To Solve Chess Puzzles – Write down your solutions, slow down your calculation, find the right balance between hard and easy exercises, include chess puzzles which don’t have a solution. These and many more guiding tips on how to work on chess tactics are key to become a tactical monster.


Chess is 99% tactics”. That famous quote has been often debated in the world of chess. Surely, there is a lot of truth in that – but combining it with consequent and regular strategy training will make you a master at chess!

Chess Tactics Explained
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Remember: Improving your tactical skills will lead to overall chess improvement. Being able to spot tactical motifs rapidly and to improve your calculation abilities is essential to chess mastery. That’s why every competitive chess player should draw special attention to chess tactics training. The vast majority of amateur games are decided through tactics.

So go for it, take a little time every day for your passion and see how your chess skills will skyrocket constantly! If you can’t wait to unleash your inner chess genius, you can take a closer look at a special offer on our “Chess Tactics Masterclass” with GM Damian Lemos. Click here to get instant access with 35% off.

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