Finding a tactic in a chess game is not difficult since tactics are one of the most common, if not the most common, element.
Studying tactics in your chess training is essential to becoming a better player. The standard advice is to spend lots of time working on solving puzzles.
Yes, it is an excellent habit to develop, but how often will you get a position from them in your games, and how many of them would you remember?
If a friend or a coach asks you to spot a tactic in a position, you will often find it much easier to see them than when you are playing a game. Fortunately, you can get better at finding tactics in chess games.
There are many clues to the presence of a tactic in chess, as IM Anna Rudolf explains.
Four Clues To Help You Find A Tactic in Chess Games
Because your aim in chess is to checkmate, the first clue you must look for is the position of your opponent’s king. When your opponent’s king is exposed, don’t give them time to consolidate.
Consider things like how many moves your opponent needs to castle. Are there open lines or ways to open lines against the castled king?
Closely related to king safety is the number of defenders around the king. When your opponent castles short and their pieces are on the queenside, it might take many moves to get them over to defend the king.
While considering the opportunity to attack the king, note the crucial defenders.
Another clue is the placement of your opponent’s pieces. Look for pieces lined up in the same diagonal, rank, or file.
Even if your opponent has been careful to avoid placing pieces in a row, it might be possible to draw pieces onto weak squares with a sacrifice.
Piece placement is also crucial to another tactical motif involving knights. Apart from being the only piece to jump over pieces, the knight can attack multiple pieces while not being under attack itself.
Many players often overlook tactics involving knights because of the L-shape in which a knight moves. All the other pieces move in a straight line along ranks, files, and diagonals.
Along with poorly placed pieces, it is sometimes possible to trap pieces or at least keep them from returning to the game. It helps to pinpoint your opponent’s pieces with limited mobility and find a way to “checkmate” them.
The four clues to look for are:
- The position of your opponent’s king.
- Eliminating or deflecting crucial defenders.
- Poor piece placement by your opponent.
- A lack of defenders near the king.
The Exposed King Is a Clue to a Tactic in Chess
Because checkmate ends the game, always look for ways to take advantage of the exposed king. Remember, tactics occur in all three phases of a chess game, so do not stop looking for checkmate opportunities.
The term “Forcing moves force wins” is often used to help find candidate moves in a position. Checks, captures, and attacks are forcing moves.
Instead of looking only for checks, get into the habit of including checkmates when searching for forcing moves. There might not be a check, but you could find a way to deliver a checkmate using a standard mating pattern.
White begins a standard checkmate pattern in this position with 1.Qh5. Knowing your checkmate patterns helps you save time because you will immediately find Qh5.
Mate follows after 1…h6 2.Qg6 Qxh2 3.Kxh2 hxg5 4.Qh5 checkmate.
The exposed king in the center can be bad enough to allow one player to sacrifice a queen for the attack. In a game between mark Taimanov and Lev Polugaevsky, they reached this position after 11…Qc6.
Can you spot the tactic in this chess position?
White already has a decisive advantage and can afford to ignore the threat against his queen.
Mark Taimanov responded with 12.0-0-0 achieving a winning position. The threat of Re1+ is decisive.
Mark Taimanov – Lev Polugaevsky, 1960.02.14, 1-0, USSR Championship Round 13, Leningrad URS
Interestingly, Karpov playing black against Tony Miles, chose to return material and get his king to safety. Karpov played 8…b5 and met 9.Qxb5 with 9…Rb8. The game ended in a draw after twenty moves.
Eliminate or Deflect Crucial Defenders
An adage in chess says you need three pieces to deliver checkmate – one to sacrifice and two to deliver checkmate. This is especially true if one of the remaining attackers is the queen.
After short castle, Black’s crucial defender is often the knight on f6, which protects h7 and keeps the queen from joining the attack on h5.
The black king in the next position is so exposed it is easy to believe there must be a tactic in this chess position.
To help you identify the crucial defender, ask yourself, “What squares do I want to invade on?”
White would like to enter Black’s position on h7 or f7, but the black knight on f8 controls h7. Knowing this makes White’s winning move easier to find.
After Rxf8, Black resigned because …Rxf8 allows Qh7 checkmate and …Kxf8 allows Qf2+ followed by Qf7 with a decisive attack.
This game was an impressive victory for Zhao Xue, rated 200 Elo lower than his opponent.
Zhao Xue (2467) – Sergey Karjakin (2672), 2006.10.30, 1-0, Cap d’Agde Round 1.2, Cap d’Agde FRA
A Tactic in Chess Games: Poor Piece Placement
Poorly placed pieces are trapped by their own pieces (a bad bishop) or kept from entering the game because you control the entrance squares.
When your opponent has a poorly placed piece, a simple yet effective strategy is to exchange pieces and use your better-placed piece. You could enter an endgame with an active piece against an imprisoned piece – effectively a piece up.
Sometimes the only way for your opponent to activate his piece is at the cost of material.
Its own pieces and White’s control the black knight. There is no way to bring it back into the game without losing material with either …b6 or …b5.
After either of these pawns moves, White gets a won endgame position after cxb6. In this position, the knight on the rim is very dim.
Although the knight often gets singled out as a bad piece on the rim, even the most powerful piece fairs poorly on the edge of the board.
None of White’s queenside pieces are developed, and the only piece on the kingside, the queen, has no way to enter the game. The best course of action for White in this position would be to develop one of the queenside pieces with Be3.
Developing the knight ahead of the bishop is bad because it blocks the bishop and allows …Bg5.
Instead of developing, White played the attacking 14.f4, which violates another chess principle. When you are behind in development, initiating contact with your opponent’s pieces is not a good idea.
The f4 pawn advance also weakens the g3 square. Whenever your opponent advances a pawn, look to see if you can take advantage of the unprotected squares left behind.
After 14.f4 Black sacrificed the knight on e5 to keep the white queen out of the game. Black replied with 14…Bh4 and after 15.fxe5 played 15…Bg3.
Eric Lobron – Vlastimil Hort, 1982, 0-1. Dortmund Round 5, Dortmund FRG
A Lack of Defenders Near the King Signals a Possible Tactic in Chess
Defenders close enough to help the king are usually found in the first four ranks and files, where the king is castled. For example, if you castle short with black, the square is h8-h5-e5-e8.
When attacking, look for long-range defenders that can switch sides along a rank.
If the fifth rank is open, a common tactic to get the black queen to the kingside is Qa5-g5 or h5. Always make sure any long-range pieces (queen, rook, or bishop) on the opposite side of the board are stuck on that side.
Also, don’t forget about your long-range pieces when counting attacking pieces. If you have a bishop on b1, it attacks h7, and a bishop on b2 attacks g7.
There are vital pieces that play a solid defensive role in chess. Black’s knight on f6 and dark-squared bishop often play critical defensive roles.
The absence of these two pieces when Black castles short is a clue to look for a tactic in chess games. At first glance, the position below looks about equal, yet there is no knight on f6, the dark-squared bishop cannot defend g7, and the white pawn on e5 prevents the queen from reaching the kingside.
White won in only two moves – 21.Bf6 gxf6 22.exf6 1-0.
The rook is overloaded defending g7 and the back rank. 22…Rg8 gets met with 23.Rd8 pinning the rook. Retreating the bishop doesn’t help Black because White can capture the bishop on f8.
Here is the entire game. Perhaps you can catch an unsuspecting opponent with the same tactic.
Alexander Grischuk – Vladimir Genba, 2011.08.28, 1-0, World Cup Round 1.1, Khanty-Mansiysk RUS
The more games you play, the better you will get at spotting a tactic in chess. Eventually, spotting these clues and many more will become second nature.
One of the best things about tactics in chess is the joy you get from finding and unleashing an unstoppable attack. Even learning about tactics in chess and solving puzzles is rewarding.
There is lots more to becoming a well-rounded chess player, but IM Anna Rudolf makes training in all phases of the game fun.
Grab a copy of her highly-rated Master Method course that continually appears on our best-seller list. Every essential aspect of chess training is covered.
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