Chess players often enjoy solving tactical puzzles in order to improve their combinational
abilities. We can find these challenges in books on tactics, our favourite chess
magazine, the chess column at the local newspaper, educational software, or websites
dedicated to the subject. The authors of these puzzles often provide us with one
or more bits of the following information:
- Who’s turn is it (e.g. White to move)
- Number of moves (e.g. Mate in three)
- The Tactical Motif (e.g. The group of puzzles is listed under the category
- Outcomes (e.g. +/-, =, White to move and stalemate, Black to move and win,
- Choices (e.g. Two or more candidate moves and you must pick the right one.)
- The piece to be used in the tactic (e.g. The picture of a Rook above the
- An introduction (e.g. “This position exemplifies the perils of leaving the
back rank undefended”)
- The chess problem itself (e.g. Often a clue that you need to find “something”)
Some of this information helps us develop our tactical skills, such as solving problems
according to tactical motifs. The reality, however, is that no such information
is available to us while a game is in progress. How often have we gone over a game
after it has ended, only to discover that we missed a simple tactical shot, or lost
the game because we oversaw a threat?
In our chess training we might have gone over all of Fred Reinfeld’s 1001 Winning
Chess Sacrifices and Combinations thrice. We might be well verse on tactical themes
like clearance, pinning, double attack, decoying, etc. - but still miss on these
golden opportunities because no angel is telling us there is a mate in three, or
that a Queen sacrifice is in order. In the real heat of the battle we have to recognize
these critical moments for ourselves.
To compound the problem, a player has to deal with tournament time controls. When
should we invest the time in looking for a tactical shot? We obviously can’t do
it at every single move since we need to budget our time effectively. When do we
have the green light to explore a position further for tactical opportunities?
Chess positions with tactical opportunities share clues and motifs that give an
indication such tactics are present. Through the following ten chess positions I
will illustrate these motifs. These examples might contain more than one clue, but
only one is sufficient enough reason to probe a position further. It does not mean
that there will always be a tactical opportunity, but it might and we do want to
miss our chance to play a spectacular move! (or avoid have one be played on us).
Position No. 1 - Black to Move
NB: please click the highlighted links to view each position referred to in this
Ozsvath Vs. Honfi
This popular position was taken from my second favourite tactical book of all time,
the Encyclopaedia of Chess Middlegames (Informant 1980). Imagine the following scenario:
You are black and it’s your move. You have 30 minutes left on your clock. Should
you quickly parry the threat to your Rook on c8 and move it out of danger? or should
you invest some of the precious time left on your clock to look for a tactical shot?
This position begs for you to look for tactics because the following five motifs
- Your opponent’s King is lined up with your Queen: Whenever one of my heavy
pieces is lined up with my opponent’s King I look for tactics. Thanks to this motif
there are possibilities of moves such as 1...Nf3+ here.
- Knight Forks: Whenever I see the opportunity for Knight forks I take some
time to look for tactical shots. Here we see the forking possibilities 1...Nf3+
- Weak Pieces: Whenever there are weak pieces I look for tactics. Here the
Rook on c1 is weak because it has one attacker (the Queen on g5) and one defender
(the Queen on e1). Moreover, the Rook on c1 is even weaker because it is indirectly
attacked by the Rook on c8 as well. White could explore various things here, such
as trying to deflect the Queen from the defence of the Rook, or deflect the Knight
in order to win the Rook on c1.
- Undefended Pieces: White has an undefended Bishop on b7 and an undefended
pawn on b4.
- Checks: Whenever I see a check, no matter how silly, I explore the position
further. The reason for this is that a check forces your opponent to do something
about it. Check is the ultimate forcing move. In this position Black has four checks
at his disposal: 1...Qxg2+, 1...Qxc1+, 1...Nxf3+, and 1...Ne2+
Armed with this knowledge we can begin to calculate possibilities. 1...Nf3+ does
not work because of 2.Bxf3. 1...Ne2+ does not work because of 2.Nxe2 and the rook
on c1 seems to be adequately defended. 1...Rxc3 2.Rxc3 and there is no fork on e2
due to White’s Queen control of this square. 1...Qxc1 2.Qxc1 Ne2+ 3.Nxe2 Rxc1 4.Nxc1
and White emerges a piece ahead. However 1...Qxc1 2.Qxc1 Rxc3 3.Qxc3 Ne2+ and Black
wins a piece. White does not need to play 3.Qxc3 and can choose a move like 3.Qf1,
but then black has 3...Rc1! and Black will win the Queen either way. Again, if the
reader has not been working on his tactical skills then it is unlikely to find the
correct solution, let alone the ideas. If they have, the solution can be seen fairly
quickly. Based on the above motifs, the player correctly assessed there was “something”
in the position, looked further, and had the tactical training to find and execute
Position No. 2 - Black to Move
Hamilton Vs. Haygarth
Another position from the Encyclopaedia of Chess Middlegames. I think this is a
very instructive example because it shows the importance of knowing your tactics
through practice. Here we have similar clues and new ones:
- Checks: As IM Danny Kopec once told us at a chess camp: “Never miss a check”.
Here we have three checking possibilities: 1...Qf2+, 1...Qg1+ and, 1...Rh2+. If
you have been solving decoy-type tactical problems, you’ll immediately see the possibility
of 1...Rh2+ 2.Kxh2 3.Qf2+ with the threat of 4.Rh8 surrounding the King. Obviously
this is not currently possible due to Queen’s presence on e2. But maybe we can think
of a way to force her away from the defence of the f2 square?
- Weak Pieces: (or Pawns) The Knight on c4 is weak because it is attacked once
and defended once. We can look at ways to deflect the Queen from its defence, or
pile up on the Knight through moves like 1...Bb5. The pawn on b2 is also weak because
it has one attacker and one defender on it. Sacrificing the Rook on b2 could be
a useful option if White’s tactic involves trying to deflect the Knight on c4.
- Airy King: White’s King safety has been compromised as a result of the open
h file and dark-square weaknesses. Look for tactics if the King is out in the open.
- Weak Squares: White suffers from serious dark-square weaknesses and White’s
Queen and Bishop are all over them. Black could think of possibilities of deflecting
the Knight on g3 and coordinate the Bishop on f4 with a Rook on h2.
- Positional Advantages; Control of Open File: If you have a positional advantage,
no matter how temporary, explore the position a bit further to see if you can immediately
exploit it. Here Black has temporary control of the h-file, but it has to be used
immediately because White could contest the h file in the next move.
Although this puzzle was in the advanced section of the book, the answer came to
me rather quickly. I wanted to first calculate ways to remove the Queen from the
defence of the f2 square, so that I could play the decoy tactic 1...Rh2+ Kxh2 2.Qf2+.
I immediately so potential sacrifices on g4, starting with the Knight, so that the
Queen would be forced to move after White’s Bishop lands on g4. Thus 1...Nxg4 2.fxg4
Bxg4. Now the Queen is forced to move. The move I analyzed first was 3.Qxg4 to make
sure the attack was winning, otherwise I would be down to minor pieces in this solution.
3...Rh2+ (Sacrificing a third piece) 4.Kxh2 Qf2+ 5.Kh3 Rh8+ 6.Nh5+Rxh5 7.Qxh5 Qg3++
or if 5.Kh1 Rh8+ 6.Nh5+Rxh5 7.Qxh5 gxh5 8.Rg1+Kf8 9.Rg2 Qh4+ 10.Rh2 Qxh2++.
Position No. 3 - Black to Move
Mikenas Vs. Bronstein
Here is another famous position from my favourite book on tactics: Tal’s Winning
Chess Combinations by The Russian Grandmaster Mikhal Tal, by Mikhail Tal and Victor
Khenkin. This is the most delightful book I’ve ever read on tactics, and if you
can get hold of a copy you’ll want to read it over and over again. I wish they could
reprint this book. Here we see two familiar motifs and three new ones:
- Checks: Black has a check available on e1 and one on h2.
- Undefended Pieces: White has an undefended Rook on a1 and an undefended Queen
on d3. Moreover, the rook a1 is x-rayed by the Queen on a5 and the Rook on a8.
- Batteries: White has two pieces lined up on the same file. Both the Queen
and Rook exert pressure on White’s weak back rank.
- Pinned Pieces: The pawn on b2 is pinned by the Queen because the rook is
on a1. It wouldn’t matter if the Rook was defended or not. The fact that it is x-rayed
by White’s forces give us a reason to probe the position further and see if we can
find something to exploits this factor.
- Positional Advantages; Back Rank Weakness: Black’s battery means that two
pieces are attacking the back rank, while only one (The rook on a1) is protecting
it. Therefore, it is a good idea to look for tactical opportunities.
White would like to play 1...Qe1+ so that 2.Rxe1?? Rxe1+ 3.Qf1 Rxf1 mates. However,
White can play 2.Qf1! and everything is OK. Bronstein found 1...Rxa3! Taking advantage
of the pin on b2, threatening the undefended Queen on d3, and realizing the Rook
on a1 cannot depart the back-rank with 2.Rxa3.
Position No. 4 - White to Move
Louis Lima Vs. David53
Casual Game http://www.schemingmind.com
This position begs you to look for a killer blow because we have several familiar
- Checks: 1.Qxe6+
- Undefended Pieces: The Bishop on h4
- Weak pieces: The Rook on e6 is weak because it has the same number of attackers
and defenders on it. In addition, the Rook on e1 is indirectly attacking e6 as well.
- Pinned Pieces (or the opportunity of being pinned): The rook on e6 is pinned
by the Queen. Noticed that if there was, say, a Black Knight on f7, we would still
look for combinational possibilities since White’s Queen is in the same diagonal
as the opponent’s King.
Here I found the simple 1.Bf2, threatening the undefended Bishop on h4, while piling
up on the pinned Rook on e6.
Position No. 5 - White to Move
This is a hypothetical position reached by Bobby Fischer in his analysis of Game
41 Fisher - Robatsch from his book “My 60 Memorable Games. White has four clues
we have discussed already:
- Undefended Pieces: On a5, d8 and a8.
- Battery: Queen-Rook battery along the h-file
- Airy King
- Checks: On h7, g7, and f8, and indirectly on h8.
- Your Opponent’s Queen in the Same Line or Diagonal with One of Your Pieces:
Black’s Queen is lined up with the Rook on h5.
The solution is 1.g6. White cannot recapture on g6 because of 1...Rxa5, and any
pawn capture will be decisive after 2.Qxh7+ or 2.Qh8+
Position No. 6 - White to Move
Louis Lima Vs. Palaciorep
Casual Game http://www.schemingmind.com
There are five visible clues in this position.
- Undefended Pieces: Both of Black’s rooks
- Battery: Queen-Rook battery along the open d-file
- Airy King: Black’s pawn advances have compromised King safety
- Weak Squares: The dark squares around the Black King are weak.
- Weak Pieces: The Knight on d7 is weak because it has the same number of attackers
and defenders on it.
In trying to take advantage of the above factors I found 1.Na4!. Now most moves
by Black will be answered by 2.Qxd7+! Qxd7 3.Nb6 forking the King and Rook.
No. 7 - White to Move after 1... f5
Tim Mirable (2193) Vs. Louis Lima (1670)
Freeport Swiss Tournament, Freeport Chess Club 2006
Here the position has the following obvious clues:
- Back Rank Weakness: Black’s back rank is undefended
- Positional Advantage; File Control: White’s Rook controls the h-file
This was my most painful blunder because Tim was the highest rated player I had
played so far under regular tournament conditions. Here I neglected to see my weak
back-rank weakness coupled with Tim’s control of the h-file, and instead of playing
Re7 I played 1...f5?? allowing 2.Qe1+ winning the game. In chess the most painful
moments contain the most valuable lessons for a player. One might hear advice such
as “Keep your sense of danger at all times”, but we only begin to get the message
until this happens to us a few times over the board.
8 - White to Move
Harold Stenzel (2049) Vs. Louis Lima (1651)
75th Swiss Nassau GP Tournament, Nassau Chess Club 2006
A pawn on the sixth or seventh rank is inches away from coronation, so we must look
for ways to push the pawn to the finish line. We reached this position with Harold
on move 73. Here White missed his opportunity to wrap things up and played 74.Rg1?
and the game was drawn at move 90. However, if he had been hungry to push the f
pawn he might have found the winning shot 74.Rg8+! sacrificing the Rook in exchange
for two vital tempi needed to get the pawn to the queening square. Now If. 74...Kxg8
75. f7+ Kh7 76. f8(Q) and it’s all over. Or 74...Kh7 Rd8 and nothing can prevent
the pawn from moving forward. In all fairness, the game was approaching midnight
and we were both tired, besides me having a time handicap due to Harold’s role as
TD and needing to spend time doing other things while playing me at the same time.
The last two positions show another typical clue to look for tactics, namely, “Sacrificial
Possibilities Around the King”. These sacrifices typically take place on the f2,
g2, and h2 squares (f7, g7, h7), or the appropriate squares when the King has castled
Position No. 9 - White to Move
Louis Lima Vs. Fritz 8.0
Casual Game, SD/30
This position arose after 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 d5 4.exd5 Nf6 5.Nf3 Nxd5 6.cxd4
Nc6 7.Bc4 e6 8.0-0 Be7 9.Nc3 Nxc3 10.bxc3 0-0 11.Bb3 b6 12.Bc2 Ba6 13.Re1 Rc8 14.Bd2
Bc4 15.Qb1 Kh8. Here I tried the sacrifice 16.Bxh7!? g6 17.Bxg6 fxg6 18.Qxg6 Bf6
19.Ng5 Qe7 20.Re3 Bxg5 21.Rh3+ Bh4 22.Bg5 Qg7 23.Rxh4+ Kg8 24.Qxg7+ Kxg7 25.Bh6+
Kg6 26.Bxf8 Rxf8 27.Rg4+ Kf5 28.Rg3 Rc8 29.Rf3+ Kg5 30.Rg3+ Kf5 31.Rf3+ Kg5 32.Rg3+
Kf5 and the computer accepted the draw by repetition of moves as I only had a few
Position No. 10 - Black to Move
Radio Shack C2150 Vs. Louis Lima (1540)
Casual Game SD/60
Radio Shack C2150 was my first computer boasting a rating of 2150, but its strength
seemed to be around 1500. Unlike today’s chess software, this one would make the
exact same mistake over and over again. The game went along typical classical dragon
lines with 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 0-0 8.Qd2
Nc6 9.g4 Bd7 10.Nxc6 bxc6. After beginning its Kingside attack however, the computer
played 11.Bg2? Qa5 12.0-0-0 Rfb8 13.a3. Here I finished the computer off with 13...Rxb2!
(Tactic: Demolition of pawn structure)14.Kxb2 Nxe4! (Tactic: Clearance of a Diagonal)
15.fxe4 Rb8+ (Tactic: Removal of The Guard) 16.Ka2 Be6+ 17.Nd5 Rb2+ 18.Ka1 Qxa3#
I presented you with eleven clues or motifs in a position that tells you a tactical
shot might be available:
- Undefended Pieces
- Weak Pieces or Squares
- Unsafe King
- Queen, Rook or Bishop in the same file or diagonal with the opponent’s King or Queen
- Forks and Pins
- Back rank weaknesses
- Passed pawns on the sixth or seventh rank
- Positional advantages such as control of file, diagonal or square(s)
- Sacrificial possibilities on f2, g2, h2 (f7, g7, h7) or the appropriate squares
when castling queenside.
It is my hope that those readers who have been working hard honing their tactical
skills can make use of the ideas presented in this article, and help you avoid missing
winning shots in their games.