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How to Improve at Chess – Part 2

Before we proceed, I feel the need to point out that the title of this series isn’t “How to Improve at Chess Instantly“.

That distinction must be made because you’ll occasionally see advertisements for books or other materials which will try to make that extravagant claim. When they do, they’re selling you snake oil. The path to chess improvement is a very long (and often rocky) road, and nobody travels it overnight. However, there are guideposts along the way which can help you stay on the right path. That’s what I’m trying to do with this series: prevent you from getting lost and help keep you moving in the right direction.

Chess is often a game of pattern recognition. It’s true that after you leave the opening and go into the uncharted waters of the middlegame you’re not likely to see many positions that you’ve seen identically in the past. But you very often encounter positions which are quite similar to positions you’ve seen before, which is why today’s tip is a really important one (arguably the most important one for players rated <1500 Elo U.S.):

2. Study Chess Tactics

There are a number of ways to tackle this element of chess improvement.  The first part of the job, however, is to learn the basic tactical motifs (pins, forks, skewers, discovered checks, etc.). There have been a few printed works over the years which catalogue and discuss chess tactics. The best ever is now, sadly, out of print. I’ll mention Winning Chess: How to See Three Moves Ahead (by Irving Chernev and Fred Reinfeld) just in case you happen to run across a copy of this little gem in a used book store sometime. For my money it’s the best chess tactics book ever; my son Sam is presently reading it and I’ve already seen improvement in his play. However it’s not worth a look on Amazon to try to find it — new copies are about $100 and it’s not that good a book.

Not quite as good as the Chernev/Reinfeld book, but still in print and readily available (thanks, Doug, for the info!) are Winning Chess Tactics and Winning Chess Combinations by Yasser Seirawan. Books like these are more than just collections of “chess problems”; they describe and illustrate the various tactical motifs. This is important, because you need to know what to look for before you start looking for it.

After you have a basic grounding in tactical patterns, it’s time to start solving tactical problems. You’ll find several basic varieties of these:

  1. Mate problems
  2. Tactics puzzles
  3. Chess Studies

When most people think of “chess puzzles”, they think of mate problems. You’re shown a board position, told which side moves first, and often told how many moves to mate (e.g. “White to move and mate in three”). Solving these problems is an excellent use of your study time, as there generally utilize patterns which are repeated again and again, and which you will often see in your own games. I’ve sometimes heard players opine that the “mate in x moves” which accompanies these puzzles constitutes a “hint” (which you wouldn’t have in an actual game) and thus detracts from the usefulness of these problems. I strongly disagree — the “hint” doesn’t matter as long as you learn to recognize these patterns and mating possibilities when they arise in your own games.

Tactics problems are very similar to mate problems, but the idea behind them is usually to win material instead of deliver mate. Here again you’re told the side to move and often there’s a hint as to what the tactical motif would be. For example, you’re told that it’s Black’s move and the winning tactic involves a pin. Here again we sometimes see a criticism of the “hint” provided, and here again I must disagree since the ultimate goal of the exercise is to sharpen your pattern recognition skills (are you seeing the — ahem — pattern here?).

Chess studies often (but not always) involve the endgame. Some are quite elaborate and are positions which can’t possibly arise in an actual game of chess. While studies are a valuable resource, you need to be careful when selecting a collection of studies — some are straight endgames which are entirely possible in a real game, while other collections specialize in “fantasy” positions such as “selfmates”, “helpmates”, etc.

Before wrapping up this post, I need to add some elaboration to today’s tip:

2. Study Chess Tactics

Years ago, I knew a guy who claimed he solved a hundred tactical problems a day but who also complained that his chess skills didn’t seem to be improving. Doesn’t this seem to be a paradox? What could be the problem here?

Trying to “blitz” your way through as many chess problems a day as you can cram in to your free time really isn’t very beneficial. That’s similar to buying an algebra textbook and trying to go through the entire book in one day; how much of that stuff do you think you’ll really retain after you’ve blasted through it as fast as you can? Here’s a “sub-tip” on that very topic:

It’s far better to solve a small number of chess tactics problems each day as long as you understand their solutions than it is to try to solve dozens (or more) at a single sitting.

I’m serious about this. Solving a half-dozen to ten problems involving, say, Knight forks in a one hour lunch break is plenty of tactics training for one day as long as you come away with an understanding of why the solutions work as they do. Trying to cram three dozen problems into sixty minutes by getting them wrong and giving a cursory glance at the solutions, just so you can hurry up and get to the next problem, is just wasting your time and more than likely hurting your game. Understanding the problems’ solutions is the key to identifying and using these same tactics when they come up in your own games; once you understand the patterns, they’re more easily spotted in your own chess games. And that’s why I keep harping on pattern recognition and am telling you today that it’s a major component of long-term chess success.

To be continued…

ChessCentral offers quite a few software ideas for players who wish to work on their tactical training. Among these are CT-ART, Intensive Tactics Course, and Killer Moves. You can check out the whole selection at ChessCentral’s web site.

Have fun! — Steve

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One Response

  1. I enjoy reading your page, always learn random interesting facts.
    Emily R. from Husky Secrets

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