Richard Teichmann famously declared that “Chess is 99% tactics”. Some players and authors disagree though. In a recent article on GM Nigel Davies’ site, The Chess Improver, contributor Hugh Patterson eloquently challenged the view that tactics should be studied at the cost of strategy.
The specific importance of tactics to the success of a player may be in dispute, but nobody is likely to argue that tactics is not very important. In my personal chess study plan, tactics stand second in importance only to endgame study.
So, how do I study tactics? The short answer is a little bit of reading and lot of practice.
There are a number of tactical categories or motifs. How many you think there are depends on which source or categorisation you choose to believe. Whatever the number, should mastering tactics then not be a simple matter of seeing these ideas repeatedly, to the point where you can recognise them very quickly? Maybe, but this is easier said than done. In the absence of an easy solution, I have decided on a three-pronged approach to studying tactics.
Firstly, daily practice of tactical problems. The tools I use for this are chess.com’s Tactics Trainer and ChessTempo’s equivalent. ChessTempo allows unlimited tactical problem solving, while on chess.com you need a subscription to do more than five problems a day. There are many other sites that provide a similar service, either free or at a price.
The second prong is books. I have read GM Yasser Seirawan’s Winning Chess Tactics (Winning Chess – Everyman Chess), which I thought was great as an introduction to tactical ideas. The text that I am using now is apparently available as a book (well, two books actually), but is available for free online. It is called Predator at the Chessboard and I read a few pages every day. I have found it to be better than Winning Chess Tactics, and also better than the other tactics books I have tried. Predator is similar to other sources in its categorisation by tactical motifs, but stands out from the crowd through the manner in which it describes the thought processes involved in tactics. It is not afraid to repeat these thought processes either. And that is fantastic. We are often told that the secret to tactical progress lies in repetition to the point of effortless recognition. Predator applies this principle not only to the problems, but also to the thought processes that lead to the solutions. It may be that the style and approach just happen to fit neatly with my own, but I cannot praise Predator too highly. My intention is to carry on reading it end to end until I feel I can squeeze no more value out of it. As I sit here today, that day is a very long way off.
The third and final prong of my approach to studying chess tactics is to use an engine to blunder check my over the board games. When I return from my weekly game, it is usually after 10 pm. Once I’ve poured my single malt (I told you I’m in pursuit of good habits!), I quickly enter the game into the software (I use ChessBase with Stockfish). The main purpose is to save the game into my database – at some point in the distant future I may be able to make use of the database – but I keep the engine running as I enter moves. I wait only long enough for it to get to somewhere between 15 and 20 ply, because that takes seconds and is usually more than enough to spot a blunder. I should clarify that in this early stage of my chess development, a blunder means losing a pawn or more, or missing the opportunity to win a pawn or more. I’ll worry about 0.1 pawn advantages much, much later. I make a mark on my paper score sheet where I blundered and move on. When I review my game on my analogue chessboard the following day, or over the weekend, I know to look out for the blunders and learn from them. [UPDATE May 2015: I have reconsidered the use of a chess engine and now use it only as a final step in game analysis]
And that is it. The theme on tactics training in my chess study plan is ‘little and regular’. Twenty problems a day on chess.com and/or Chess Tempo, three or four pages of Predator, and the weekly blunder check. The approach is relatively simplistic, but I hope it will show rewards in the fullness of time.