Elementary Tactical Concepts in Chess

"It is a mistake to think that combination is solely a matter of talent, and that it cannot be acquired"
    - Richard Reti (1889-1929)

Introduction

Richard Teichmann once famously stated that "Chess is 99% tactics." Since then, many have lined up on both sides of that argument (as well as in the middle), but it remains indisputable that a strong tactical understanding will increase both your ability to strike powerful blows in the game as well as being able to avoid setting yourself up for combinations from your opponent.

Anyone who plays the game with any regularity will soon discover many of the basic elements of tactical play simply by seeing them in use or, less frequently, finding them by way of intuition. For my part, I will assume very little on the part of the reader, and will attempt to be as descriptive as possible in each section.

It should be understood that this is a summary of conceptual tactics and not a book on the subject. The necessity of conciseness in the medium of E2 limits the detail required for a thorough treatment. In the "In Closing" section you will find an explanation of what you should do for further instruction, along with a list of recommended books should you wish to pursue further study of tactics and combinations in chess.

Note on Diagrams: The positions I have composed for this writeup are merely to illustrate concepts in the most easy to understand way. Therefore, there are no extra pieces other than the ones required to illustrate the idea. Also, the black pieces tend to get a bad rap in most chess literature, so for the purpose of this writeup, black will always have the advantage.

Elementary Tactical Concepts

  • Checkmate!

    Checkmate is the ultimate goal of the game and the methods used to perform an actual checkmate are wholly tactical in nature. A checkmate occurs when a king is in check and cannot move out of check either by blocking with another piece or pawn, capturing the offending piece with the king or another piece or pawn, or simply moving out of the way. The study of chess endings is an attempt to quantify late game checkmates with scientific method. The Russian school of thought states that studying endgames should be the first thing any serious student of chess should do, and while I don't necessarily agree with the inflexibility of that assertion, studying endgames will definitely teach you various methods of checkmate and improve your combinational vision by feeding you knowledge about piece interaction in easy to digest portions. You can learn more about endgames here.

  • Pins

    Pins are most simply defined as a line of attack where a piece is unable or unwilling to move because it blocks an attack against a more valuable piece. In Diagram 1 you can see that the knight on f6 cannot move due to the pin on his king from the black bishop. Additional pressure on such a pinned piece can cause great consternation in the enemy camp. In Diagram 2 we see a similarly contrived example. This time the knight can legally move, however, if he does so he loses his rook. This bishop tactic is commonly called a skewer, for the obvious reasons.

  •                             Diagram 1: King Pin
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 8
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |WK |   | 7
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |WN |   |   | 6
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 5
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |BB |   |   |   |   | 4
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 3
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 2
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 1
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                          A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
    

                               Diagram 2: Piece Pin
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |WR | 8
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 7
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |WN |   |   | 6
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 5
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |BB |   |   |   |   | 4
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 3
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 2
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 1
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                          A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
    

  • Fork you!

    Double attacks are attacks on more than one piece with a single piece. A double attack with a knight is called a fork. And in the case of forks on a king and another piece they are often devastating, since your opponent cannot simply block a knight check. This idea needs to be heavily reinforced: There is no piece in the game of chess which can block a knight's attack. The victim of a fork must either capture the knight or simply move out of the way, leaving the knight to his own devices. In Diagram 3 we see a illustrative example of the most feared kind of fork. The king and queen fork. As you can see, the king must move out of check since there is no way to capture the offending knight on this board. This leaves the knight free to gobble up the queen and continue on his merry way.

  •                             Diagram 3: Forking 
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 8
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 7
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |WK |   |   |   |   |   | 6
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |WQ |   |   | 5
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |BN |   |   |   |   | 4
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 3
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 2
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 1
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                          A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
    

  • Discovered Attack

    A discovered attack is one in which moving a piece opens a hidden attack that was previously blocked by the moving piece. Often discovery attacks can lead to multiple threats at once, and your opponent will often find him or herself hard-pressed to meet them all. In Diagram 4 we see a basic idea of a discovered attack. If black moves his knight to d6, he attacks both the rook on c8 directly as well as threatening the rook on g8 with the bishop by way of discovery. In this example, and with the pieces given, there is no way to stop one of the two attacks from succeeding.
  •                        Diagram 4: Discovered Attack
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |WR |   |   |   |WR |   | 8
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 7
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 6
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 5
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |BN |   |   |   |   |   | 4
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |BB |   |   |   |   |   |   | 3
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 2
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 1
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                          A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
    

  • Overloading

    Overloading is an extremely important concept which finds itself often misunderstood by beginners. Overloading is the result of one piece or pawn guarding too many other pieces or pawns so that the opponent (hopefully you) will be able to win material by exploiting the weakness caused by the overloaded piece. In Diagram 5, I show a theme that occurs commonly in beginner play. Here you see both of the white knights are supported by the single pawn. If it were white's move, he could solidify or move one. Unfortunately, it's black's turn to play and with the move Bxe5 white loses one or both of his knights. If white recaptures with the pawn, the other knight falls to the black queen. If not, the e5 knight is history anyway.

  •                           Diagram 5: Overloading 
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |BQ |   |   |   |   |BB | 8
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 7
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 6
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |WN |   |WN |   |   |   | 5
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |WP |   |   |   |   | 4
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 3
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 2
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 1
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                          A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
    

In Closing

Basic tactical understanding will greatly improve your enjoyment of chess as well as your ability to win games. The best way to improve your tactics is to examine and solve thematic chess puzzles so that your understanding of the basic attacks is heightened and you can recognize the situations when they arise. "Mate in X" puzzles will help as well, as will study of endgames. Also looking over the games of great masters who were well-known for tactical genius can help you learn how best to incorporate tactical ideas in your own games.

It is also vital to make sure that you play openings that lend themselves to tactical play while you are honing your combinational skills. Open games are generally the best thing to play until you have honed your tactical skills, but gambits are probably the best thing you can play

Below are a number of books which will help you further understand the concepts of tactical chess as well as game collections of some of the tactical greats.

Recommended Reading


This writeup is based on my 20 years of playing and reading about chess, so it's possible that I may have missed something. If you see anything that I overlooked, could clarify on, or just plain screwed up please let me know. Thanks.

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