A Different Approach to Tactics

A couple of thoughts first.

Chess is a game of mistakes, not of good moves. As Tartakower wrote, “Chess is a fairy tale of 1001 blunders”.

If I’m playing Magnus Carlsen, if I don’t make any mistakes I won’t lose. If Magnus makes a mistake and I don’t, I’ll win. Objectively, there are no good moves in chess, only moves that maintain the status quo and moves that covert a draw into a loss, or a win into a non-win.

Yes, there are moves that are brilliant, artistic, profound, paradoxical, hard to find and so on, but they only happen because the other player made a mistake, or perhaps a series of slightly inaccurate moves.

Chess players can, very broadly, be divided into three categories:

Novices – rated 1000 or below (most children in primary school clubs and adults who only know the moves)
Intermediate – rated 1000 to 2000 (adult social players up to pretty strong club players)
Expert – rated 2000+ (strong club players up to Magnus Carlsen)

Generally speaking, games between novices are decided by the number and value of pieces left en prise.

Games between evenly matched intermediate players are very often decided by short-term tactics and calculation. Of course, at this level players are also learning about putting pieces on good squares and forming plans, in the opening, the middlegame and the ending. A 2000 (or 1500) player will usually be able to beat a 1500 (or 1000) player in this way.

Games between evenly matched experts are usually decided by putting pieces on better squares and forming better plans. There are exceptions: poor Nepo lost two games against Carlsen by missing simple tactics: a queen fork and trapping a piece.

I’m somewhere on the border between Intermediate and Expert: most of my games against similarly rated opponents are decided by calculation, but when I’m playing a stronger opponent I will usually lose positionally/strategically.

We’ve all seen tactics and puzzle books which are full of beautiful combinations and sacrifices, but this is only one relatively small part of tactics. We’ve also seen lazy chess teachers who go into primary school clubs and demonstrate brilliant sacrifices week after week, or who post daily sacrifices on social media. I also strongly suspect that, at intermediate level, more games are lost by unsound sacrifices than are won by sound sacrifices, but most authors and teachers only demonstrate successful sacrifices

A few weeks ago I decided to search for suitable puzzles from games played by Jonathan Penrose – something I’ve also done for other players in the past. I was looking for positions where he played a brilliant sacrifice which was either the only way to win the game or significantly better than any other move, and which was neither over-familiar, too obvious or too obscure to be solved by members of my club. What did I find? Virtually nothing! This is really not what chess is about, and if you constantly show brilliant sacrifices to young or inexperienced players you’ll give them the wrong idea about chess. Occasionally, yes: they certainly have their purpose in demonstrating the beauty of chess and inspiring your students to look for such opportunities themselves, but there are very many more lessons – and lesson types – you could use.

Most tactics don’t involve sacrifices. You could also argue (and I probably would) that not all calculation involves tactics. There should certainly be room for tactics and calculation books that take a different approach.

One thing you can do is ask questions in different ways. ‘Find the best move’ or ‘Find the winning move’ is what most books give you. There was a vogue some years ago for books of multiple choice puzzles (titles by Chris Ward and Graeme Buckley come to mind) but I haven’t seen very much on those lines lately. You could also ask questions concerning a specific move. Here is a move you might consider (it could be a sacrifice, a tactical blow or a strong-looking positional move): is it a good move or a bad move? You could also ask your readers to assess or adjudicate a position. If you take this approach there are many more puzzles you can set – very many games will have interesting or instructive positions at some point.

This is the approach taken in Chess Puzzles for Heroes, using games played at Richmond Junior Club over a 30 year period, and I’m currently researching the best way to find more puzzles of this nature. I’ll report back on my findings another time, perhaps next week, and demonstrate some different tactics puzzles.

By the way, you might be wondering why you haven’t heard much about the Chess Heroes project over the past year. The main reason is that, a year ago, I received a commission for another project, which I’ll tell you much more about later. Once that’s complete I’ll be in a position to make a decision about the Chess Heroes books.

Richard James

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Richard James

Author: Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966. Richard is a published author and his books can be found at Amazon. Richard is currently promoting minichess (games and puzzles using subsets of chess) for younger children through his website www.minichess.uk, and writing coaching materials for children (and adults) who want to start playing serious competitive chess, through www.chessheroes.uk. View all posts by Richard James

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