Tag Archives: Puzzles

Chess Strategy Lessons

Strategy and Tactics: Yin and Yang?

Chess strategy and tactics are intertwined … but ask yourself this: which side of the equation receives most of the focus in lessons and classes?

Definitely tactics. And for a lot of coaches, it’s not even close. However …

What does it take for a student to gain proficiency in tactics? I only know one method: solving thousands of puzzles, and getting regular practice applying tactical ideas in games.

This experience cannot be gained solely through lessons. I assign tactics puzzles for homework (usually Chess School 1a) and rarely work on them during a private lesson. The exception is calculation practice, but that is different from developing tactical sight.

It’s perfectly fine to spend 10-15 minutes on tactics by checking tactics homework, and maybe doing a few warm-up puzzles — but that’s as far as it should go.

Puzzle solving alone is a terrible use of time for a 1-2 hour once-per-week lesson.

I also think it’s lazy! Beware, parents.

 

The Real Purpose of Chess Lessons

Chess strategy lessons

Chess lessons should mostly focus on strategy.

You can go to Amazon, buy a chess tactics book, and work independently. Diligent study will bring results, no question about it, and you won’t need a coach for improvement in this area.

But what if you want to improve your understanding of chess strategy?

If you go to Amazon and purchase a strategy book — even an excellent one authored by Euwe, Nimzowitsch, Dvoretsky or Marin, for example — there is a lot that you won’t “get” right away. Or at all.

Chess lessons or classes can really shorten the learning curve. That is what a teacher is paid for!

 

Example of a Chess Strategy Lesson

I recently taught an online class and showed the following position, which comes from the famous game Capablanca vs. Tartakower from the celebrated New York 1924 tournament, before White’s 23rd move:

I asked the students (roughly 800 to 1400 in strength) to give me ideas for the first player, and got what I expected: suggestions to attack or win tactically. Chiefly 23.d5 to open the center “for an attack,” and 23.c5, trying to skewer the Black queen and rook with a further 24.Bb5.

First, the d4-d5 advance will only lead to mass exchanges and the Black knight will be able to use the newly opened c5-square (probably with the maneuver …Na5-b3-c5).

Second, c4-c5 does not set up a skewer, as after 24.Bb5 Black can reply with 24…c6.

They were surprised to learn the World Champion played 23.h4!

The idea is to follow up with 24.h5, giving Black a very difficult choice: either allow 25.hxg6 which creates a permanent weakness on g6, or even worse to play 24…gxh5 when after 25.Rh1! White wins back the h5-pawn, is closer to getting a passed pawn on the kingside, and maybe wins the h7-pawn as well:

I could see the mental light bulbs going on through their Zoom cameras! Tactics and attacking play are not always the right tools for the job.

How well would most books explain these ideas, while anticipating your questions and being able to demonstrate exactly the variations you need to see in order to understand the position?

This is what lesson or class time is really for.

Chess Tactics: Shirov — Polgar, 1994

Polgar turns the tables on Shirov’s aggression

It was the perfect setting for a showdown between two of the most combative players of the 1990s and 2000s: a thematic tournament stipulating every game begin with an Open Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 and, after 2…Nc6, 2…d6, or 2…e6, 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4).

Polgar chose a Paulsen Sicilian, where black places pawns on a6, d6, and e6, and develops the queen knight to c6. Shirov, not surprisingly, decided to tackle it with an early g4 and f4.

This was risky, because it exposed the white king, who had not castled to safety. Decisions like these can create brilliancies — for the player or their opponent!

The Hungarian prodigy was up to the task. One of the first females to earn the Grandmaster title (1991), Judit Polgar broke Bobby Fischer’s record (from 1958!) as youngest GM ever. She is universally recognized as the greatest female player in chess history.

Black’s 10th move sets the stage for everything to follow, How would you deal with white’s coming pawn storm while gaining activity for your pieces?

10…?

Fight for key squares with all your might!

Judit Polgar retired from professional chess after the 2014 Tromso Olympiad, but this will not be the last time we see one of her games on chess-essentials.com!

Chess Tactics: Velimirovic — Rajkovic, 1971

The Pirc Defense is dangerous for both players!

When black answers 1.e4 with the Pirc (1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6), things can get weird in a hurry. Defenses like the French can become complex and tactical, but in a “standard” way.

Pirc Defense players fight for more wins, and are willing to risk more losses in the process. Don’t expect a lot of draws! Garry Kasparov’s immortal victory against Veselin Topalov in Wijk aan Zee 1999 also occurred in the Pirc.

The Pirc is somewhat reminiscent of the Sicilian Dragon or Alekhine’s Defense in the e4-universe, and the Modern Benoni in the d4-universe.

I would not have chosen such a risky line against Dragoljub Velimirovic, one of the most imaginative attackers in history! The uncompromising Velimirovic Attack in the Classical Sicilian is named after him.

Dragoljub Velimirovic (1942-2014). Photo: Eric Koch/ANeFo

Dragoljub Velimirovic (1942-2014) in 1966. Photo: Eric Koch/ANeFo

Velimirovic chose the space-gaining Austrian Attack (4.f4), and followed up with the dynamic 6.e5.

Rajkovic initially met this aggression in kind, setting up counterplay in the center. His 8th move was questionable, but probably ok.

He was undone by hesitating after white’s stunning 10th move and struggled for the remainder of the game. A great example of winning by creating more powerful threats than your opponent can muster!

There are some lovely variations in the comments. Please click through them and enjoy!

The value of each move is very high!

Chess Tactics: Svidler — Vallejo-Pons, 2004

Svidler and Vallejo’s Rapid Race in the English Attack

We pick up the action after white’s 25th move. White has just moved his king out of check.

Francisco Vallejo-Pons in 2013. Photo: Przemyslaw Jahr/Wikimedia Commons

Peter Svidler has been one of the world’s best players since the 1990s. The 8-time(!) Russian Champion has played many outstanding games and has become one of the most popular chess commentators.

In contrast, this was the only game the young Francisco Vallejo-Pons won in the 2004 Melody Amber rapid, but what a victory it was! White’s king gets caught in a hurricane in a theoretical mainline of the Najdorf English Attack (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3).

With competing opposite-side castling attacks, Svidler decides to fight off black’s attack before launching an offensive of his own.

He never got the chance. How did Vallejo-Pons respond to 25.Ka1?

Pawns are line-opening tools in opposite-side castling attacks

Chess Tactics: Grigorian — Bagirov, 1970

Open center = Faster play, More tactics

Consider the center squares d4, d5, e4, and e5.

In general, with more pawns on the center squares, play is slower and the action will most likely to take place on the flanks.

With less pawns in the center, play will be more wide-open, as in our game. Translation: forget about pawns and play with the pieces!

Karen Grigorian (1942-1989) found some powerful chess tactics in his game against Vladimir Bagirov (1936-2000).

Karen Grigorian (1947-1989).

Our game begins with a calm Slav Defense. However, black’s slow play allows white to blast open the center. By move 12, white has more space, better pieces, and a strong initiative.

The calculation involved here is not difficult. Open lines, activate the pieces, and look for checks, captures and threats.

This and other model attacking games are not about finding one or two strong moves. Playing with the initiative means controlling the flow of the game and not letting the opponent breathe. Concentrating on this will transform your play.

“Tactics flow from a superior position.” — Bobby Fischer

Remember: the open or closed nature of the center usually determines how fast or slow you can play! Don’t get caught off-guard.

Chess Tactics: Anand — Lautier, 1997

There must be something

The sudden finish In Przepiorka—Cohn was a little unexpected because few pieces were left on the board.

Vishy Anand sees chess tactics like few ever have. Photo: Grand Chess Tour

Vishy Anand sees chess tactics like few ever have. Photo: Grand Chess Tour

The chess tactics in Anand — Lautier arise out of a wild struggle where calculation will decide the day. To find the possibilities, we need to look for checks, captures, and threats … and use our imagination. Don’t reject “strange” or “crazy” moves at first sight, because they just might work!

Black has play of his own, which in some ways makes things easier. White knows that if he doesn’t act urgently, the game will turn against him.

What did the future World Champion play, in what would become one of his most famous victories?

 

20. ?

A modern classic

Chess tactics will show up in your games if you activate your pieces! Train your tactics and calculation, and don’t forget to actually look for them in your games!

Chess Tactics: Przepiorka — Cohn, 1907

Beware chess tactics when the king lacks defenders!

This seems like obvious advice, but it’s easy to let your guard down when there aren’t many pieces left. “Forget about chess tactics…it’s going to be an endgame soon, let me get ready for it…”

Just like in Uhlmann—Zwaig, chess tactics start with looking for checks, captures, and threats before considering other moves!

What should black do here?

25…?

Don’t let your guard down…and never assume all the chess tactics in a position have evaporated! A weaker player facing a stronger one might score a knockout because the higher-rated player doesn’t take the opponent seriously enough.

Remember: a player rated 200 points higher than his opponent should statistically score 76% — great, but nowhere near a certainty! Sit there and calculate as best you can, whether you are the favorite or the underdog.

Chess Tactics Software: Things to Remember

Chess tactics software has experienced a boom in the past 10-15 years, and many good products have hit the market in that time. First appearing on CD and DVD, this material can now be purchased via download. There are many online tactics trainers to choose from as well.

Which chess tactics software should I choose?

It doesn’t really matter which product you choose; pick one you like that presents a challenge.

Convekta chess tactics software

Convekta chess tactics software

A popular recommendation is the free  Chess Tempo, but I have never liked the look or functionality. Another possibility is chess.com, which I currently use and think is worthwhile, but far from perfect, and you need to pay to get access to more than about 10 puzzles per day.

I raised my rating from 1850 to 2000 over 10 months in 2008. The two main things I did were work seriously on my openings, and solve 40-100 tactics puzzles each day using Convekta’s Chess Combinations Encyclopedia and CT-Art 3.0. I absolutely adore these two tactics suites…maybe I should go through them again?

I should note that Chess Tactics for Beginners is the same material contained in Chess School 1a and Chess School 1b. Still, I recommend the physical books, especially for kids!

Remember: You are training to find tactics in real games!

Some players solve tactics purely for enjoyment; others want to improve their results in blitz (5-minute or less) or bullet (1-minute) games. Still, I assume most players who spend a lot of time solving tactics want to see results in their over-the-board tournament games.

At minimum, you have 30 minutes of thinking time for each game. There’s no need to bash out an answer for a tactics problem, or worse, a guess. Don’t worry about training for time scrambles; focus your training on the meat of the game.

I admit it’s tempting to play the first answer that catches your eye; I’ve done it more than I would care to admit! This is why I still recommend students use physical books to solve puzzles, even in this day and age — it’s not just nostalgia.

Instead, take your time and calculate! I can’t stress this enough. Some tactics programs give you more or less points depending on how quickly you solve the puzzle. Ignore this! Force yourself to see future moves, not just guess them or hope your moves work.

Hard work pays off

If you normally struggle with calculation, prepare to miss a lot of moves — for you and your “opponent!” If you keep at it, I promise you will improve.

Also, don’t focus on doing as many tactics as you can; do as many as you can while giving 100%.

You will quickly notice your play in longer games (say 15-minute) become much stronger. This is another reason, by the way, why you should give up blitz if you really want to improve your tournament results!

Chess Tactics: Mikenas — Bronstein, 1965

Impressive

The back-rank checkmate tactic that occurred in this game is my favorite, and I’ve shown it to students for years. It’s the greatest back rank tactic I’ve ever seen, and one of the greatest tactics of any kind.

Black to play. 24…?

What shocking move did David Bronstein, World Championship Challenger in 1951, find?

David Bronstein pulled off a stunning back rank checkmate tactic over Vladas Mikenas in 1965.

David Bronstein at the board, locked in battle

Analysis

White’s king is stuck in the corner on h1, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Black is doubled on the e-file, but white can cover that. If 1…Qe1+, white cannot play 2.Rxe1??

Because of 2…Rxe1+ 3.Qf1 Rxf1#.

Instead of 2.Rxe1?? white has 2.Qf1!, and black has nothing.

So what should black do instead? The move will appear if he remembers how to choose a move and looks for checks, captures, and threats!

Clicking on the moves below will pop up diagrams to follow the analysis.

After 24…Rxa3!! Mikenas resigned at once, because he will either get checkmated or lose a ton of material. Sometimes you have to tip your cap to the opponent for a job well done!

Do agree with me that this is the greatest back rank checkmate tactic ever? Share your thoughts!

Chess Tactics: Uhlmann—Zwaig, 1967

Tactics are everywhere

I recently looked at the game Uhlmann—Zwaig from Halle 1967, and a possible tactic caught my attention (it did not actually occur in the game). It’s a great example of looking for checks, captures, and threats before considering other moves!

If you haven’t been looking for checks, captures, and threats before when playing chess, try it. I guarantee it will transform your play, and your results. This is how you can apply the chess middlegame tactics you have hopefully been practicing!