13 December 2011

Improving Tactics: Training Resources

For most players, improvement in chess skill will be slow to non-existent if their only chess activity is playing. Tactics training, on the other hand, leads to rapid chess improvement. Resources for tactics training include books, magazines, databases and other software, websites, and more.

At the present time, in any given week, I use the Tactics Trainer at Chess.com (more than 32 hours since joining the site), the problems in the Shredder iPad app, my pawn endgame flash cards, or one of several books.

Ten years ago, I spent 15-30 minutes nearly every morning for several months working through problems in Laszlo Polgar, Chess Training in 5334 Positions (1994), which is pictured at the bottom of a stack in the image. Polgar's book, which may have been assembled by his daughter Susan, consists mostly of checkmate problems. This collection draws from an extensive library of composed problems, and a smaller collection of positions from actual play. The effectiveness of the training stems from repetition of patterns. Problems 1-306 are checkmate in one; 307-3718 are mate in two; 3719-4462 are mate in three. I completed a bit more than the first 1500 problems.

The book also contains 600 miniature games, a bit more than 100 simple endgames, and more than 100 combinations from the Polgar sisters' games. Occasionally, this book shows up on sale tables for $10, which strikes me as an opportunity calling for action.

Art of the Checkmate

While Polgar's Chess teaches checkmate patterns through compositions and miniatures, Georges Renaud and Victor Kahn, The Art of the Checkmate (1953) employs real games. The organization of this classic text, and the quality of instruction it offers, are vastly superior to Murray Chandler, How to Beat Your Dad at Chess (1998). However, Chandler's book uses algebraic notation, while Renaud and Kahn is available only in descriptive. Other books with guides to basic checkmate patterns include Fred Reinfeld, How to Force Checkmate (1947); V. Vukovic, The Art of Attack in Chess (1965); and Jonathan Tisdall, Improve Your Chess Now (1997). My effort to extend the work naming, classifying, and organizing basic patterns by the authors of several of these texts resulted in a self-published pamphlet that I use in teaching, "Checklist of Checkmates: With Exercises" (2007). My pamphlet (pictured above) identifies 34 basic patterns sorted into six groups to aid learning, and offers 139 problems all from actual play. My study of The Art of the Checkmate, and the other books, followed by extensive database research to find examples in play, has done wonders for the development of my skill.

Basic Tactical Motifs

My library contains several terrific workbooks designed especially for youth who are beginning to intermediate players. These workbooks vary in method and content, but all stress basic tactical motifs--discovery, pins, skewers, removing the guard, etc.--through repetition. John A. Bain, Chess Tactics For Students (1993) uses fill-in-blank worksheets with clear diagrams. Chapter one offers 30 problems involving pins. Subsequent chapters are "Back Rank Combinations," "Knight Forks," "Other Forks/Double Attacks," and ten more chapters. After completing this workbook, young players might advance to Al Woolum, The Chess Tactics Workbook, 4th edition (2000); Todd Bardwick, Chess Workbook for Children (2006); or Dean Ippolito, Chess Tactics for Scholastic Players (2006). Each of these other three offer problems more challenging than Bain's, but also include very simple problems in the beginning. Those sensitive to patronizing language towards women and girls may find the prose in Bardwick's text distracting, but it offers good quality instruction otherwise.

For my annual chess camp, I create workbooks with problems that teach and reinforce tactical motifs. In 2008 and 2009, I used the same workbook. In 2009, I sought tactical problems and strategic lessons exclusively from the games of Adolf Anderssen. See "Learning from Errors: Adolf Anderssen" for a sample strategic lesson from this workbook. In 2011, my tactical problems all came from the games of Vasily Smyslov, and emphasized advanced endgames a bit more. For several years I have been contemplating doing more with Gioachino Greco, but doubt there is enough there for all of what I usually put into a workbook.

While my chess students and their parents gain access to an abundance of free and inexpensive resources that I churn out as teaching materials, the research process improves my skills, too. When I am not solving problems, I am looking for problems to put in front of beginning players. Sometimes, these are more challenging than expected, as last week's lesson on pins proved to have been.

Tactics for Advanced Players

Prior to the explosion of youth chess, a standard beginning text was Fred Reinfeld, 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations (1955). It is organized by theme with dozens of problems in each chapter. Generations of masters have started with this book. Reinfeld wrote a few other 1001 texts, but this one seems most widely available. In "Where the Rubber Meet the Road," I detailed my training method with this text and a chess playing engine. Beyond finding Reinfeld's idea, I labor to convert the advantage gained through the tactic. I have not employed this training method in 2011, but expect to return  to such training for part of 2012.

Lev Alburt, Chess Training Pocket Book (1997) contains 300 positions, four to a page. The solutions are on the facing page, making self-discipline a necessary feature of using the text for training. These well-chosen 300 positions, most from practical play, include common tactical motifs, positional concepts, and endgame fundamentals. Over the course of several years, I went through the entire book both randomly and in sequence at least twice, and have also used the book as a reference when compiling lessons for others. This book spent several years on my bedside table. The book indexes the problems by themes and by players. Alburt, Chess Training Pocket Book II (2008) offers 320 new positions in the same format. This book will be a central component of my training in the near future. With such collections, I think it is best to go through all the problems, and then several months or a year later, go through them again.

Most club players should be able to solve the problems in Alburt's books in no more than a few minutes each, and errors will be easily corrected. A few times through these books should leave the student with a core knowledge of important positions. For more challenging tactical exercises, I turn to John Nunn's Chess Puzzle Book (1999) and Paata Gaprindashvili, Imagination in Chess: How to Think Creatively and Avoid Foolish Mistakes (2004). Both of these texts offer fresh positions. That is, the positions in these texts will not be found in Reinfeld. Some of those in Alburt's texts are in Reinfeld, as well as in dozens of other training texts. Alburt's books lay the foundation that helped me reach USCF Class A, and to secure my position there. As I struggle to move up to Expert Class, and possibly master, Nunn's and Gaprindashvili's texts offer resources of value. Imagination in Chess also offers suggestions for effective thought processes. Gaprindashvili's logical process may be considered an improvement over the famed analysis tree in Alexander Kotov's Think Like a Grandmaster (1971). Readers may differ in their assessments of these modes of systematic thinking.

Two other challenging texts offer exceptional insight into the nature of chess tactics, and plenty of training material. These are not collections of problems so much as treatises on the the middlegame. Yuri Averbakh, Chess Tactics for Advanced Players (1992) seeks to build a theoretical base for comprehension of chess tactics. Mark Dvoretsky, Secrets of Chess Tactics (1992) takes a more practical approach, but also contains much of theoretical value. The positions analyzed in both texts can be quite challenging, even for masters.


  1. *thumbs up*

    I have plenty of the books you mention in this post. However, you deel to take better use of the books then I do.

    Thanks for eye-opening post.