[Title "Black to move and win - rated 2179"]
[FEN "2r2r1k/1pq3bp/p3p1p1/P4n2/1P1P4/2P1P2P/3BB1Q1/R3R1K1 b - - 0 1"]

I've been trying to work on my chess a bit more seriously since about mid-March (I devote about 1 to 1.5h per day to training and frequently play rapid games which I analyze afterwards). I have no problem accumulating skill and knowledge in areas like positional play, endgames, or openings, but my tactical ability seems to stagnate. I know, I should be patient, but I think I've noticed some disorderly thinking patterns in my calculation that I would like to rectify. Let me illustrate this with an example. I have attached a chess puzzle I tried to solve this morning. It is rated at 2179. Although I have solved puzzles rated higher than this, I usually hover between 2050 and 2100 for the standard tactics. In the position above, it is black to move. The solution goes as follows.

[FEN "2r2r1k/1pq3bp/p3p1p1/P4n2/1P1P4/2P1P2P/3BB1Q1/R3R1K1 b - - 0 1"]

1... Nh4 2. Qh2 (2.Qg4 Rf2!! 3. Kxf2 Qh2+ 4. Kf1 Rf8 {with mate to follow}) Qxh2+ 3. Kxh2 Rf2+ 4.Kh1 (4.Kg1 Rg2+ 5. Kh1 Rf8 6. null Rff2) Rcf8 5. e4 R8f3! 6. Bxf3 Nxf3 7. Bf4 Nxe1 8. Rxe1 Rxf4 -+

The first issue that I notice with my thinking is that I am too slow. I know that many chess trainers recommend that you should calculate more slowly to produce useful variations and not miss important nuances, but that doesn't seem to help me in thinking more productively. I will try to explain my thought process to show you what I mean. In the beginning, my main candidate moves were 1. ... Nh4 and 1. ... Bh6 (I also very briefly looked at taking on d4, but quickly disregarded it for obvious reasons). My first look at 1. ... Nh4 went as follows: I saw 1. ... Nh4 2.Qh2 and thought: ok, probably white is fine here. Then I went back to 1. ... Bh6. I liked this move because it played against the weakness e3 and emphasized white's dark-squared weaknesses. The threat is, of course, Nxe3. Next, I thought white has to protect e3 somehow, with 2.Bd3 or 2.Bh3. However, I now saw that 2. ... Nh4 would be crushing. It took me quite a while (too long in my opinion) to realize that white can simply play 1. ... Bh6 2.Qh2 and defuse the situation. Back at the original position, it now seems logical to look again at the other candidate move, 1. ... Nh4. However, calculating variations isn't like writing an essay, and the structure that I attempt to create here by verbalizing my thoughts is not necessarily present when I look at the position. So, instead, I explored a bunch of useless ideas that I cannot recall. In the end, I returned to 1. ... Nh4. The first useful thing I saw was 1. ... Nh4 2.Qh2 Qxh2+ 3.Kxh2 Rf2+ and now 4.Kg3 doesn't work (although, again, I made an error in my calculation). Black has to play Rcf8! now. I only considered 4. ... Rg2+?? and only thought 5. Kh4?? Bf6#, but white can simply escape with 5. Kf4 via e4 and d3. Nevertheless, upon seeing this line, I considered 1. ... Nh4 more seriously. Another calculation error I made was 1. ... Nh4 2.Qg4 and now I missed the brilliant 2. ... Rf2!! and instead thought 2. ... Bf6?? followed by 3. ... h5 would seal the deal. White can, however, simply respond with 3.Rf1 h5 4.Qf4. Anyways, so I played 1. ... Nh4 after 12 minutes of thought, thinking I would get at least a very good position on the second row the possibility to play Rf2 Rcf8 Rg2 Rff2. One variation I thought about, for instance, was 1. ... Nh4 2.Qh2 Qxh2+ 3.Kxh2 Rf2+ 4.Kh1 (4.Kg1 is obviously bad) Rcf8 and now my threat is to go Rg2 and Rff2. After 4. ... Rcf8 5.e4 I simply played 5. ... Rg2 without thinking and failed the problem, missing 5. ... R8f3!.

Here is a quick summary of my thoughts:

  • It took me 12 minutes to solve the problem, but I failed at the fifth move because I moved too quickly
  • I calculated too slowly. I did not see 1. ... Bh6 2.Qh2! fast enough.
  • I did not see the actual point of 1. ... Nh4, which is 2.Qg4 Rf2!!

No doubt, would have someone pointed out at various crossroads that I should consider this or that move, I would have found the right continuation. I specifically chose this puzzle because it exemplifies what is wrong with my tactical thinking. I'm very good in much more forced positions with fewer branching options and can calculate a win within a matter of seconds. So, in my opinion, my main issues are as follows:

  • I do not think productively enough. That is, I do not produce sensible options at a fast pace and instead linger too much with suboptimal alternatives
  • I lack imagination. Sometimes I just don't see the idea until it is shown to me (or I have been thinking for a very long time, like 20 minutes).

So, having read this extensively long post, what do you think I can do to improve my tactical thinking?

  • 1
    "It is rated at 2179" Where did you get this rating/puzzle from? – Roland Jun 13 at 12:22
  • Chesstempo. But I have a feeling that it is rather accurate. I know a couple of my friends' Fide and chesstempo ratings and it corresponds pretty well. That's at least the case for the standard mode. – postnubilaphoebus Jun 13 at 13:01
  • I don't dispute the accuracy :) Would you say the same regarding the lichess.org puzzles? – Roland Jun 13 at 13:35
  • 1
    Not at all. I hardly tried and got above 2400 easily. – postnubilaphoebus Jun 14 at 9:28

As somebody, who's tactical ability is hopefully still above 2000, let me contrast your description with my own thought process:

I only considered 1...Nh4. 2.Qg4 Rf2 I saw basically instantly. 2.Qh2 Qxh2 3.Kxf2 Rf2 and I thought white is in trouble. Mostly because of the clumsy bishops that don't allow him to untangle quickly and challenge the second rank rook. 4.Kg3 Rg2 and white can't take the knight. This was necessary to see because losing a piece is no good. 5.Kf4 Rf8 and Rff2 seems very good for black.

This all happened quite quickly (<1min) and I think I would have found it in a Blitz game and played it with roughly the same calculation. Of course it was sloppy (I didn't see the e4-Be3-idea) and in a real game or during training I would have tried to push all variations further.

I see several differences between your thought process and mine:

  • My assessment of the rook coming to the cluttered second rank likely meaning trouble for white was more accurate.
  • I calculated each variation only to the point were it seemed clearly good for me and not to a win. Partly that's lazy, but partly it allows me to close lines of investigation quickly and to not get confused. It's always possible to go back and find even better moves once you've solved the lines where white initially seemed to be better or completely ok.
  • The idea Rf2 is part of my tactical arsenal.

As to how you get there and beyond:

  • I would recommend the Aagaard books like Attacking Manual, Calculation, Positional Play etc.
  • But apart from these I would also do purely tactical training, where you get one of those little tactics books with a couple of hundred combinations and then you go through it several times until you remember each solution instantly. Then on to the next one. This is the "Woodpecker method", it's not hard to do and it leads to you to actually just "knowing" a lot of tactical ideas.
  • I also think that playing blindfold games would teach you to get more practical in your approach.
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  • Thanks for showing your thought process! One thing that I need to add with respect to my question: I also knew that the rook coming to the second would mean trouble. That's one of the reasons I chose my variation. However, you are right about the other deficiencies in my calculation. – postnubilaphoebus Apr 3 at 20:29
  • I'm currently working through some of Aagaard's books indeed. I love his book on positional play, I can feel that I get more knowledgable after each exercise or illustration. Are there any specific woodpecker books that you can recommend? I have used the chesstempo sorting method, but that often only gives me 60 to 70 positions per motif, which is exhausted quite quickly. A good alternative to a woodpecker book may be a tactical trainer. If you know a good one, I'd be happy to hear about it. – postnubilaphoebus Apr 3 at 20:30
  • About blindfold games: I read in a research paper that I found somewhere on Google scholar that blindfold games may actually harm your general chess ability. I trust that assessment and won't risk it. – postnubilaphoebus Apr 3 at 20:34
  • Ok, I wrote that because of the "white is probably fine"-line. But apparently you didn't consider exchanging queens and only saw the rook invasion later. – BlindKungFuMaster Apr 3 at 20:37
  • I did the wookpecker method on several books mostly not in English though. And also for a tactics trainer with 1000 positions. I think the only important thing is that it's a limited amount of positions somewhere between 500 and 2000 so you can actually repeat all of them several times. – BlindKungFuMaster Apr 3 at 20:39

c rook is blacks worst piece. Bh6 does little to activate c rook whereas moving the knight immediately starts f rook and once that moves the c rook comes too. And I was surprised to see in solution how quickly it does activate, amazing. Also Bh6 seems dodgy as may be tactical checks onto the now open black king diagonal king and black does have weak pawn. Nh4 just seems to go at whites horrid king side and I think you should play the move reasonably quickly as then opponent cannot cover all bases thinking on your time. Then you can find the subtleties thinking on his time. Nh4 is going to terrify him sure. I actually saw whites Qg5 reply and thought well he is coming forward leaving less king defense then I spotted the Queen h2 after Rf2 tactic and so I would see a small plus with little downside and lots of scare for white. I used to be seriously awful at 5 min blitz thinking too deep and now I o

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