Taking time control into account, how long should one take when looking for a combination? Also, what factors should one consider when looking for a combination?

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    Don't just look for combinations; instead, learn to create board positions that include tactical opportunities. – Tony Ennis May 17 '12 at 22:28
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    Dan Heisman has written extensively on this at Novice Nook on the Chess Cafe web site. chesscafe.com/text/heisman10.pdf – Robert Kaucher Jul 11 '12 at 16:41
  • @RobertKaucher - I love Dan Heisman's Novice Nook articles. I read them all the time. – xaisoft Jul 12 '12 at 13:33
  • His articles took me from a Class C player to a Class A on Chess.com. I'm just now getting back into tournament play this year. Hoping I can translate the learning. – Robert Kaucher Jul 12 '12 at 13:58
  • @RobertKaucher - Wow, that is incredible, I will revisit his articles again. I also watch his videos on ICC. – xaisoft Jul 12 '12 at 15:02

That's a very general question that I don't think you will get a solid answer for. The chance of a powerful combination being available depends largely on the pieces each side has available and developed. So the answer varies based on what stage the game is in and the positions of each side.

Instead I would focus on identifying the types of combinations you are comfortable with, and start to learn to identify boards where those combinations MAY be present, and others where the combinations is not present. If you can speed up your identification you can determine on the fly how much time to spend on evaluating each potential move.

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  • But aren't there certain factors such as hanging pieces one can look for? or am I confusing tactics with combinations? – xaisoft May 18 '12 at 0:08
  • @xaisoft - I'm not certain about "hanging pieces" myself but that is what I am talking about generally. Learning the situations when it is more likely, and in that situation you should spend more time looking for those combinations. For tactics I would say the same advice holds true. Certain tactics are more likely to work with certain piece arrangements. – Justin C May 18 '12 at 0:43

While good players are always alert for tactics, there are a few key "signals" that indicate that tactics and combinations might be available.

Loose Pieces

If there are one or more enemy pieces that are hanging or under-defended, you should look for tactics that attack that piece. For example, if a bishop is defended by an enemy queen and attacked by a friendly rook then the bishop is under-defended.

Weak King

If the enemy king does not have many friendly pieces around it, then it might be possible to stir up an attack. If the king is castled, look for ways to disturb the pawn shield in front of the king, or look to see if the h7 square can be attacked. For example, a Greek gift sacrifice might be possible.

If the king has not castled, then be alert for tactics based on the f7 square. f7 is frequently weak because only the king defends this pawn.

Lead in Development

If you have a moderate lead in development (an extra piece or two developed), then it is frequently possible to do something useful with the extra forces. Most usually this is an attack on the enemy king, but it could be something as simple as gaining a space advantage too.

Enemy Piece Low on Squares

If an enemy piece doesn't have many squares to which it can safely move, it might be possible to trap the piece. This most often happens with the enemy queen, but it is possible to trap rooks, knights, and bishops as well. Here's an example from one of my own games:
Trap the white rook

1...Re1+ 2.Kg2 Be3! -+

Moves to Consider

If you have decided to look for tactics, you should consider all of the checks available as well as all of the captures. This may sound slightly radical, but almost all tactics will fall into one of these two categories. Moves that place a piece close to the enemy king should also be studied. Almost all chess tactics are based on double attacks (or double "threats"), so look for moves that unmask an attack (discovered attack) or that fork two pieces.

Amount of Time to Spend

Depending on how much time you have left, you should spend as much time as you need to look at all of the possibilities. If you have only 5 minutes left, then it might be prudent to just look at obvious moves fairly quickly, but if you have more than an hour left on the clock, there is no excuse for missing a winning tactic.
With practice you will be able to look at all of the captures and whittle them down to one to three worth considering very quickly. For example, sacrificing a queen for a bishop should at least be checked out (it's a capture), but almost all the time it is sufficient to look just another move further and decide that there is no follow up. The best players spend over an hour on a single move if it is possible that there is a winning attack in the cards. The biggest reason for this is that they are able to win with just a few minutes left on the clock, so it is worth the initial time investment in order to gain a winning position.

To conclude, here's another example from one of my own games. I was black, and I got to this position. Notice that I am up a piece, but black now has a knockout blow to end the game immediately. I spent some time looking for tactics because the enemy king is weak and the king is also low on squares (only can play Kxg2). Since it is likely that a successful tactic will win the game, I was willing to spend about half of my remaining time on the move (although I spent significantly less than that in the game). I had about 35 minutes left.
Black to move and win

1...Bxg3! 2.hxg3 Qh5 0-1

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The time spent on looking for combinations is a function of board position.

If you have few active pieces, spend minimal time looking for combinations, and more time developing strategic plans.

As more pieces come into play you will look for combinations more, particularly if there are open lines for attack. Ideally, you eventually arrive at a board position where there simply must be a combination available. At this point you search until you find it.

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