Can tactics be reduced to a finite number of simple patterns that can be learned?

I realise that there are a finite number of tactical techniques such as forks and skewers and pins but I find them hard to identify in everyday play. I have started using chess.com's tactics trainer and am gradually making progress. However I think that this is ultimately a pattern recognition problem.

So my question is whether it is possible to reduce all of the tactical tricks to a finite set of graphical images that I could stare at and memorise in the same way children learn their letters. I think that this may get my brain to identify these opportunities more quickly when they arise on a chess board.

• On the contrary, I would say that practicing tactics firsthand and seeing the patterns in context, as you're doing now, is more closely related to how children learn their letters! Oct 7, 2014 at 20:22
• I am thinking of something like flash cards which show a letter and maybe a picture, e.g. A and a picture of an apple. These cards would show a rook fork, knight fork, bishop fork maybe just highlighting the tactic on a chessboard.
– Dom
Oct 8, 2014 at 12:00

2 Answers

I would say that, indeed, the vast majority of tactics falls into some kind of pattern and there are a number of them but not too many.

In my opinion there are two issues that you need to improve in order to improve tactics in your games. First, you need to know the basic patterns, that is you have to know how they look like and what is the main idea in exploiting them. Often the basic ideas of the pattern cannot be applied out of the box and you will need to find the right moves to actually implement the combination. The second issue is that, of course, you have to spot these patterns on the board and exploit them.

For picking up the patterns a tactics book that presents problems grouped by patterns, together with some explanations how to exploit them, is very useful. E.g. "Tune Your Chess Tactics Antenna". To facilitate the second step, such books often have mixed exercises at the end, where you are not told what the pattern is you should find, but then almost any tactics book with mixed problems will be okay.

• Aagard's book "Excelling at Technical Chess" is also good, as are the books by Jeremy Silman, "Reassess Your Chess, etc." All focused on seeing the times when to start looking for tactics and how to exploit advantages to get where you're trying to go. Oct 9, 2014 at 16:46
• Although I really like the books by Silman, especially "How to Reassess Your Chess", they are not about tactics but rather about positional play, i.e., they focus on strategic rather than tactical topics. It is true that the arisal of tactical opportunities is a consequence of various positive imbalances (or a blunder), but the focus of the book is on obtaining and emphasizing positive imbalances and not on exploiting the existence of such via tactics. So I cannot recommend these books for learning tactics. Oct 10, 2014 at 12:43
• I don't necessarily agree with that response, but then what is chess if not a spirited debate! Oct 10, 2014 at 18:23

I would say yes. You can take any tactical theme, reduce it to its core elements and stare at it, and then you would be more likely to spot it in an actual position with more "noise". I know some tactics books and tactics trainers do the first part of this, where they will show the key theme of the tactic in isolation, and then give a variety of real game examples where this is more noise. Vukovic did that, and CT-ART did that.

I don't know how practical the 'staring' part would be though, and I haven't heard of anyone attempting this before.

Instead of passively staring, another approach to consider is to figure out which specific types of problems you're getting wrong, and then drilling hundreds/thousands of those positions. For example in your question you state you're missing skewers and pins. Well, those are both one type of visual theme having to do with pieces in a line -- could be a pin, skewer, discovered attack, or a fork. I'd setup a training regime to where your task is to find a bunch (say a hundred-ish) very simple positions with pieces in a line. You are essentially overtraining your ability to spot pieces in a line, and you'll get to the point where you're seeing all sorts of things in a line (most of which won't matter, but some of it will).

If you're just starting at chess and are missing them all, then you could take one visual/tactical theme at a time and overtrain each one until you always spot the theme on a board with lots of noise. I'd also try training yourself to always spot undefended positions and exposed/stalemated kings. Those are almost always a major clue that a tactic is hiding somewhere. Knights depend on proximity, color, and certain geometrical patterns you can drill. Bishops obviously depend on color, as well as pieces being in a line, but can also use some geomtrical shapes for certain forks. Pawns really onlly have one tactic (a fork) which clearly depends on proximity (targets one square away...sometimes two) and geometry (targets one square apart). The website chesstactics.org does a good job of breaking down some of the visual elements of tactics in the explanations, and someone else already mentioned the book 'tactical antennae'.

Calculating what to do once you spot something is another matter, but you'll never get to that point if you're not spotting themes in the first place!!