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I've been working on my tactics using on-line resources like Chess Tempo. I found my improvement (as measured by my CT rating) over the last few months to be encouraging, but I struggle to translate this into significant OTB results. I do find that I make far less obvious tactical errors when not in time pressure, but when the clock starts going low (as it usually does by the end of the middle game stage for me) I still tend to make mistakes that I can only describe as shocking.

I'm in a stage where I can more or less understand the tactical motifs presented to me eventually, but not in the time frames that are typically useful for real OTB play.

Are there proven or known methods for speeding up tactical evaluations and calculations? Things like

  • Do blitz-style puzzles. The way blitz mode seems to work on sites like CT is that you have a limited amount of time to solve the puzzle - but my fear is that this will simply cause me to fall back on intuition rather than actually improve calculation speed.
  • Do the same puzzles over and over? I'm worried that once I've memorised a puzzle, then I'm not doing so much calculation as memory retrieval.
  • Just continue doing normal puzzles and calculation speed will improve by itself? Seems like this could take some time ...

Any other/novel ideas that I need to consider?

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    Pattern recognition is important so I'd suggest studying the same puzzles over and over until you get them immediately. – magd Mar 19 '15 at 10:34
  • Just how bad does your time trouble usually get? – BlindKungFuMaster Mar 19 '15 at 11:24
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    Quite bad. I'd say in the majority of county league games I play in (usually all moves in 80 minutes), the result is determined by a simple blunder made in time trouble rather than superior play. In tournament play, which usually has more lenient time controls, this is not so much of an issue. – firtydank Mar 19 '15 at 11:36
  • Then it's maybe more a problem of time management. Maybe you just calculate too much. For me, better positional judgement and trusting my intuition greatly reduced my time trouble problems. – BlindKungFuMaster Mar 19 '15 at 15:48
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    One fact about chess tactics sites like Chess Tempo is that they give you a position where there's a killer move. It's one thing to find a move when you know it's there. It's quite another to create a position where there's a winning move. See chess.stackexchange.com/questions/1143/… – Tony Ennis Mar 20 '15 at 0:01
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You say: "Do the same puzzles over and over? I'm worried that once I've memorised a puzzle, then I'm not doing so much calculation as memory retrieval."

Memory retrieval is exactly what you should be doing! The brain improves recall not by repeated input, but by repeated output. This is why reviewing notes is a terrible way to study for a test, and why memorizing and recreating your notes from scratch is what top performers do.

The concept that should be driving your improvement is chunking. Chunking is the process whereby you are able to immediately recognize more complicated concepts without thinking. You still calculate during a live game, but instead of spending 60 seconds working out a tactic, you should learn to see that tactic immediately so that you can spend that 60 seconds on something important. If you cram tactical patterns into your brain, and learn to see them in less than 1 second, while your opponent is spending 30-60 seconds reinventing the wheel, you are going to crush your opponent. On the flip side, if you are trying to calculate everything at the board, you are going to lose. You improve when you are away from the board. Once you are at the board, you only play. You only have the skills you developed away from the board.

An example of chunking is when you learned to read. First you learned letters, then small words, then bigger words, then phrases, and sentences. Now when you read, you do not look at some writing and say, "there is an H, there is an I", nor do you even look at it and say, "there is the word Hi". You see the word "Hi" and you immediately understand the meaning without thinking.

Learning to walk is another example. As an adult, you do not think, "move the left foot, catch your balance, now move your right foot". No, you walk down the street without thinking. If a car is going to hit you, you run as fast as you can without thinking. Your body and mind learned how to handle these more complex situations and they know what to do without thinking. The same happens with chess improvement.

For chess, you want to reach the point where a simple tactic presents itself on the board, and it pops off the board at you without thinking. Once you can do this, you can move on to more complex tactics and combinations that require deeper calculation, but until you can recognize simple tactics without thinking, your mind is moving far too slow to attempt deeper calculation during a live game. As long as you are trying to do difficult tactics problems involving 5-move combinations, before you can see simple tactics instantly, you are never going to improve.

The approach I have seen recommended by masters (NM Dan Hesiman, GM Rashid Ziatdinov, among many others), is to get a simple set of tactics problems such as John Bain's Chess Tactics For Students, and you do the same tactics problems over and over. Your goal is not to figure out the tactic on your own. The goal is to get as many patterns into your brain as you can, so that when you see a similar pattern during a live game, it is immediately clear to you without thinking. Doing tactics problems is not about achievement and getting a good percentage correct. It is only about cramming patterns into your brain. That means, if you do not see the answer quickly, look at the answer and move on.

The plan is:

  1. Do simple tactics problems over and over, until you can fly through all of them without making a mistake.
  2. If you don't see the answer after 30-60 seconds, look at the answer and move on. Come back to the problems you missed later.
  3. Stick to one tactical theme at a time. Once you have mastered one tactical idea, only then start another.
  4. GM Ziatdinov recommended this approach: Number your list of tactics problems. Start doing problems 1-10 until you can do them all perfectly. Then do problems 11-20 to perfection. Then repeat problems 1-20 to perfection. Now do problems 21-30, then repeat 1-30. Repeat this until you can do all problems perfectly. He had a list of over 3000 tactics problems on his website, and he said if you followed this approach you would have the tactical ability of a grandmaster.
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I strongly believe that doing tactical exercises is exactly the way to go. In my experience you will realize the improvements very soon. I think that is really a good idea to also redo puzzles you already solved. Of course you will memorize parts of the puzzles. However, if you have sufficiently many puzzles available, this is not such a big issue and you will actually absorb the underlying patterns, which is a good thing as it will allow you to spot critical ideas more quickly.

For me it is often the case with puzzles I have solved before that I remember the puzzle after I have found the correct first move. I think it is then a good idea to actually go through all the variations again to really hone your calculation skills. If you stop after finding the right move without verifying it, you will likely not train much more than your memory.

I would argue against using Blitz puzzles or games for improvement. After all, if you have trouble finding the right tactical shots under time pressure, then why should it help to constantly put yourself under time pressure? In particular, when playing Blitz games, it is quite likely that you will continue to miss tactical opportunities and thus not learn as much as you would from slower games or tactics puzzles. Of course you can gain the same from Blitz games if you are willing to analyze them afterwards... but who does that seriously?

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I'd just note that pattern recoginition is only one element of calculation. Yes, drilling lots of simple tactics repeatedly is useful and I'm not disputing the importance of that (I've done 7 circles myself).

But that's not the entirety of calculation, and there is a problem with believing that it is. For one, most tactical exercises have a very clear conclusion -- you use some tactical device to win a piece, deliver checkmate, or say promote a pawn. But often in real positions you won't know when to stop calculating a forced line, and you have to develop your intution a bit to know if you have calculated enough. Also, those clear conclusions (winning material or delivering mate) don't help you learn how to evaluate positions -- you win a piece, and move on to the next puzzle.

Calculation is a broader more difficult process with its own logic, like which candidate to calculate first, how to 'trim' branches, how to choose from several good evaluations (or the opposite problem -- the least bad), and learning your calculation blind-spots like residual images, or geometric motifs like backwards piece moves. The patterns that you learn through drilling tactics will help you immensely with calculation, since you'll be able to see things quickly like ("If I play move A, he can't play move B because of [insert tactical theme here]").

Learning the basics of calculation is rather simple, but implementing it is really hard. Try writing out your analysis of complicated positions, and then comparing your lines against the author's. Do this with/without a time limit, and with/without moving the pieces. If you actually attempt this you will find at first that you are very bad at calculating, and will become disheartened...well, at least I did! But over time you will get better and better, and you'll learn lots of calculation shortcuts. Most importantly you'll learn what your true weaknesses are and can focus on them. I kept a running list of my mistakes, and over time have reduced the number of mistakes I make. For example I learned that I had problems calculating accurately when there were captures for both sides in different parts of the board, so I focused on them until I felt I totally understood them...now I actually get excited when I see these positions!

To make it easy on yourself, you can try writing out your analysis of mate-in-2 problems. The evaluation at 4-ply (not 3-ply!) must always be checkmate, and you get to focus on finding lots of good candidate moves (a common calculation pitfall is not searching for enough candidates). Then move on to more and more complicated positions, like king hunts! Eventually you will be able to calculate complicated positions fast.

So please do keep drilling those patterns, but also try learning and practicing real calculation!!

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You may find the combination quicker by looking for these moves (in this order):

  • Checks
  • Captures
  • Attacks
  • Other move

You may also need to improve your time management.

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Intuition is what makes you good at calculation. Intuition tells you what to think first. The best way to decrease blunders and mistakes in time trouble would to play blitz. This way you get to experience a lot of time pressure scenarios in a relatively short amount of time. Also, playing blitz really helps with spotting simple tactics quickly. It trains your intuition. Bullet chess is also useful in helping chess players familiarize with how the pieces move and train the chess player to avoid hanging pieces. Of course bullet chess is not the primary means of improvement but in that area it may be helpful.

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A great way to get out of logical mind is: to hold a pencil upside down and draw with it.

It's like looking from right to left in army cadets: because when you learnt to read from left to right you also learn to skip bits visually as an externality when looking from left to right also.

Basically, slow down. Be confident and be organised.

Don't play blitz chess if you want to win- but we all play for different reasons.

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