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Can tactics be learned / improved ?

Thinking about how we think(!)

Computers are very good tactically, because they can analyse variations very well and very quickly!. They will look at many more candidate moves than human beings, and consider even the craziest looking moves.

A budding Fischer, Kasparov or Tal must get very good tactically, and be able to find combinations easily.

Kotov in [1] suggested a policy of establishing candidate moves, and being systematic in analysing them. He made an interesting assumption with respect to the way computers calculate tactics. He suggested that we could take some of the methods that computer's employ and use them within the context of our own thinking processes. For example systematically analysing positions, thus producing variations quickly.

Being able to see moves ahead and assess the positions is a vital ingredient to combinational vision. Seeing ahead is a skill that can be evolved through practice. Kotov suggested looking at very complicated tactical situations, and trying to analyse them and compare the analysis to the actual game notes. He noted several very important tips related to looking ahead and finding the resources buried in the position. These included:-

These tips need some intelligent qualification.

The way computers "think" is completely different to the way humans think.

Humans have the ability to abstract and form plans. It is easier to implement computer chess programs with alpha-beta pruning, rather than teach them about planning concepts.

Finding really important variations is helped by experience. Experience will act as a filter to find the most relevant moves quickly that meet the needs of the position. An experienced sicillian Dragon defence player for example, will look at variations involving the thematic Rxc3 quite often for example. An experienced Kings Indian player will be familiar with the tactical themes of the Kings Indian.

Computers have no emotions and fear. Their programs do not become "tired" and make elementary blunders.

Being systematic and not going over variations twice is an idea borrowed from how computers analyse positions. It seems slightly risky when for example you are going to sacrifice your queen or heavy material. It is re-assuring to try and check the soundness of these types of combinations! Computers have no fear and do not have to suffer the emotional implications of unsoundly sacrificing a queen!

This type of human re-assurance has to be balanced with Kotov's fundamental point about discipline in terms of not jumping from one variation to another and back again. This could have very bad consequences such as running out of time.

Having made these qualifications:- in tactical situations, it would be nice to produce a computer like analysis. The structural framework and discipline that computers employ to analyse variations is therefore a very interesting idea in principle.

Training our tactical vision

The following set of tips may help train tactical vision:-


Assess the positional (static) elements of the situation

Outside of the scope of this tactics focused paper, but this should precede assessing the dynamic tactical aspects of the position. The BCC positional paper yet to come will focus on the fundamentals of thinking positionally! Two factors to consider in the priority given to the positional assessment and tactical assessment of positions:-


A players style

Positional play and planning should be given equal if not higher priority in a chess player's arsenal of weapons. If one wants to lean towards a Botvinnik/ Karpovian style of play - highly positional, then having crystal clear logical plans, and being able to manage the positional elements of the position will feature heavily in the thought processes.

If one has fallen in love with the attacking games of Tal on the other hand, and wants to be a highly combinative player, playing sharp agressive openings, then there may be less priority on positional reasoning, and more on the calculation of variations.

[Instructive note: Botvinnik was well aware of Tal's style in their world championship match, and got revenge on Tal taking Tal's crown by playing solid boring caro-kann systems which favoured Botvinnik's positional style of play, and did not favour Tal's combinative creative style as well as for example, the sicillian defence]

The type of position

There is little point thinking tactically, when it is more effective and beneficial to think positionally, in terms of manoevers for example. Positional and tactical reasoning needs to be appropriate to the position. These types of reasoning need in fact to be integrated to support each other. Even in many closed positions, there are latent dynamic tactical possibilities that need to be analysed.

As a general rule however, closed positions have less tactics, and thus provide more justification for thinking positionally such as nice squares for pieces, and less in terms of reams of computer-like variations. In the majority of situations it is re-assuring however to still look for the dynamic resources in the position.

Tactical combinations do not just magically appear. They are usually a logical consequence of the position. [However players like Tal have a remarkable habit of pulling combinations out of the air!!] .The tactical elements and questions which can provide useful clues that there may be an advantageous combination at one's disposal include the following:-

These tactical elements are often interwined with each other. Therefore the following examples generally reflect the exploitation of a number of the above at the same time.


King safety examples


The King is generally the weakest piece on the chessboard in the middlegame (but may prove to be a very valuable resource in the endgame!). If you lose a pawn, it is not the end of the game. Even if you have your whole queenside demolished, it is still not the end of the game. If your king gets mated however, that is terminal.

Grandmasters are generally very very good at ripping open king positions- whether they look weak or not!.

The three Grandmasters Kasparov, Tal and Fischer in particular have completely destroyed their opponents kings from positions where there does not seem to be a danger superficially. Lets look at King safety from the perspectives of the castled king, the king that has moved, and the king in the centre.


Initial candidate moves

Brainstorming is a useful technique in the process of analysing the initial candidate moves in the position. It involves not rejecting moves because they appear very bad. Instead coldly and detachedly looking at all the possible moves in the current situation. By this process one can risk finding really creative looking moves that one would not normally consider!

Assuming the position is deserving enough of a systematic tactical analysis, and one has brainstormed many of the candidate moves available in the position, one needs to go about finding out which ones are worthy of pursuit.

Prioritising candidate moves

As human beings we need to prioritise the moves we look at because we cannot see millions of moves per second.
Moves which should be given priority in analysis of variations include :-

1) Moves which are forcing in nature , as there is less possibilities to examine for the opponent.
2) Moves which are
clearly linked with strategic goals/ our plans in the position
, e.g. creating a passed pawn, or removing a king's defender. These are "logical" tactics which help further the positional goals of the situation and help to implement one's overall game plan.

Given that the extent of a "brute force" approach is clearly limited by time constraints and other practical constraints, there is therefore a clear need for prioritising candidate moves.

Postal chess may facilitiate a much more detailed investigation of the candidate moves in a position. However in normal over the board play, a policy of filtering and prioritising after the initial round up of many candidate moves, and more fundamentally to play practical positional moves which are linked to your overall strategic game plan [yes- you should have one of those!] is usually the most practical, effective way of thinking within the constraints of tournament time limits.

Spotting good candidates- what do we want to invest our time in?!

The identification of tactical elements and combinational motifs should have emphasised the raison d'Ítre of potentially good combinative moves.

Candidate moves which seem to be logically related to for example exploiting pins or weaknesses around the opponent's king should be considered more carefully than other complete random moves which may have been initially thought of in the brainstorming process.

We have to use our experiences to guide prioritising moves. At the same time we should leave creative room for the parodoxial decision of trying to appreciate the significance of the seemingly insignificant.

Without leaving this creative room, we will always be restricted in the choice of our candidate moves by our experiences and the apparent "rules". If you want to be a good combinative player, you must be prepared to break all the "rules" of the game! Think about giving up a queen for a pawn! You may find it does something interesting like force a mate in 5! You may also get a brilliancy prize in your club's magazine!

One has to get an instinctive feel for the most favourable "insignificant" moves. They may for example be more strongly linked with strategic implications such as opening a file. In which case, their insignificance may only be superficial. They are simply in the realm of subtle resources which can turn the whole game to one's favour.

Beautiful combinations

In calculating variations, beautiful hidden tactical resources may be revealed. A special place is reserved for sacrificial combinations which may be revealed in analysis. However one should not go all out to find a combination in every position. Only if the position is ripe for it. Otherwise simply analyse the main variations which support your main game plan and make sure you stay alive tactically!

It is pointless waste of time looking for a combination if there does not exist one in the position. There needs to be jusification for looking for a combination. If we try and find a combination in every position, we will probably find really unexpected combinations in 5% of games, but be losing on time in 90% of games. Computers on the other hand being so fast, can be tactically turned on and analysing deeply every move.

Why computers are better tactically

In filtering/ prioritising out moves, in 1 case out of 10, or 1 case out of 100, the seemingly completely random move, may have been the most appropriate move in the position to play.

It is here humans will be losing ultimately to computers.
We have to use our judgement and experience to filter.

We therefore have to accept we are going to be weaker tactically than computers. We have to take what's useful from the way computers analyse! (and dont get into tactical positions against them :-) )

The tactical clues which help one find combinations also act as our blind-spot because in one respect they guide us towards finding a combination more quickly. However in guiding us, they prejudice us from systematically analysing the all the candidate moves in the position. Computers not being with this prejudice and guidance will simply use a brute force approach and look at moves which might not be at all considered by us mere humans.