Grandmaster Guide to learn and improve chess tactics
99.9% of players choose the wrong approach and fail when it comes to learning and improving chess tactics. Discover what the 0.1% do differently.
99.9% of players choose the wrong approach and fail when it comes to learning and improving chess tactics. Discover what the 0.1% do differently.
Improving your chess tactics is one of the fastest ways to raise your rating.
Many chess lovers understand this, but unfortunately, most of them fail.
Often, they spend hours solving tactics on online platforms, but there’s little to no improvement in their tactical ability.
And at the same time, there are people like Lily.
Being our editor and a big chess fan (yet she plays little because her boss keeps her busy?), she had 1,200 on chess.com when she started editing our Tactics course.
And in just 2 weeks, she raised her rating 100 points! Just by editing it! ?
Imagine how much you can raise your rating if you study tactics carefully and most importantly CORRECTLY!
So what’s the difference between those who grow their rating fast and those who don’t?
Why often it's not your fault and how chess books, courses, software, and training platforms can take you in the wrong direction?
What should you do to get better at tactics?
What’s the most effective method to study tactics?
We’ll go through everything in this article, and at the end of it, you’ll have a very clear plan with actionable tips. Let’s begin from the most fundamental level.
Chess tactics is a move/series of moves that use the short-term weaknesses in a position to help achieve a short-term goal.
These short-term goals could be gaining material, checkmating the enemy King, or even improving your piece position, defending a checkmate, etc.
Have a look at the position below:
It’s White to play.
They have a tactic that allows them to gain material. Can you find it? Try to find the answer before reading further.
Alright, so White wins material after 1.Nd5! It’s a fork, and Black can’t take the Knight because they’ll get a back rank mate.
This was a simple example of using a fork and back rank mate.
There are many more tactics that commonly occur in a game like:
As a player, the ability to notice tactics without consciously thinking of them is what you should strive for.
So how can you train to notice these different tactics in a real game?
You’ll learn about that in the next section.
Have you watched GM Hikaru solve complicated puzzles before you even fully register the position in your mind?
Ever wondered why that happens?
It’s because Hikaru’s tactical vision is razor sharp. Throughout his career, he has solved countless puzzles on different themes. Because of it, his mind has built a collection of patterns he can refer to without his conscious attention.
The moment a familiar pattern occurs, his mind identifies it and instantly sees how to solve it.
Source: Hikaru's Youtube channel
The first step is to imprint tactical patterns in your brain.
Many beginners make a mistake trying to solve puzzles without learning the patterns. (We’ll talk about it more soon in the section about the typical mistakes you should avoid.)
They forget the old proverb: “You can't find mushrooms in the forest if you don't know what mushrooms look like.” I remember my friend sending me the following position and asking for help.
He couldn’t solve it. Can you?
I asked him if he knows what deflection is. He looked confused and said: “What? Difleshion?" ????
He had no idea what deflection was. No idea about the mushroom, and of course he couldn’t solve it ?
After I taught him what deflection is, he immediately noticed that if White didn’t have Rg1, Black could mate with Qg2!
And White’s Qd1 controls the h5 square, otherwise, Qh5 would be mate!
And then with a large smile on his face, he got it.
Now White can’t take the Rook with either Rg1, because of Qg2 mate, or Qe1 because of Qh5.
But what if 2.Qg4 attacking the Rc8?
Now my friend offered the move 2…Rce8, which is decent. But when I said he can mate in 2, he was very surprised.
Are you too?
If you know what an “X-Ray” is, you should find it easily.
When I asked my friend if he knows, he said “Yes, of course. My father is a doctor. But I have no clue how it is related to chess ???”
After I explained to him what X-ray in chess is and showed some examples he immediately found 2…Qh1! (Hopefully, you too.)
And after 3.Rxh1 Rxh1 White is mated.
So, learn tactical patterns first before solving puzzles.
Many beginners think that if they learned what a fork, pin, or deflection are, they’ll remember it forever and from now on they’ll find every tactic with those topics.
And then they feel miserable when after their online sessions, the platform says “You missed this, that and that tactics…”
Knowing a tactical pattern (theoretically) isn’t enough at all.
You should solve puzzles on that topic, so you deeply understand it and it goes as deep as possible into your brain.
There are many platforms and software, where you can choose a specific topic (more about it later).
If you’ve worked your way through our Tactic Ninja course, you’ll know this is our methodology:
1. Learning the pattern
2. Deepening the newly gained knowledge
3. Going to the next pattern
During the game, nobody will whisper in your ear “There is a fork” or “You can do a windmill.”
So, once you’ve learned the basics of all the different tactics, and solved some puzzles on each of them, it’s time to diversify your training by solving mixed puzzles, where you know there is a tactic, but don’t know which theme.
But don’t jump to this step until you have mastered all the tactical patterns!
A few days ago I couldn’t sleep.
So, I woke up and came to the office at 4 AM ?
Usually, I turn off all the messengers before going to my tasks, but as it was 4 AM, I left them open as I thought my team was sleeping anyway.
At 4.30 AM I got a message from our developer.
“Av, I have a problem, I need your help.”
I took the phone to call him, to see if he has a personal issue or if he can’t fix the bug he was working on for the last 3 days.
But before I clicked the “call” button, he sent me the following screenshot.
“Av, I saw this position on our Instagram page. The position reads, ‘Black to play and win’ but after three hours I am still struggling with it.”
(Now you know when there is a bug on the website and it isn’t fixed, it’s because of whom ?)
The problem (I mean his chess problem ?) was that he watched the Tactic Ninja course, but not the Mating Matador yet! And as I figured out later, he didn’t watch the conclusion section of the Tactic course too, where I tell the importance of the next step – learning the mating patterns!
He thought about the move 1…Rxd3! He knew the “Annihilation” topic and wanted to get the e2 square for Knight.
He thought about 1…Bb2. He knew the “clearance” motif and wanted to open the diagonal for the Queen on b8, but he didn’t know what to do next.
The problem was he didn’t know about the mating pattern called Anastasia’s Mate.
I asked him to find a win in the following position.
He wasn’t in the mood to find it. Could you?
We’ll come back here in a second.
Then I showed him the “Anastasia's mate” pattern.
Now he solved the previous one.
1.Qxh7!! Kh7 2.Rh3 Qh5 3.Rxh5#
And when we went back to his original headache in 2 minutes he found the solution.
And finally went to sleep?
With tactics often you’ll win material. But too often tactics will be related to the King! And if you don’t know mating patterns you’ll also be awake at 4.30 AM, suffering from an “unsolvable puzzle.”
There will be more about learning the Mating Patterns and the Mating Matador course at the end of the article.
There will be some tactics you solve fast but make mistakes in others. Becoming aware of these mistakes is key before fixing them.
You can find this data by analyzing your games, by solving tactics, or just by observing which of them you struggle to spot most.
For instance, one of my students misses forks. Another misses decoys. Everyone’s brain works differently ?
Once you’re aware of the tactical weaknesses, solve more positions based on that specific tactical motif.
The software I’ll recommend soon has a nice feature where you can pick the puzzles that you didn’t solve correctly in the past.
It’ll be a key step forward for solving those puzzles again!
Unfortunately too many books, courses, and software to improve tactics claim that they’re the only ones you need.
“Solve our puzzles, come back to them, do them again 10 times and you won’t need anything else.” Does this sound familiar?
As we talked about already, solving the same puzzles, especially the ones you haven’t solved correctly is a good idea!
In our Tactic Ninja course, in the conclusion section, I also recommend solving our 777 quizzes as long as you don’t make mistakes and you solve each in a few seconds.
When you get to this stage my recommendation is to move on to other places! What are the other places I recommend solving puzzles? We’ll speak soon.
For now, I want you to take away the following.
Don’t stick with one book or course for a long time. Even our Tactic Ninja.
I wish there were more sources that would care for your growth first and then their revenues.
And be cautious each time a source says “The only X you need to improve Y.”
If you run every morning, or exercise 3-5 times a week, after several months you are probably in good physical shape. But it doesn’t mean you’ll always be fit, right?
If you stop taking care of your physical health, you’ll go backward.
The same thing in chess.
But somehow too many chess lovers think/believe (often not because of their fault, but because of the nice marketed book or course) that if they put dedicated work, and many hours, into working on their tactics, they’ll fix it once and for all.
The reality isn’t that sweet. Learning tactics, improving tactical vision, and staying in a good shape are different topics.
The best players solve tactics almost daily.
Of course, they know all the tactical patterns and have solved thousands and thousands of puzzles. But they do it to stay in good shape. To keep their tactical vision “fit.”
My advice is to solve puzzles for at least 5 minutes a day.
If you have more time, go ahead with 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour… Up to you.
And another good idea is solving tactics before tournaments and a few easy puzzles before starting an online session. More about this you’ll find in our "BlunderProof” course.
Not to spoil everything, you’ll also find how blunders and weak tactical vision are related to each other.
When almost every major website and the best chess coaches who care for their students first, recommend our Tactic Ninja and Mating Matador courses, it's probably not the right time to be humble and tell you to go do other courses.
(Screenshot from one of the best chess blogs by GM Noël Studer)
Also, with my eyes I have seen how my team was researching all the courses and books, to help me prepare the best possible material.
So let me, without fake humbleness, tell you more about our 2 courses and what I recommend your next steps should be. I feel it’s my obligation.
Then it’s your life, your chess journey and your choices.
The Tactic Ninja course is designed in the absolute same way as we have talked about in this article.
The course is designed for 800-2,200 level (chess com rating). However, as you can read from the reviews of the course below, we have received amazing feedback from those below and above these levels.
Solving the Quiz and the mixed puzzles is the last step.
But if you’re not sure if the course is for you or not, you can test yourself by solving the tactics quiz which is free.
If you find the puzzles challenging then starting the course might be the best possible move for your chess growth.
And the next step is, as you know, studying the Mating Patterns.
In the Mating Matador course you’ll find 37 Mating Patterns (many not covered in chess literature.)
After teaching you the mating patterns, together we’ll solve 5 puzzles, using previously learned tactical motifs and your newly learned mating pattern.
Then we will move to the next pattern. And like that from 1 to 37!
At the end, when you have learned all the Mating Patterns, it will be time to solve mixed puzzles where you don’t know the mating pattern.
Again, you can start from the end and see if the course is for you or not, by going through the free mating pattern Quiz.
If you find the puzzles challenging, drop the quiz and go to the course.
P. S. If you have any of our Essential or PRO plans, you have unlimited access to both courses as well as our additional 50+ chess courses.
If you don’t have any of our plans yet, go ahead. It comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee, so you don’t have any risk.
After you’ve digested all the needed information from the courses, and want to improve your tactical skills further, you need to follow the aforementioned 6th step of improving your tactics.
That’s right! Leave ChessMood and supplement your training with additional practice in other places.
It can be quite confusing when there are so many platforms claiming they’re the best or have the biggest databases.
In this section, I’ll share my personal opinion on where you should go.
I’ll not recommend the most famous and the biggest ones, and soon you’ll see why.
My 1st and absolute recommendation for now is CT-ART 6!
CT-ART 6 is one of the oldest tactics trainers and my 1st choice.
I remember solving all the puzzles of their earlier versions when I was a kid. (CT-ART 2 or 3, if I’m not wrong)
They have a fantastic collection of puzzles and have filtered them into categories very nicely and precisely. (Something the major websites don’t)
They also have many features that are fantastic.
Their “hint” option is really a hint/help, not just revealing 99% of the solution.
They have an option of choosing your wrong or unsolved puzzles!
As we mentioned already, this is a very important feature. And much more…
You can either buy their software or download their app. (not affiliate links; Once I get a coupon code from them for you, I’ll edit this part.)
Why don’t I recommend going to big websites like chess com, lichess or chesstempo?
They have huge databases, right?
But most of their puzzles are generated through AI and from online games.
A great feature for fighting for the award “The biggest database.”
But you should care who gets the award “The best place helping to learn tactics!”
If you’ve already solved puzzles on these big platforms you might have lots of moments when you solve a puzzle and feel “That’s it?” or “That was a tactic?” and very often no esthetic pleasure at all.
If you have had these feelings, now you know why.
AI helps generate millions of puzzles, but it isn’t a professional coach who can pick up the best puzzles to help you improve.
Another problem with these websites is their huge databases. They can’t (at least now) filter precisely.
Often you’ll find a tactical motif in the wrong section and advanced puzzles in the beginner’s area.
Maybe one day they’ll fix their errors, and I’ll come back to edit this section. But for now, in my opinion, CT-ART is still the best!
The only thing with CT-ART is that it must be purchased. If you want to pick a free one, go with Lichess.
Now, let me tell you about mistakes that most beginners make while trying to improve their tactics. I want you to avoid these to squeeze the most out of your tactics training.
Many are doing this mistake which we touched a bit at the beginning.
They go to an online tactics platform and start solving puzzles when they don't know what deflection, X-ray, interference are, and so on.
And often it’s not their fault… ?
If you go to the biggest playing website you see this:
Now, imagine how many click here and start solving without learning first.
Hopefully one day they’ll change it to at least something like “Improve your tactics”, take you to a landing page with educational content and then only - “Solve puzzles!”
Dear friend, don’t make this mistake and you’ll be ahead of 99% of your peers.
Learn the tactical motifs first and then only solve puzzles.
Too many choose either too difficult or too easy puzzles.
And again, often it’s not their fault ?
There are too many books with advanced material claiming they’re for beginners too. The same about courses.
And as you know, the biggest platforms don’t filter it well either. The mentioned CT-ART does a great job!
I recommend going from the very first levels – solve all of them, get to the stage where you do it without mistakes and go to the next level.
Especially if you solve the puzzle while using an electronic device, like a computer, tablet, or phone. It’ll be often tempting to put the move on the board and see if you’re right.
Don’t do that. Imagine it’s a real game.
The same with using books. If you think you found the correct move, don’t immediately check the answer if you were right.
Treat the puzzle as a real game decision you need to make.
I’ve seen many students solving too many tactics in a day. It gives them a kick of dopamine every time they get a green tick next to their answer.
But this doesn’t mean you forget everything else. It’s a myth that solving tactics is all you need to improve your chess as a beginner.
It’s very-very helpful, but it's not all there is!
If you spend too much time on tactics, you’ll fall behind in other aspects.
Don’t overdo it.
The best sign is when you can notice tactics without paying conscious attention. This is the stage you should strive to be at.
Once you’re at this stage, it’s only a matter of time before you raise your rating.
Also, another obvious metric you can look at is whether your tactic rating (on any platform or software including the recommended CT-ART) is going up.
Just keep in mind that tactics rating and chess rating are very different.
If you get 2,400 on tactics, don’t be confused if your online rating is 2,000?
Now you know why some improve their tactics fast and some are getting stuck.
Why often it's not their fault and how chess sources can confuse and take the student in the wrong direction.
And if you read till here, I hope you’ll make smart choices when planning your chess training.
Wherever we end up, it’s the sum of our choices, right?
Please, make the right ones!
And even if you don’t get started with our Tactic Ninja and Mating Matador courses, don’t get a membership and start skyrocketing your chess in all areas with Grandmaster-made courses, and want something else - fine!
But I hope very much that you’ll do your research before picking up something else.
Don’t let businesses and people, whose metric is making money, influence you to make wrong decisions.
Find places and people where your growth is what they care about first.
Wishing you all the best on your chess and life journey!
Make smart choices and I am looking forward to seeing you on the top.
P. S. Feel free to share your thoughts and feedback in the forum.
Originally published Sep 27, 2022