Nearly a century ago Richard Teichmann proclaimed the famous “Chess is 99% tactics”. Even if that might be a slight overstatement, tactics are a vital part of Chess and need to be learned and improved continuously.
But how can you best learn or improve Chess tactics?
In this article, I will give you a wide overview of possible Chess tactic training tools and explain how you should use those.
These tools vary from free online resources to books or paid online courses. Depending on where you are in your chess journey, one or another can be more useful.
At the end of the article, I will also give some advice from 10+ years of improving my tactics.
For those in a hurry, here are my favorite tools in a nutshell:
- Chessmood Tactic Ninja course (aimed at beginners and intermediate players with 800-2200 rating)
- How to beat your Dad at Chess (Book aimed at beginners learning all important checkmate patterns)
- Lichess (FREE), is great as a daily tool to improve tactical finesse
- Woodpecker Method (Book or Chessable Course) aimed at intermediate-, Club- & Titled players who want to further work on their fast pattern recognition
Learn Chess Tactics
Step 1 in mastering Chess Tactics is to learn different tactical motifs, also called patterns. If you are just beginning your chess journey, then this part is super important for you.
Let’s shortly step back a bit. What is actually a Chess tactic?
I would describe a Chess tactic as a move (or series of moves) that leads to an advantage for one side. The most basic Chess tactics are Checkmates. Here is an example of such a checkmate:
As you can see, the Black King has no escape anymore because the pawns in front of him blocked his way out. He is checkmated by a sole rook on the first/last rank. There are many different possible ways that such a back rank checkmate can happen.
Thus we call it a tactical motif, or pattern. Once you have seen this motif in action, it will be much easier for you to spot it in real games.
Now if you simply try to solve some tactical exercises without knowing the key motifs, you will have a really hard time! You don’t even know what you are exactly looking for.
That is why you should use a tool that explains the most common tactical motifs and how you can implement them in your games first.
Best Tools For Learning Tactical Motifs
As it takes some effort to assemble great examples and explain them in an easily understandable way, most of the tools I recommend here are paid. It really is worth it to invest some bucks in your tactical foundation, as you will profit from that your whole life long.
Chessmood Course Tactics Ninja (Aimed at 800-2000 rating)
A course perfect to improve the basics of chess tactics. You will learn all the tactical motifs from ‘pin’ to ‘skewer’ to ‘windmill’ and many more! And by signing up with my link, you will get a 20% discount!
GM Avetik Grigoryan has a very easy and understandable way to explain all these different tactics. The course also includes many exercises after learning a motif. This ensures you can immediately use what you learned.
If you are just starting out or would like to help somebody starting out, then this course is absolutely perfect for you.
The course is also great for people who play already for a while but never really covered the basics of tactics in Chess.
As a ChessMood PRO Member, you can access all their courses, so this is the easiest way to get even more great Chess content for as little as $29/month.
You can head over to Chessmood and sign-up in a few minutes. In case you do, let me know what you think. I’m excited to hear your feedback!
Note that I am an affiliate with them, so I will earn a provision at no extra cost to you if you sign up through my link. I truly love Chessmood’s team, their vision & content, and am convinced you will too!
38 Definitions and Examples of Chess Tactics by Chess.com
This is a free and very short overview of some tactical motifs. I have to say I don’t really love all the examples & explanations, nor is the overview complete. But it is the best quick free guide in a non-video format I have found so far.
In the end, you get what you (don’t) pay for.
YouTube Videos On Chess Tactics By Chess Talk
If you want to get a first impression in less than an hour of free videos, then this resource is for you.
A YouTube Channel I did not know until researching material for this article called “Chess Talk” (nearly 1 Million subscribers!) covers important tactical motifs and Checkmate Patterns in two instructive Videos.
Again these are free videos by a hobby instructor, not a famous titled player. So the depth and quality certainly do not reach Chessmood’s tactical Ninja course. Nonetheless, a great way to enter the World of Chess Tactics with a free resource.
How To Beat Your Dad At Chess (Book)
A fantastic book that explains all the major Checkmate patterns in an easy-to-understand way. I started out with something like the predecessor of this book called “Erfolg im Schach (German version)” by the same author and LOVED it as a kid.
It did not turn out that badly, so I can wholeheartedly recommend this book!
This is not only great for kids starting out, but also for adult improvers.
Train and Improve Chess Tactics
Once you covered your basics and learned the most important motifs, you are ready to improve your tactical vision. Now you can solve different “real-life” examples and find more abstract ways to implement the learned motifs.
This is where the work really gets fun and is basically endless!
Only because you have once seen a motif does not mean that you’ll find it in several minutes (or seconds in Blitz) during a real game when you DO NOT know that there will be a tactic available.
That is why you should frequently train yourself with tactical puzzles. The nice part is that there are also endless ways of doing this, so you should not get bored quickly. Just be aware that this can quickly become an addiction and is only effective if done well.
Here are some tools I used myself or can recommend using for anybody that has covered the basic motifs.
Note that all the resources that have a time limit are only good to improve fast chess AND if you are already pretty advanced (2000+). In case you do them, make sure to ALWAYS check the solutions if you get something wrong.
The worst case is that you learn something in the wrong way. This happens if you fail at something several times but never check what would have been right. Your brain will simply remember what you did already several times and think this is right.
Lichess Tactics Trainer
Lichess is just an amazing resource for Chess players all around the World. It really amazes me that they do what they do without charging or earning a single penny. That means: ALL the features are totally free.
You can play online games, create your own opening databases or solve tactical exercises. There are normal tactical exercises that I recommend doing.
The mode called “puzzle Storm” is very addictive and dangerous. I do not recommend using it!
I sometimes used this method to warm up before a session with harder puzzles from books or exercises by my Coach.
But sometimes I ended up only doing these puzzles for hours and tilting instead of doing the “real work”.
So don’t test your self-control and just do the normal puzzles, they are great :-).
Chess.com Tactics Trainer
Chess.com is the leading online Chess-playing website and also offers tools to improve your tactics. As a Grandmaster, I always got their premium membership free, so I used this website the most.
As on Lichess, you can solve puzzles without time pressure or do Puzzle Rush, which is the equivalent of Lichess’s Puzzle Storm. For more than 1 Puzzle Rush/day you will need a paid membership (under $10/month).
If the only use-case of this membership would be solving these puzzles, I recommend using lichess instead. Same, but just for free, so why not?
The Woodpecker method is my favorite book when it comes to improving Chess tactics. With over 1000 different puzzles (taken from games of legendary players) and a unique solving method, you can really improve your tactical vision a lot.
The puzzles are not easy from the get-go and get even harder toward the end. As written on my resource page, I recommend it to players with an 1800 FIDE rating or more.
Make sure to read through the introduction with the explanation of the Woodpecker Method. That is the key piece of the book, so don’t miss that one!
You can also get the Woodpecker Method as an online course version on Chessable. I always think it is more beneficial to work through a book, as your concentration will likely be better and you won’t just fall for the “let’s try this move” laziness.
But especially the repetition can be done very nicely with Chessable.
So choose for yourself. 🙂
Grandmaster Tips For Chess Tactics
Tactics are endless. I started solving my first puzzles when I was around 8 years old. I then continued to do it until I retired aged 24. In these 16 years of an attempt at tactical mastery, I have tried and learned a lot.
Here are my 5 tips that can help you improve your tactics.
#1: Always Check The Solution
Never attempt to solve puzzles without checking the solution afterward.
Especially with the gamification online tools, this can be a problem. But once your brain “learned” a motif that is strictly wrong, it is super hard to get it out of your head. The time spent might actually not only have no positive but a negative impact!
On the same note, make sure to check all the games you play.
You might see some Grandmasters play 100+ game Bullet matches without checking any of their games. While this is not really great, a GM will most likely make extremely limited mistakes.
Furthermore, a GM mostly immediately recognizes a mistake and thus doesn’t “learn” something wrong.
If you are an amateur this same habit will most likely end in disaster.
#2: Find The Right Level Of Exercise
If the exercises you solve are either too hard or too easy, you won’t really improve. Make sure to spend some time reflecting on the exercises you do.
A great rule of thumb is the following: solving between 60-70% of the exercises fully correctly is the optimal level for you.
The right solution isn’t “I have seen the first move”. But this means seeing the FULL line until the end and anticipating any counter chances by your opponent.
#3: Write Down What You Think
Your brain will most likely play tricks on you if you only have the solution in your head. Even if you did not see a resource for your opponent you might count the exercise as solved right. But that is very dangerous.
Missing an opponent’s resource can cost you a full point in a real game! There is no checking the solution before actually playing your move. So whenever you try to solve tactics, write your solution down.
Force yourself to make a decision. Whatever is not written down you simply did not see.
Only then check with the solution. Like this, you ensure that you don’t play tricks on yourself. Now you can really assess if the exercises are at the right level for you.
There is no shame in taking a step back and going to easier exercises/books.
Being honest about your actual strength will give you the possibility to learn MUCH faster than others.
#4: Don’t Check The Solution After Every Puzzle
A big key reason why I prefer working with a book is that you can decide when you look at the solution. For me, it was always hard to stay in the flow if I checked the solution after every puzzle.
You might get negative thoughts if you miss something. Or you even might see the solution to the next puzzle already.
That is why I usually fixed an amount of time I just continued to solve puzzle after puzzle. 30 Minutes worked fine for me. Write down your solution after every puzzle and then simply go on solving the next one.
After the 30 Minutes take your time by checking what you wrote down with the solutions of the book. Doing the solving and checking in bulks helped me stay in the flow. It will also help you focus for a longer period of time.
Especially in faster games, you will not get the type of break or stress relief that checking the solutions can be. That is why solving puzzles continuously imitates the real game situation much better.
#5: Have Fun And Diversify!
The key to chess improvement is having fun. So don’t be too harsh on yourself if you miss some things. You just learned something new!
As written earlier, solving tactical exercises can easily become an addiction. Yes, tactics are important but do not neglect the other parts of the chess game.
You can check out my article about Beginner Chess Strategies, how I analyze my own games (very vital for Tactics!!!), or how I work on Chess openings to learn more about other phases of the game.
The tool I use to start the lessons for most of my groups/students is the free http://www.Blitztactics.com. It is Lichess based and has a direct link to Lichess, so that the positions can be analyzed there.
The “Repetition” section is basically the Woodpecker Method.
Players over – say -1600 might find the “Infinity” section too easy, as there is no time pressure, for players up to that level I find it ideal.
Thanks for sharing this new tool. I think it can be a good tool for students to warm up BEFORE a lesson. Why let them pay and do something they could also do on their own?
Simply, because most of them are primary school students, whom I coach directly after school, so they need to “switch modes”, for which Blitztactics is ideal. Also analyzing their initial ideas via the Lichess/Stockfish options helps them see their mistakes.
Now that makes more sense. Obviously, Kids need more guidance than adults, so helping them warm-up is a good way to start the lesson if they don’t have time/discipline to do it by themselves before a lesson. Have fun Coaching & thanks for sharing again!
thank you for those useful hints – do you think puzzle solving does the job, or is it necessary to train imagination and calculation seperately? Most of the puzzles – also the Woodpecker book – tend to have “classical” motives you more or less need to recognise. The Aagard or Dworetsky books, on the other hand, which contain such “pure” calculation examples, are far too difficult for me (2100 ELO), even though I know some calculation algorithms in theory (first checks, then mating threats, taking pieces, looking for unprotected ones etc). Which advice would you give?
you are welcome! Learning the classical motives is the basics. Once you spot them frequently, you can go deeper and work on calculation exercises that do not only contain 1 famous motif. The Aagaard and Dvoretsky are certainly very tough. You might want to find something that prepares you for solving them. One idea could be the earlier Aagaard book on calculation (not GM series). There are many more puzzle & calculation books with difficult (but easier than Dvoretsky & Aagaard) positions to solve. Hope you’ll find something that fits your level!
Most generous of you Noel to share your experiences in this blog – very inciteful and appreciated 🙂
Having purchased a number of chess books over the years, I have found these titles to be most instructive and approachable (at least for my level)
1) Martin Weteschnik Chess Tactics from Scratch – super clear explanation of tactics
2) Artur Yusupov Chess Fundamentals – 3 levels with 3 books in each series
3) CT-ART – Originally PC app also available as Android app, simply beautiful puzzles
4) Pretty much anything by Jeremy Silman & Yasser Seirawan – my favourite authors
Thank you so much for your nice feedback, Enzo! Much appreciated 🙂
Great to read some recommendations. Yusupov, Seirawan & Silman are truly great authors. But I haven’t read the Weteschnik Book yet. Will check it out and see if I can recommend it.
Thanks for sharing your experience!
Thanks Noel for this detailed insights. One book, that structures tactics according to motives very nicely, is Jacov Neistadts “Zauberwelt der Kombination”. Tactical exercises are endless but those motivs are not. To understand them brings about a longterm value.
In this respect, it could be interessting for a non professional, not only to know, how these exercises are done, but also when to do them. As the effect of strengthening the caculating abilities fades when you stop doing the exercises, it seems to be sensible to go for them bevore a tournament.The question is how long it is advisable to do it bevore a competition. A week? Or a month? and should it be done till the very day bevore the tournament is starting?
Thanks for the recommendation! I have written quite a bit about when to study things in my article on tournament preparation: http://nextlevelchess.blog/tournament-preparation/
The “learning” should definitely be done at home. The refreshing can be done up to a week before the tournament and then in the morning before a game if one wishes to do so. Note that you should not look to improve any abilities at the tournament. You just try to refresh what you already are capable of.