09 October 2020

Using tactics training to strengthen your thought process

Chess tactics training and practice is necessary at all levels; even master-level players will often do problem sets as a warm-up before tournaments. When a player is in the process of gaining strength during their chess studies, the main purpose of learning tactics is to progressively unlock different possibilities on the chessboard. This includes:

  • Recognizing common and uncommon mating patterns
  • Fundamental tactical ideas, such as double attacks/forks, pins, bank rank vulnerabilities, and common sacrificial themes
  • Employing more advanced concepts, such as deflections, clearance sacrifices, the power of intermediate moves in a sequence, and forcing your opponent into zugzwang
Tactics training therefore feeds the pattern recognition process, which is a largely unconscious cognitive function, along with the mostly conscious and effortful process of calculation. (Temposchlucker's posts on "System 1" and "System 2" provide a number of illustrations.) Because of the complexity of chess, in most games we cannot simply remember what to do in a particular position. We can nonetheless recognize similar elements leading to tactical opportunities: poor king safety, hanging pieces, controlled files and diagonals, etc. The more we understand how these elements interact, the more detailed our "automatic" pattern recognition becomes and the easier it is to find specific tactics over the board.

The tactics training process is a necessary but not sufficient condition for gaining additional chess strength, however, past a certain point. Fundamentally, this is because the majority of positions we encounter in a game cannot be "solved" in the sense of there being a forced line leading to mate or material advantage. In many cases there is also no consensus even among professionals on the "best" positional move, as handily illustrated by the "Beat the Masters" series at The Abysmal Depths of Chess blog. This means we have to employ a more general thinking process when actually playing, as opposed to when doing dedicated tactics drills.

From longtime observation of the chess improvement community, it seems that bridging the gap between tactical problem solving and general chess thinking is one of the main hurdles in sustained chess improvement. This is especially the case in adult improvers, who tend to learn by applying systemic thought processes, rather than by intuitive mimicking of whatever works in a particular situation. This parallels how adults learn languages and other complex skills versus how children do it.

The problem is that chess contains both tactical and non-tactical positions, which have different "solutions" and therefore require different mental approaches. Or do they? Naturally it would be best to have a general thought process which takes into account all types of situations. The simplified thought process I generated and its companion, what to think about on your opponent's time, have held up pretty well for me - when I have the energy and focus to appropriately apply the principles. (Energy management in chess is another subject that is worth addressing in more depth.) One of the early positive results of having a more explicit thought process, I found, was to measurably boost my tactics puzzle ratings. This was a positive sign that I was on the right track.

Lately I have more consciously applied general thought process principles to tactics puzzles, most of which are drawn from real games, finding that it has helped both the tactics results and to reinforce the positive evolution of the thought process itself. Specifically, one of the main weaknesses I have identified in my play is an inconsistent recognition of my opponent's resources and threats. This is a common phenomenon among chessplayers, who naturally focus on their own possibilities, and is currently one of the top things holding me back in the middlegame. (Materialism is now less of an issue.)

Beginning each tactics puzzle with the question "What are my opponent's threats?" and identifying all of them has been a simple but helpful change in this regard. "What does my opponent want to do with their last move?" is a related question, also helpful in identifying their strategic plans. In the context of tactics training, you are not likely to be looking for strategically good or prophylactic moves - unfortunately, since that is a major element of gaining chess strength - but identifying threats to your position is always necessary. (Calculating your mate in three is not helpful if your opponent threatens a mate in two, in other words.)

Building the habit of looking at the opponent's moves first as part of tactics training may seem like a simple enough concept, but I expect it will have more profound effects on my general thought process as well. As with all good habits, with repetition comes improvement and greater automaticity, requiring less energy to consciously manage the thought process.

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