Tactics Training

This is a post I originally wrote on the chess.com forum about their Tactics Trainer software, but it’s relevant for tactics training in general.  One relevant piece of background is that Tactics Trainer is timed, with the time limit equal to double the average successful solving time for each position.  The time limit affects your rating, but doesn’t influence how much time you have available to solve the position.

I’ve got a question for the other members who are passionate about Tactics Trainer:  What’s your objective in using Tactics Trainer?  I’m not trying to be clever or sarcastic, it’s a real question that has strong implications about what functionality TT should have, and how to use it.  These are the reasons I can think of to use TT:

  1. Get better at chess, whether fast or slow
  2. Get a high score in Tactics Trainer
  3. Fun, boredom, etc
  4. You can’t get enough of hansel’s blank comments or Joe Blob’s blog posts.

For me, the real goal is to get better at playing chess in actual games..  And for this reason, I use TT in a specific way that from the forum comments seems to be fairly rare.

  • Set it to Rated mode (as opposed to unrated and untimed)
  • In the Settings, uncheck “Show Timer”, so the timer is hidden while I’m solving the position
  • Also in Settings, check “Always show white on the bottom”
  • In each tactic, don’t move a single piece until you’ve worked out the whole problem as far as TT will take the line, including any delaying or interposing moves your opponent can make. In short, only move the first piece when you would be confident enough to play it in a competitive game.  In practice, I also give up if I can’t see the tactic after 4 min or so.
  • When I get a tactic wrong, I check the right answer, and then play it through myself moving the pieces with “Try Again” a few times to get the new pattern embedded.  Perhaps most importantly I describe to myself what features of the position should have triggered this pattern.  Loose pieces, unsafe king, etc.  This helps me really imprint new patterns.

Why do it this way? In order to make sure I’m using these patterns in real games every time I need to recognize them quickly, and make sure the patterns actually work in the current position.  The patterns will suggest candidate moves in the current position, but in a real game I need to calculate the line through and make sure that the move is safe and successful all the way through before I move a piece.  This is the combination of skills that I want to practice with Tactics Trainer:  finding candidate moves and calculating them through to the end of any tactics, quickly and reliably enough to use in a real game.

Why not show the timer? I see a lot of complaints from people that Tactics Trainer “forces them to move quickly”.  I can see how you’d feel that way, and that’s why I turn off the timer.  It’s artificial anyway, and it’s good for me to learn to see from the position whether it’s a simple or complex tactic.

Won’t taking all that time drop your rating? Using the above approach, I’m aiming for a very high pass rate, even if I sometimes take too long on the tactic and end up with 20% and a negative rating adjustment.  That’s ok, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad person or worth less, but that I need more practice with this type of tactic to get it cold and recognize it right away, or to be able to calculate better/faster in these types of tactics.  The alternative is to impulsively make a move once you see a pattern, even if you don’t know if the move is safe.  Doing that gives you bad habits, and the ratings hit from a number of 0% failures is worse than the occasional 20%.  When I first started this approach I had a drop in my ratings for a week or two, but I quickly jumped 150-200 points above the plateau I’d been on for quite a while.  My Live game ratings have also jumped since I started this.

Why always have white on the bottom? Because tactics aren’t always about offense.  In fact, probably the most important use of tactical skill is when testing whether one of your candidate moves is safe:  if I move my piece here, does my opponent have any tactics against me?  Keeping white on the bottom means that any “black to move” tactics are giving you practice recognizing tactics from the other side.  For some tactics that’s not too hard, but I don’t mind telling you that I have a way harder time recognizing some patterns like the the Philidor Legacy mate from the other side!

I hope you’ve found this novel useful, and at least got you to think about what you’re really looking for from working on tactics.  I’m curious to hear from other people what your goals are for tactics, and how do you work on them?

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