Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Importance of Being a Good Tactician

Here at the Chess Training Blog, we like to think that we can, in some small way, help sub-2000 chess players improve their game by helping them focus on the weak areas of your game. Invariably, this leads us to Tactics.

Books have been written (Rapid Chess Improvement, for one) on how to construct a training program to improve your tactical vision. Often this leads to a deficiency in other areas of your game: Opening Repertoire, Plan Construction, Endgame Play, Strategical considerations, etc. But the reality is, how important are those other aspects of play when compared to tactics, or lack thereof?

I've said, and repeated here, the common phrase that 'Chess is 90% tactics'. Some famous GM originated that phrase. Who it is, I have no idea. But the truth still exists within it. One only needs to go back and look over your own games and take note how each game was won or lost by you or your opponent. Were you to write in plain english each critical error, your log would read something like this:

Game 1: Missed a pin, dropped the d-pawn. Never recovered.
Game 2: Opponent missed my Knight Fork. Won Exchange and Game.
Game 3: Pawn Stormed his king position forcing the loss of a piece.
Game 4: Opponent missed a Rook Skewer. Won a piece for a pawn and game.

Look familiar? Try an experiment and do the same with your last 10 games. I can almost (I said ALMOST) guarantee your log will be very similar. What you WON'T see in your log in majority is stuff like this:

Game 1: Strategically squeezed opponent on Q-side. Won long endgame.
Game 2: Had Good Bishop vs. Bad Knight endgame. Could not convert. Draw.

You get the idea, I'm sure!

Back to my original Question: how important are those other aspects of play when compared to tactics? Well, if tactics decide 90% of chess games, then it stands to reason that tactics are, at LEAST, 9-times more important than any other aspect of chess. Put another way, a player that plays sound tactical chess will need to be defeated in another manner. Are you with me?

Introducing Pareto's Principle - the 80/20 Rule!

Pareto's Principle essentially reminds us to focus 80 percent of your time and energy on the 20 percent of your work that is really important. In chess, what is 'important' is results - wins, or a lack of losses. Since 90% of losses are attributed to inferior tactics via our quote from above (the actual number may vary, but we are dealing with ballpark numbers here, and is highly subjective in any event), it stands to reason that, following Pareto's Principle, chess students at our level should focus 80% of their time initially on tactics improvement as this will result in a reduction of losses due to an improved tactical sense. In actuality, what this means is that you may lose just as many games, but you should find that your losses via missed tactical shots will be reduced substantially. Fix your biggest weakness first then move on to the next....!

What this will do is give you the biggest bang for the buck in improvement in your game. Tactics, unlike positional sense, can be learned. It is mostly pattern recognition and having solved a similar problem in the past.

So, what to do?

I will repeat what I do to get the juices flowing on a daily basis. In general, I will go to the Chess Tactics Server and solve puzzles for at least 30 minutes during AM, or during lunch if I do not get to it in the AM. The Chess Tactics Server gives puzzles that are really straight forward tactical shots involving pins, forks, skewers, double/discovered attacks, etc., that are at most 3 moves deep in most cases, and theyt expect you to solve them within seconds. Think Blitz! In the evening, I like to solve more difficult puzzles taken for game play via Intensive Course Tactics by George Renko (Chessbase), or the book Imagination In Chess. I additionally will use Polgar's 5334 Chess Puzzles book as well.

The point of this all is that Tactics in Chess is like taking Ground Balls in the infield, shagging flies in the outfield, or batting practice. It is something that we NEED to do every day so that when we are in a game situation, we do not have to THINK about how to do it: we simply know.

Pattern Recognition.
Familiarity with tactical shots.

Remember our creed:

Good Day and Happy Solving!


Chess Relearner said...

I fully agree with the points made in your column; however the universal study plan doesn't emphasize tactics at the 80% level. This is why (as we discussed in a previous exchange of comments, where I think I posted as "Bob") I modified the program to emphasize tactics more heavily.

But I learned an important lesson along the way (and it's on my blog, In the North American Opening, I got off to a bad start because of insufficient opening study, leading to a loss and a draw in an otherwise satisfactory tournament.

So (as I blogged) I revised my study plan to include some opening work ... probably at the 10-20% level, but still, not total neglect.

Tactics are by far the main thing, but not the only thing.

Mark said...

chess relearner,

All correct, all good points. I neglected to point out that my post was more directed toward players that tend to drop material for no reason and who are substantially weak in tactics.