Improve Your Chess Tactics

By John Coffey

Can you really become a class A player by studying tactics?   Absolutely!   There are other parts of the game that players need to study, but for almost everybody below 1800, tactics is their biggest weakness and the easiest thing to improve!

I think that it is important to study tactics every day.   The only exception to this might be the days where you play 3 hours or more of speed chess, because speed chess challenges us to think tactically.   I study tactics by taking sections from books and studying each section for 30 minutes.   I was overly ambitious for awhile and tried to do 40 minutes of tactics per day, but this proved to be more than I have time for.   I think that 30 minutes per day might be ideal, but I also know people who spend up to an hour per day on tactics and have shown significant improvement in their chess ability.   I think that it is especially helpful to study tactics before bedtime, because research has shown that sleep will strengthen what we have learned.

To become a class A player by studying tactics, alternate the different sets of tactics problems listed below until you can reach the goals listed.   For some people this could take years to the reach the goals.   Time yourself as you do the problems.   Speed is important because it will help you to excel at speed chess and tournament time scrambles.   I am a big advocate of speed chess (5 minutes with 2 second delay) because it helps to keep your tactics sharp.

A more sophisticated approach than rotating all the sets of problems is to use my Memorization List idea.   The objective is not to memorize all the problems but to prioritize them based upon how well you can do them.   Start with one set of problems and see how many you can do in 30 minutes.   Then set a goal for yourself that you will gradually increase. Put this set of problems on the list to do them every day.   If the next day you make the goal, then promote this set of problems to be done less often.   If you keep making the goal with this particular set of problems then you will keep doing them less and less often, while gradually increasing the number of problems that are being done per session.   If at any point you fail to make goal, then you demote this set of problems to a category that is done more often.

In other words, after you do a particular group of problems, you will either set a longer or shorter period of time to wait to do them again, depending upon if you make the goal that you have set for yourself.   As certain sets of problems get done less and less often on the Memorization List then add more sets of problems to keep you busy.   The reason why this is "more sophisticated" is that it lets you focus your effort on the problems that give you the most difficulty, instead of "spinning your wheels" on material that you have already mastered.

If this all sounds too complicated, then just alternate some of the books below.   Start with a couple of books and make sure that you also study the tactics on this web site.

A few people have been critical of my approach because it requires much repetition.   First of all, it would be impossible to study tactics every day without repeating some material.   In addition, I think that the human mind is so inherently forgetful that much repetition is necessary for learning.   If you want almost no repetition then try the Chess Tactics Server.

Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess
Experienced players should skip this one.   Really an excellent beginner's book, so I am not going to set a goal.   You can set your own.  

White to Move and Win!
(Click here!)
Number of problems to do to reach 1900:
This starts with simple one move problems and slowly gets more difficult as you progress through them.

These are some of the most important tactical problems that you can do.   Why?   Easy problems have more value than you think.   Doing easy problems, especially under timed conditions, builds pattern recognition.   Instead, some people seem to think that they need to focus only on hard problems.   These same people have told me in frustration that they have no difficulty seeing 3 to 5 move combinations, but they still miss one move combinations.   What they don't realize is that the simple problems are the building blocks to our pattern recognition that allow us to see the harder ones.

All the 1, 2 and 3 move problems in 36 minutes.

Black to Move and Win!
(Click here!)
Number of problems to do in 30 minutes to reach 1900:
There is a real advantage to seeing the problem "from the other side."   It helps you to spot combinations that can be used against you.   Likewise, these problems will be as helpful to you as anything on this page.
All the 1, 2, and 3 move problems in 83 minutes.

Chess Tactics Server (Click here!)

It is wasn't clear to me if this is the ideal way to study tactics, but a couple of people I know have improved quite a bit by practicing up to an hour per day for a year on this site.   I can't argue with success.  

The ratings on here don't match USCF ratings.   My rating is only 1553 on here, but my goal is to go up 100 points per year.

Sharpen Your Tactics
Number of problems to do in 30 minutes to reach 1900:
This is the book that took me from 1800 to 1900+.   It is my favorite tactics book.

This book is good for all levels of players, but the problems get more difficult as you go along.   So far, I have limited myself to the first 600 problems, but I plan on studying the other problems later.

Problems 1 to 400.   Skip problem #322.

Problems 400 to 550.   Skip *** and **** problems.

Chess Training Pocket Book, 300 Most Important Positions and Ideas
Number of problems to do in 30 minutes to reach 1900:
What I like about this book is all the different ideas that it covers, which includes tactical, positional and endgame themes.   It is probably best for players rated over 1600.

I spent a year studying this book ten minutes consistently every day and I had really good tournament results during that year.  

Problems 1 to 125.

Problems 152 to 275.

Practical Chess Exercises.
Number of problems to do in 30 minutes to reach 1900:

This is a very instructive book, but no longer my favorite.   The catch is that the majority of the problems are positional in nature.   So like in a real game, you don't know if you are trying to achieve a tactical gain or a positional gain.   You have to figure it out.   I am less enthusiastic about this book now because of a few minor errors in the solutions, and because some of the problems are just too difficult to follow from the diagram.   The book could have benefited from a better ordering of the problems from easiest to hardest.

This is like a more advanced version of Chess Training Pocket Book, 300 Most Important Positions and Ideas in the sense that it covers a wide range of ideas, but it has twice as many problems for about the same price.

This is by no means an easy book.   I don't recommend it for players rated under 1700.   This book is ideal for strong A players who want to become an Expert or Master.   The problems are difficult enough that you will have to go over them many times.   It has taken me maybe a couple hundred hours to get full benefit from the book.

Problems 1 to 59.

Problems 101 to 156.

Problems 201 to 282.

Problems 301 to 346.

Problems 401 to 436.

Problems 501 to 546.

Complete Chess Workout
Number of problems to do in 30 minutes to reach 1900:
If you don't mind a hefty tome, this might be the only tactics books you will ever need with 1200 moderately difficult problems. So far I have only I have only gone through the "warm up" section, which at first seemed to me to be rather difficult.   So I set this book aside for awhile and studied the other books instead.   Now that I have studied the other tactics books, the warm up section seems a little easier to me, but I suspect that the average club player will struggle with it.  

This book is like a bigger version of 303 Tricky Checkmates and 303 Tricky Chess Tactics combined, but lacks some of the positional and endgame ideas of Chess Training Pocket Book, 300 Most Important Positions and Ideas and Practical Chess Exerices. .  

Eventually I will get around to studying the rest of the book.

Problems 1 to 74.

Problems 1 to 94.

Learn Chess Tactics (by John Nunn).
Number of problems to do in 30 minutes to reach 1900:
This book is written like a beginner's book with much explanation of how combinatons work, but the problems are still moderately difficult.

I have only recently started studying this book.   I bought it because it is written by John Nunn.

Because many positions in the book have the answers on the same page below the problems, except for the exercises, then this would not be my first choice in tactics books.   I also don't like how the exercises aren't numbered sequentially in the solution guide.

Pages 1 to 32.

Pages 34 to 48.

303 Tricky Checkmates
Number of problems to do to reach 1900:
This has more entertainment value than most books, because most of the positions are indeed tricky.   The unusual positions are a little less practical, but I think that it is still good for pattern recognition, as it is important to be able to spot checkmate even in unusual positions.   The second half of the book is somewhat repetitive with the first half, just more difficult.   Some of the problems toward the end feel more like composed problems, and therefor less practical for real games.

Problems 1 to 200 in 64 minutes or less.

Problems 201 to 300 in 64 minutes or less.

Forcing Chess Moves.
Number of problems to do in 30 minutes to reach 1900:
This is a book full of unusual and difficult tactics.   I am not sure yet how practical it is for most players.   I have only barely started looking at it.

This is not one my favorite tactics books because it lists the solutions below the diagrams (except for the quizes), necessitating covering up the solution with your hand or a card.

Pages 18 to 37.

Chess: 5334 Problems, Combinations and Games
Number of problems to do in 30 minutes to reach 1900:
I like how the book starts out with simple problems and gets tougher.   It is a really big, heavy book, which for me is a minus.

This book is only good if you ignore the composed problem sections.   You can see which are the composed problems by looking at the answer guide and see which problems have an author listed.

I am not actively studying this book right now, so I can't make any recommendations.


Chess tactics for Juniors
Number of problems to do in 30 minutes to reach 1900:
This book is a smaller, thinner, and easier subset of Combination Challenge.   There is no reason to own both so I prefer this book for its simplicity and its size.

The title is misnamed, since it should be called CHESS TACTICS FOR EXPERTS.   This is one of the most difficult tactics books I have ever seen.   Don't even attempt it unless you are rated 1800 or higher.

Problems 1 to 83.

Do not buy these books!

303 Tricky Chess Tactics

I am completely undecided at this point as to if this book is practical for the average club player.   It is filled with unusual combinations, so I just don't know.   I am studying it, but there are better choices to try first.

1001 Brilliant Sacrifices and Combinations
1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate

These books have no sense of progression from easy to difficult, because they have one move problems on the same page with impossible-to-follow ten move problems.   If you own the book then I suggest marking the really hard problems with an 'x' in pencil and skip those problems until you become, uh, a master.   If you don't own the book then why buy it when there are so many better alternatives available?

Endgame Tactics.

Grandmaster Eric Schiller recommended this book to me because I claimed to be someone who is already 2000 at endings.   There is so much material here, most of it is pretty advanced, that it is impractical for the average club player.   If you are trying to become a Senior Master at endings then this book might be for you.   Instead I wonder if there might be better material out there to study?   My own endgame lessons have enough information for you to get to 1900 at endings.

Chess Tactics for the Tournament Player

If you are already a chess master who can see ten moves ahead, and not all masters can, then you might get some enjoyment out of the complex examples listed here.   For everyone else, this book is completely impractical!   It is one of the worst tactics books I have ever seen!