Improving your Tactical Ability
There are a number of components to tactical skill. However, through repetitive drilling, these skills can be learned and developed. Clearly, there is a role that software and books can play, and I have some very strong ideas and beliefs along these areas. But before I get down to the main discussion, I feel that I need to "set the record straight" about some myths and misconceptions.
Lies and Half-Truths
When I first started this article it was going to be about using Convekta's tutorial software. Then it slowly changed into something else entirely. Boy, did I try to resist giving study advice. However, there are some things that I know are correct, and there is just so much misinformation floating around USENET and elsewhere, that I feel compelled to make myself heard. Let's tackle a number of misconceptions before we go any farther:
1. Using software X is going to improve my rating by Y - This is just total crap. No program is going to improve your rating for you. Furthermore, it is impossible to predict what gains you might make by studying a particular area. Really, I don't know where this kind of concept comes from. The amount of rating points you might gain is dependent on so many factors that it is impossible to quantify.
2. I want to estimate my rating, will program XXX do that for me? There are a ton of programs that will estimate your rating for you (including many Convekta tutorials). However, none of them are that accurate. You cannot simply take a rating that you receive from the program and attempt to infer a strong correlation between that and an OTB rating. You can however, use the information provided by the rating estimate to gauge your progress.
3. If I follow some magical formula of doing X exercises per day, in Y minutes, and that will transform me into a tactical monster? Every person is different. Certain people respond better to one type of training vs another. Let's take an example here. Suppose you've got an excellent memory, and you retain tactical patterns very quickly. But, if your spatial reasoning skills are not that good, you will probably have trouble visualizing the board after a couple of moves. Is it logical to believe that you need to do the same type of tactical training as someone with good spatial skills, but poor memory? No.
4. Playing a chess engine (which is usually tactically strong) will improve your tactics. Trying to learn tactics from playing a chess engine is really quite inefficient in terms of time. Furthermore, the tactical patterns you learn in this fashion will mostly be a product of the openings you play, and the engine you play against. If you want to play chess against a computer, then that's fine, but don't think that it will improve your tactical ability by leaps and bounds, the only efficient way to do that is through solving tactical test positions.
5. Grandmaster X is really no good at tactics, he's a positional player. Man, I've heard this chestnut a number of times. Here's a little secret: GM's live and breathe tactics. Some are better at it than are others. However, even the lowliest GM could wipe the floor with 99.9% of us, in any kind of tactical skirmish. Even those players (like Karpov) that play a very conservative game, have to be able to see the tactical elements in a position, and see the forcing moves that will enable them to transform the board to their liking.
Now for Some Truth
Ok, I'll get off my soapbox for a second, and provide some solid advice.
1. Doing tactical exercises will improve your tactical skills. This should be intuitively obvious, if you need to develop a specific skill, then you need to practice that skill. The more tactical problems you look at and solve, the better your tactical abilities will be.
2. There is a place for both software and books in a study program. It is a well known fact hat I really like chess software. In fact, I turned this hobby into an online chess mega-empire that spans the globe (ok, maybe this is an exaggeration). But, I am convinced that there is a time and a place for both books and software in a study program.
3. The ideal study program is different for each individual. I covered this point in the previous section. This is another obvious point. Everyone is different, and responds differently to training
Clearly, these truths are not earth-shaking, and they've been said before.
The Elements of Tactical Skill
There are several aspects of tactical skill that you can develop by training. When I conceptualize it, I think of it in several phases. In the first phase, you look at the position, and some idea jumps out at you. I tend to think of this as sort of an inspirational phase. This particular element of tactical skill is mostly pattern recognition and intuition. In fact, I am relatively unsure that there is really a great deal of distinction between these two descriptions.
In the second phase, you attempt to calculate whether a particular move is really good or not. This requires the accurate prediction of the game continuation from that point forward. For me, skill in calculation has been difficult to develop, and it takes significant time and practice before one is able to calculate properly. Accurate calculation requires pattern recognition, the ability to see forcing moves (once again maybe a form of pattern recognition), and visualization.
Pattern recognition is simply your ability to recognize tactical elements within a position, and is important for both phases of tactical play. An example of this might be when you notice the absence of a particular bishop, and the resulting weak square complex of that color. Another example would be noticing the possibilities of an epaulet mate. Pattern recognition can be improved by the repetitive drilling of tactical positions, and the best way to get these is either from a book or software. Increasing pattern recognition skill is done by repetitive exposure to tactical elements, ideas and positions. Ideally, improving this skill can be done in a fairly rapid fashion.
The ability to see forcing moves is also important, and it might be argued that this is a form of pattern recognition. Forcing moves are simply those moves that limit the response of your opponent. The reason it is important to see them, is it limits the amount of calculation that must be done. Checkmate comes about because of a sequence of forcing moves.
Visualization is the ability to "see" the board position at some future point, after a sequence of moves. Skill in visualization is something that can be developed by performing tactical exercises "in your head". Incidentally, my feeling is that most chess software is not that good at developing your visualization skill. Ideally, I think that allowing players to move pieces on a board to check an answer should be used sparingly. Otherwise, the temptation exists to be lazy, and not calculate variations in one's head (and hence not build visualization skills).
Another important element of tactical training is to have perform timed exercises. Doing timed exercises is valuable for several reasons. First, doing them improves clock management skills. Second, doing timed exercises forces you to move to the next exercise if you get stuck on one. When doing tactical training (especially with simpler exercises), there reaches a point where further effort is not that productive, and using a timer can keep you moving forward.
Improving Pattern Recognition
Each skill, be it pattern recognition, visualization, or the ability to find forcing moves, can be improved using certain study techniques. Pattern recognition can be improved by fairly rapid exposure to tactical motifs, patterns and ideas. And in general, there are several ways to go about this by using either books or software. For books, it is important to have collections of tactical exercises. The key here is repetition at a reasonable speed. How fast is reasonable? I think you'll have to be the judge. I believe that slower players may need a couple of minutes to absorb tactical patterns, whereas stronger players may only need a few seconds. For a list of books containing tactical exercises, I would refer you to this link. If you only have a paperback book, then I would suggest using a timer, and going through the exercises in rapid fashion.
My belief is that software is slightly superior for building pattern recognition skills. There are a several routes to go here. One method is to start with one of Convekta's tutorial programs (like CT-ART, or Chess Tactics for Beginner's). Put the program in test mode; it might also be helpful to select an appropriate range on the ELO slider (as a suggestion, you may want to limit the difficulty of exercises to 1600-2000 ELO). Then download a freeware software timer, and give yourself a small amount of time (two-three minutes, maybe less) to do each exercise, and do at least six to thirty of them (your time permitting). I would also suggest the use of my own software, the Chess Flashcard Trainer (unfortunately, not available any longer, unless you already have a copy), since it has a timer built in, and will automatically move you through the exercises.
Alternatively, you can use the built in solitaire chess mode of Chess Assistant (CA), as I discussed in this article. Note that this mode also has a timer that you can set. In fact, you can even use CA with the exercise files that are used by the tutorial programs (they are simply CA format databases).
Improving Visualization Skills
For improving visualization, I almost feel that books are superior to software. I say this because software, in its quest to be easy to use, has made it really trivial to "cheat". Because most software allows you to step through each move while it is shown on the board, the visualization of moves is not encouraged. Of course, there are also some instances (especially with long game continuations), where it is really helpful to be able to see all the moves played out. But, for many tactical exercises, this is simply too easy.
So, if you really want to improve visualization, then I think books are the best way to go. Get yourself a timer, set it for five-ten minutes (maybe longer for some Studies), and do some complex exercises, and do them in your head without the assistance of a board. Of course, for some very complicated examples, it is not possible to do this, and one has to resort to using a board. Convekta has a number of really good books that you can use for this purpose as well. Incidentally, I have all the tactical problem and study books that are listed on their website. There is not a lemon among them, and I have yet to find an error in any of them.
I would also suggest that you pick some more difficult exercises that require deeper calculation (and of course, you should allot more time to these exercises), if you want to work on your visualization. I've also found that writing down the solution is an integral part of the procedure, since it provides a good record of what you were thinking during the exercise. Thus it is easier to evaluate how you did. There is also another component to writing down solutions that I have not yet been able to quantify. So my best suggestion is to give it a try for a couple of weeks, and see what you think.
For building visualization, the emphasis is not so much on quantity as it is on quality. So doing a handful of exercises (in my case, three to four) is quite sufficient.
Another good choice would be to work with a program like Studies, or use one of the other endgame tutorial programs like Chess Endgame Training, or Endgame Theory and Practice. For some reason, I have found that studies really seem to stress one's visualization. My final choice would be to use CA in its solitaire chess mode.
Seeing Forcing Moves
If you've used any of the Convekta tutorials, especially Strategy or the Middlegames series, you will find that the emphasis is on forcing play. Of course, this is not by accident. And here, I feel that there are a whole host of books and software that one can chose from. Any of the Convekta tutorial programs or tactics/study books will hone your ability to see forcing moves.
In general, if you work on the other two components of tactical skill, then this element will come naturally. So I don't think that any specific exercises are really required for this.
General Program and Book Recommendations
While I've mentioned specific programs for working on the components of tactical skill, I also feel that it would be nice to make some more general recommendations. So for those that are beginners, the program "Chess Tactics for Beginner's" is a good introduction, since it starts at a relatively basic level, and covers things like forks, pins, skewers. These concepts must be mastered before one can move on to more advanced tactical exercises. Those that are moving beyond basic tactical skills should consider a program like CT-ART, which does a good job of building tactical mastery. Those that want a little extra challenge, or that want to work on their visualization should look at any of the endgame programs (Studies, Chess Endgame Training, Endgame Theory and Practice). I also think that intermediate and advanced players will like both the Chess Flashcard Trainer and CA, with the latter being used in one of the solitaire chess modes.
In terms of books, anything you find on the Convekta website will be suitable. For beginners, I think that the book by Sergey Ivaschenko entitled "The Manual of Chess Combinations" would be a good bet, while the equivalent book to CT-ART (for more advanced players) would be "Combinations motifs". More advanced players should take a look at "Chess Tactics Training", "Modern Chess Self-Instructor" (not entire devoted to tactics), and the "Masterpieces of Chess Composition" series. but generally speaking, there are plenty of books on this topic, and you can find a list on my Chessreviews site. Some tactics books that are not available from Convekta, but that I would still recommend, are those by Polgar, and Livshitz (once again, see the list for specifics).
Improving your tactical ability is not a magical process. It requires some hard work and study, and the more time you put in, the greater your improvement will be. Generally speaking, you should do some tactical exercises every day. Whether you use books or software are entirely up to you, but each has its merits. Whichever tool you chose, be sure to keep moving (a timer, either software, or hardware based is good for this), and to not get bogged down by a specific problem. Quantity an speed are important elements for building pattern recognition skills, while fewer exercises and longer time periods are good for visualization.