Tactical Chess Understanding

Fri, 2015-02-13 12:29 -- IM Max Illingworth

As I mentioned last week, tactical chess understanding is the ability to create and exploit advantages in a position by dynamic/combinative means. Tactical chess understanding comprises both the attack and the counterattack – which can’t be underestimated as a defensive resource.

Many players think a powerful tactical intuition can be developed by solving lots of tactical puzzles alone, but such training is useful only to a certain extent, as to set up such tactics you need to have some kind of advantage in the position (or disadvantage in the opponent’s, such as undefended/poorly defended pieces), so you can put pressure on the opponent’s position with threats and thereby make them crack.
My first illustrative game provides a good opportunity to see how tactical chess understanding is applied over the board.

[Event "London"]
[Site "London"]
[Date "1830.??.??"]
[Round "?"]
[White "Perigal, George"]
[Black "Popert, HW."]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "C51"]
[Annotator "Illingworth,Max"]
[PlyCount "43"]
[EventDate "1830.??.??"]
[EventRounds "28"]
[EventCountry "ENG"]
[Source "ChessBase"]
[SourceDate "1998.11.10"]

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. b4 {Those of you interested in the
theoretical status of the Evans Gambit might investigate GM Ganguly's recent
article on this opening in Chess.com's 'The Master's Bulletin'. In a nutshell,
White is gambiting a pawn for a tempo so he may take the centre and/or gain a
large lead in development.} ({Of course, you can't expect to deliver a
successful attack without some dynamic advantage in the position, and indeed} 
4. Bxf7+ $4 Kxf7 5. Nxe5+ Nxe5 6. Qh5+ Ke6 7. f4 d6 8. fxe5 dxe5 9. Qh3+ Kd6
10. Qd3+ Ke7 {would be a total failure for White. Notice how, when White
sacrificed his attacking pieces, this also gave Black more pieces than White
in the attackers vs. defenders ratio, and also it's worth noting that the
queen can rarely checkmate on its own.}) (4. O-O Nf6 5. Ng5 $2 {is another
premature attack - after} O-O 6. d3 h6 {White either will lose time retreating
or lose material with} 7. Nxf7 $2 Rxf7 8. Bxf7+ Kxf7 {.}) 4... Bxb4 5. c3 Ba5
6. d4 $1 exd4 7. O-O $1 {Of course, you can't calculate White's last two moves
to death or go through a million tactics in a game to prove they are the best
- you have to be able to feel that, with your big lead in development, you
will have a very strong attack for the pawns and that something will come up
later. That's the heart of tactical chess understanding - being able to fight
for and keep the initiative when we can't gain a big advantage with some
tactic.} Bb6 {Returning a pawn to solidify the position.} (7... Bxc3 8. Nxc3
dxc3 9. Re1 $5 Nge7 10. Qb3 O-O 11. Qxc3 {would be clearly better for White,
despite being down two pawns, as Black struggles to meet the huge threat of
Bb2 (...f6 is not a legal response!) and} d5 (11... Kh8 12. Ng5 $1 d5 13. exd5
Nxd5 14. Qc2 f5 15. Qd1 $1 {and Black is unable to defend his knight without
allowing a deadly Nf7+; if} Nce7 16. Ba3 {and Bxe7 will soon end resistance.})
12. Rd1 Be6 13. Bb2 f6 14. Ng5 $1 {(now it's time for the tactics!)} Bf7 15.
Nxf7 Rxf7 16. exd5 Ne5 17. d6 {regains the material while preserving White's
huge initiative. Many club players would feel the need to prove a clear way
for White to checkmate or regain his invested material, but when you have such
a huge lead in development, bishop pair and central control in a wide open
position, you can often 'trust' that something really good will come up.}) (
7... dxc3 8. Qb3 Qf6 9. Bg5 Qg6 10. Nxc3 {also gives White excellent
compensation - Black has seriously problems completing his development as I'll
demonstrate in the next game.}) (7... Nge7 {is the main line, intending to hit
in the centre with} 8. cxd4 d5 {. It looks risky but after} 9. exd5 Nxd5 {
Black can evacuate his king to the queenside with ...Be6, ...Qd7 and ...0-0-0
and this is one reason the Evans isn't seen so often at a high level.}) 8. cxd4
d6 9. Nc3 ({A 'positional player' might try gaining space with} 9. d5 {, but
after} Na5 {the c4-bishop is quite a bad piece (no longer targeting the weak
point on f7) and d5 also closed the position, making White's lead in
development far less of an issue.} 10. Bd3 Nf6) 9... Nf6 $2 {This move looks
very natural to prepare castling, but it is a mistake - can you see why?} ({
Bologan demonstrates in his recent Open Games book that} 9... Na5 $1 {is the
correct move, to harass White's bishop off the a2-g8 diagonal. Then} 10. Bd3
Ne7 11. h3 O-O 12. Re1 {would leave White with only positional compensation
for the pawn (total control of the centre, offside a5-knight) as opposed to
the carnage of the game.}) (9... Nge7 $4 10. Ng5 $1 O-O 11. Qh5 {is another
typical trap in these positions.}) 10. e5 $1 {This is why developing the
knight to f6 was a mistake - it provided a hook for White's central advance so
he can blow open the centre and keep Black's king there.} dxe5 (10... d5 11.
exf6 dxc4 12. fxg7 Rg8 13. Re1+ Be6 14. Bg5 Ne7 15. d5 {is hardly an
improvement.}) 11. Ba3 $1 {The whole point - were you expecting White to
recapture on e5? It's much more important to keep Black's king in the centre.
We're actually happy if they take our pawns as it means more open lines for
our pieces! In the romantic era that this game was played in, this was the
philosophy in every position (often with humourous consequences).} (11. dxe5 $2
Qxd1 12. Rxd1 $2 Ng4 {sees Black take the initiative - and with the queens off
White can forget about mating the king.}) (11. Nxe5 $2 Nxe5 12. dxe5 Qxd1 13.
Nxd1 Ng4 {has a similar flaw.}) 11... Na5 $2 {This only accelerates the end.} (
11... exd4 $2 12. Re1+ Kd7 13. Bxf7 {can be quickly rejected - Black may be up
two pawns but the king is about to be mated with Be6 being the most obvious
threat.}) (11... Bxd4 {fails to address Black's problems with his development:}
12. Qb3 Qd7 {(how will Black ever castle now?)} 13. Rae1 {and White's threat
is simply to take on d4 and soon destroy the e5-pawn. If} (13. Ng5 {with the
intention of taking on f7 is also not bad.}) 13... Na5 {we get the following
very beautiful tactical sequence:} 14. Nxe5 $1 Nxb3 15. Nxf7+ Qe6 16. Bxe6 Bxe6
17. Nxh8 Kd7 ({or} 17... Bxc3 18. Rxe6+ Kd7 19. Re7+) 18. Rd1 $1 Kc6 19. Rfe1
Bg4 20. Ne2 Bc5 21. Bxc5 Nxc5 22. Nf7 {and White is up the exchange for a pawn,
which in this case will be enough to win as Black's king is still exposed (Ne5
is a threat) and the rook outguns the knight in an open position.}) (11... Nxd4
{can be refuted in a number of ways:} 12. Nxe5 (12. Nxd4 Bxd4 13. Nb5 $1 Bxa1
14. Qxa1 {as pointed out by the computer is the most spectacular; Black can't
defend against Qxe5 in a good way as} Ng4 15. Rd1 Bd7 16. Be2 $1 f6 17. Qc3 $1
Kf7 18. Bxg4 {shows. Black is losing too much material.}) 12... Be6 13. Qa4+ c6
14. Bxe6 fxe6 15. Rab1 {and Black is already close to lost because he can't
castle kingside and he can't get ready to castle queenside because of} Qc7 16.
Rxb6 $1 Qxb6 17. Nc4 Qa6 18. Nd6+ Kd7 19. Qxd4 {and despite the near material
equality, Black is toast because of White's big attacking advantage (two
knights, a queen and bishop versus a king, knight and a couple of pawns). As
you can see, these are very complex variations but you could find these moves
by thinking 'if the Black king stays in the centre, I will have checkmate; how
can I keep the king in the centre by not giving the opponent time to catch up
in development?'}) 12. Re1 {It turns out Black's threat can even be ignored,
such is the strength of White's attack.} (12. Nxe5 Nxc4 13. Qa4+ Bd7 14. Qxc4
Be6 15. d5 $1 Nxd5 16. Rad1 c6 17. Nxd5 Bxd5 18. Qg4 {would also be winning -
there's no defence against} g6 19. Nxc6 $1 {and Rfe1.}) 12... Nxc4 (12... e4
13. Nxe4 {is not a defence.}) 13. Qa4+ c6 14. Qxc4 Be6 15. Rxe5 {White is now
only down one pawn and still has a huge lead in development.} Qd7 {If Black
had one move to castle he would be fine, but we simply refuse to give him that
move!} 16. Rxe6+ $1 {Of course, a sharp tactical eye is required to convert a
decisive advantage.} fxe6 (16... Qxe6 17. Re1 {wins the queen.}) 17. Ne5 Qc8
18. Re1 {If you're trying to prove how White wins from here, asking 'how can
Black move his pieces?' should do the trick.} Nd5 (18... Ba5 {is refuted by}
19. Nb5 $1 {- another spectacular blow but hardly against the flow of the game.
} cxb5 (19... Bxe1 20. Nd6+ Kd8 21. Nxc8 Rxc8 22. Qxe6 {followed by Nf7 is
decisive.}) 20. Qxb5+ Nd7 21. Qxa5 Nxe5 22. Qxe5 Qd7 23. d5 $1 {and Black will
soon be mated, including after} O-O-O 24. Rc1+ {.}) 19. Nxd5 cxd5 (19... exd5
20. Nxc6+) 20. Qb5+ {Now it's all over, though Black sportingly allowed a nice
mating pattern in the end.} Kd8 21. Nf7+ Kc7 22. Bd6# 1-0 

Although that was a nice example of an attack on the king, the initiative (control of the game, in the form of a flow of threats that cannot be safely ignored) can manifest in other ways, e.g. keeping the opponent’s pieces passive (which we saw in the above game) or kicking around the opponent’s pieces until they have to make a big concession (which you’ll also find in the variations to the above game).
For an attack on the king to have a realistic chance of being successful, you need at least one of the following three advantages:
1) A material advantage on the side of the board where your opponent’s king is – i.e. more/better attackers than defenders. For instance, a queen and two rooks will destroy a king, knight and bishop 99% of the time.
2) A space advantage on the side of the board your opponent’s king is residing – this makes it hard for the opponent to bring more defenders and easy for you to improve your attacking pieces.
3) A lack of pawn cover for the opponent’s king – for instance, there may be a queen and two rooks attacking a king defended by a queen and two rooks, but the defending pieces can’t cover all the gaps and prevent the penetration of the attacking pieces.
It’s probably easiest to demonstrate the last point with the following position:

[Event "?"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "2015.02.12"]
[Round "?"]
[White "King Safety Example"]
[Black "?"]
[Result "*"]
[Annotator "Illingworth,Max"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "8/p4qk1/1p1Q4/2p2r2/2R5/PP6/KP6/8 b - - 0 1"]
[PlyCount "12"]
[EventDate "2015.??.??"]

{It is Black to move and the material is equal, but Black is in severe trouble
because of the open position of his king (whereas White's king is very well
protected by his pawns). The immediate threat is to check Black's king along
the fourth rank.} 1... Qg6 (1... Rf6 2. Qh2 Rh6 3. Rg4+ Kh7 4. Qc2+ Kh8 5. Qc3+
Kh7 6. Qd3+ Kh8 7. Qe3 {leaves Black unable to continue covering his king, e.g.
} Rg6 (7... Kh7 8. Re4 $1 {threatens a deadly and unstoppable Re7.}) 8. Qe5+
Kg8 9. Rh4 Rf6 10. Qb8+ {and Black has to either allow the White queen to
enter as well (Kg7 Qh8) or give up material with} Qf8 11. Qxa7 {, still with a
fatally exposed king.}) 2. Qe7+ Rf7 3. Qe5+ Rf6 ({or} 3... Qf6 4. Rg4+ Kf8 5.
Qb8+ {winning material at the very least.}) 4. Rc3 {and Black can't stop a
very strong Rg3, e.g.} Kf7 5. Rg3 Qh6 6. Qd5+ Ke7 7. Qb7+ {and Black's king
and pawns are getting killed. Granted, there are other ways for Black to
defend, but he loses after all of them with a similar harrassment method by
White.} * 

For the next game, I want you to look at it from the perspective of the three advantages indicated above. Even if your tactical chess understanding is not that developed, focusing on the three things above will give you a reasonable indication of the chances that an attack, whether it’s yours or the opponent’s, will be sound.

[Event "Budapest FS11 IM"]
[Site "Budapest"]
[Date "2012.11.09"]
[Round "6"]
[White "Hou, Qiang"]
[Black "Kislik, Erik Andrew"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "C52"]
[WhiteElo "2289"]
[BlackElo "2413"]
[Annotator "Illingworth,Max"]
[PlyCount "45"]
[EventDate "2012.11.03"]
[EventRounds "11"]
[EventCountry "HUN"]
[EventCategory "2"]
[Source "ChessBase"]
[SourceDate "2012.11.22"]

{As evidence for the importance of studying such old games, I'll present the
following modern one where Black gets crushed like in a romantic era game.} 1.
e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. b4 Bxb4 5. c3 Ba5 6. d4 exd4 7. Qb3 (7. O-O dxc3
8. Qb3 Qf6 {transposes to the game.}) 7... Qf6 8. O-O dxc3 $6 {Instead of
greedily grabbing every pawn on offer, Black had to play} (8... Bb6 $1 {, when
the threat of ...Na5 to exchange White's good bishop halts White's initiative
somewhat.} 9. e5 Qg6 10. cxd4 Na5 $1 (10... Nxd4 11. Nxd4 Bxd4 12. Nc3 b6 {was
once played by Karpov, but he could have found himself in hot water after} 13.
Nb5 $1) 11. Qa4 Nxc4 12. Qxc4 Ne7 {would then be relatively playable for Black.
}) 9. Bg5 (9. e5 {is also possible as} Nxe5 $4 10. Re1 d6 11. Bg5 {followed at
the very least by Qb5 wins material.}) 9... Qg6 10. Nxc3 Nf6 (10... Bxc3 11.
Qxc3 {is safer for Black, although I still don't have much faith in his
position; if} f6 12. Bf4 d6 13. Rfe1 {threatens e5! to destroy Black's king in
the centre, and} Nge7 14. Rab1 {leaves Black with continued problems in
getting his pieces developed - he can't castle or develop his queenside.}) 11.
Nd5 $1 {This is much stronger than} (11. e5 d5 $1 12. exf6 dxc4 13. Rae1+ Be6
14. fxg7 Qxg7 15. Qxb7 O-O 16. Qxc6 Bxc3 17. Re3 {when Black managed to
complete his development.}) 11... Nxd5 $2 {Allowing the e-file to open for
free isn't great, but White is also a lot better after} (11... Nxe4 12. Rae1 $1
{(the rook can't be taken in lieu of Nxc7)} O-O (12... f5 13. Nf4 Qd6 14. Re2 {
sees Black's king get killed in the centre once the e4-knight is eliminated.}
Nd8 15. Bd5) 13. Be7 $1 {and Black is unable to resist White's initiative
fueled by his big advantage in force:} d6 (13... Bxe1 14. Rxe1 Re8 15. Nh4 Qh6
16. Rxe4 {wins material; White is still down material but he has so many
threats that he'll win plenty back.}) (13... Re8 14. Nh4 Nd2 15. Bb4 $1 {is
even worse - it's mostly Black's pieces that are hanging here.}) 14. Nh4 Nc5 {
and White has a few different ways to grab material but the best is probably}
15. Bxf8 Be6 16. Nxg6 (16. Qb2 Qg4 17. Ne3 Qd4 18. Qxd4 Nxd4 19. Rd1 Bxc4 20.
Nxc4 Bc3 21. Bxd6 cxd6 22. Nxd6 {also favours White.}) 16... Nxb3 17. Rxe6 hxg6
18. Bxd6 fxe6 19. Nxc7 Bxc7 20. Bxe6+ Kh7 21. Bxc7 Nbd4 22. Bg4 $14 {
converting the initiative into the positional advantage of the two bishops,
though I feel Black can hold this with correct play.}) 12. exd5 {Now with Rfe1
coming, it's all over for Black.} Ne5 13. Rfe1 $1 {The exchange is a small
price to pay for breaking through on the e-file.} Bxe1 14. Rxe1 O-O {The only
move, but White regains his material and keeps his big lead in development now.
} (14... d6 15. Nxe5 dxe5 (15... Qxg5 16. Ng6+) 16. Rxe5+ Kd7 17. Bb5+ c6 18.
dxc6+ bxc6 19. Re7+ {is clearly hopeless for Black - he's getting mated in a
few moves.}) 15. Rxe5 d6 (15... f6 {fails to, among others,} 16. d6+ Kh8 17.
Bf7 $1 {winning the queen because of Black's weak back rank.}) 16. Re1 (16. Bd3
Qh5 17. Re3 {is also quite strong.}) 16... Bg4 17. Be7 $1 {From here the
bishop completely dominates Black's position and prevents him challenging for
the e-file.} Bxf3 18. Qxf3 Rfe8 19. Bb5 {Now the rest is quite easy for White.}
Reb8 (19... c6 20. dxc6 bxc6 21. Qxc6) 20. h4 f6 21. Qc3 a6 22. Bd7 Kh8 23.
Qxc7 {Black resigned as the bishops are ripping apart the rooks.} 1-0 

As usual there’s so much more that can be said about the subject, but you now know what the tools are – it’s just a matter of using them in your own games!