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Advanced Tactical Concepts in Chess

""A win by an unsound combination, however showy, fills me with artistic horror"
    - Wilhelm Steinitz, the first World Chess Champion (1834-1900)

Introduction

Warning: If you are a chess beginner, you may find the content challenging, although I have made every effort to make it as accessible as possible. If you are completely unfamiliar with basic tactics, you might benefit from reading my node covering elementary tactics first. If you are not a chessplayer at all you can go here,here, and here to learn the basic rules of chess. If you have trouble reading the moves in the examples or in the complete games at the end, go here for an explanation.

There are many ways to play chess, and in fact, there are many ways to be very, very good at chess. Mikhail Botvinnik and Vladimir Kramnik have both been world champions known for their intensely boring styles. On the other hand, Alexander Alekhine and Mikhail Tal were world champions who were famous for their incredible attacking maneuvers. A strong understanding of positional play is required as a complement to tactical maneuvers if you wish to become a well-rounded tournament player, but in my opinion the first thing you should focus on is mastering more complex tactics, because even the games you lose will become more interesting.

Note on Diagrams: The positions herein are all taken from real games played over the board by various masters. In the interest of completeness, the games themselves appear at the end of this writeup. Chess games are not copyrightable, only the annotation of games is, and all annotation in this writeup is solely mine.

Advanced Tactical Concepts

  • Sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice

    This is probably the most often misunderstood concept among beginning players who read a little chess literature and then begin to think that if they have a material disadvantage the game is lost. Obviously, with that attitude, it is. It is important to remember that the goal of the game is not to hoard pieces and pawns, it is to checkmate the enemy king. If you throw all of your material at the king and end up with a checkmate, you not only win, but you have a beautiful game to show to your grandchildren.

    Even an unsound sacrifice can have a chilling effect on unseasoned opposition. Unless you are playing a strong master, even the most horrible blunder of a sacrifice will at least give them pause. I'm not recommending that you throw away material willy-nilly, but I know from experience1 that an attack that looks "book" (like a white bishop sac on f7 or h7) can cause weaker opponents to either refuse the sac (by not taking the offered material--thereby giving you the position you wanted for the loss of a tempo rather than material) or to play in such a way that their position becomes hopeless. The sacrifice even if used unsoundly is a profound psychological weapon. That being said, if you do sacrifice unsoundly, and your opponent is not an idiot, you will find yourself with no compensation for the lost piece and if you cannot immediately bear down and checkmate you will probably lose. I'm not trying to tell you how to lose, though. My point is that even if you miscalculate, you will often unbalance your opponent, so do not be afraid to assault when you think you have the position to do so.

    Having said that, you probably want to learn to make correct sacrifices rather than throwing pieces away. The following concepts should help you understand some conditions which need to exist for a correct combinational sacrifice. After all, you wouldn't want to upset Steinitz.


  • Distraction

    Distraction is, like it sounds, the act of making your opponent "look over there," or more to the point, "go over there and stop defending that piece." Distraction is one way to prove the overloaded nature of a defense. In Diagram 1 we see a position that occurred more than two-hundred years ago. Look it over for a minute and see if you can figure out black's move before I explain it. Done? Alright. After Rxg2+ the white king is left with a very unpleasant decision. He can either take the rook, or move back to rank 1, but either way, he loses his queen to the next black move Qxe3.

    You might be thinking "Sure, they all played that way back then. Nobody's going to fall for that these days." Very well, I'll give you a more modern--if more complex--example as well. In Diagram 2 we see a position that occurred in a World Championship game in 1978. Here Viktor Korchnoi is on the ropes trying to repel an irresistable attack from Anatoly Karpov. The winning move is 26. Rd7, which increases pressure on the focal point square f7. After 26. ... Rb8 27. Nxf7 Bxd7 28. Nd8+, black resigned, as any move he makes falls prey to Qf8#2.


  •                           Diagram 1: Distraction
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |BK |   |   |   |BR |BR |   | 8
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BP |BP |   |BB |   |   |   |   | 7
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |BQ |BN |   |BP |   |   |BP | 6
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |WP |   |   |   | 5
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |WP |   |   |   |   |   |WP | 4
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WP |   |   |   |WQ |WN |   |WR | 3
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |WB |   |   |WK |WP |   | 2
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WR |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 1
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                          A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
                            Von Bruehl - Philidor (1790)
    
                                   Black to Move
    
    Diagram 2: Distraction +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+ | | | | |BR |BK | | | 8 +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+ | | |BP | | |BP |BR |BP | 7 +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+ |BP |BQ | | |BB | | |WN | 6 +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+ | |BP | | | | | | | 5 +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+ | | | | | | | | | 4 +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+ | | |WP |WR | |WQ | | | 3 +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+ |WP |WP | | | | |WP |WP | 2 +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+ | | | | | |WR | |WK | 1 +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+ A B C D E F G H Karpov - Korchnoi (1978) White to Move

  • Eliminating Defense

    The tactic of defense elimination generally entails a sacrifice of material in order to remove an obstacle to either mate or get some kind of material gain. Sometimes you'll find there's an individual piece or pawn that is particularly annoying and is impeding your hopes of some imagined brilliancy. That's usually a good time to look for combinations of this kind. Appealing to the greed of your opponent can be a great tactical aid as we see in Diagram 3, with fun example from one of Alekhine's games. The white king is fairly safe hiding behind his advanced pawns, but black is on the assault anyway. After Nxd4, black is up a pawn, but it looks like he forgot about his dangling queen. As it happens, the queen should be perfectly safe, as moving the key defense pawn on g4 loses the game. White's greed outweighed his ability to see into the position, and the game continued thusly: 17. gxf5?! Nxf5+! Here black resigned in light of the longest possible mate being in 2 moves. If Kh3, then Nh3#. If Kg4, then h5, followed by Bh6#.

                           Diagram 3: Eliminating Defense
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BR |   |   |   |   |BR |BK |   | 8
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BP |BP |   |   |BP |BP |BB |BP | 7
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |BN |   |   |   |BP |   | 6
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |BQ |   |   | 5
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |WP |   |   |WP |   | 4
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |BN |   |WP |WK |   | 3
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WP |WP |   |   |WN |   |WB |WP | 2
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WR |   |WB |WQ |   |   |   |WR | 1
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                          A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
                             Potemkin - Alekhine (1912)
                                   Black to Move
    

  • X-Ray Attacks

    The X-Ray Attack is, like it sounds, a method of distraction where the finality of the attack is located somewhere behind the immediate assault, peering through opacity. If you'd prefer a military analogy to a medical one, you could call it an artillery attack (although no one in the chess world would know what you were talking about). X-Ray attacks, when properly executed, make for some beautiful chess as we see in Diagram 4. After black misplaced his queen to g6, his position is tenuous with white bearing down hard on the kingside against a black king trapped on the back rank and his queen and bishop out of play. After Ne7+, black captures badly with R8xe73, setting up the position for our X-Ray attack. After Rd8+, Re8, Qf8+ you can almost hear the sounds of 50's sci-fi movie weapons. Thrummmm, Thrummmm, Bzzzapt. Black resigned because after Rxf8, white plays Rxf8#.

                              Diagram 4: X-Ray Attack
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |BR |   |BK |   | 8
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BP |   |   |   |   |BP |BP |BP | 7
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BB |   |   |   |   |   |BQ |   | 6
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |WQ |WN |   |   |   |   | 5
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |WB |   |   |   |WP |WP |   | 4
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WP |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 3
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |WP |WP |   |BR |   |   |WP | 2
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |WK |WR |   |   |   |   | 1
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                          A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
                          Chigorin - Znosko-Borovsky (1903)
                                   Black to Move
    

  • Damming

    Damming entails cutting off lines of support or attack for one or more pieces and thereby punching large holes in the attack or support chain. In Diagram 5 we see an excellent illustration of damming by way of choking off an attack. White is about to queen his e pawn, if he only had one more move. Unfortunately, black won't allow him a spare move because he is busy pressing a powerful mating attack with 1. ... Rxh3+ 2. Qh2 (if 2. gxh3, then 2. ... Qxh3+ 3. Qh2 Qxh2#) Rxh2+ 3. Kg1 Rh1#. If only white could find a way to forestall the attack by a move. He did, by way of Qh2! That chokes the life out of black's attack and allows the now-unstoppable pawn to queen on e8. Black can play a bit longer if he throws away a lot of material to do so, but Korchnoi knew better and resigned.

                                Diagram 5: Damming
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 8
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |WP |   |BK |   | 7
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |WP |   | 6
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |BP |   |   |   |   |   |   | 5
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BP |WB |   |WP |   |BB |   |BQ | 4
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WP |   |   |   |   |BR |   |WP | 3
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |WP |   | 2
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |WR |   |WQ |WK | 1
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                          A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
                              Spassky - Korchnoi (1955)
                                   White to Move
    

In Closing

This is not a comprehensive list of advanced tactics, nor will reading this node likely improve your game much all by itself. It is, however, a survey that sheds light on some advanced topics while hopefully showing the threads that hold them all together. The similarity between the themes I've presented here should be plain by this point. They all involve one or more basic tactics and they all involve sacrifice of material and/or distraction techniques to achieve a desired goal.

Knowing what the themes are will help you see them, but I recommend you study them in greater detail, because reinforcing these concepts through study is the best way to see combinations when they become available in an actual game. As you can see, some great players have walked right into brilliant combinations, so if you know what you're looking for, your opponents will often do the same.

Games used in this writeup

  1. Von Bruehl,H - Philidor,F
    London, 1790

    1.e4 Nh6 2.d4 Nf7 3.Bc4 e6 4.Bb3 d5 5.e5 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.f4 Qb6 8.Nf3 Be7 9.Bc2 Bd7 10.b3 cxd4 11.cxd4 Bb4+ 12.Kf2 g5 13.Be3 gxf4 14.Bxf4 Rf8 15.Be3 h6 16.h4 0-0-0 17.a3 Be7 18.Qd3 Rg8 19.Nbd2 Rdf8 20.Qc3 Kb8 21.Rh3 Nfxe5 22.dxe5 d4 23.Nc4 dxe3+ 24.Nxe3 Bc5 25.b4 Bxe3+ 26.Qxe3 Rxg2+ 27.Kxg2 Qxe3 28.Re1 Qf4 29.Re4 Qc1 30.Ne1 Ne7 31.Rc4 Qxe1 32.Bd3 Rf2+ 33.Kg3 Qg1# 0-1

  2. Karpov,A (2725) - Korchnoi,V (2665) C80
    29th World Championship, 1978

    1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Nxe4 6.d4 b5 7.Bb3 d5 8.dxe5 Be6 9.Nbd2 Nc5 10.c3 g6 11.Qe2 Bg7 12.Nd4 Nxe5 13.f4 Nc4 14.f5 gxf5 15.Nxf5 Rg8 16.Nxc4 dxc4 17.Bc2 Nd3 18.Bh6 Bf8 19.Rad1 Qd5 20.Bxd3 cxd3 21.Rxd3 Qc6 22.Bxf8 Qb6+ 23.Kh1 Kxf8 24.Qf3 Re8 25.Nh6 Rg7 26.Rd7 Rb8 27.Nxf7 Bxd7 28.Nd8+ 1-0

  3. Potemkin,P - Alekhine,A B20
    St. Petersburg, 1912

    1.e4 c5 2.g3 g6 3.Bg2 Bg7 4.Ne2 Nc6 5.c3 Nf6 6.Na3 d5 7.exd5 Nxd5 8.Nc2 0-0 9.d4 cxd4 10.cxd4 Bg4 11.f3 Bf5 12.Ne3 Qa5+ 13.Kf2 Ndb4 14.Nxf5 Qxf5 15.g4 Nd3+ 16.Kg3 Nxd4 17.gxf5 Nxf5+ 0-1

  4. Chigorin,M - Znosko-Borovsky,E C31
    Kiev, 1903

    1.e4 e5 2.f4 d5 3.exd5 e4 4.Bb5+ c6 5.dxc6 Nxc6 6.d4 Qa5+ 7.Nc3 Bb4 8.Bd2 Nf6 9.a3 Bxc3 10.Bxc6+ bxc6 11.Bxc3 Qc7 12.Ne2 Ba6 13.Qd2 0-0 14.Ba5 Qd7 15.0-0-0 e3 16.Qe1 Ne4 17.Nc3 Nf2 18.Qxe3 Nxh1 19.Rxh1 Rfe8 20.Qf2 Qf5 21.Bb4 Re6 22.Qf3 Rae8 23.g4 Qf6 24.Qf2 Re3 25.d5 cxd5 26.Nxd5 Qc6 27.Rd1 Re2 28.Qc5 Qg6 29.Ne7+ R8xe7 30.Rd8+ Re8 31.Qf8+ 1-0

  5. Spassky,B - Korchnoi, V D88
    Moscow, 1955

    1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 c5 7.Bc4 Bg7 8.Ne2 cxd4 9.cxd4 Nc6 10.Be3 0-0 11.0-0 Bg4 12.f3 Na5 13.Bxf7+ Rxf7 14.fxg4 Rxf1+ 15.Kxf1 Qd7 16.h3 Qe6 17.Qd3 Qc4 18.Qd2 Qa6 19.Qc2 Nc4 20.Qb3 Kh8 21.Kg1 Nd2 22.Bxd2 Qxe2 23.Be3 Rf8 24.e5 b5 25.Rc1 a5 26.Bg5 h6 27.Bxe7 a4 28.Qd1 Qe3+ 29.Kh1 Rf2 30.Qg1 Qf4 31.a3 Kh7 32.Bc5 h5 33.gxh5 Bh6 34.hxg6+ Kg7 35.Re1 Qg3 36.Bb4 Be3 37.Qh2 Qg5 38.e6 Bf4 39.Qg1 Qh4 40.e7 Rf3 41.Qh2 1-0


1 Sometimes when I find myself in serious time trouble, I will throw material away to open up a position and try for a desperate last mate. My justification for this erratic behavior is that if I am going to lose on time anyway, I might as well make things interesting.

2 Korchnoi must have been in a time crunch during this game, as even I--a rank amateur--saw and pondered black's reply of Re7 and thought it was superior to anything else. Fritz 8 agrees and presents following line (still a hopeless lost for black, but not as quick a mate): 26.... Re7 27.Rxe7 Kxe7 28.Qf6+ Kd7 29.Qxg7 Bc4 30.Rd1+ Kc8 31.Nxf7 Bxf7 32.Qxf7 Qg6 33.Qd5 c6. With black down a rook and a pawn with no position, it's only a matter of time.

3 The better reply was 29. ... R2xe7 30. Qxe7 with black losing material but still being able to fight a bit longer.


Resources:
ChessBase 8.0 used for culling game scores.

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