Chess tactics are the tools of the middlegame. Chess tactics are used to gain an advantage in material, position, or time (tempo). Once a player has such an advantage, he or she might be able to drive the game towards an endgame solution.
The following is an introduction to the chess player’s arsenal of tactics. The list is fairly comprehensive, but not exhaustive. The best way to become accustomed to their use is to study chess tactics explicitly, either through on-line methods (such as www.chess.com) or through chess puzzle books.
A fork is a move in which a piece attacks two opponent pieces at the same time. Knights are most often used for a fork, but even pawns can make an effective fork.
Probably the most dreaded fork is the family fork, in which a knight simultaneously attacks the enemy king, queen, and rook.
The knight at e5 is forking the king and a rook.
A discovered attack occurs when the movement of one piece allows another piece to attack.
Black moves her knight to a5, putting the white king in check with her queen on c7, while attacking the white queen on b3 with her knight.
A pin is a tactical move in which an attacked piece is prevented from moving due to a target behind it.
The white bishop at b5 is pinning the knight at c6 to the black king — black is unable to move his knight because that would put his king in check. The black bishop at g4 is also pinning the knight at f3 to white’s queen. If the knight is moved, the bishop takes the queen.
A skewer is an attack on a piece that, when it is forced to move, enables the capture of a piece behind it.
When the white king moves to e2, black will capture the rook on h1.
A blockade is using a minor piece – such as a bishop, knight, or a pawn – to prevent the progress of a pawn towards promotion by placing it in front of the pawn. The blockaded pawn also shelters the blockading piece from attack somewhat, and, in many cases, can be used to hamper the enemy’s movement.
Blockades are useful in all three stages of the game. In the opening, a successful blockade can redirect enemy piece development. During the middlegame, blockades can be used to force the enemy to change his or her plans. In the endgame, blockades are essential to prevent pawn promotion.
The white knight on c4 is successfully blockading black’s pawn.
Deflection is a chess tactic used to repel an enemy piece from a good position. In this way, it is somewhat the opposite of a decoy.
Sometimes deflection is called biffing or kicking.
In the beginning of this variation of the Ruy Lopez opening, the bishop is deflected (or “kicked”) by the pawn at a6.
When the bishop retreats to a4, black kicks it again with b5! The bishop is forced to retreat to b3.
A battery is an arrangement of two or more pieces that share the same attack line. A battery is used to reinforce a threat that is subject to counterattack.
White has double rooks on the d-file, causing a serious situation for black.
Batteries are also useful in piece exchanges. One famous use of a battery is called Alekhine’s Gun, in which the queen is “stacked” onto a battery of rooks to increase the power of the battery.
The grandmaster Alexander Alekhine used such a battery in the diagram below against Aron Nimzowitsch in 1930. The battery on the c-file gave Alekhine the edge in a massive piece trade. Nimzowitsch resigned four moves later.
Interference is a chess tactic in which a piece is sacrificially put in the way of the line of attack of an enemy piece. This can be useful to eliminate the protection of an enemy piece or to disrupt a powerful attack combination like a battery.
Black has a powerful battery, but white can use interference with Nd5, eliminating the protection of the black queen.
Overloading is a strategy used to coerce a defensive piece (one that is used to guard another piece) to change assignments. By giving that piece too many things to do, we weaken its value as a defender.
White wants to make the move Qxf3 but can’t because the f3 pawn is protected by the rook at f1. Instead, Black overloads that rook by moving Re1 — it cannot defend against the rook and protect the pawn at the same time.
Undermining is a chess strategy in which a defensive piece is attacked (either captured or deflected) so that the piece it is guarding is left unprotected. Sometimes undermining is referred to as “removing the guard”.
Black’s knight at a4 is causing considerable problems for white, so white undermines the knight to relieve the pressure: 1. Bxb5 Rxb5 2. Rxa4.
In chess, a sacrifice is a tactic in which a piece is allowed to be captured by the opponent because the result is an advantage in space, tempo, or attack for the sacrificing player. A pawn sacrifice in an opening is called a gambit.
Black sacrifices her rook with 1. Rxh3 gxh3, but in return seals the win.
A desperado is a piece that is in a position such that it will surely be taken on the opponent’s next move; it is essentially lost. Consequently, the best thing to do is to use that piece to greatest advantage before it leaves the board, which usually means capturing a piece.
Black wants to capture the white queen at a8, but if he does, his queen is lost. He decides instead to “go desperado” with 1. … Qxb1. White must recapture with her rook to avoid checkmate, and black follows by capturing the white queen with his bishop.
A decoy is a chess tactic used to lure a piece to a square that is part of a trap. A decoy move most often involves a sacrifice of a piece for a more valuable piece or position.
Black makes the seemingly dumb move Rxd4, and white recaptures with the queen. However, the rook was a decoy to setup the fork Nb3+! which wins the white queen!
A passed pawn (sometimes called a passer) is a pawn with no pawns in front of it and it cannot be captured by adjacent pawns. This can happen if there are no adjacent pawns, if the pawn is simply beyond the capture squares of its adjacent pawns, or if it is on the edge of the board.
A passed pawn increases in threat value the closer it gets to its promotion square. In fact, many times it is worth sacrificing other pieces to defend (or destroy, if you are the opponent) a passed pawn.
A pair of adjacent passed pawns is called a steamroller. A passed pawn by itself on one side of the board is called a runner.
White sacrifices two pieces make the passed pawn on e6 a winning advantage: 1. Ba3 Qxa3 2. Nh5+ gxh5 3. Qg5+ and black is doomed.
A double check attack occurs when the opponent’s king is being put in check by two different pieces. In this case, it is not possible to capture the checking piece, or to block it, because there are two separate threats causing the king to be in check. The only option is to move the king.
White is in real trouble, because black has pinned his rook to his king. However, he can escape with a double check! 1. Bd6+!
Attacking an enemy piece and all possible squares to which it could move to escape is called trapping.
With the following sequence: 1. Bxb6 axb6 2. f4, white successfully traps the knight at e5.
An outpost is a square that is protected by a pawn and cannot be attacked by an enemy pawn. Most often we want to place our knights on outpost squares as they can jump over other pieces, which gives them the ability to exert greater control on the opponent’s position.
The White knight at c4 is in a very powerful position. Besides protecting the a5 pawn, it hampers the movement of both enemy rooks. The black rook at b5 is not technically on an outpost square, because white’s c2 pawn could eventually attack that square.
Back Rank Trap / Luft for the King
The back rank trap occurs when a castled king gets trapped behind its row of pawns by a rook or queen. One of the best ways to protect against this trap is to provide luft for the king (“luft” means “air” in German) by moving one of the pawns up, thus providing a way of escape.
If black captures the bishop on d3, White can’t recapture with the rook because that would leave him open to a back rank trap at e1. White can prevent this by providing luft for the king with h3.
Suffocation / Smother Mate
A smother mate or suffocation is a checkmate pattern in which the enemy king is surrounded by his own pieces and then attacked by a knight. If the king can’t capture the knight, he suffocates.
White seizes the win with 1. Qg8+ Rxg8 2. Nf7#
The clearance tactic is simply a piece movement — often a sacrifice or a desperado — that clears a key diagonal, rank, or file for the main plan of attack.
White sets up a suffocation with a clearance maneuver: 1. Rf8+ Rxf8 2. Qg8+ Rxg8 3. Nf7#.
Perpetual check arises when one player can continue to put the other player in check indefinitely. In this case, the game is a draw. This technique is a very useful tool to “steal the win” from an opponent when you are losing.
The white king is trapped, and his pawn can’t promote. However, black is surely poised to win with two pawns that have a high likelihood of promotion. White instead goes for the draw by chasing the black king with 1. Ra5+. It doesn’t matter where black moves her king, white will simply chase her around the board. If black captures the offending rook, it’s stalemate anyway.
Simplification / Trade-off
Simplification is the technique of multiplying a small advantage by trading pieces.
White uses 1. Qd5+ to force the simplification: 1. … Qxd5 2. cxd5 Bxd5. White’s advantage has been multiplied by trading pieces.
Queen in the Face
A queen-in-the-face is a checkmate pattern in which the opponent’s king is trapped against the board edge by the queen, which is protected by another piece. To use this technique, is often best to attack from an unexpected angle.
White sets up the maneuver with 1. Bxb4, which seems to be a blunder: 1. … Nxb4 2. Qc3 Nc6 3. Qxg7#.
An x-ray attack is an attack in which the target is a square beyond an opponent’s piece on the same line of attack. The x-ray can work as an attack or to protect a piece.
Black wins because 1. … Qe1+ has x-ray protection from the Black rook on c1. 2. Rxe1 Rxe1#.
Zugzwang (TSOOK- zvahng) is a German word meaning “forced to move.” In chess, it is any tactic that forces the opponent to make an undesirable move.
White puts black in zugzwang with Kc3. Now black must move her rook away from her king, and checkmate will be difficult to avoid for very long.
Zwischenzug / Intermezzo
Zwischenzug (ZVEE-zhun-zoog) is a “middle move” that is made instead of the expected move in order to give the opponent a second threat to have to answer. Sometimes this is referred to as an intermezzo, which is the Italian word that means the same thing.
White just captured black’s knight at b8. The expected move is for black to recapture with the rook; this will allow white to move Qa4+ and win the bishop. However, black uses the zwischenzug Nd5!, threatening the king-queen fork at e3 and protecting the bishop.
The Greek Gift chess tactic is named after the wooden horse the Greeks used to gain entry into the city of Troy in the Trojan War. In this chess maneuver, a bishop is sacrificed to draw the enemy king out from behind his castled defence.
White uses 1. Bxh7+ to draw the enemy king out. Play continues with 1. … Kxh7 2. Qh4+ Kg8 3. Ng5 Re8 4. Qh7+ Kf8 and White has a decisive advantage, despite losing the bishop.
A mating net is a series of moves with several pieces designed to cut off the escape of the enemy king. Later, one or more checks are used to drive the enemy king into the net.
Black escapes checkmate with a mating net: 1. … Bxh2+ 2. Kh1 Bg3+ 3. Kg1 Qh2+ 4. Kf1 Qxf2#.
A pawn storm is not a single move, but a series of moves designed to make a several adjacent pawns a powerful attacking force.
Notice how white has created a pawn storm on files d-h! All of white’s pieces are aimed at supporting the advancing wall of pawns, and black has retreated defensively.
Pig on the 7th
Placing your rook on the seventh row from your side — the seventh rank for white, and the second rank for black — is called “putting a pig on the 7th.” Having a rook (or queen) in this position is a considerable advantage, as it limits the movement of the opponent’s king and attacks his pawn structure from behind.
White begins with 1. h5 Rf6 2. hxg6 hxg6 3. Rh1. White will follow with 4. Rh7, gaining a tremendous advantage in position.