Spotting Tactical Threats:
Part of the Chess Strategies Guide (Section 1: Strategies)

Chess Strategies Guide,
Section 1: Strategies
Stopping Enemy Counterplay
[Spotting Tactical Threats]

About This Article...

Winning Chess Strategies - TeaserThis article includes my notes, additional images and interactive chess positions from my study of Yasser Seirawan's book, Winning Chess Strategies.

Winning Chess Strategies,
Revised edition
ISBN: 978-1-85744-385-1
Chapter 2. Spotting Tactical Threats (p34-37)

Seirawan Strategy Examples:
  • #1: Basic Tactical Threat Example.
  • #2: A WARNING about allowing
    yourself to become overconfident
    in a winning position.
  • #3: Looking at Weaknesses to Spot Tactical Threats.

Spotting Tactical Threats

Yasser Seirawan defines Tactics as being:

  • "Maneuvers that take advantage of short-term opportunities with the goal of supporting your own Strategy or destroying your opponent's Strategy."

What this subject matter all boils down to is ... You cannot play Chess with half your brain working elsewhere; you must be fully alert, at all times throughout your game, as it only takes one lapse in concentration to play into a sneaky, tactical scheme your opponent has just set.

Examples to Help Understand How to
Spot Tactical Threats

Chess Strategies - SSE - Diagram 10 Seirawan Strategy Example #1
(p34) Diagram 10: Black to play.
Makogonov-Botvinnik, USSR, 1943
Diagram 10, left, shows the first of three examples relating to spotting tactical threats. This is a Basic Tactical Threat Example ...

In this example, the threat comes from White, who intends to remove Black's Queen, so that he can then go after Black's two Passed Pawns.

Black is aware that this would be a game losing situation, so sacrifices his Queen in order to preserve the push for Promotion (where he'll effectively get his Queen back!).
Chess Strategies - SSE - Diagram 11 Seirawan Strategy Example #2
(p35) Diagram 11: White to play.
World Junior Championship (Girls, u10)
Diagram 11, left, shows the second example, which came from a World Junior Championship final game ...

This is a WARNING about allowing yourself to become overconfident in a winning position and failing to spot a tactical threat due to sheer negligence.

Yasser Seirawan advises "Avoid overconfidence and never play quick moves."

Only once the game is over can you allow yourself to mentally switch off.
Chess Strategies - SSE - Diagram 12 Seirawan Strategy Example #3
(p36) Diagram 12: Black to play.
Reshevsky-Fischer, U.S. Championship,
Diagram 11, left, shows the third and final example about being aware of tactical threats.

In this game, Bobby Fischer found himself on the end of a tactical threat against his b6-Pawn, which he spotted could lead to him losing the game by a Back Rank Mate (note the current position of Black's King and compare it to White's King).

This example raised a couple of points about how one might go about spotting tactical threats (hint: look for the weaknesses).

Strategy for Spotting Tactical Threats

Strategy #1: Look for weaknesses in the position -- any weakness could become a target, and Tactics can be used to attack them.

I'll confess, this wasn't a strategy mentioned by Yasser Seirawan, but it just seems a good habit to get into, to help train the brain to spot threats of a tactical nature. Take the above examples, for instance ...

  • In (Diagram 10, Example #1), the main weakness for Black is the pair of Passed Pawns that would be without adequate support if Black's Queen were to be captured (as White's Rf7 threatens). White's weakness would be insufficient material to prevent one of Black's two Passed Pawns from gaining Promotion, if he were to lose his Rook (which is what actually happens in the example).

  • In (Diagram 11, Example #2), White's weakness is obvious (a chronic lack of material -- she's effectively playing a hopelessly lost game). As for Black, there doesn't appear to be much wrong with her position, as the Passed h2-Pawn is one square away from Promotion, with a superior force on the board ...

    However, Black's careless attitude did reveal one weakness that shouldn't have made any difference, but actually gifted White the victory: If Black's King were to be at f8 (...Ke7-f8) and White's Rook were able to make it to e8 (Rb3-e4-e8+), White's Bb5 & Re8 would combine to Checkmate Black's King with a Back Rank Mate. Note the position of the two Black Pawns (f7 & g7) in this tactical threat!

  • In (Diagram 12, Example #3), there are a number of weaknesses on both sides, but the key weakness is Black's b6-Pawn, which is not only an Isolated Pawn, it's also undefended and under attack.

If you're unsure about what sort of patterns of weaknesses and tactical threats to look for, study the following:

  • Chess Tactics,
    Keep an eye out for potential tactical patterns such as Forks, Pins, Skewers, Discovered Attacks, and X-Ray Attacks, which can be used to snare enemy material with good effect.

  • Weak Pawns,
    Pawns become ideal targets because (1) they're slow to move; (2) they cannot quickly relocate to another part of the board; and (3) when they become blocked, they cannot move until the blockage is cleared or they've an opportunity to capture and move diagonally away from the blockage.

    Remember what Yasser Seirawan said in the discussion about Overwhelming Your Opponent (Strategy #2): "Find a target and try to figure out a way to attack it!" ... "Targets you plan to attack should be stationary."

  • Weak Squares,
    If a square is weak, it's vulnerable in some way, and therefore can be exploited. For example, a Piece may be sent to sit on a Hole in a critical part of the board (e.g. in the region of the Castled enemy King), which would perhaps restrict the enemy's mobility in that area, either making it difficult to bring in reinforcements or to evacuate the trapped King from its compromised position.

Moving On: Keeping Your Opponent Helpless (Page 3).

From this article about Spotting Tactical Threats,
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