Teaching Tactical Awareness

This review has been printed in the August 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.


Schlepütz, Volker, and John Emms. The Chess Tactics Detection Workbook. London: Everyman Chess, 2014. ISBN 978-1781941188. 336pp. PB $27.95.

It is the most common piece of advice given to the amateur player: “if you want to improve your chess, study tactics.” So, like the diligent students we are, that’s what we do.

We slog through pages and pages of bare diagrams, flipping to the back of the book to see what we missed. We try all the web-based tactics trainers, refusing to give in to frustration when our winning-but-not-winning-enough moves are marked wrong for reasons we can’t fathom. We head to our next tournament, chests puffed out and tactical Spidey-sense cranked to 11.

And then we miss a mate-in-two and lose to an eight-year old. And we wonder why on earth we waste our time with this stupid game.

There is little doubt that the study of tactics is indeed necessary, if not sufficient, for chess improvement. Still, those of us who have spent time with Blokh and Brennan and Reinfeld (not to mention chesstempo.com) know all-too-well the limitations of such study. It’s easy to find a killer shot when you know one exists in the position. It’s much harder when your clock is ticking away and there’s no teacher nudging you towards the correct move.

Not a few authors have made creative attempts to overcome this problem in their books. Some, like Emmanuel Neiman (Tune Your Chess Tactics Antenna) and Martin Weteschnik (Chess Tactics from Scratch), aim to teach you how to decipher typical positions and discover common tactical themes. Others, like Ray Chang (Practical Chess Exercises), broaden the range of exercises, forcing you to look beyond raw tactics in the search for the best move.

With The Chess Tactics Detection Workbook, Volker Schlepütz and John Emms also attempt to teach tactical awareness while avoiding the artificiality of bulk puzzle solving. Readers are presented with the raw scores of 120 games (or fragments of games) played by combatants rated from 1100-1700. They are instructed to play through the games, put on their “tactics detective hats,” and note the points where one or both players missed something. Points are given for each correct answer, and readers are encouraged to keep a running point total.

Here’s an example of a game (#75 in the book) contested between players rated somewhere between 1301 and 1500. What did one or both players miss? Answers at the end of the column.

Decrop,B – Hilven,G [C13]
Brasschaat, 2007

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Bg5 Nbd7 6.Nf3 h6 7.Bxf6 Nxf6 8.Bd3 b6 9.Bb5+ Nd7 10.Ne5 Bd6 11.Qg4 Bxe5 12.dxe5 [*]

I can see how readers would be attracted to this book and its method. Most of the game fragments are short enough to avoid taxing one’s attention, and the points system assists in keeping the reader involved and engaged in solving. There are, however, a few important limitations. Because most of the solving ends with the late opening or early middlegame (full games are given in the solutions), there is little engagement with endgame tactics or broader attacking themes. What’s more, the scent of artificiality is not fully expunged here, as all of the blunders are tactical in nature, and no credit is given for finding positional or strategic mistakes.

Part of me also wonders whether Schlepütz and Emms have really done something new here. Surely we can find precedent for this “unique framework” for tactical training in long-running solitaire chess columns by Danny King or Chess Life’s own Bruce Pandolfini. C.J.S. Purdy recommended covering and guessing the victor’s moves in annotated games back in 1947, something that ChessBase users can easily do by using the ‘training’ tab in the game window.

These caveats notwithstanding, I suspect that class players looking to improve tactically would find The Chess Tactics Detection Workbook useful, as would teachers looking for lesson ideas. Schlepütz and Emms may not have found a true novelty here, but the training method is fresh enough to warrant your consideration.


For White: 11.Qg4? “White started correctly by playing 10.Ne5, but 11.Qg4? doesn’t follow it up accurately. 11.Nxd6+! (2 points) clears the diagonal and 11…cxd6 12.Nxf7! forks queen and rook. After 12…Kxf7 the king has been attracted to a fatal square. 13.Qf3+ forks the king and rook, winning an exchange and a pawn overall. (2 points)” 11.Qf3 and 11.Nxf7 (2 points) are deemed lesser variants of 11.Nxd6!

For Black: 9…Nd7? “allows White to gain material, as shown above (1 point). Instead, Black should play 9…Bd7 (1 point). Earlier, Black should probably avoid 8…b6 which invites tactics by weakening both the a4-e8 and h1-a8 diagonals.”

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