Bad thinking habits will kill our chess ability

If you follow this blog for a while, you know by now that I love to solve tactical puzzles. What you see on this blog is just a fraction of the puzzles I have solved (or screwed up). Messing up is very easy to do. I had my share of big failures.

Maybe it is a good idea to ask myself the question: what goes wrong? Why do I keep making silly mistakes in (sometimes) quite easy positions? Well the position in the diagram is certainly not very easy. In fact it is a bit complicated.

In order to solve this puzzle (and many others) it might be a good idea to look for a while what is exactly going on. What’s being attacked? What are weak spots? Are there any pins? Loose pieces? Endangered kings? A bit more abstract: what are the motifs? Do you see them?

But first…? Is there a formula for solving puzzles and of course more important: to know in a real game when you should look for combinations? In ‘Chess Tactics for the tournament player’ the authors give a rather simple formula:

  1. Motif
  2. Idea
  3. Technique

We first must become aware of any motifs that exist in a given position. Can you find one? Than you should come up with an idea to exploit the motif. The third and last step is to calculate the variations in a correct manner. It sounds easy. But over and over again it is more difficult than I think.

Any motifs available?

What are the motifs in the diagram position? Well let’s state some obvious facts: white’s queen is under attack. To make matters worse: black also threatens to capture the knight on h4. On the other hand the position of black’s king looks somehat shaky. But what is the correct idea?

I have the bad habit of jumping in most of the time. That’s exactly what happened in this puzzle. I saw the brilliant 1. Ng6!! within the wink of an eye. It wins in all the variations…?! That is except one very obvious line. Which you guessed it: I completely ignored. And you saw even faster than an eye wink.

Although Ng6 wins in variations like 1. – Rxh1 or 1. – Rxb8, black wins easily after the simple and very effective 1.- Qxf5+ Even after the computer politely stated ‘You idiot! You are dead wrong!’ I wondered how this could be. My variations were water tight? (see viewer)

Again: what are the motifs?

The problem of course is that there is more than one motif. ChessTempo lists:

  • Decoy
  • Deflection
  • Unsave king
  • Mate (hook)
  • Sacrifice

The last motif (sacrifice) probably doesn’t surprise you. Almost all puzzles start with a sacrifice. Is a sacrifice a motif? I don’t think so (these motifs are added by patzers like me!). But decoy, unsave king and mate definitely are motifs. So what’s the idea? Here again I failed miserably.

What we are supposed to do is to select several candidate moves. In fact that would have been the easy part in this position. If I would have been better aware of everything that’s going on in this position, I should have dismissed 1. Ng6 in a couple of seconds. Although the idea in itself is a good one. It should have led to the correct solution!

Is there any other good move?

Not with the queen. A retreat of the queen to let’s say g3 would not set a winning combination in motion. In fact white is worse after 1. – Bxf5. Basically there is only one aggressive move possible in this position: 1. Re7+!! (decoy) After we find this move, things get easy. The king has to take (1. – Kxe7) and now white can play my move 2. Ng6+. Because it goes with a check this move forces matters without losing the pawn on f5. The king has no other way than to go back to f7 (2. – Kf7). After this the rook on h8 is deflected from defending the back row with 3. Rxh7+ Again black has no choice, the proud rook is forced leave his defensive post and to take the enemy rook on h7 (3. – Rxh7) and see with tears in his eyes that his king is mated with 4. Qf8#


This was a neat combination but due to it is forced character not so difficult to find. Of course we will only see those things if we widen our scope a bit and do not go for the first thing that comes up in our mind. The ‘motif thing’ is of course easier said than done. In this case, and many others, there are several motifs. It takes some skill to see what is the deciding motif. That is what they call vision (or a lack thereof).

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