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Setting up Conditions for Tactical Combinations

By Andres D. Hortillosa

Author: Improve Your Chess at Any Age (Everyman Chess, January 2010)

In my book I wrote about the amateur’s need to hone the essential chess skill of setting up conditions for tactical combinations. I am not altogether against the sharpening of tactical skills by means of solving canned puzzles. By canned puzzles, I mean the kind that similarly goes “White to play and win in so many moves.”

In the book I argue that navigating to a position, which becomes the starting or staging point of a puzzle, is a more important skill to labor on than the tactical skill to solve the puzzles. The average player when given enough time plus the customary hint as to which side has the win and by how many moves usually will be able to solve even complex puzzles. But the skill to arrive to the puzzle position on purpose or by design is a skill easily attributed to masters.

To explain what I mean, let’s consider these three examples. The first one is a game I recently played online on the Internet Chess Club (ICC). The time control is 10 10, meaning ten minutes for each side and 10 seconds increment per move from the first move for the entire game. I am playing White and we both go by our respective handles.

Example 1

Internet Chess Club 2009

1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 Nf6 5 0–0 Be7 6 Re1 b5 7 Bb3 d6 8 c3 0–0 9 h3 Nb8 10 d4 Nbd7 11 Nbd2 Bb7 12 Bc2 Ne8 13 Nf1 g6 14 Bh6 Ng7 15 Ng3 Re8 16 Qd2 Ne6 17 Rad1 Bf6 18 dxe5 Nxe5 19 Nxe5 dxe5 20 Qe3 Qe7 21 Bb3 Bg7 22 Bxe6 Qxe6 23 h4

Position after 23 h4

Position after 23 h4


My crude idea is to shove my h-pawn all the way to h5. But a more insidious idea is lurking behind the a-pawn bait. Can Black really afford to capture the a-pawn?

This is what I am talking about when I speak of setting up the stage for a tactical event. I wanted to deflect the black queen away from critical g6-square. Some forms of deflection are passive in the sense that they are not forced.

23...Qxa2 24 Nf5

Position after 24 Nf5

My idea was correct but the execution sequence was inaccurate. I should have taken on g7 first before playing the text move because now Black has the option of playing either 24...Bh8 or 24...Bf6. But Black was unusually charitable that day and gave me the position I was aiming for with his next move anyway.

24...Bxh6 25 Qxh6

I am sure Black did not anticipate this capture threatening mate in one. This was the position I had in mind when I passively deflected the black queen away from e6. With the black queen on e6, the idea would just not work.  

25...gxf5 26 exf5

It is amazing that in some positions non-threatening moves like this one is just as potent. In fact, this is necessary to prevent the black queen from returning to the sixth rank. Now, Black is helpless against the threat of a rook-lift.  

26...Kh8 27 Qf6+

This is a motif that should be etched in your tactical playbook. Never allow the defender to place a rook on the half-open file unless you are ready to exploit the pin.

27...Kg8 28 Re3

I was low on time to examine other possibilities. The tactical setup starting with 28 Qg5+ instead of the text move yields an even prettier finish. Play might continue as follows: 28...Kh8 29 Re3 Rg8 30 Qf6+ Rg7 31 Rg3 and because of the right placements of the attacking pieces the stage for a winning tactical combination is made possible. 

After the forced 31...Rag8, the tactical stage is set ready for exploitation. And most puzzle exercises usually come in this form. About here, the cue "White to move and mate in three" is given. Of course, the solver usually finds the solution and is duly rewarded with the satisfaction that comes with the effort of finding it. 

However, the tactical skill that is learnt and reinforced is only the solving skill. The staging aspect of the tactical skill, which is the crucial skill one needs to learn more, is taken away from the solver. 

Of course, the solution begins with the shocking but thematic 32 Qxg7+.

Position after 32 Qxg7+


This is the part of the solving process that wows and draws us fondly to chess. Every improving player dreams of having one of these masterful strokes in his games at sundry times. After 32...Rxg7 33 Rd8+ Rg8, there follows 34 Rdxg8 and Black is mated.

Returning to the game, we have: 

28...Bd5 29 Rg3+ Kf8 30 h5

The attack is so strong that even this slower approach is hard to meet. I was looking at 30 Rg7 followed by 31 Rxh7 and 32 Rh8 but having 1 minute and 22 seconds left on the clock, I deferred to one of the mating nets I saw earlier.  

And the game concluded shortly with: 

30...Rad8 31 h6 Rd6 32 Rg8+

Position after 32 Rg8+

Black resigns.

Example 2 

Foxwoods Open

Mashantucket 2009

1 d4 e6 2 c4 Bb4+ 3 Bd2 Qe7 4 Nf3 Nf6 5 g3 Ne4 6 a3 Bxd2+ 7 Nbxd2 Nxd2 8 Qxd2 a5 9 Bg2 a4 10 0–0 d6 11 e4 e5 12 d5 Na6 13 Qc3 Nc5 14 Nd2 f5 15 f4 exf4 16 Rae1 0–0 17 exf5 Qg5 18 Rxf4 Bxf5 19 Nf3 Qh6 20 Nd4 Bd7 21 Rxf8+ Rxf8 22 Ne6 Bxe6 23 dxe6 Re8 24 e7

Position after 24 e7

Position after 24 e7


After 24 moves, we have this position between a rapidly improving junior player from Houston and the experienced FM Ilye Filger who plays for the New York Queens in the US Chess League. I met Filger and chatted with him casually at the 2008 edition of the Pan-American Continental Championship in Boca Raton, Florida.

I am acquainted with Jarod Pamatmat and his father who is a medical doctor practicing in Texas. The family hailing from the Philippines has a rich chess tradition. While the young Pamatmat’s FIDE rating is just over 2000, his USCF rating has been rising rapidly in the last two years. He transitioned from Class A player to almost master during this period, which drew my interest in his games at the Foxwoods Open. 


It is unfortunate that Black had to resort to this anti-positional move as it weakens d6 but it was necessary to protect the light squares and render specifically d5 inhospitable to the white bishop.  

The unrestrained check on d5 gives the bishop access to f7 which will effectively end the game shortly. So we can deduce from the move that Black understood the perils to his king if White's bishop gets to f7.

Let's see what happens if Black offers to exchange queens on f6 without first protecting d5 with 24...Qf6.

Analysis diagram after 24...Qf6

Analysis diagram after 24...Qf6


From the above position, White continues with 25 Bd5+ Kh8 26 Qxf6 gxf6 27 Bf7 and Black is forced to give up his rook for the pawn.


Black will easily hold this position despite the scary white passed pawn on e7 as long as Black does not acquiesce to panic. Staying calm and collected is a hard thing to do particularly when the bias about the danger of protected passed pawn bears down heavily on the defender's psyche. Does Black think White has a big threat with Rf1 threatening mate on f8? Can White afford to abandon the protection of the pawn on e7 so he can play Rf1? 


Knowing the answers to the preceding questions would leave Black concluding that his best continuation is to attack the pawn on e7 with 25...Qg5. The idea is to capture on e7 if White abandons the defense of the e-pawn with the queen, which simultaneously defends f7 and f8. The idea to reroute the knight to e5 via d7 looks plausible but will come short as shown by the line 25...Nd7 26 Qf5 Ne5 culminating in the brutal undermining of d6 with 27 c5!   

Analysis diagram after 27 c5!.

Position after 27 c5


White is clearly winning.

But what happens if Black allows Rf1? Let's give White an extra move by yielding the turn to White.

Game may continue after 25.Qf3 -- with 26.Rf1 Qf6! 27.Qxf6 gxf6 28.Rxf6 Rxe7. 

Analysis diagram after 28…Rxe7.

Position after 28...Rxe7


It's clear the threat was false as this line proves the game to be defensible. So Black chooses this safe-looking move with the idea of forcing the exchange of queens on f6. Black reasons that when the pawn recaptures, it will provide a natural cover for the king on its way to win the pawn on e7. Is he correct? Let’s find out. 

Play continued: 

26 Qxf6 gxf6  

Position after 26…gxf6

Position after 26...gxf6


The position is now a White to play and win quiz. It is possible that when Black was looking at the static position after 25...Qf6, he saw that the bishop on g2 could not get on the critical h5-e8 diagonal in one move, which would give his king time to play ...Kf7.

The oversight was indirectly caused by the optical block courtesy of the white queen sitting on f3. With the queen still on f3, the bishop needs two moves to get access to h4 with Bh3 and Bg4, one move more than Black needs. 


Position after 28 Bh5


I am not sure if White foresaw this possibility when he played 25 Qf3. If he did see the line, then the move was cunning designed to exploit Black's discomfort precipitated by the threats along the open f-file.

The real and dangerous threat is the one hiding behind Black's solution to the intermediate threat. The trap is simple yet hard to see because of the queen blocking the mind's eye.

It is only now that Black saw the consequence of the exchange on f6 so he resigned. Black will have to give up his rook for the daring pawn because 27...Kf7 is impermissible as it loses to 28 Bh5+. 

What can we take away from this example? If you have pressure and have the turn to make a threat, actively search for trap ideas which you can combine with the threats. The best traps are the ones you can set in response to your opponent's likely response to your threats.

The threat in this regard functions as a decoy. If you are the one facing a threat, ensure that your intended response does not trigger a trap scenario.

This is just another application of the principle of idea falsification discussed closely in the book. Focus your refutation efforts of the intended response on the area where a weakness either piece or square resides. In the above game, the weakness or critical problem is the successful defense of the queening square on e8, which White purposely or fortuitously exploited. 

Example 3

Pan-American Continental Championship
Boca Raton 2008

I met Eric Cooke in round six of the Pan-American Continental Championship held in sunny Boca Raton. He is an avid player whose contagious enthusiasm for the game is scarcely suppressible. He has played extensively in Europe specifically in the First Saturday series in Hungary and has earned one IM norm in the said event. I squandered an opening advantage and was now battling a pawn disadvantage when my opponent slipped allowing me to restore material balance with his inexplicable 32 Bd4. 

Position after 32 Bd4

Position after 32 Bd4


Surprised by his generosity, I immediately gobbled the proffered pawn. And then play continued with: 

32...Bxe5 33 Nxe4 Bxd4 34 Qxd4 Qxb5


Position after 34 Qxb5


Seeing the draw within my grasp, I offered my opponent one here, which he quickly rebuffed with a broad smile behind his obviously irked demeanor brought about by his reckless squander of a big edge. After some thought, he quietly steered his king toward the center with this toothless move. My lazy reaction to his centralizing move led to this blunder. 

35 Kf2 Qd7?

Position after 35...Qd7


Preferable is 35...Kg6 36 g4 Qd7 37 Qe5 keeping the balance. I rejected 35...c6 because it would close the queen's route back to my king. I thought she was needed on the kingside to defend my barely covered king. Before my queen could get acquainted with the new vista on d7, she got hit with the shocking reply. She fell to a tactical motif I describe simply as dragging your opponent’s piece to a vulnerable square. 

36 Qxd5!

Position after 36 Qxd5

I immediately understood the point of White’s 35th move. This happened because I got complacent and was lulled by the drawn nature of the position. Had I remained suspicious of my opponent’s intentions, I would have investigated more closely the point of his king shuffle. A quick reconnaissance of the position would have tipped me off to the knight fork trick.  

Notice the commonality of the color squares the pieces were sitting on. The target pieces (black king and queen) and the attacking piece (white knight) sat on light squares, which is a pre-condition for a knight fork. The reason the wily Cooke moved his king was to get it off the h1-a8 diagonal upon my recapture on d5. With his king still on g2, he could not deliver the killer Nf6 fork as the knight is pinned to the king. 

36…Qxh3 37.Qd7+ 

Position after 37 Qd7+


I dejectedly resigned as the same motif could not be avoided. This tells you that simply knowing the preconditions for knight forks is not enough in preventing a knight fork. A more structured chess thinking process is rather needed to avert this category of blunders.

Despite the heartbreaking loss, the somewhat humorous conclusion of this game could not hold back a dry smile off my forlorn face.

27 May 2011 01:14
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