Secrets of chess tactics: Reversing the move order

Ever had it where you get a really good position and your tactical radar starts going crazy? You know there’s a win here somewhere… but when you play the obvious moves your opponent somehow escapes.

Trust your intuition – there probably was a win… but it slipped away. This tip will reduce those frustrations and help you win more games.

It’s called “reversing the move-order”, a name which pretty much sums up the whole idea.

When you spot a combination but it doesn’t quite work as you want it to, try changing the move order. Here’s a simple example:

ReverseMoveOrderAll White’s pieces are aimed at the enemy King. There must be a winning combination.

Let’s start with the obvious 1.Rxh6+ Kg7 now what? 2.Rh7+ Kf6 and the King escapes.

Ok, 1.Rxh6+ Kg7 2.Rg5+ oops, …Kxh6.

But if we reverse the move order, 1.Rg5! wins …Nf5 2.Bxf5 exf5 3.Rxh6#.

This is a very useful idea to remember, you’ll find it helps in many different types of combinations. It’s also worth noting that removing escape squares (as with 1.Rg5!) is often better than playing immediate checks when on a King hunt.

Chess Tip: One Pawn Holds Two

Here’s a really simple tip which will help you take control of positions by claiming space and limiting your opponent’s possibilities. It’s a principle called “one pawn holds two”.

Imagine Black has 2 pawns, one on a6 the other still on b7. If White was to place a pawn on a5, neither of the Black pawns would be able to move. The a6 pawn is blocked and, if Black plays b7-b6 or b7-b5, the a-pawn could capture it.


2r5/1p1bkp2/p3p3/3pP2r/P2P1P2/R2B4/2P3PP/5RK1 w – – 0 24

Here’s an example from one of my club games. White has 2 extra pawns and Black’s Bishop is pretty terrible so many moves are playable but I played the simplest a5. This fixes Black’s pawns on the same colour as his Bishop, prevents him (temporarily at least) from moving either of these pawns and frees my Rook from guarding the pawn.

However, it’s the restriction of Black’s a6 and b7 pawns that is most important. One pawn is stopping two – a very efficient move!

If you put this position into your engine, you’ll find a5 is one of the top suggestions but once you’ve seen the pattern it doesn’t require any thinking, you’ll find it in a 1 minute game.

So powerful is this idea that, if it was Black’s move in the above position, then …a5, stopping White’s pawn advance, becomes one of the computer’s favourite moves.


8/1p2kp2/p3p3/3pP3/P2P1P2/8/2P3P1/6K1 w – – 0 24

Here’s the same position with Bishops & Rooks removed and, to show the power of this idea, I’ve taken away White’s h-pawn too.

Again, many moves win but the strongest is a5! We’re not restricting a Bishop here, just slowing Black down, taking away his options. Without us playing this move, Black might try …a5 himself, followed by …b5 to get a passed a-pawn.

So, a simple idea but one to remember. It will come up loads of times in your games and make your job much easier!

The Kotov Training Method

Alexander_Kotov_1967aAlexander Kotov (1913-1981) was a strong GM (twice a candidate for the title) and celebrated chess author with his most famous book being “Think Like A Grandmaster”. In this book, Kotov gives advice on how to think in chess, when and what to analyse, how to reduce blunders and so on.

Also in “Think Like A Grandmaster”, Kotov gives his training method, one that is credited with greatly increasing his playing strength. It is based around analysis of positions.


  • First find a position to analyse, ideally one that is analysed in detail in a book (of course, close the book when finding the position, you do not want to be influenced!) This could be any position, from an opening, complicated or quiet middlegame position or an endgame.
  • Think about the position for a set amount of time, perhaps 20/30/60 minutes, without moving the pieces. Write down your thoughts in variations with as much analysis as possible.
  • At the end of a variation, write down your evaluation of a position. This could be in words (“White is winning”, “White has a winning endgame due to his protected passed pawn”), computer evaluation (“+3”) or symbol “+-“.
  • When the time is up, compare your notes to those in the book. This will show any differences between your perception of a position and those of the author (presumably a strong player).

Analysis can also be checked with a computer for accuracy, although this might not give you the understanding that a book might in some positions.

This training method will enhance your understanding of positions, your knowledge and, greatly, your skill at analysing.

If you would like a position to analyse right now, here’s one from Kasparov – Kramnik, Dos Hermanas, 1996. It is Black’s move.


KaspKram“Like Dvoretsky, I think that (all other things being equal), the analytical method of studying chess must give you a colossal advantage over the chess pragmatist, and that there can be no certainty in chess without analysis.” – Garry Kasparov

“Analysis is a glittering opportunity for training: it is just here that capacity for work, perseverence and stamina are cultivated, and these qualities are, in truth, as necessary to a chess player as a marathon runner.”  – Lev Polugaevsky

“It is not possible to become a great player without having learned how to analyse deeply and accurately.” – Mark Dvoretsky

“Chess mastery essentially consists of analyzing chess positions accurately.”  –  Mikhail Botvinnik

Ken Rogoff on Bobby Fischer and improving at chess

This is an excerpt from a New In Chess interview in 2011 with economist and Grandmaster Ken Rogoff. In 1969, his play impressed Bobby Fischer enough to annotate one of his games for Boy’s Life magazine (the article can be found here).


“A very important part in chess is figuring out your mistakes and how to improve and it’s very painful. Because, let’s face it, it’s much more fun to play over your wins than the losses. And yeah, you just have to play over your losses again and again and again.

I remember meeting Bobby Fischer when I was playing in the US Junior Championship in New York in 1969. He had been having problems with rook and pawn endings and he basically finally said, OK, this stops here, this isn’t going to happen again. And he was spending all his time on rook and pawn endings. And indeed, I think it was against Geller that he won a rook and pawn ending after that, you couldn’t have imagined that before.

I think that takes really steel will and most people don’t have it. Most people lose the same game again and again and again. They don’t realize that they are losing the same game again. The real top players have that ability to try to suffer repeatedly through the same defeat and learn from it.”

Yasser Seirawan on chess improvement

Yasser SeirawanPlay stronger players and learn from your losses

“I really feel that the more you play, the better you get. I think that everyone has to realise that you have to lose about ten thousand games before you can become a good player. I know that I became a good player when I started losing well. In other words, the games weren’t a wipeout. I was showing resistance and both my opponent and I had actually played a good game.”

“You really need to be allowed to play those stronger than yourself so you can pick up ideas and see what their motivations are at the chessboard. I would say expand your circle to meet much stronger players.”

Studying chess

“I don’t like to work when I’m tired. I want to come to my study period in the same way that you come from the shower, fresh. This way I’m ready to burst out and absorb information. I also need to feel physically, emotionally and mentally in shape, so for the next five hours or so I can have a good study session. My sessions are usually fairly long as I don’t absorb enough in short periods. I also like to arrange my day so that I won’t be disturbed.”

[Talking about studying with a friend of his] “We studied the Sicilian Najdorf for two weeks and we knew it inside out. We were literally boarding the plane to go when we discovered a major flaw in a crucial line and we were heartbroken. I thought we had wasted our time, but James said:” Yasser, all study is good. Even if your analysis is bad, you’re still analysing and even if that line is bad, we still learned a hell of a lot about the Sicilian Najdorf.” That’s my basic philosophy of study. I want to have the feeling I’m enjoying it.

If I’m on my own I like to study whole games, especially games that players have annotated themselves. Not because I want to have all the answers or have everything laid out on a plate for me, but because I want to know what and how they think. What I do is take an incredibly negative approach to their annotation. Specifically, I think: “You’re wrong. I don’t care who you are, you’re wrong, that annotation doesn’t make any sense at all!” Then I try to prove that I’m right and they’re wrong. Again, supporting the theory that any analysis is good.”

Improving Analysis

Your skills are like individual muscles and you have to work the right ones. I find that with calculation comes the need to do blindfold work. In other words, if you start to think about analysis and calculation, you can’t move the pieces. So what I would say to you is that we’re not going to analyse, we’re not going to play blindfold, I’m going to read out moves to you and I want you to tell me how far you can hold the position until it becomes unclear. And the point is that if you’re able to mentally picture the clarity of the game, even if it gets complicated with sacrifices, then you’re going to improve. So, I believe that being able to play blindfold chess is a very important skill.

(Check out our “Chess Vision: Checkmate Edition” book for visualisation training)

Excerpted from “Interview with a Grandmaster”, Aaron & Claire Summerscale.


The Temptation of Clever Moves

As I look through many amateur games, I am identifying recurring mistakes that are made. A lot of these (seem to) go unnoticed and, in my own games, I know that it often appears that no mistake has been made, that play has continued normally and suddenly one side just ‘happens’ to be winning.

Exchanges and tactics are massive here – especially the exchange decision that simplifies to a won endgame (maybe for the decider, maybe for his opponent!).

Other key areas include the move order of multiple exchanges resulting in one side coming out on top (or missing out on the opportunity to do so) and another area is the fixation on tempting moves.

Some positions suggest a clever, tactical idea which appears to gain an advantage. When we see these, the temptation to play the clever combination can make us want to play it even if we can’t see the win in every line. It ‘looks’ winning and in a couple of variations it does win, we can’t see the win in a 3rd variation but we play it anyway – and it fails.

Sometimes it doesn’t even fail, it’s just that there is a far stronger move available. If your move leads to a winning game then that is fine, if it doesn’t then you’ll be kicking yourself for missing the stronger move – especially if it is a simpler, more obvious move.

This ‘problem’ is tricky to address as it is not always a ‘problem’. There are many cases where our intuition/experience suggests an idea to us and we are right to devote our thinking time to it and it is often good to play the move even if we are not sure that it wins in every line. However, the tip here is to be aware of this habit and if you find yourself fixated on one clever move almost trying to force it to be a winning move, look away and then back at the board and consider the logic of the position with emphasis on the real weaknesses (undefended pieces, King safety) of your opponent’s position or counter-threats and defences.

Below are a few positions to have a look at, all from real games where tempting moves were played that were either out-right mistakes or missed simpler and stronger alternatives.


1. Does White have a tactic to grab a pawn here?




2. What is White’s strongest move here and why?

3. Loose pieces, pins and discovered attacks… what is White’s strongest move?


Chess Tip: Exchanges, like Diamonds, are Forever!

Diamond Chess

“Pawns cannot move backwards” we are told as a reminder to consider our Pawn advances with the utmost care.

We should give just as much care to our exchanges, they often favour one side, even if only slightly – but they can also be the critical point of the game. For instance, a Queen exchange that moves a middlegame advantage into a lost endgame – well, that’s certainly a turning point.

In the position below, I had to decide whether to exchange Queens or not and poor time management meant I only had a few seconds to decide. I swapped off with …Qxe1+ and went from a winning position to a lost endgame (the bad g7 Bishop versus the good e3 Bishop being the deciding factor). It pays to think of these “what ifs?” based on pawn structure earlier in the game and reassess as and when pawns move or are exchanged.


After …Qxb3, Black is winning but Qxe1+? gave White a won endgame!

There are general advices that work well, such as “when ahead on material, exchange pieces, not pawns” (and the flipside, “when behind on material, exchange pawns, not pieces”).

Rook and pawn endgames are usually more likely to result in a drawn game than a favourable King and Pawn endgame for instance.

So, if you reach a point in your game where you have the option of trading pieces, especially if the exchange takes you to an endgame or a simpler endgame, consider who is favoured by the position when those pieces are off.

If you cannot assess the resulting position decisively then do not exchange! You can usually exchange later if need be, but once the pieces are off the board, the decision is final.

Chess Improvement: Openings

Having trouble with an opening? There’s no need to buy a book on it and learn scores of variations.

Look over each of your games involving that opening and make a note of the problems that you ran into. Perhaps you didn’t know what the best square was for your Bishop or how to defend against a threat or positional pressure.

Now look up (on chessbase or games in which top players won in that opening and see what they did. How did they meet each threat? Where did they put their pieces? What was there plan?

Doing this will help you understand the ideas behind the opening and see the actual moves that solve the problems. Understanding the plans is of great benefit as it will help you find alternative moves if necessary too.

Remember, don’t just follow the moves without thinking. If your opponent makes a different move you will need to consider what, if anything, has changed about the position and whether the plan is still valid. However, it is a quick way to real improvement in your opening play.

Chess Tip: The Multi-purpose move

Take a look at this position and say the first move (for White) that comes into your head. One glance, 5 seconds max. ChessDoubleAttack

What move did you go for? Did it threaten checkmate? Was it a strong, forcing move that severely limits Black’s possible responses?

Was it Qf6? The familiar mating pattern given by the the “fianchetto” pawn formation, the support of the King on h6 and the Queen’s ability to come to the g7 square make this an appealing move to play. What do you play after Black responds Kf8? We could check him, but that does not gain anything.

This is a simple example of how tempting moves can blind us to stronger moves. We can make a dangerous threat and so we do. However, if we can make 2 (or more) dangerous threats then things become much more difficult for our opponent.

Enter “the MULTI-PURPOSE MOVE” ! A move that has, well, more than one purpose, achieves more than one thing, makes more than one threat.

This idea, also called “the double attack”, is key to finding stronger moves and plans. You will also hear of “the principle of two weaknesses” in chess books.

In the example above, Black’s remaining pieces are loose. A move that could threaten checkmate and one of the pieces would be more difficult to meet (in this case, winning). Examine the position and see if you can find the strongest move for White.

It pays to look for all the weaknesses in the opponent’s position and see how you can exploit them with your moves. They do not have to be as clear cut as this example either.

The multi-purpose could include:

  • attacking one piece and increasing the pressure on a key square
  • the threat to weaken your opponent’s pawn structure and the threat to exchange a weaker minor piece for a stronger one
  • the defence of a pawn and the increase in mobility of one of your pieces

…and anything that will improve your chances in the game. Just remember, with each move, to find the move (or plan) which is the strongest overall – not just in its primary threat, but in the total of its purposes.

Chess Tip: Pick up the pieces

chess_The biggest benefit of training tactics is developing your ability to solve problems (to find solutions) and to learn and reinforce your memory of tactical patterns so that you will recognise them more easily in your games.

So if you get stuck and find yourself staring at the computer monitor or the page in the book, set up the position on an analysis board and move the pieces around, instead of trying to see everything in your mind.

It is better to find the solution by moving pieces around and trying different ideas than to give up because you cannot see the variations clearly enough. It is true that you cannot do that in a game but that is why we train, to improve our abilities.