Tactics is probably the most decisive aspect of the game. A player that
is extremely good at tactics may beat a superior opponent, whereas
inability to handle the tactics is a drawback to further progress. Every
chess player who wishes to improve himself needs to practice his ability
to count variations and combinations.
But how should one count variations? Here comes an example : Suppose
WHITE starts the game with 1.e4. If now BLACK replies 1.d5, WHITE can
capture the pawn at d5 with 2.exd5. This is a variation, involving the
move sequence 1.e4 d5 2.exd5. WHITE seems to have gained some material,
but BLACK is able to capture back at d5 by 2.Qxd5, restoring the
material balance. This again is a variation (1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Qxd5). A
variation may have any number of moves.
When analyzing a position the player needs to calculate many possible
variations. In the previous example, BLACK might not capture immediately
at d5, but instead play 2.Nf6, threatening the pawn with the knight too,
whilst developing. He does so in order to capture later. If now WHITE
plays 3.Nc3 to protect the pawn, BLACK may still equalize the material
after 3.Nxd5, ready to meet 4.Nxd5 with 4.Qxd5. But what happens if
WHITE supports his pawn with 3.c4 instead of 3.Nc3? Now BLACK can not
capture the d5-pawn for WHITE will capture the knight and eventually
WHITE will have captured a knight and a pawn (worth 3+1=4), while BLACK
only two pawns (worth 1+1=2). This material difference is enough to
state that BLACK will lose the game, no matter how well he will play
from here on, provided that WHITE will not blunder anything either.
A combination is a variation that gains something. The combination is
only valid if it wins regardless of the opponent's reply. This means
that, after the first move of the combination, all the variations that
may arise depending on the opponent's move, will lead to an advantage.
Note that when counting variations and combinations the player should
account for the best opponent's reply, not only some of them that favor
The following example demonstrates a very short game :
The symbol # denotes 'checkmate'. There was no combination here; instead
BLACK blundered checkmate. Had he seen WHITE's threat on f7, he could
have comfortably defended against it, say by 3.Nf6. Indeed, WHITE's move
3.Qf3 was not good (early Queen move); it was just a trivial trap. Had
BLACK played correctly, he would have been better off a few moves later.
In the next example there is actually a combination :
(A question mark after a move denotes a serious mistake, while a double
question mark denotes a blunder. The exclamation mark denotes a very
good move and the cross symbol denotes a check).
The move 4.h6? is a mistake, for it permits WHITE to apply the winning
combination which starts with 5.Nxe5!. Now WHITE threatens to mate by
6.Bxf7+ and 7.Nd5 and at the same time he threatens the Bishop on g4.
BLACK could have defended now with 5.Be6, covering both threats and
escaping the worse. But 5.Bxd1?? is a blunder that allows WHITE to mate.
In the next example BLACK misses an important move of WHITE's :
The Openings Theory suggests 3.d6 first. One can see why this symmetric
move is not good by following the game:
This move gives WHITE the opportunity for a so-called 'revealed check' :
Now BLACK is in check and his queen is also threatened by the white
knight at c6. He will have to lose the queen and eventually the game. He
could have done better had he tried 4.Qe7, for if now WHITE captures the
Ne4 with 5.Qxe4, BLACK can respond 5.d6 and he will capture back. After
6.d4 dxe5 7.Qxe5 WHITE has an advantage due to the extra pawn.
Accuracy in counting the variations is what makes a chess player a
brilliant tactician. It is not always easy to count all the variations;
besides there are so many possibilities. However, only a handful of
moves are actually of importance in most positions; the rest can be
ruled. Experience helps players quickly select candidate moves. Playing
against computers (yet not ever getting disappointed) is highly
recommended in order to improve one's tactics capabilities.