The tactics and calculation training is the most important type of training a chess player can undertake if he or she is serious of his or her chess improvement.
The reason for this is that all chess games are decided by tactics. You cannot win if the opponent does not make a mistake – hence you have to take advantage of that mistake. While the mistake can be of various types, from the one-move blunders to a “small” positional detail 4 moves into a line, the mistake is always tactical in its essence. Something was missed and the opponent can take advantage of that miss.
There is a difference between tactics and calculation. By tactics we usually mean a tactical shot, like a deflection, or a double-attack; calculation can often be just making normal and sensible moves for both opponents in a quiet position, only that these moves need to be “calculated” in one’s mind.
However, in both of these aspects, one thing is vital and that is visualization. No matter if it is a tactical shot or a simple calculation consisting of normal moves, one must be able to clearly see the position in one’s head. I think that a lot of players suffer more from bad visualization rather than bad calculation or tactical training.
Since visualization is common for both tactics and calculation, it makes sense to train it first. Luckily, by training both tactics and calculation you also train your visualization, as long as you do it right.
It is no science-fiction to train your tactical ability. I would recommend getting a puzzle book that contains all tactical motifs (like deflection, pin, double-attack, clearance etc.) and drill yourself senseless. In this way you will get complete tactical education – you will have seen every possible tactical motif that can occur in a game of chess – and at the same time, you will have trained your visualization by solving the exercises.
A few words about how to solve the exercises. The most effective way to improve your visualization and improve your tactical vision at the same time is to solve the examples blindfold. You look at the diagram for 5-10 seconds, then close your eyes and try to solve the exercise in your head. It may be very difficult at first, but after a while, you will see an incredible improvement in your skills.
If this is too hard initially, try to work your way towards it in any way you see fit – try solving the exercise by looking at the diagram only, without moving the pieces, or try closing your eyes and then opening them when you are not sure whether you have remembered well where the pieces were.
By solving tactical exercises you also train your calculation. A good way to train your calculation is solving the so-called technical studies. There are no flashy shots there but you do need to make sensible moves. As with the tactical training, I would also advise here to solve these blindfold. It is simply the fastest way to achieve progress – by solving exercises in your mind you are training everything at the same time: thinking in your head by looking for moves and visualizing the position as you make those moves on the chessboard in your mind.
I will use the following study by Reti to show how this training may look like.
White to play here and the most natural move to make is to give a check with the knight. It should go to d4 rather than b4 since from d4 it also controls the b5-square so that the black king cannot approach the pawn. So,
1 Nd4 Kc5
And now what to do? Logical thinking can help a lot in such situations: White cannot take on h2 since then Black can take the knight and the a-pawn is stopped thanks to the ..Bf4-b8 maneuver. Moving the knight is useless as it allows the king to come to b5, while moving the pawn allows …Be3. This only leaves the king and luckily the king has only one square to go to – h1! Hence,
We realize that Black is in a zugzwang as any move by the bishop loses it to a double attack. It is here that the calculational training comes to the fore – you should check every single move by the bishop to make sure that it is losing. The black king cannot move either as then the pawn promotes or another double attack is allowed.
At first sight, you may become overwhelmed by the number of possible moves Black has at his disposal. After all, the bishop can go to 6 squares and then there are also king moves! But once this feeling of overwhelm is overcome, you will easily see that after each of these moves the knight gives a check and picks up the bishop or the pawn promotes.
This type of training will develop very good self-discipline in your thinking. It will also strengthen your psychologically as you will no longer panic in situations when there are many options available. You will get used to patiently consider them all and then make a decision.
One final idea of how to train visualization is a thing I used to do in the past when I was doing this type of training. It may not be for everybody, but it is just an idea I wanted to share. After going to bed at night I would see the position in my head.
For example, in the case with the Reti study, I would see it in my head and then I would simply replay the whole study in my head while trying to clearly see where the pieces are in every single moment. So there is no strain to solve the exercise, as I already did that during the day, just revising the solution in my head and trying to do so with clarity. And then I would fall asleep. This “training” helped me improve my visualization, so give it a try as well!