If you’re trying to get better at chess, then somebody has almost certainly recommended that you tackle a bunch of chess puzzles. But will this really help or do the artificial situations of chess puzzles just distract you when you could be practicing your play instead?
Are chess puzzles useful? Yes, chess puzzles are very useful if you are looking to train your tactical aptitude. Beginners will learn a lot from setting up situations and then analyzing them to get the specified outcome. There are limits to the use of puzzles, however, because chess is not just tactics; it can be hard to recognize a situation without “puzzle language” or the hints offered at the beginning of puzzles.
Puzzles often train only a single type of chess situation so they cannot replace the experience you get from playing real games. Let’s take a look at chess puzzles in more depth.
How Useful Are Chess Puzzles Really?
If you spend some time watching junior or beginner players play chess, then you will quickly come to one conclusion. The vast majority of games are won or lost based on tactical play. If you are a high-level chess player though you will come to a second surprising conclusion.
Nearly all games at the tactical play level are not won or lost based on the skill of the player, rather they are won or lost by missing the tactical mistakes of the other player. This is true even if the player spends hours a day practicing chess tactics puzzle.
The Difference Between Games And Puzzles
Why? Well, because there is a difference between a chess game and a chess puzzle. In a puzzle, you are told “solve this position because there is a checkmate in four moves”. Thus, you know that there is a tactical move to play and you hunt to find it.
Then you get to the chess board and nobody flags that there is a tactical solution to your position. It’s not that you can’t call upon tactics, you just weren’t looking for the opportunity to deploy them.
So, when we say chess puzzles can be useful. They really can. They help you develop tactical understanding of chess.
Using Your Learning From Chess Puzzles
But if you want them to be applicable to your game – then you have to force yourself to use the learning. It’s no good to coast along, you must examine each position and ask, “is there a tactical move, lurking here?” over time, you will get much better at it.
So, then the question becomes, how do you get the most out of chess puzzles and the answer is – you need to approach solving puzzles methodologically and then transfer that to your game.
How To Make The Most Of Solving Chess Puzzles
Our methodology is simple and straightforward but feel free to adapt it if you think it can help you better in a different way. We all learn in our own way.
Turn Off The Computer
Computer chess is amazing. It allows rapid solving of puzzles. It provides instant analysis of the puzzle too. And it also switches off your brain.
When the computer does all the work, you don’t have to. Most people hit the computer and they’re flicking through the problems just to get to the analysis. Given that they know the computer won’t be wrong, why solve the puzzle? They can get the goodies without the work.
The trouble is that this teaches you nothing of value. You can only learn by doing, reading someone else’s solutions won’t help you anymore than reading someone else’s completed crossword will make you better at solving crosswords.
Write Down Solutions And Make Notes
The key to chess is learning to make better decisions. The way to do this, is to evaluate how much time you are spending on each move and the quality of every move your make. When you make notes on your solutions – you’re starting to take responsibility for your own decision-making process.
Then when you evaluate your work against the official solution, there’s no pretending that you got it right when you didn’t and then you will be forced to confront the difference and learn from it.
Most people learn much more from their mistakes than they do from the things they got right the first time around. You don’t have to share your notes with anyone else. No one will ever know about your errors, except you, and you’re going to turn them into an advantage for your game.
Always Finish The Puzzle Before Seeking The Official Solution
Too many people give up and grab the solution as soon as the puzzle gets hard. This is the exact opposite of what you want to do. Some chess puzzles are incredibly infuriating, if you find yourself completely stuck on one. Park it. Come back to it on another day but don’t cheat and look up the answer.
You won’t learn like this. You can only learn by solving problems yourself and each problem you solve makes you stronger than you were yesterday.
Take Your Time With Chess Puzzles
Yes, we know we said, “stop with the computers” and we know that many of you will ignore that and head to chess.com and start working on their online puzzle solving. In their algorithm for scoring puzzles there’s a component for speed.
So, the faster you solve – the more points you get. This is not a good way to train. When you are incentivized to move quickly, you are incentivized to make mistakes. You have some tactical idea and instead of playing it through in your head to see if it works, you rush to put into action because… points.
This is teaching you to make mistakes. If you take this attitude into your games, your opponents will love you, every time they set up a tactical trap, the odds are good you will blunder straight into it because you have been conditioned to do so.
The Post Solution Analysis Matters
OK, for this bit, you can go back to the computer. If your solutions are wrong for your chess puzzles, then you should put the problem into a tactics engine and work through it there. What were the best lines? Were there any variations?
This lets you examine in detail the actual basis for a move and the tactic you intend to try.
It’s also a good idea to keep any puzzles that you failed on the first attempt and try them again in a month’s time without the solution in front of you – show that you learned from the mistake. It will give you more confidence.
Don’t Just Do Hard Chess Puzzles
If you only tackle brain bending hardcore chess puzzles, you’re going to end up hating the process. Do tackle some puzzles like this but give yourself half an hour for a puzzle and if you haven’t solved it by then – come back to it later.
Then take on some easy puzzles that you can knock out in a few minutes each. This will boost your confidence again and make the process feel more rewarding.
Tackle Chess Puzzles With No Defined Solution
There are books of chess puzzles that include the puzzle but have no solutions provided. Before you scowl and look away – we’d like to point out that this is the best possible training for real games. In real games, nobody gives you a solution – you find the position and then work out your own response.
This is the best way to simulate real play and to improve your game with chess puzzles.
So are chess puzzles useful? Yes, chess puzzles definitely help with developing your game. As we said, they are not a substitute for other types of learning, and they are absolutely not a replacement for playing chess. But they are an excellent way to develop your tactical understanding though and the more puzzles you solve, in theory, the easier it ought to be to see the availability of forced mates, etc.
If you want to get good at solving chess puzzles and get the most out of your time, it’s sensible to develop a strategy for the way you approach them. We’ve offered our methodology above but there are many ways to structure learning so that it works best for you – don’t be afraid to experiment to find out what that is.