Chess Tactics: Themes and Motifs

by Holland Mills


In order to play the middlegame well, the chess player must be familiar with elements of both tactical and positional play. To conduct a game without major tactical blunders is essential; to anticipate the opponent's most subtle tactical rejoinders is the highest form of positional play.

Explaining tactics is difficult as the core issue is intertwined with the ability to calculate various combinations quickly and accurately, a talent not easily transferred through conversation. Tactics is the area in which "chess blindness" is most apparent; more importantly, it is also the issue that decides almost all games played at a level lower than expert.

Nonetheless, the ability of foresight in chess is not immune to tutoring; it can be developed with care. The motifs of tactical play may appear to be obvious, but combinations always involve different patterns of one or more of these elements. By recognizing the themes and motifs of tactical play, the player can anticipate his opponent's resources as well as plan his own more rapidly, precisely, and decisively.

Mating Motifs

Back-Rank Mate

This takes the form of either a rook or queen check on the opponent's first rank while that the king cannot move to its second rank. The king is usually prevented from escaping to the second ranks by being hemmed in by its own own pieces or pawns, but the attacking power of the mating side's pieces may fetter the king's freedom as well. The basic idea is exemplified by this contrived position:
                                                      White is checkmated

In the following example, the back-rank mate appears after a nice piece of line opening by Black:
                                                      Black to play
White believed his king was secure, and embarked upon a pawn-hunting queen invasion from h3. He was then quickly punished by 1. .. Qxg2+! 2. Rxg2 Rb1+ 3. Rg1 Rgxg1 mate.

Rook and Bishop Mate

This is similar to a back-rank mate, but is fairly common and thus deserves special notice. Typically the bishop supports the checking rook and also attacks one of the opposing king's flight squares. For instance, after the breathlessly fearless 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. d3 Nf6 5. 0-0 d6 6. Bg5 h6 7. Bh4 g5 8. Bg3 h5 9. Nxg5 h4 10. Nxf7 hg 11. Nxd8 Bg4 12. Qd2 Nd4 13. Nc3
                                                      Black to play

Black concludes with 13. .. Nf3+ 14. gf [14. Kh1 Rxh2 mate] Bxf3 15. hg [all other tries fail to 15. .. gh mate; note that the f2 pawn is pinned by the bishop on c5] Rh1 mate.

Typical of this mating pattern is the occupation of the flight square a knight's leap away from the rook by one of the victimized king's pawns.

Epaulette Mate

The basic position of an epaulette mate involves a horizontal or vertical check, often next to the king, while the king's two flight squares are occupied by its own pieces.
                                                      Black is checkmated

The Black king is hemmed in by his two rooks. Another example, using the queen:
                                                      Black is checkmated

This is also related to "queen-touch" mates, in which the queen delivers mate on a square adjacent to the king and the queen is supported by one of its own pieces, and thus protected from capture by the king.
                                                      Black to play

1. .. Qh3 [intending to deliver mate on g2] 2. Qf1 Re1 wins after either 3. Qxe1 Qg2 mate or 3. Rd1 Rxf1 4. Rxf1 Qg2 mate.

Smothered Mate

As in the back-rank and epaulette mates, smothered mate features a king hemmed in by its own pieces. Mate is delivered by a unassailable knight while the king is trapped by its own army.
                                                      White to play
White mates after 1. Qg8+ Rxg8 [note well that 1. .. Kxg8 is not possible as the White's knight attacks that square] 2. Nf7.

Piece Sacrifice on the Castled King

This usually occurs on h7 or h2 on a short-castled king. To quote an example would be overly long as the analysis of such a sacrifice often requires up to 8 or 9 moves, but the key components that indicate such a sacrifice is feasible include a sparsity of opposing pieces near the king, and the ability to quickly mobilize enough pieces to the kindside for the attack before the opponent can divert forces to that wing. In all occurences of this theme require specific analysis of the situation, as many tempting positions contain refutations of such a sacrifice.

Double Attack

The essence of tactical superiority occurs when the player creates two threats at once; the opponent has no move which defuses both at the same time. The simplest and most common double attack motif is the fork, but other examples exist:
                                                      Black to play
1. .. Rxd4 wins a pawn, as 2. Rxd4 is met by the double attack 2. .. Qg5 which threatens both the rook at c1 as well as mate on g2.

The knight is a powerful piece as it may fork two pieces unexpectedly:
                                                      Black to play
Black has an extra pawn and a winning game after 1. .. Qd1+ 2. Kxd1 Nxf2+ and 3. .. Nxe4, recovering the queen.

All pieces have the ability to fork, including the pawn. For example, in the Italian game, after 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. Nc3 Nxe4 5. Nxe4,
                                                      Black to play
Black achieves material equality by recovering the piece with the fork 5. .. d5 6. Bxd5 Qxd5. If, on the sixth move, the White bishop retreats, Black is ahead in material after the pawn captures the knight. In either case, Black has the better game.

Discovered Check and Double Check

These two are closely related: a move opens (discovers) a check on the king. In the case of double check, the discovering piece also delivers check; the king must move as it is not possible to intervene a piece on both lines of attack. The critical point in discovered check is that the discovering piece may be placed en prise as the check takes precedence. Both forms of assault are special forms of double attack.
                                                      White to play
1. Bf6!! Qxh5 [forced, as the queen is unprotected] 2. Rxg7+ Kh8 3. Rxf7+ [as the check is discovered, the rook is immune from capture] 3. .. Kg8 4. Rg7+ [White could opt for a draw by repetition, but smells the win] 4. .. Kh8 5. Rxb7+ Kg8 6. Rg7+ Kh8
                                                      White to play
7. Rg5+ [a subtle positional judgement, not grabbing the pawn at a7 as it would concede an open file to Black at the end of the combination] 7. .. Kh7 8. Rxh5 Kg6 9. Rh3 Kxf6 10. Rxh6+ and White wins easily due to his healthy material advantage.

                                                      White to play
White wins with brilliantly with 1. Qd8+!!! [a decoy, discussed later] 1. .. Kxd8 2. Bg5+ [double check, allowing only one reply] 2. .. Ke8 3. Rd8 mate.


Every pin restricts the activity and mobility of the pinned piece, thereby suppressing its defensive potential. The degree of restriction depends upon the value of the piece behind the pinned piece.
                                                      Black to play
Black wins with 1. .. Rxe3 2. Qxe3 Bd4 and the queen, pinned to the king, is lost.

The threat of a pin can be so great that it indirectly defends an ally:
                                                      Black to play
The pawn at b2 is defended indirectly, as 1. .. Bxb2? 2. Rb1 pins the bishop against the queen. Black cannot defend the bishop with another piece, and has no means of relieving the pin with tempo (such as moving the bishop or queen with check, or creating some larger threat).

Some pins are deceptive, as in this skeleton example:
                                                      White to play
The pin is worthless as White wins a pawn after 1. Bxh7+ for if 1. .. Kxh7 2. Ng5+ [the pinned piece may move as it creates a larger threat than the pin] and 3. Qxg4.


This is the recurrent theme of replying to a threat with an equal or stronger threat. One example from opening theory is the MacCutcheon Variation of the French Defense: 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Bb4 5. e5
                                                      Black to play
and the counter-attack 5. .. h6 is the only recourse for Black, save loss of material. It must be said that his position is less than appetizing after 6. ef hg 7. fg Rg8.


Deflection is the motif of capturing a piece or otherwise drawing it away from the defense of another threat, such as the capture of another piece, a fork, or mate.
                                                      White to play
White cannot play 1. Rxa7? as it loses to a deflection followed by a bishop fork: 1. .. Rxe2 [deflecting the knight from the defense of d4] 2. Bxe2 Bd4+ and 3. .. Bxa7.


A decoy is a piece which lures its enemy onto a particular line or square, as opposed to deflection, which drags the enemy away from a certain defensive function. In the second example under "Double Attack", 1. .. Qd1+ forced the king towards a square which was target for a knight fork. In the smothered mate example, the queen is a decoy which lures the Black rook onto its king's last flight square.
                                                      White to play
White has the suprising win 1. Bb5+ Kxb5 2. Nd6+ followed by 3. Nxe8 and 4. Nxg7, and the pawn queens. It is important to note that the Black king may not refuse to capture the bishop as he still loses his queen if he moves to, say, c7.


An intermezzo is a move which is made before an apparently forced capture or move sequence. It is usually a check, but can be a pin or even a line opening or closing. See the position given in the next section for an example.

Pieces En Prise

Normally the player immediately sees the disadvantage of having a piece en prise (unprotected), but sometimes it is not so obvious:
                                                      White to play
1. Rc8! wins after 1. .. Qxe3 2. Rxd8+ [a critical intermezzo] and 3. fe. If Black captures on c8, White wins the unprotected queen.

Line Opening and Closing

As a tactical device, line opening is often hand-in-hand with discovered and double check. Line closing can burn and sting as well:
                                                      White to play
Even though it looks like a draw, White forces the win with 1. Be6!!, closing the line of defense between bishop and queen, all the while acting as a decoy. There are three main defenses to defeat:

Trapped Pieces

A piece may be trapped by its allies as well as it enemies, and only then attacked for loss of material. This often occurs when a piece is blocked by its own pieces, and then attacked by an enemy pawn.
1. e4 e6 2. Nf3 d5 3. e5 c5 4. d4 Nc6 5. Bb5 Qb6
6. Nc3 cd 7. Nxd4 Bc5 8. Na4 Qa5+ 9. Bd2 Bb4 10. c3 Bf8
11. Nxc6 Qxb5 12. Nd4 Qa6

                                                      White to play
Black has laid a trap, for if White missteps with 13. h4? b5 he will find his knight trapped.


Combinations are the essence of tactical chess. In order to make use of the techniques discussed, the player must associate the variety of tactical themes and motifs with the position at hand. Once the player is familiar with the various elements and forms they take, combinations may be indicated and thus "discovered". The following position allows for a train-of-thought example:
                                                      Black to play
It appears that Black wins a rook after 1. .. Qb1+ 2. Kf2 Qxe4, but this in fact loses after 3. Nxf6+ and 4. Nxe4. Nonetheless, this variation provides the key to Black's best combination. After 1. .. Qb1+ 2. Kf2 Bd4+, the bishop intermezzo covers f6 and also moves the en prise piece to a protected square. Now, 3. Kf3 Qd1+ wins after 4. Kg3 Qxg4+ 5. Kxg4 Rxd7 or 4. Re2 Qd3+ 5. Re3 Qxe3 mate. Neither 3. Kg3 Qd3+ 4. Qf3 Qxf3+ 5. Kxf3 Rxd7 nor 3. Ke2 Qxe4+ offer hope for White. Instead, White conceded the exchange with 3. Rxd4 cd and resigned shortly thereafter.

Notes and Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Ciaran Cooper for ten years of safekeeping.

My apologies to the original sources for the sample positions; I believe only a few of the positions are originals. All bibliographical information about this essay appears to be lost.

Revision History | Contact Holland Mills | Last update: 19 November 1997