It is a truism that most chess games are won through tactics, whether those tactics occur on the board or in the notes.
And yet what player hasn't had this experience: you have entered upon what you believe is the final stage of a long and skillfully played game of chess. Not only have you handled the opening well, gaining an advantage, but you have nursed this advantage to the point where victory is surely in reach. You sit back in your chair, you smile, and as you start to consider how you might celebrate this victory later on... suddenly your queen is forked.
End of game.
Which is to say that tactics are both the wonder and the terror of chess. Long after we have forgotten our tournament results, how many of us can remember that game where, through a brilliant deflection, we won a rook? Or the rook we dropped through a discovered attack on our king? For many of us, our fondest and worst chess memories are these tactical blows.
It is these blows that fill the pages of John Nunn's book, Learn Chess Tactics, a work that is more than a puzzle book along the lines of Reinfeld's, 1,001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate or Wilson and Alberston's 303 Tricky Chess Tactics. These have their place and are fine as far as they go. My advice for the novice is -- start with Nunn.
In Learn Chess Tactics, each tactical idea has a chapter, and each chapter starts with a clear and incisive analysis of the tactical idea - something most other books on the subject ignore. Along the way, each idea is illustrated by recent tournament games, and then the chapter ends with a score of exercises. These become progressively harder to solve, and the solutions to some struck me as truly revelatory - a permanent addition to my chess knowledge.
Aside from the tactical challenge of such a work, the text is peppered with more general observations about its theme, some of them insightful. For example, Nunn asks on page 90, "How does one spot the winning [tactical] idea?" And answers, "Very often the key is to focus on a potential weakness, and see what is necessary to exploit it." It follows therefore that the ability to spot tactics is the ability to identify weak points in a position and to know how to turn these to your advantage. Elsewhere he says that "although study of familiar patterns will undoubtedly improve one's playing strength, it is important not to lose the ability to think independently." Much has been made lately of pattern-recognition in chess, but as Jonathan Rowson and others have stressed, it is not a cure-all. It cannot, for instance, take the place of an alert, inventive mind. But nothing can.
Almost any tactical puzzle book will help you think independently and to exploit weakness, and the two I mentioned earlier are good. What distinguishes Nunn's work, however, is his analysis of each tactical element, such as the pin, fork, and skewer. After explaining the basic mechanism of each, he shows us how complicated the mechanism can become in a real game, the many variations that can spring from each tactical theme. As Rowson and others have noted, chess is hard - and beautiful. Nunn's prose throughout is as clean and workmanlike as a Capablanca endgame.
Who is this book for? I've been playing chess for over thirty years and consider myself a solid, intermediate player. And though I could easily solve the first half of the exercises in each chapter, there were always a few in the second half that stumped me. Nunn wrote the book as a sort of primer on tactics, but don't let that fool you: it will challenge the non-beginner as well. At the very least, in its clear labeling and discussion of the basic tactical tools, it will provide the more advanced player a healthy refresher course on that part of the game that is, for many of us, the hardest to fully master.
The best advice I ever received as a new player was to make myself into "a tactical monster," and that's still good advice. As a new player set on moving up the ranks quickly, there is no surer path to victory than a good eye for the tactical stroke, and there are few books that discuss this theme more clearly than Nunn's.