Are chess puzzles helpful? Answered by a chess player

Chess puzzles are useful in enhancing a player’s tactical tendencies of identifying tactical shots during serious games. It is very helpful if played in great variety, but can also be hurtful since it doesn’t portray quiet positional decisions.

Lately I have been addicted to the daily chess puzzles embedded in my lichess app, and I have discovered something interesting. This aspect is definitely not in one of my focuses these last few years.

After a week of practicing with some chess puzzles, I feel like my game is really improving, so I searched online for this very topic in hopes of making an article about it.

A lot of beginners will probably cater to this more since puzzles are exciting to solve, but there are definitely some people out there who are still in doubt about using chess puzzles.

So this article is for those people, I will be providing a breakdown of my thoughts on this topic. Without further ado, let’s get started. 

How are chess puzzles helpful?

First I want to discuss the positive implications of using chess puzzles, at least in my experience. A lot of individuals I’ve found online also shared this sentiment so I think it has some credibility.

It is the following:

Chess puzzles help players with tactics

Tactics in chess are basically a quick succession of moves without much setup, that immediately brings a compensation for the player.

It is different from strategy (positional) where there are a lot of quiet moves that aren’t bringing advantages right off the bat.

Chess puzzles are absolutely helpful with this since it is a short format where you will find an immediate advantage from the given position. Sometimes even at the cost of a necessary material sacrifice.

Chess puzzles will hone your skill to identify tactics, those that compromise initial material/positional initiative in order to execute a powerful combination.

That’s the thing when we start playing chess, after learning the rules, beginners can easily think that those who accumulate more material will win eventually. Though there is a degree of truth to this, it is not the entire picture.

Chess puzzles help us realize that the positional intricacies are oftentimes more important than actual material advantages, if you have a good enough position it can occasionally be a material disadvantage.

Personally I look for tactical shots in my games now more than ever after doing some chess puzzles, back then, I am more oriented to positional and build-up gameplay. 

Though positional is usually the best decision, working on my tactical game is an amazing choice to help propel my rating. So if you are someone who is always struggling with tactics then chess puzzles are for you.

Chess puzzles don’t need a lot of time to solve

If you asked any chess player what they do (to improve) until they reach their level, most would say that it is just with experience. But that is the thing, getting experience is very time extensive.

However it is a different case with chess puzzles, it lets you analyze hundreds of positions that would’ve appeared in your game in some 2 hours of solving.

The thing with chess puzzles is it lets you analyze positions that would have taken a lot of time to be played from move one, you can gain a lot of experience without having to play a whole game before getting into the interesting position.

You can skip the process and get into the decisive encounter that would have changed the game dramatically. If you think about it, it is a solving game that lets you play hundreds of games in a quick format.

Don’t get me wrong, the process is more important than the result, you can never reach the peak of your improvement by doing chess puzzles only. 

However puzzles will help beginners do various analysis that would pop up in their games in a short period of time, time that they would have spent doing other things that are not tactic-oriented.

Chess puzzles teach players to not waste time

This is a problem that a lot of beginners, as well as some intermediate players are still suffering from, which is moving without any thought. 

If you are playing with chess puzzles constantly I swear that you while try to find a scheme in every move you make, that is what chess puzzles teach us after all.

Practicing with chess puzzles helps eliminate moves that don’t come with any thought, it is useful for beginners to learn the idea of having a purpose with each move.

When you are so used to something happening in every move, you will try to find a purpose in every individual decision that you will make. Even if it is so little, players will gravitate to setting up some kind of play.

This can go the opposite direction since competitors can overthink and waste their time with little fruition, however I think the positive overwhelms the negative. Learning to move with purpose is important in chess after all.

Chess puzzles help shape one’s intuition

Another thing that I found that chess puzzles really help with is activating one’s instinct for tactical semblance, there are just positions where you feel that there is a tactical shot even if you cannot see the actual combination (intuition).

Intuition can be roughly described as the feeling that you get when you feel something is there, even if you haven’t actually seen it yet. This is true in the tactical or positional understanding of chess.

This so-called intuition is usually cultivated by years of playing over and over again until the brain has recognized the correct patterns. And don’t get me wrong, chess puzzles are not the silver bullet that will sharpen your intuition instantly.

However I do believe that chess puzzles will help sharpen this intuition faster than by just playing repeatedly since decisive combinations can be easily seen.

If you are a beginner with little sense of tactics, it is hard to get insights from playing since you will not know the answer to mistakes (beginners hardly analyze with computers) it is different with chess puzzles where you could actually see the corrections and learn from them.

Intuition can be sharpened faster this way as you are focusing on quality over quantity (however it is still not a substitute for actually playing!).

Lower-rated chess games are usually decided by the tactics

If you have been wondering in lower-rated realms of chess competitions, then you know that a lot of games do not even reach the endgame. We are told to focus on the endgame yet we don’t even get to apply the things that we study.

Don’t get me wrong I think there’s a lot of value in studying the endgame first (since you will learn things that also apply to the other two phases) but tactics really thrive in lower-rated environments.

Tactics account for a lot of decisive games under 2000 rating (though not all of them) and the best way to learn tactical calculation is by practicing with chess puzzles. It is a shame after all to not use the things we choose to focus on.

Don’t get me wrong you need to study the endgame first as a beginner, but I do recommend playing a little bit of puzzles. Puzzles can be more complicated and challenging than you think! It can definitely help with the tactics part.

Just look at Hikaru Nakamura solve a problem in puzzle rush,  it is can be exciting both positionally and tactically:

When is practicing with chess puzzles not that helpful?

Chess puzzles can be beneficial just like what I have talked about above, but they do have some drawbacks if not cared for properly. These are some of the disadvantages of playing too much chess puzzles.

Chess puzzles make players too tactic-oriented

Though practicing with chess puzzles are naturally helpful, it poses a danger to introduce players into a tactic-oriented thinking not indicative of serious games.

When we are solving chess puzzles we are aware that there is a move to completely turn the game around, that is not the case in actual competitive encounters. When someone becomes too used to puzzles, the effects are detrimental.

One will spend too much time in a stale position where nothing could be done instantly, the clock will be a problem for these players.

Others will try to force a surface-level attack in hopes of starting something exciting, like what we see in chess puzzles (even if it is not warranted). In other words, it can make competitors impatient in making their decisions.

It becomes really hard to wait for something to happen if you’re used to a short gratification type of learning, so this is one disadvantage of puzzles.

Chess puzzles can be too addicting

The thing with chess puzzles is they can be really exciting, so exciting in fact that the pleasure can even be compared to real games. One can eventually prefer solving chess puzzles online rather than improving by playing.

Don’t get me wrong, if you just love playing chess puzzles then there is nothing wrong with that. However if our goal is to progress as a chess player, then my opinion would be different.

It is easy to get drowned in playing chess puzzles where you know that something is about to happen, it is so addicting that any real board application might be taken in the backseat.

There is no use in learning something if there isn’t any opportunity to apply them in real-life circumstances, which is the threat here. 

If you are going to implement puzzles then make sure you do not compromise the time that would have been spent actually playing and getting real-life experiences.

Chess puzzles are bad at cultivating positional finesse

Puzzles can be great in improving tactical observation, but positional play is definitely not on the list when talking about this.

Chess puzzles lack the positional quality that is about 70% of decisions in chess, it doesn’t help you with positional training.

Tactics are the decisive combination, the finishing blow that completely exploits the advantages of your position. However in order to get to the point where tactics are even applicable, you need to set the position appropriately (with positional play).

So if you are only focusing on tactics it might be difficult to get to the position where you can even apply what you learn with puzzles. Though it can be great, it can also be not-so-great if you disregard positional training.

Chess puzzles require diversity

Puzzles can be great with tactics, however, there are new sets of puzzles where tactics are not even the focus. Some are in the endgame or just a small little improvement in the position.

The threat from earlier (lacking positional play) can be neutralized if you choose the right kind of puzzles to solve (positional puzzles). This is the weakness, if you are only focusing on one type of puzzle you are like to me to lack on the others.

Puzzles can be extremely helpful as long as it is played with great variety, some in the opening, middlegame, or endgame and some other variations. If you focus on one thing too much then it might not be that helpful.

Chess after all is a test of multiple skills executed all at the same time, if you only have one type of weapon, then that weapon can only be applied in limited circumstances.

Some chess puzzles do not give the answer

This is something that baffles me, I’ve seen the puzzle rush feature in chess.com for example (at the time of this writing) where the participant is just forced to find the move and it doesn’t even give the answer.

This is disastrous for beginners! Because how are you going to improve, if you do not even understand where you have made a mistake in the first place? It doesn’t give room for any analysis at all.

And this is the challenge, as a beginner you should avoid chess puzzles that have timers and don’t give the answer.

There are chess puzzle challenges where there is a timer and the explanations to the moves are really ambiguous (or none at all), you should avoid formats like this since I don’t think it is very helpful for improvement.

You can choose to engage in something like this after you have already nailed down basic puzzles that you could easily solve, it becomes a challenge at that point. 

However I have seen so many beginners challenge themselves before even learning the basics in the first place, if you didn’t get the correction, I don’t think you could make any adjustments (and therefore not improve).

So avoid puzzles like this if you are just starting to study chess since it would not be useful to you.

Do you now know if chess puzzles are useful?

I think this is an interesting mode of learning that is lacking from my studying routine, it definitely is a good supplement. However that is just what it is, a supplement, it can give a lot of things but you should still play if you have the time.

It has helped me gain some 100-200 Elo points (online) in just one week of implementing it, I am definitely looking forward to what it brings to the table.

I suggest trying it yourself in order to grasp if it is appropriate to your level, if it is, it will be very helpful.

And if I’m going to be honest, I see it as a nice mini-game from the game that I love. Maybe you could see it that way too, that is all, sleep well and play chess

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