"Chess is 99 percent tactics." - Teichmann
As a developing scholastic chess player, I was always fascinated with opening theory. If I could just learn the right line against the exchange Ruy Lopez or memorize just a few moves more of Grunfeld theory, I would reach 2000 USCF. My view was not unique, and it never ceases to amaze me how much beginning chess players spend on opening books. Chess trainers, who see many beginner games, know this is a waste of money. Some have suggested that a player has no need to study openings below the expert level. My view is even more radical. Buying and even occasionally reading opening books may be fun, but unless you're approaching 2200 fide, your time is better spent studying tactics.
While opening books may only be good for the first dozen or so moves you memorize, you can reap the benefits of tactical training in every phase of the game. Tactics are not only about winning pieces or mating the enemy king; the vast majority of long-term positional advantages are gained tactically. I've had games where I had been outplayed positionally from the start of the game, but because I hunkered down and waited for a tactical opportunity, I managed to draw or even win.
The nice thing about tactics training is that it does not require opening books or expensive chess coaches. Learning chess tactics does not even need to be time consuming. Do not get me wrong, dramatically improving your tactical ability is grueling work, but even 30 minutes of tactics training a day can keep your chess skills honed. So next time you're waiting in the doctor's office, or sitting on the subway, don't puzzle over a crossword or waste your time on a Sudoku puzzle, solve some chess problems.
Tactics training is all about solving chess problems, and lots of them. I'll discuss various sources of these problems, but the important point is that tactics training revolves around one activity-doing chess problems. The key here is quantity. If you cannot solve a problem within a minute or two, look up the answer and move on. But, make sure to look at the problem again in a couple days; repetition helps. The point of solving these puzzles is to build pattern recognition. You're unlikely to see any of the positions you study in a tournament game, but once you've solved one- to two-hundred problems involving back-rank mate or clearance sacrifices, you'll quickly recognize those possibilities in your games.
There are many different sources for chess puzzles, both online and in print. I prefer using tactics books and I've primarily used Anatoly Lein's Sharpen Your Tactics! and John Hall's Endgame Challenge. Other quality tactics training books include Combination Challenge! And 1001 Chess Sacrifices and Combinations. Another great book, and one that focuses on the endgame is Van Perlo's Endgame Tactics. I enjoy using books because I can take them wherever I go; if I have a few extra minutes before class I open up a puzzle collection and get to work. If you're considering buying a book that isn't on this list, look for one that arranges the puzzles either thematically or by increasing difficulty. You also want a wide range of problem difficulty. In my experience, if problems are too easy I get bored and if they're too hard I get discouraged.
Another great source of tactics training is the Internet. I've used the Internet Chess Club's training-bot a great deal. I enjoy the interactivity. The bot has a collection of problems of increasing difficulty and it always plays the opposing side. Instead of simply visualizing the moves, I actually get to make them. The Internet Chess Club, however, is not the only source of tactics training. Although I never really got into the Chess Tactics Server, I've heard great things about it. You can also hone your tactics by solving chess problems like the Chess-videos.com puzzle of the day.
Once you have your source of chess problems, the question is how many to solve or for how long. I found that when I had too little time to play chess actively, as few as 15 minutes a day (every day) kept me in decent shape. This of course, is not ideal, and at the very least for an active tournament player I would recommend 30 minutes a day. If you're looking for serious improvement, however, I suggest an hour or 100 problems per day, whichever is shorter. Make this a routine; tactics training should be a habit. Also keep in mind that you want a good mix of problems. Too many players focus on checkmate puzzles or middle-game combinations. Buy an endgame tactics book.
Studying chess tactics is not only one of the best ways to improve your chess but it's also the easiest method to learn. The keys are consistency and hard work. Perhaps that's why many chess authors focus on churning out opening books...there isn't that much that can be said about the real road to chess improvement-tactics training.