How to Deal with Mistakes in Chess – Part I

_ABF3400-200-200In this article I claim that a chess game cannot be won if the opponent does not make a mistake. In that sense it is impossible to have any influence over the outcome of a game. If your opponent does not make a mistake you cannot win the game no matter how much you would like to during the game. And yet, after having had the better of a draw we often think:

“Ok, but surely a grandmaster would have beaten my opponent. How can I do better next time?”.

In other words: what does it mean to you that your opponent has made a mistake, or, is not making one? Let’s try to get closer to the answer to that question by summing up the most common reasons for the win not to occur. These are:

  1. Your opponent did make a mistake, but you failed to recognize it as such
  2. You did recognize the mistake of your opponent, but did not have the courage to punish it
  3. You did not play sharp enough yourself and/or did not believe enough in the strength of certain moves
  4. You insufficiently posed your opponent “real” problems
  5. You gave the opponent insufficient opportunity to make a (second) mistake by creating all the play yourself

Aha, so that also has to do with playing stronger chess! All these causes have a distinct psychological side to them. Let’s study them closer.

Reason 1: Your opponent did make a mistake, but you failed to recognize it as such
Of course it is true that with knowledge of the openings you will be able to recognize mistakes better because you know a move to be a mistake, but it also takes a certain measure of courage to punish your opponents mistakes.

Was it not Steinitz who said that you should attack if you stand better because otherwise the position would turn against you? The same applies for a mistake. If you notice it, punish it. The problem however is often that in order to punish a mistake you usually have to commit to something (in the position).

Reason 2: You did recognize the mistake of your opponent, but did not have the courage to punish it
Closely related is the fact that many chess players do not possess a killer’s instinct. They may have played a fine game, are in the position to reap the fruits of their efforts, but fail to do so in the “moment supreme”, even when they realize that the moment has come to deliver a decisive blow.

I myself am such a player… Often one lingers between two moves, one of which shouts out to be played, while the other also seems to be winning. Because you feel that this is a decisive moment, which possibly is not helpful, it makes you extra careful. A carefulness you so far had not experienced earlier during the game because now is the time!

This carefulness leads to the calculation of the move that shouts out to be played, but often without enough “socially acceptable” results, while the other can be calculated more easily but is in fact not the strongest.

This lingering starts to usurp a lot of time and eventually you choose the most careful move only to realize during the post-mortem that the move that shouted out to be played, should have been played à tempo of course…

Chess players should listen to their pieces more often, especially when they shout! A striking example:


In this position my opponent had made a mistake and with a nice little trick I could win a pawn: 1.Bf5+ Kb8 2.Bxe5! and the bishop on e5 is untouchable, also after an exchange of rooks on d1, because of mate on d8. The game continued 2…Be7 and now the bishop on e5 shouted to go to g3. A very logical move; of course the bishop must continue to pin the knight on c7, a pin which is very difficult to resolve.

But, I was clumsy: I started calculating that move and came to the conclusion that after 3.Bg3 Na4 4.b3 (Rab1 is also good) 4…Nc3, 5.Re1 should be played and that Black seems to get some kind of counter play after 5…Bc5.

However, I realized insufficiently that White contains Black’s very temporary counter play very simply in playing 6.a3 with the idea of b2-b4, and with the extra pawn, the pair of bishops and the strong pin has an overwhelming position. Just the very notion that 4…Nc3 would force my rook to e1, surely that could not be true?

Did I want too much with Bg3? Shouldn’t I be modest having won that one pawn and bring the game into technical realms? And those were the reasons why I started looking for “safe” alternatives, only to choose the weak 3.Bd4 after almost half an hours’ thought!

Of course this move also hung on to the extra pawn, but did not have the other advantages and all that only in exchange for some “clarity” and the fact that my rook would not be forced to go to e1!

Eventually I reached a very good endgame, got into time trouble however and “quite rightly so” blundered my rook to a knight fork. A most painful defeat! But what had happened during that half hour of lingering?

Since I am quite an experienced chess player, nobody needs to remind me that a pin as occurred in the game and could have been maintained, is very strong. There was a reason for the bishop to plea with me to stay on the b8-h2 diagonal.

Nonetheless I had to fight a battle with other voices representing other interests such as: clarity, safety, anger about supposed counter play, the fear of a possible knight fork on e2 which would lose the bishop pair etc.

I failed to recognize that all these voices really had no substance to them. And since the bishop was shouting out so strongly all by itself, it kept those four voices busy for at least half an hour. What tremendous power!

If you look at it like that, I really should have played that move immediately. It also would have spared me a lot of time on the clock!

(To be continued…)


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