Lesson #28: Common Mistakes In Chess – Introduction

Hi all, and welcome to lesson #28.

I have often touched upon the subject of mistakes in chess. Over the course of the years however, my understanding of mistakes in chess, has deepened considerably. Therefore I feel it is necessary that I share these new and improved insights with my members.

I believe in the premise that with perfect play the balance in a game of chess will not be broken. Therefore I also believe that you cannot win a game of chess if your opponent does not make any mistakes and vice versa that you cannot lose if you yourself don’t make any mistakes. Since it is more likely that we can influence ourselves rather then our opponent, the avoidance of mistakes is a good starting point. Naturally our playing strength will then rise accordingly.

Did you know that masters all the way up to the World Champion as well as amateurs make the exact same types of mistakes? There are two main differences though:

  1. masters make mistakes less often (quantity)
  2. the seriousness of their mistakes is normally of a lesser impact then in amateur games (quality)

Therefore, two of the most important things you should aim for when improving your chess are:

  1. avoidance of your own mistakes
  2. punishment of your opponents mistakes

In order to do so however, you first need to learn to recognize mistakes.

What Kind Of Struggle Is Chess?

What kind of struggle do you think is chess? Is it like sumo wrestling or more like tug-of-war?

If you think it is like sumo-wrestling, you think correctly! In chess it is very important to:

  • stand your ground
  • aim your pieces initially at the center and then at the opponents side of the board
  • similarly push your opponents pieces back
  • move towards your opponent, attack him and push him of the board so to speak.

With tug-of-war you (even though it has a competitive aim) you achieve the exact opposite! You don’t want to draw your opponents pieces nearer to you and invite him for a cup of tea on your half of the board!

In chess the attacker (often White) tries to push his opponent of the board, but the defender tries to maintain the balance by putting in his own weight. Naturally all this pushing and maintaining the balance should happen with care, because a slight misstep and all your weight and that of your opponent may work against you. What we also notice is that a sumo wrestler also tries to put in ALL of his weight. He is not just trying to use only the strength of one arm or so. This analogy refers to the fact that in chess you need to strive for harmony amongst your pieces and that you should use all of them economically.

The sumo wrestler v. tug-of-war analogy is an important one to understand and remember, because the most common mistakes are based on a misunderstanding of this analogy. I must immediately add however, that this misunderstanding can also have a psychological background. Let’s face it, why do some chess players often react passively or take a modest stand? Is it their tendency to do it in daily life as well? Adopting the sumo wrestler style implies “strong” personality and the natural incling to stand up and fight and not be bullied around or dictated terms. Therefore playing better chess also implies the healthy development of character traits such as being critical, having clear vision, being objective, being self confident, fighting spirit and frustration tolerance.

Types Of Mistakes

Below I have listed different types of mistakes. The list is not a definite one, but certainly contains the most common ones. I will keep adding to the list when necessary.

  1. Defending reactively or passively
  2. Trading or releasing the tension
  3. Omitting a blundercheck before moving
  4. Not maximizing the activity of your pieces
  5. Not prioritizing or pushing through your own plan
  6. Going from tactics to tactics without following deeper strategy
  7. Not finishing the opening
  8. Playing “after the facts”
  9. Not using the rooks
  10. Playing only evolutionary instead of also revolutionary when possible
  11. Attacking the opponent where he is not weak and not attacking the opponent where he is weak
  12. Creating unnecessary weaknesses
  13. Compounding errors through frustration or disappointment
  14. Not playing according to an opening repertoire

Note that I have entered the first four mistakes in bold. They easily represent the majority of mistakes in amateur games. We will now discuss these mistakes in more detail.

1. Defending Reactively Or Passively

As explained above, in chess you need to stand your ground. If you are being attacked and you defend passively or reactively you are letting yourself being pushed back, getting closer and closer to the sumo wrestlers edge. Also it often amounts simply to the loss of a tempo.

In chess there are 3 ways to defend against a check:

  1. take
  2. interpose
  3. go away

In the case of a regular attack (not check) we can add three more to the list:

  1. protect/cover
  2. indirect defense
  3. counterattack

In order of “standing your ground in the best possible way” the list becomes:

  1. counterattack!
  2. indirect defense
  3. protect/cover
  4. take
  5. interpose
  6. go away

You may argue that taking is also an agressive way of defending and this is true if the captured piece cannot be recaptured, but taking often amounts to trading and/or resolving the tension and is therefore often less effective. Let’s examine this and take a look at the second type of mistake.

I cannot stress enough the importance of the counterattack. It responds perfectly to the notion of standing your ground basically to the extend of simply ignoring the opponent and saying: “What you can do to me, I can do to you!”. In the vast majority of cases this type of defense is superior to the other types of defense and must become an integral part of the arsenal of any improving chess player.

2. Trading Or Releasing The Tension (Without Achieving A Significant Result)

Imagine the following move sequence:

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. d4 exd4
4. Nxd4

Now imagine the knight on d4 as the rope of a tug-of-war game and Qd1 (defender) and Nc6 (attacker) as the competitors. In a way they are both influencing the knight on d4 and “pulling” it. The game continues:

4… Nxd4? (the knight “pulls” the queen towards the center”)
5. Qxd4 += and the queen is sitting nicely in the center of the board aiming at Black’s side in two ways. Also there is no sumo wrestler available to push her back from the central position, since Nc6 (which would attack the queen) has left the board. The move c7-c5 would qualify as a sumo wrestler, but just the one with the one arm, since it leaves serious weaknesses on the d-file.

In this example Black’s trade on d4 was ill-advised. The tension between the two knights is favorable for Black, since he can always initiate the capture since he is the one attacking and White the one defending (note that White cannot play Qxd4). Black should wait for a more favorable moment and only trade if he achieves some sort of significant result with it. In the example he is only improving the position of White’s queen.

3. Omitting A Blundercheck Before Moving

When I speak of mistakes I intend to cover not only all types of mistakes, but also all levels of seriousness such as:

  • ?!  – inaccuracy
  • ?    – mistake
  • ??  – blunder

Obviously a blunder has the most impact on the position and therefore omitting a safety check before playing the move of your choice is a grave mistake. A blundercheck normally entails clearly visualizing the move and then checking all the possible forcing replies that come towards your position.

4. Not Maximizing The Activity Of Your Pieces

A Buddhist adage reads: if your listen, try to hear something. If you look, try to see something. A similar adage for chess players could be: “If you have pieces, use them!”

For amateurs it is a common mistake to occupy modest positions with their pieces when instead more active positions could have been occupied. Often with White in the opening they already play unambitiously, thereby rendering the advantage of the first move useless.

The reason for maximizing the activity of your pieces should be clear. The more squares you control, the more “chess-weight” you put in the balance, and the more likely it is that you will push your opponent of the board. In the example games we will look at some nice examples of so-called “multifunctional” moves that could have been played but where instead a more modest approach was taken.

5. Not Prioritizing Or Pushing Through Your Own Plan

This mistake is similar to the first one, but on a more strategic level. Whereas amateur players often get distracted by the activities of the opponent, the master realizes that often the best way to counter the opponents plans is by prioritizing amd/or pushing through his own plan. Masters will also go great lengths to implement their plans and will not easily give up on them. Amateurs on the other hand even go so far as to completely back down from their original plans, squandering important time (tempi) and mental effort they have put into it earlier.

6. Going From Tactics To Tactics Without Following Deeper Strategy

To the amateur eye tactics are attractive! If they see a tactical operation they often fall in love with it, feeling proud for having seen it and making it work. Unfortunately often the tactical sequence has nothing to do with the demands of the position and subsequently puts the initiator on the backfoot.

7. Not Finishing The Opening

In sumo wrestling terminology: not finishing the opening amounts to not adding enough “weight” to your position. Think of the opening as the stage of a game where your army is being born and raised into a strong healthy set of persons ready to do battle. If you don’t feed the youngsters properly (developing the pieces) or vaccinate them against all kinds of diseases (getting the king safe) or send them to school too late (too many pawn moves), you will never have a healthy army. But, when IS the opening finished?

In chess we consider the opening finished when you:

  1. have put at least one pawn in the center
  2. have developed your minor pieces towards or influencing the center
  3. brought your king into safety
  4. have given your queen a function
  5. have connected the rooks
  6. have given your rooks a function

Funnily enough these Golden Rules are often forgotten when the game has moved past move ten. But having moved past move ten does NOT mean that the opening has finished! The problem is that the opening stage can be very entertaining and sharp pushing the strategic considerations to the background. But strategic planning during the opening phase is rendered considerably more easy when you keep these Golden Rules in mind and strive to follow them.

8. Playing “After The Facts”

This mistake is related to mistake no. 5. A player will see a tactical operation and will play it just for the sake of it. Quite often this sequence will even start with handing over some sort of handicap to the opponent only to just barely straighten it out again at the end of the sequence.

9. Not Using The Rooks

And this one is related to mistake no. 6. I have named it separately here because it is such an enormously difficult flaw in one’s game to get rid of, especially in my own games ;-)

10. Playing Only Evolutionary Instead Of Also Revolutionary When Possible

If you have read “My System” by Aaron Nimzowitch, then you may know what I am talking about. He distinguishes between two types of attacking build ups:

  1. evolutionary attack –> a gradual build up of attacking forces against a weak point until it crumbles
  2. revolutionary attack –> a sudden blow often involving a (temporary) sacrifice against a point to turn it into a weakness and its subsequent exploitation

Since the revolutionary method is less straight forward and requires more playing strenght, the forgoing of it is a common mistake.

11. Attacking The Opponent Where He Is Not Weak And Not Attacking The Opponent Where He Is Weak

This mistake has to do with correct planning. Correct planning consists of identifying the what and how of the employment of your forces, normally during the transition from opening to middle game. Planning is a more elaborate subject that I also touch upon in lessons on the Planning Approach.

12. Creating Unnecessary Weaknesses

This mistake entails creating “holes” in your own half of the board or bringing your vulnerabilities closer to your opponent. They are normally unforced.

13. Compounding Errors Through Frustration Or Disappointment

Whereas the above mistakes my be largely due to a lack of chess understanding combined with the characteristic of modesty, this mistake is mainly a psychological one. People have different frustration tolerance levels. Especially chess players that have the tendency to be perfectionistic in their approach to the game will be prone to frustration when things do not go according to plan. They will often just lose patience, give up fighting and often compound on their error by committing another one only to aggrevate the situation. This mistake is also based on the misunderstanding that an error is fatal. The first error (unless it is a clear blunder) is normally NEVER fatal, only the second and third ones are, because it is the combination of mistakes that will turn your position into one beyond repair.

14. Not Playing According To An Opening Repertoire

Many chess amateurs are just that, amateurs. They love to play the game and also the many different openings, just for fun. That in itself is perfectly fine of course, you should do what makes you happy. But if you are an amateur player aspiring to become a stronger player, you should really start building an opening repertoire. The advantages of having an opening repertoire are obvious, I talk about them in these blog posts.

Example Games

In the next lessons I will thoroughly analyze some games of my students and point out the most common mistakes. Normally different types of mistakes are made on both sides over the course of one game and the balance swings back and forth. I will of course show the consequences of mistakes or what they could and should have been when left unpunished.

How About You?

What types of mistakes do you make in your chess games?
Do you have any idea why you make them?
Do you recognize any of the above mistakes?
Leave your comments and share with your fellow members!

Being mistaken…