By Bill Wall
More than anything, chess games are decided by tactical mistakes and blunders. What causes us to blunder in chess? Is it really chess blindness? Sometimes we focus too much on what we plan, but then ignore the enemy’s intention. We think we are attacking, but in reality, it is the other side that is attacking. Blunders are usually caused by some tactical oversight due to carelessness, overconfidence, or time pressure. Blunders often occur because we did not consider our opponent’s forcing moves through captures, threats, or checks. As Savielly Tartakower once said, “The blunders are all there on the board, waiting to be made.”
One of the best ways to avoid blunders in chess is to orient your own thoughts towards perceiving what your opponent’s train of thought is. Sometimes it is useful to put oneself in the opponent’s chair and to think and see from his point of view, especially during critical positions.
British master and chess trainer John Littlewood (1931-2009) once wrote that “we have to learn to detect critical moments of play…In a real game situation we learn to develop, with practice, a sixth sense about critical moments.” Littlewood won the British Senior Chess Championship in 2006, at the age of 77.
Types of blunders include leaving your king with insufficient support from other pieces, weaknesses on the 8th rank and missing possible back rank mates, capturing a poisoned pawn and overlooking some trap, leaving a piece en prise, walking into a pawn or knight fork, and placing pieces on squares without any escape routes. The most common blunders are overlooking your opponent’s immediate threat, moving a piece or pawn where it can be captured for nothing, unguarding a piece or pawn, and failing to recapture a piece or pawn.
If you make a blunder and realize it after you have moved, don’t panic. Your opponent may not see it. Just don’t give off any disaster signals that you just blundered. Keep a straight face. Even if you opponent spotted the blunder and took advantage of it, don’t panic and make a worse mistake.
Sometimes we blunder because we take an opponent for granted. If he plays badly in the opening, we suppose that he will play badly in the rest of the phases of the game (middlegame and endgame). We tend t relax when we see an opponent make bad opening moves, get out of book fast, don’t play in accordance with the development rules that you know, or just make apparent bad moves. We assume that if our opponent is playing weakly in the opening, he we demonstrate the same kind of bad moves in the later part of the game. But it is just possible that your opponent either has a poor openings knowledge, but is really strong in the middle game or endgame, or he is deliberately playing moves to get out of book and make you relax and not play the best moves. He also may know some opening trap that you don’t know or have not seen. Don’t assume your opponent is weak if the opening looks weak.
Sometimes we blunder when we think the opponent has made a silly, wasted move. He could have made a move that first appears to be pointless, since it doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t attack anything or defend anything, or a piece was left en prise, ready to be captured. The move makes no sense and does not seem to be connected with any plan. It looks like a loss in tempo. Grandmaster Lev Alburt (1945- ) wrote, “When your opponent makes a move which looks like an obvious blunder – especially if he is a pretty strong player – it is advisable to try to find what he has overlooked.”
Sometimes we blunder because we think we have a weak opponent. The stronger the opposition, the more seriously we tend to take the game. Against weaker rated players, we don’t prepare as well, and perhaps play a little faster with less thinking involved in each move. We hope that our weak opponent will crack and make a blunder any minute. All we have to do is make some moves until the enemy makes a mistake and then resigns. Playing against supposedly weak opposition, one tends to relax, until the blunder is from you and not your supposed weak opponent. Don’t be subconsciously influenced by your opponent’s lower rating, age, or gender.
We tend to make major blunders when there are fewer pieces on the board. The fewer pieces our opponent has, the less alert we become to any danger on the board. But as long as the enemy as any piece or pawn left, there is always a threat to your own game. Even a lone enemy king may not be safe, as it might lead to stalemate from a blunder by you. You must look for potential dangers, in addition to actual ones, and not fall for some trap.
Sometimes we blunder be we had to make a decision by a process of elimination, and then pick the worst possible move. If we have three moves to choose from, we may blunder by saying to ourselves, choice A loses a pawn, choice B is too passive, so let’s try choice C. Then we find it is a losing move.
Sometimes we blunder because we think we made a safe move, not realizing that this safe move put us in danger. For example, we feel it is safe to check the opponent when we can. We have heard that one of the rules is “always check, it might be mate.” However, when a player makes a check against the enemy king, he may not consider that this was a dangerous move to himself. The enemy king gets safely out of check and suddenly, your position looks bad. You may now face mate if not careful.
We often blunder when we think we can start a series of many exchanges, desiring to get into a drawn endgame and take a safe draw. However, it is very possible that with every exchange, your opponent’s position improves and you find yourself in a losing situation.
We have a tendency to concentrate on our own moves and possibilities while underestimating our enemy’s counter play. That usually leads to blunders. Too often, we pay insufficient attention to our opponent’s plans and ideas. You should get in the habit of thinking like your opponent and find good moves for him as well. Don’t assume he will not see your plan or overlook a threat that you have made. A blunder usually occurs when we calculate all of our variations without seriously considering various possibilities for our opponent. The danger is usually analyzing all first move replies where everything is safe, but not analyzing all the second move replies and overlooking something.
Blunders commonly occur when we neglect defense while attacking. We tend to be more optimistic when we are attacking the enemy king, thinking our chances are good in finding a win. When we believe that all the enemy’s moves are forced, we get careless and can easily make blunders. When we think only of our own attack, we may sometimes miss that our opponent has a miraculous move that could lead to a draw or loss of our game due to neglect in defense of our own position.
Perhaps the most dangerous moment in a game, with the mostly likely chance for a blunder, occurs just before victory is achieved. It’s that point that we ease up, let our guard down, drop our level of alertness, and expect the game to win itself. International Master and Correspondence Chess Grandmaster Simon Webb (1949-2005) once advised, “There is a temptation to relax when you are winning. Resist it! Until he resigns, you have work to do.” This particularly occurs when we that a “dead drawn” position has been reached. However, our opponent refuses to accept the draw and plays on. When you ask yourself why he is playing on, then be aware that you might be in danger. You start to relax, play faster, lose concentration, and finally let some tricky play to occur that allows your opponent to win. IM Mark Dvoretsky (1947- ) writes, “There are neither absolutely drawn, nor absolutely hopeless positions.”
We all make blunders, including world champions and super grandmasters. Remember, blunders don all have to be fatal, leading to a checkmate or loss of a queen. It could merely mean that it threw away your advantage. Also, there is no guarantee that your opponent will capitalize on your error and winning the game. In most games, the winner makes a few blunders, but gets away with it. There have been many world class games that one side blundered into a force mate, but the other side missed it. So be vigilant and play on. Remember, the winner is the one who makes the next to the last mistake.