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How to avoid blunders in chess - part one

by Dereque

More than anything, chess games are decided by tactical mistakes and blunders. We’ve all had the terrible experience of achieving a “crushing” position after a long drawn-out battle only to blow it in one single move due to a blunder – a colossal oversight.

In my experience with teaching students and improving my own game, eliminating or drastically reducing such colossal mistakes constitutes a huge part of chess mastery – an enormous step forward.

The causes of blunders

The favored explanation for blunders is a “lapse of concentration” – and while this may be true it is almost always only half of the story. Think about your mental state before making a blunder. If you’re honest, you won’t be able to demonstrate that you were clearly less concentrated at that moment than you were at other stages of the game. You weren’t falling asleep, checking out an attractive person, or balancing your checkbook. You were probably engaged in exactly the same behavior as you had been the whole time – thinking about the position. So what is this mysterious lapse of concentration?

In chess, a lapse of concentration is usually preceded by a heightened emotional state of some kind. Probably the most notorious emotional state is to be just around the corner from victory. How many times has it happened? You are close to realizing a plan, a kingside attack, eliminating the opponent’s forces, and it is at precisely this moment that you suddenly … drop a piece, drop a queen, mate in one, or you deliver stalemate! I have found from a thorough investigation of my own games and my experience with students that a huge percentage of blunders come just after a feeling a self-satisfaction or excitement.

If you have some games of your own stored in a database, review those ghastly blunders. And think about what I’ve just suggested. You may also find that the vast majority of your blunders don’t happen in balanced positions where there is still everything left to play for – on the contrary, they often come when you’re sure of victory, or have just equalized against stronger opposition, or are very close to realizing an intention. You probably make very few blunders during the initial phases of a game which are tense and require an obvious degree of concentration.

In the next article, we’ll develop the idea of how to reduce this kind of error.

Another more obvious reason that blunders occur is having insufficient skill at tactics and combinations. Many texts admonish us that nothing, absolutely nothing, can compensate for a lack of tactical ability – and this is true. Dvoretsky mentions this important point in his book Training for the Tournament Player as does Alexander Kotov in his book Play like a Grandmaster. Fortunately, this is an easy problem to correct over time since it mainly comes down to solving tactical puzzles on a regular basis. Visit for a low-cost program (which offers a free version) with hundreds of tricky puzzles taken exclusively from recent games.

A final cause of blunders which is actually quite related to the first is a failure to fully take in the position and its strategic components. While playing a game of chess your task is very simple (though not easy). You must constantly try to penetrate the position at hand through strategic thinking, calculating, guessing the opponent’s intentions, and keeping your mind clear and sharp. You should devote yourself to these tasks during the course of the entire game and try to keep the minimum amount of tension in doing so. The more you penetrate the position (ask questions about it, calculate some interesting variations, etc.) – even while your opponent is pondering his next move – the less you will blunder. Blunders are often related to overlooking some basic strategic component of the position – failure to fully appreciate for example, that the opponent has a bishop on an awkward square – and then moving your queen right in the line of fire (for example)!

Stay tuned for the second segment of this article, where will discuss what actions you can take to reduce or eliminate blunders.

27 August 2009
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