The Winning Academy 13: Facing a Weaker Opponent? Avoid these mistakes!

by Jan Markos
8/24/2022 – Beating weaker opponents is important for having success in chess, and the better you play, the more important this skill is. However, even Magnus Carlsen (pictured), the world's number one since July 2011, sometimes goes wrong when facing much lower-rated opponents. In the 13th installment of his "Winning Academy" Jan Markos takes a look at typical mistakes that often occur when facing weaker opponents and indicates how to correct them. | Photo: Magnus Carlsen in Wijk aan Zee 2015 | Photo: Nadja Wittmann

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Would you like to become a chess professional one day? I have some bad news for you: your job will mostly consist of playing weaker opponents and beating them most of the time. Why? The reason is simple: if you want to make a living out of chess, you need to be stronger than most of the guys around.

Well, maybe your aspirations are not that high. Yet, you still need to be able to win safely against weaker opponents. Why? Because an unfortunate loss against someone rated much lower than you, has the potential of ruining your entire tournament.

And still, many players (including myself) have problems to play against weaker players with full focus and energy. As a result, we make several typical mistakes. Let us have a look at the most common together.

Firstly, stronger players are often impatient. Nobody is immune against impatience, not even the World Champion. At the Chess Olympiad in Norway in 2014, Carlsen was not doing very well. Therefore, he desperately wanted to win against GM Saric. Moreover, he wanted to win quickly and forcefully:

Saric – Carlsen, Chess Olympiad, Tromso 2014:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nd4?!

Already this choice of a slightly inferior line shows that something is not OK with the mood of the World Champion.

5.Bc4 Nf6 6.0-0



A very dubious pawn sacrifice. Yes, Black gets his pieces out quickly, but a pawn is a pawn. Is Black really in a need of such a drastic measure? Later in the opening Carlsen continued in his ultra-active anti-materialistic approach. After eight more moves, he was already two pawns down:

Saric-Carlsen, White to move:


Despite all Carlsen's efforts, White is very solid, controlling the centre and enjoying his material advantage. Saric played 14.f4! and went on to win in a very convincing style.

It was not Carlsen's chess abilities what betrayed him in this game. Rather, it was his nerves. He wanted to win but was not prepared to fight for the full point in a long game, patiently waiting for his chances.

Here's the entire game:


Secondly, stronger players sometimes underestimate the abilities of their nominally weaker opponents. They don’t take their ideas and moves seriously enough. I think this is what happened in the following game:

Bacrot-Relange, French Team Championship, 2006

1.e4 c5 2.Ne2 d6 3.g3 d5!?

My guess is that this was the move that confused Bacrot. Black plays with the same pawn for the second time. Of course, White could play something "normal" and "calm", but Bacrot probably felt he should try to punish Black for his original play.

Therefore, the French GM played 4. Nc3?!, giving up the centre (4.Bg2 is normal, and after 4…dxe4 5.Nbc3, retaking on e4 with a knight).

Black (of course) answered 4…d4


Now Bacrot crowned his "innovative" approach to the opening with an extravagant knight jump to the centre: 5. Nd5?. However, Relange knew better. After 5…g5! the knight was trapped. White lost in 24 moves.

Here's the entire game:


The third typical mistake committed by nominally stronger players is pushing too hard, even playing against the logic of the position. The desire to win against a weaker player is sometimes so great that it blinds our objectivity.

Let's have a look at one typical example:

Naiditsch-Ankit, Qatar open 2014, White to move:


Black's last move was 20…Bh4-g3. I am pretty sure that against Nakamura, Firouzja or some other tactical genius, Naiditsch would think twice before accepting the sacrifice. However, against a much weaker player the temptation to take a piece for free was simply too strong.

White could get a safe advantage playing 21.Nf6+ gxf6 22.Qxd8+ Kxd8 23.Kxg3.

Instead, Naiditsch played the extremely risky 21.Kxg3?? Qh4+ 22.Kf4 Qh2+ 23.Ke4. Objectively, White is already lost. Moreover, it is very difficult to play flawlessly with a king on e4. No surprise that Naiditsch lost after sixteen more moves.

Here's the entire game:


And finally, the fourth and last mistake: sometimes stronger players are losing their sense of danger.

Navara-Danielsen, Reykjavik open 2015, White to move:


Black was playing solidly and passively in the opening. Perhaps Navara subconsciously expected that Danielsen will continue in the same manner: defending carefully, showing no activity.

Therefore, he started to play carelessly. And Danielsen woke up from his hibernation and showed his teeth!


More careful was 23.Qf4, not allowing the black queen to h4.

23…Qh4! 24.g4?! Bc5! 25.Re2?



White's position has collapsed. In only three moves, Navara has changed his position from slightly superior to lost. How did it happen? He simply forgot for a moment that his lower rated opponent can bite as well…

Here's the entire game:


While the chess rating surely is a useful tool, I think that many players are simply too obsessed with it. In the Slovak chess community, we even have a name for this obsession. We call it "elophilia".

Please, do not suffer of "elophilia". Even a much weaker opponent might have a good day and play like a titled player. Therefore, it is almost always best to ignore the four-digit number attached to the name of your opponent. Concentrate on the position, not on how weak your opponent is. With this approach, you will avoid most of the mistakes described in this article.

There are only two exceptions, situations, when your opponent’s strength should be considered:

  1. When you contemplate whether you should offer, accept, or decline a draw. Sometimes you might decide to play on in a worse position if your opponent is considerably weaker. On the other hand, you should almost never accept a draw in a better position, even if you are playing a GM. Come on, let's be brave!
  1. When you are choosing the character of the fight, whether during your preparation or during the game. Against a (nominally) weaker player you usually want to avoid dry, lifeless equal positions, and try to create some imbalances, so that you have more chances to win. For a recipe how to create these imbalances, please have a look at The Winning Academy 1.


Jan Markos is a Slovakian chess author, trainer, and grandmaster. His book Under the Surface was the English Chess Federation´s 2018 Book of the Year. His last book, The Secret Ingredient, co-authored with David Navara, focuses on the practical aspects of play, e.g. time-management over the board, how to prepare against a specific opponent, or how to use chess engines during the training process. Markos was the U16 European Champion twenty years ago. At present he helps his pupils from several countries to achieve similar successes. Apart from focusing on the royal game, he is also the author of several non-chess books, focused on critical thinking, moral dilemmas, and phenomenology.