The Winning Academy 15: How to avoid blunders (part 1)

by Jan Markos
11/11/2022 – Every chess player blunders. Even the brains of the very best in the world sometime take a day off. We are humans, and errors are an inherent part of human nature. And yet, few things in chess are as discouraging as losing a good game after a silly mistake. Sometimes, one blunder spoils an entire tournament: a week’s amount of work is gone in a minute or two. But Jan Markos has good news for you. Huge portion of blunders can be avoided by a little discipline and a few simple tricks.

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Pilots and doctors have checklists, safety policies and other tools to minimize the amount of errors. In this and the following part of The Winning Academy, I would like to show you several tricks tested in the praxis of my pupils, how to minimize the amount of errors at the chessboard.

My first trick is truly basic: Before calculating any lines or contemplating any candidate moves, check how many unprotected pieces are in the position. Unprotected pieces are potential tactical weaknesses. Therefore, more unprotected pieces mean more tactical motifs. As a rule of thumb, two and more unprotected pieces might signalize a tactical motif.

Sometimes even a World Champion forgets about this rule. This is what happened to Karpov in 1993:

Christiansen-Karpov, Wijk aan Zee 1993, Black to move:

 

Black’s h5-knight is unprotected. Therefore, Black should be careful not to create another tactical weaknesses. However, Karpov was focusing more on strategy than on tactics. He played 11...Bd6??, trying to establish control over the important h2-b8 diagonal. (The theoretical continuation is 11…Qb8 with a similar idea.)

Christiansen was alert. He saw two targets: Bd6 and Nh5, and played a move that attacked them both. After 12.Qd1! Karpov resigned.

Here's the comple - and very short - game:

 

 

It takes only seconds to scan the position for unprotected pieces. Please, don’t forget to do it after every move.

After you have found all potential tactical weaknesses, you should make a mental list of all  forcing moves. But wait! All means all: the logical, aesthetical, but also the ugly and the seemingly illogical.

In the following example Carlsen forgot to check one hidden, apparently absurd forcing move and had to resign immediately.

Dubov-Carlsen, Opera Euro Rapid 2021, Black to move:

 

The World Champion played 22...Qc3?? (22…Qa3 was necessary, with a difficult position, as White has a nice trick 22.Ng4!.)

I am sure that Carlsen calculated all the logical moves: 23.Qxf8+, 23.Nf5 and 23.Nd5. However, White played 23.Nd1!. Now the queen is hanging and when it retreats, White delivers a mate in three (Qxf8, Rd8+, Rexe8 mate).

Here's the complete game:

 

 

In the following position, Grischuk failed to consider one ugly yet incredibly effective move:

Grischuk-Topalov, Norway Chess 2015, White to move:

 

The Russian GM played 16.Nb5?? and was prepared to answer 16…Qb6 with 17.Kh1. Now the b5-knight is taboo because of the unprotected a8-rook. However, the surprising and unesthetic 17…g5! changes everything. After 18.Nh3 Bxh3 Black has succeeded to cover his rook with a tempo and therefore emerges from the skirmish with an extra piece.

Here's the complete game:

 

 

Why is it easy to ignore the …g7-g5 move? Well, normally Black does not want to weaken his kingside position like that. However, a player with a habit of checking all forcing moves should have a look even at this one, at least for five or ten seconds.

Here is the trick number three: When checking all the forcing moves, please do not forget to check all the exchanges as well. We distinguish three different types of forcing moves: checks, threats, and exchanges. From these three, exchanges seem to be the most invisible. We subconsciously assume that they are not that dangerous. However, in some cases this assumption is simply wrong:

Harikrishna-Bacrot, Biel 2017, White to move:

 

After the natural 21.Rad1, the position would be approximately equal. However, Harikrishna wanted to play more dynamically. He played 21.Bc5??, attacking the rook on f8. Instead of moving the rook to e8, Bacrot answered with the forcing 22…Bxf5! and the Indian GM understood at once that he is going to lose this game. He played 23.Nxf5 (23.Qxf5 Rd5 drops the c5-bishop), but after 23…Qh2+ 24.Kf1 Rd2 his king could not escape a mating net.

Here's the complete game:

 

 

Please, don’t forget about the power of exchanges!

When I was a child, coaches in Slovakia sometimes advised their pupils to literally sit on their hands. At the tender age of 8 or 10, it is easy to play a move before you double-check all the possible drawbacks. When you are sitting on your hands, you need an extra second or two to   touch the piece and play the move. When you are a young boy or girl, these two extra seconds of thinking might be crucial.

Of course, these methods are not used anymore. But the principle remains the same: You should never play moves instantly; however natural they seem to be. Please take several seconds to double-check the most basic characteristics of the position. Is your king safe? Are all pieces protected? Is there a forcing move of your opponent you forgot to take a look at?

In the following position, Inarkiev’s hand was too quick:

Mamedyarov-Inarkiev, FIDE Grand Prix 2017, Black to move:

 

Black played the most natural move: he castled. However, after 19...0-0?? 20.Nh4 he had to resign. The queen – somewhat surprisingly – trapped on an open chessboard.

This is the complete game:

 

 

Here is the list of four tricks we have covered in this part of The Winning Academy.

  1. Make sure you are aware of all unprotected pieces on the board.
  2. Make a list of all forcing moves and don’t forget to check every one of them, at least briefly.
  3. Don’t forget to calculate all the exchanges as well.
  4. Don’t play natural moves instantly. Take ten extra seconds to double-check everything.

Please note that all these tricks are not extremely time-consuming. Using them will add at most 30 seconds per move to your thinking time once you get used to them. In fact, you might even save some time on your clock, because your calculation will become more disciplined.

In the next part, we will add another four tricks that will make your play (almost) blunderproof.

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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.
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JoshuaVGreen JoshuaVGreen 11/14/2022 02:51
@zatopek, I assume what is meant is something like "all moves that tend to force the other side's reaction." Unfortunately, the meaning of this can be diluted to the point of being useless.
FWIW, when I was first learning chess we thought of checks, captures, piece attacks, and mate threats in the same vein, referring to them as "active moves."
zatopek zatopek 11/13/2022 05:50
By "forcing moves", do you mean "forced moves"?
JoshuaVGreen JoshuaVGreen 11/12/2022 10:30
FWIW, techniques like these are discussed in Chapter 18, "Trust your chess module" in Hendriks's "Move First, Think Later." As he correctly (IMO) notes, if these types of strategies gave sufficient benefit overall then they'd probably naturally end up (and stay among) the heuristics we use to choose moves. If they don't end up there, well, maybe it's because we don't actually find them useful on average. Just because they'd happen to provide tremendous benefit in specific positions doesn't imply that we can or should afford to apply them in all positions (which is basically the only option, since we can't a priori identify when they'd be helpful).
soimulPatriei soimulPatriei 11/12/2022 11:33
The list is good, but the question is: what is the level of the chess player you assume? Regarding the examples above, I have easily found the solution in the case of Karpov and Inarkiev. Grischuk's game is the most complex; I needed help finding the answer.
JoshuaVGreen JoshuaVGreen 11/12/2022 02:09
While these are good ideas, I'm skeptical of the claim that "Using them will add at most 30 seconds per move to your thinking time once you get used to them" if they're assiduously used on every non-forced move. For starters, 10 seconds is banked for step 4, so that would leave 20 seconds for steps 1-3. 1 and the first part of 2 may go quickly, but actual calculations can go arbitrarily deep (and how do you know when to stop?). While I can believe that many of the strong moves above weren't actually considered by the opponents, I find it hard to believe that Pentala didn't consider 22. ... Bxf5; I assume he "briefly" checked it.
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