The Winning Academy 16: How to Avoid Blunders (2)

by Jan Markos
12/5/2022 – 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. A lot of blunders can be avoided by a little discipline and a few simple tricks.

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In the previous part of The Winning Academy, we have covered four practical tricks how to minimize blunders in our games. In this part, we will add another four. The full list from both parts can be found at the end of the article.

What is probably the most common calculation mistake among club players? Well, many of my pupils have problems to visualise the changes on the board properly. For example, a player calculates a line starting with 1.Nf3-e5, but after several moves he forgets that the knight is no longer on f3. Or he exchanges the dark-squared bishops, but at the end of the line he subconsciously expects them to be on the board.

How can you avoid committing this mistake? After every move, ask yourself: What has changed in the position? With this question, you will bring your focus to all the subtle changes of the position, and this will help you to avoid visualisation problem.

Sometimes even the best fail to spot the possibilities that the changing character of the position brings to them:

So-Giri, Carlsen invitational 2021, White to move:

 

White is worse due to the funny placement of his g3-rook and the weak pawn structure. Still, his position is more or less defensible. But So wanted to make use of his rook and played the “active” 24.f5??. Giri automatically took 24…gxf5?? and later won the game.

Surprisingly enough, both super GMs ignored 24...Bh6!, winning on the spot due to the weakness of the e3-pawn.

Here's the complete game:

 

I think that such a blindness can be explained only by insensitiveness of both opponents to change. In the diagrammed position, the e3-pawn is weak but difficult to approach, and both opponents expected that this is true even after 24.f5.

My sixth trick is: Always try to work out the forced line till the very end. Often players cut their calculation way too early; either because of laziness, or because they don’t trust their abilities to calculate very far. In the next example, Nakamura lost an important game in the Candidates because he stopped calculating one move too early:

Karjakin-Nakamura, Candidates tournament 2016, Black to move:

 

Karjakin’s last move was quite provocative. He played 29.h4, seemingly weakening his pawn structure. And Nakamura could not resist the temptation. He calculated a long line, hoping to emerge out of the complications with an extra pawn. The American GM played:

29…Nxg3?? 30.fxg3 Nxd4 31.Bxd4 Bxd4 32.exd4 Qe3+ 33.Qf2 Qxd3

 

But Karjakin cunningly calculated a bit further. In the diagrammed position, he played 34.Rc7, winning a piece with a double attack. The rest was agony for Black.

Here's the complete game:

 

How do you know that you have come to the end of the line? Simply: there will be no more forcing moves available.

The trick No. 7: Don’t lose your focus in simple positions. It takes only one knight to deliver a fork, and only one rook or bishop to pin your piece. Often players feel too safe in endgames and simple middlegames. However, stopping to calculate in any position is a dangerous thing to do.

In the next example, Aronian was too careless:

Aronian-Caruana, Sinquefield Cup 2017, White to move:

 

White is worse, because his b3-pawn is very vulnerable, and in an open position a bishop is stronger than a knight. Yet, his position would be fully defensible after E. g. 33.g4.

Aronian presumably wanted to help his b3-pawn as soon as possible and forgot for a moment that his knight is a potential target as well. He played 33.Ke2?? and lost a piece after 33...Bb4! 34.Rc1 Re8 35.f4 f6.

The Armenian fought like a lion for another 80 moves but was unable to save the game.

Here's the complete game:

 

And a final piece of advice: Sooner or later you will blunder in some of your games. That is simply inevitable. Once it happens, remain calm. Don’t get lost in a cloud of depression, lethargy, and self-scolding. In fact, what happens after a blunder is often more important than the blunder itself.

Please, try to cut the chain reaction of mistakes. Remember: many bad positions can be saved if a player is up to the task.

Of course, it is very difficult to protect your inner peace after blundering. In the next example, not even Carlsen was able to do that:

Carlsen-Anand, Rapid World Championship 2014, White to move:

 

This endgame is equal. Materially, Carlsen has the upper hand, but the a4-pawn is strong and guarantees Anand equality. Both players had around five minutes on the clock in this rapid game, when the World Champion made a surprising error:

34.Nxe6?

Anand quickly answered 34...Rb6 and the Norwegian was visibly shocked. (You may have a look at his face expression and body language here.) However, White’s last move did not change the objective evaluation of the position. There was still a path to equality. After 35.Kc2! Rxd6 36.Nc5 a3 37.Kb3 White would eliminate the dangerous pawn and draw comfortably.

However, Carlsen was not able to calm down and find the best solution. He played 35.Nf4?? and the game continued 35…Rxd6 36.Kc2 Rb6! 37.Nxd5 Rb7. Although materially is White OK again, his king can not approach the a-pawn and this pawn will cost White his knight.

Here's the complete game:

 

Please note: After a shock or an unpleasant surprise, your main task is to calm down. Don’t calculate, don’t think about the position, just try to get back to your inner stability. (You might use some breathing exercises or other psychological tools.) This might take a minute or two, but it is a time well invested. Without calming down, the risk of producing more and more mistakes is simply too high.

Here is the full list of my anti-blunder tricks. I hope they will help you to minimize chess disasters and bring more calmness and joy into your games:

  1. Make sure you are aware of all unprotected pieces.
  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 check all the exchanges as well.
  4. Don’t play natural moves instantly. Take ten or twenty seconds to doublecheck everything.
  5. Always ask yourself: What has changed on the board with the last move(s)?
  6. Try to calculate the lines till the very end.
  7. Don’t relax in simple positions
  8. Make sure you calm down after you have blundered or experienced an unpleasant surprise.

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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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