The Winning Academy 26: Shock!

by Jan Markos
11/15/2023 – In chess, blunders are inevitable. Of course, you might try to minimize them with tactical training, but you will never be able to get rid of them altogether. The same is true for unpleasant surprises. Whatever you do to be fully prepared for anything that might happen at the board, your opponent will still be time to time able to play a nasty unexpected move that gets you in a state of shock and horror. | Photo: A shocked Magnus Carlsen, analysing a game he played against Levon Aronian at the Grand Chess Tour tournament in Zagreb 2019 | Photo: Lennart Ootes

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Therefore, being able to overcome the shock and recover is a key skill that might help you to save many games. Why? Because if you don’t recover from the state of panic, you will continue playing badly, creating a chain of mistakes.

This is exactly what happened to Harikrishna in the following example:

Harikrishna-Safarli, Gashimov Memorial 2016, White to move:

White is undoubtedly much better. His pieces are more active, and the queenside majority might soon turn into a passed pawn. In fact, after the correct 32.Rf1, exchanging the important f6-rook, Harikrishna would probably win without too many technical problems.

However, the Indian Super-GM played 32.Bh3??, blundering a simple fork: 32…Nf2. What a horrible surprise! I can easily imagine the cocktail of negative emotions and thoughts that were whirling inside Harikrishna’s head.

The only thing White can do is to take some pawns: 33.Bxe6+ Rxe6 34.Rxe6 Nxd1

Despite losing a piece, White is not without chances. In fact, after the normal 35.Rxh6 the most probable result is a draw. But Harikrishna was still under the influence of the blow he received several moves ago.

He played 35.Nf5?, missing the strong response 35…Rc1!. Now it transpired that after 36.Re8+ Kh7 37.Rxa8 Black gains the piece back with 37…Nxe3+. Also 36.Kg2, escaping the discovered check along the first rank, leads to awful results: 36…Nxe3+ 37.Nxe3 d4+ with an easy win for Black.

I am sure that Harikrishna would normally see 35…Rc1 in seconds. However, this time he was not only fighting his opponent, but also his own feelings.

Here's the complete game:


So, how should we avoid falling into a confused mental state, committing a chain of mistakes? I recommend to my pupils a simple three-step process that will make sure that you recover from the shock as soon as possible.

Firstly, you need to be aware that you are in a state of shock and panic. At the board, it is very useful to inspect your inner world frequently, so that you are aware of your emotions. You can’t handle your panic when you don’t even consciously know about it!

Secondly, tell yourself: "OK, perhaps I have blundered. But it is not 100 percent sure. Perhaps there is a way out of this mess, and I am in panic for no objective reason. Anyway, what was done is done. Now I need to concentrate on the future course of the game."

And thirdly, try to play the position as if it was the initial position of a new game. No concerns about the previous moves. Tell yourself: "I was given this position by destiny, and I need to make the best out of it. OK, perhaps I am lost, but this is something my opponent should be nervous about, not me. I have nothing to lose, he has."


Magnus Carlsen is a player with a very strong ability to mentally recover. Despite being a genius, even he sometimes blunders. Let us see how he was able to handle such an emotional blow:

Carlsen-Jones, Wijk aan Zee 2018, Black to move:

White’s last move was 17.g4??. Jones of course responded 17…f4!, attacking both the e3-bishop and the g5-knight. Now Carlsen knew that he is objectively lost. A piece is a piece. But he also knew that the position is still quite rich, with opposite castling and active pieces on both sides. And he knew even more: he was aware that Jones is also in a state of emotional stress. After all, beating a World Champion is a big thing and only a few players get such a splendid chance.

Therefore, Carlsen played further as if nothing happened. He did not collapse, did not try any traps or desperados, he simply played calm and strong moves. And the situation did gradually improve for him.

18.h4 dxe3 19.Qxe3 h6 20.Qc5 Bb7 21.Ne4 Re6 22.h5 Qb6?

And finally, it was Jones who cracked under pressure! His craving for a simpler and safer position was too strong. He tried to exchange the queens instead of closing the kingside with 22…g5!.

Now the World Champion took his chance. He played 23.g5! himself, and the position turned into a complete chaos with approximately equal chances for both sides. After such a turn of events, it is no surprise that White had the upper hand in the following fight. The World Champion won after 42 moves.

Here's the complete game:


Another great example of an instant recovery from a shock is the game Carlsen-Gelfand, Candidates Tournament 2013. White is to move:

The Candidates Tournament was one of the most important events in Carlsen’s career. He needed to win it to have the right to play Anand for the chess crown. Against Gelfand, he got a winning position, but at this point (just after the time control) he somehow relaxed.

Carlsen took the pawn 42.Qxb7, missing the strong reply 42…Qe1!, after which it is not possible to parry the threat …Be6-c4. Many club players would now be caught in emotions, scolding themselves and/or regretting the mistake at such an important tournament. But Carlsen pulled himself together quickly, started calculating and soon found out that he can simply push the pawns.

He played 43.b6, and after 43….Bc4 44.Qf3 Qxf1+ 45.Kh2 Qb1 46.b7 Qb5 47.c6 Bd5 48.Qg3 Black had to resign despite being a piece up.

Here's the complete game:


Strong players love to bully their opponents, preparing nasty surprises for them. This is how the Polish GM Bartel psychologically destroyed his less experienced opponent:

Salih-Bartel, Chess Olympiad 2016, Black to move:

Black is doing fine; his pawn structure is superior, and his pieces are more harmoniously placed. However, one would expect a long manoeuvring fight is still ahead. But Bartel decided to take a shortcut.

He played 24…Rf4!?. White should probably resist such a provocation and play 25.Ng2, but for Salih it was simply unacceptable to let the black rook to e4 so easily. He took 25.Bxf4? and Black of course responded 25…Qxc3+. Even here White can save himself by the very exact 26.Qd2 Qxh3 27.Qh2!, but Salih’s inner self-confidence was already distorted. He played the weak 26.Kf2 and after 26…Qxh3 Black was already winning.

Here's the complete game:


Please remember: you will experience shocks in your games. Nasty surprises are simply inevitable. However, you can influence your reaction after the shock. Focus, take your time and recover as soon as possible. And then, fight back!

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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.