Lessons learned 3

25 June 2017

Chris Tatham writes:  “I’m a newbie chess club member having just completed my first season of competitive chess.  Whilst I’ve reached an age where I’ve reconciled myself to never becoming a Grandmaster, I’m still keen to improve. The season’s end seemed a timely opportunity to summarise some of the key lessons I’ve learned from the games I’ve played. They are all very personal but shared in case they might be helpful to others..My end of season grade is a heady 115 so as you can see there is a lot to learn……

Don’t always expect your opponent to make a good move…check and double check to see if it is a mistake or blunder

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs about the importance of the ‘mental’ side of competitive chess and how this has surprised me. One particular way this has affected my game is that too many times this season I’ve been guilty of making errors and falling into self-induced traps due to what I’m thinking and feeling about my opponent rather than the state of the actual game itself. I’ve noticed this has tended to happen in the following two cases:

  • I’ve been playing a higher graded and/or more experienced player and as such have not been expecting him/her to make a blunder

  • I’ve generally been feeling outplayed and thinking my opponent ‘is on their game’ have not expected them to make a mistake

In both cases because I’ve not been expecting a mistake or blunder, I’ve not looked for them and not seen them and so I’ve missed them when they have happened (I’ve also subsequently learned that they happen quite frequently at our level of ability!)

Here’s an example of the former case from early in the season. My opponent is a very experienced club player (graded about 112 – I wasn’t graded at the time).
I’m White and here Black played:

17. … Bxc4

My reactions on seeing this move were a combination of:

  • surprise – this move hadn’t featured in any of my possible move scenarios – I had been planning a response to … a3

  • fear – what must have my opponent seen to play this move, what have I missed?

Analyzing the position, I could see that I couldn’t take the bishop because of the threat of Nxc5 forking my rook and queen. My opponent simply seems to have won a won a free pawn and put me on the back foot.

Pleasingly despite the shock, seeing I could at least damage the black king’s pawn cover I managed to find the best initial response with

18. Bxf6

but after … gxf6 I blundered with 19. e4?

I still thought I couldn’t take the bishop (19. dxc4)because of the potential knight fork which still existed.

What did I miss and what was my error? In fact Black’s original … Bxc4 is a blunder which I didn’t see because I wasn’t looking for it. I had assumed my opponent was correct and seeing the knight fork had failed to look beyond this threat. Had I looked a little further and examined my potential responses to Nxc5 I might well have seen ….

19. Qd4!

which wins the black knight (if black exchanges rooks by playing Nxb3 his knight is trapped!)

Here’s an example of the second case – where I’ve generally been feeling outplayed and where I have not expected my opponent to make a mistake and again missed it when he has.

I’m playing White against a player rated some 20 grading points below me.

My opponent has started the game well, putting me under early and significant pressure. He’s up on material winning a pawn with a nice tactic and exposing my king which now seems ripe for attack. Essentially I’m being outplayed – I’m feeling my lower graded opponent is ‘on his game’ and I am not (again it is all in the mind!)

With a hint of desperation I played

15. b4

with the idea of trying create some distraction on the queen-side (feeling I need to try and deflect Black from progressing on the kingside)

Black responded with

15. … b5?

And here still focused on my own plan of gaining space and challenging on the queenside (and after some considerable thought!) I played

16. a4

missing the easy 16. Nxc6 winning a pawn but perhaps more importantly fracturing black’s pawn structure and creating myself a protected passed pawn!

It’s not a difficult or tricky move to spot if you are objectively looking at the board and trying to find the best move. However, I wasn’t – I had a specific plan in mind and my thinking was directed towards to this end only rather than considering what my opponent was doing. I had been under pressure and my opponent had been out-playing me – I was not looking or expecting him to make a mistake and so wasn’t alive to the possibility it created when it happened.

In summary, whilst it sounds simple, the lesson I’ve had to repeatedly learn this season is the importance of just trying to play the best move in every position. Mistakes and even blunders are possible at any time and any stage of the game and if I am looking out for them I am more likely to be able to exploit them when they do happen.

So now, in thinking about a move I routinely ask myself the following questions:

  • Why did my opponent make that particular last move?

  • Which of my opponent’s pieces are undefended and if so how can I take advantage of this?