Why do we lose?

Peter Lane, 13th September 1996

After a season of mixed results, it is time to go back over some of the more painful losses, and ask: `Why did I lose?', and `how can I avoid this in future?' Here I divide up losses into three basic types, and to avoid too much self-pity, my examples begin with those where my opponent was the loser!

1. The Blunder

There are many ways of losing a game of chess. Ever popular is the blunder. At the beginning of a game, this can provide a few extra hours at the bar, or in less extreme cases, a long wait until your opponent manages to finish things off.

Example 1 : P.C.Lane vs R.Jones (Exeter vs Exmouth Bd:1, 8th February 1995).

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 b6 5. Ne2 Bb7 6. a3 Be7 7. Ng3 c5 8. d5



8...O-O? 9. d6!

  More irritating are those at the end of games, four hours of careful strategic manoeuvring ruined by one stupid move!


``Write the move down first'' (Webb?)

  ``Sit on your hands'' (Lasker)

  Not much to add to this, you just have to look around you, one more time, immediately before moving.

[See also An important note about Blumenfeld's rule -- DR]

2. Ignorance

A less obvious losing technique, avoiding the embarrassment of a blunder, is the total misunderstanding of the opening position in front of you. This leads to positional style errors, perhaps only discernable to the elect, but leading to a definite loss without any undue effort.

Example 2: A.Brusey vs P.C.Lane (Teignmouth vs Exeter Bd:1, 23rd March 1996).

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 Bd7 6. a3 c4 7. Nbd2 f6

  White now has to deal with the attack on his centre. One approach is to exchange on f6 and c5, leaving black with a loose centre, but good chances of turning it into a mobile monster. Attacks, such as 8. Nh4 look dangerous, but 8. ... Qc7 9. Qh5+ Kd8 10. Qf7 Nh6 11. Qh5 fxe5 is messy. Instead white decides to leave a pawn on e5, in the hope of cramping the black position.

8. Be2 fxe5 9. Nxe5 Nxe5 10. dxe5 Qc7



White's plan of cramping black would be better attained without the exchange of knights. Instead his e5 pawn is looking weak, and the positional error is now made, opening up the black diagonal, forcing white to waste time trying to block it before castling. Meanwhile, black gets on with developing and attacking the centre.

11. f4? Bc5 12. Nf3 Ne7 13. Nd4 Qb6 14. Bg4 O-O 15. a4 Bxd4 16. Qxd4 Qxd4 17. cxd4 Nc6 18. Be3 Nxd4

  winning a pawn, as 19. Bxd4 Rxf4 forks the bishops.


This depends upon how bad a loss, or series of losses, you get. Severe losses are best answered by a change of opening. If you get good results in other variations, then some homework is needed on the kind of position you do not understand. (It is important not to confuse this category with defeat by a much stronger player!)

3. Losing `Won' Games

If the above two categories look almost trivial, pointing up areas of carelessness or inadequate preparation, and easily rectifiable in consequence, this category provides the deepest benefits in terms of self-improvement. The sort of losing technique I am referring to is that often met with after the gain of a pawn, or some other positional `advantage'. You think away, working out possible winning tries, make some moves, ... and suddenly find your position falling apart before your eyes! Typically, in my case, this is accompanied by increasing time pressure.

  Once we recognise these losses as examples of mistaken thinking, we can see them as the most instructive. Why? Because the error is not due to a lack of ability or foresight. Instead, the wrong mental attitude leads to self-doubt in considering some lines of play, and blindness when considering our opponent's resources in others.

  Let us work through:

Example 3 : S.Pope vs P.C.Lane (Club Championship, 2nd April 1996).

1. e4 e6 2. d3 c5 3. Nf3 Nc6 4. g3 g6 5. Bg2 Bg7 6. O-O Nge7 7. Nbd2 d6 8. c3 O-O 9. Re1 Rb8 10. a4 a6 11. Nc4 b5 12. axb5 axb5 13. Ne3 Qb6 14. Nc2 b4 15. d4 b3 16. Na3 cxd4 17. cxd4 Nxd4 18. Nxd4 Bxd4 19. Be3 Bxe3 20. Rxe3 Ba6



(Note that 18. ... Qxd4 19. Qxd4 Bxd4 20. Rd1 or 19. ... Nc6 20. Nc4 embarrass d6.) We begin with this position: Black seems to have a winning position in terms of a pawn advantage and the advanced b- pawn. The bishop holds the knight at a3, at least for the moment. The only disadvantage is the relative weakness of d6. White would like to play 21. Bf1 to exchange the bishops, but 21. ... Bxf1 22. Kxf1 f5! opens the f-file, removes the e4 pawn, and allows Nd5, eg: 23. Rc1 fxe4 24. Nc4 Nd5 25. Re2 Qa6 and ... e3. Instead white attacks the b- pawn, and tries for c-file pressure.

21. Rc1 Rfc8 22. Rec3 Rc5 23. Rxc5 dxc5 24. Nc4 Bxc4 25. Rxc4



Things are not entirely in black's favour here, as his Q-side pawns are weak. Further, they are not very mobile, as the c5 pawn is backward. ``Nevermind'', thinks black (me!), ``if I take my time I can get my knight to d4, defending b3, and my king to d6, defending c5. The Rook and Queen can then investigate the a-file. Of course, white may play e5, freeing his bishop, and stopping the king defending c5, so ...''

25. ... e5?

  There are many things wrong with all this, and white manages to demonstrate them!

26. Qc1 Rc8 27. Bh3! Rc7 28. Qc3 f6 29. Qd3! Kg7 30. Qd8 Qa5 31. Bd7 Qa7? 32. Qxe7+ Kh6 33. Qf8+ and checkmate follows.

  ... e5? actually gave white's bishop a diagonal to use, that from h3-c8. White's queen moves took the initiative, attacking pawns and occupying the open d-file. The knight died on the square it developed to on move 6.

  What should black have been thinking of? Essentially his plan was too passive. First and foremost the knight needs developing to take an active role, in particular it needs an outpost square to assert itself against the bishop, and this was identified accurately as d4.

  Therefore, 25. ... Nc6 26. Qd6 Rd8 27. Qxc5 Qxc5 28. Rxc5 Rd1+ 29. Bf1 Nd4 and white is in big trouble. eg: 30. Rc4 e5 with Rb1/d2xb2 to follow.

  If instead, 26. Qc1 Nd4 27. Kf1 Qa6 or 27. Bf1 Qb7 and if 28. Bd3 Nf3+ -e5 xd3 and Qxe4 is threatened, or if 28. Qe3 Qa7 with Qa1. This last line retains black's advantage, with attacks on the white king and b2 to compensate the loss of c5.

  Apart from the miscalculations, the error here was in not `suppressing the opponent's counter-play'. The initial appraisal of the kind of options open to the opponent was lacking, in particular the open d-file and the fact that advancing the central pawns will weaken them and the surrounding white squares. From this, and an honest recognition of our weaknesses, we come up with a counter-plan. The passivity of black's pieces could largely be rectified by developing the knight to d4, incidentally blocking the d-file.

Example 4 : P.C.Lane vs P.Lesniowski (West of England Open, 8th April 1996).

In this game an opening advantage is thrown away through not appreciating an opponent's counter-attacking chances.

1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 g6 3. c4 Bg7 4. Nc3 d5 5. Bf4 c5 6. dxc5 O-O 7. Rc1 Qa5 8. e3 Rd8 9. Qa4 Qxa4 10. Nxa4 Bd7 11. Nc3 Qa6 12. cxd5 Nxc5



This is the first critical position. White is a pawn up, with well- developed minor pieces, and plans Bc4 and O-O Rfd1, or Ke2 Rhd1, with central action to follow. The mistake is not so much the move now made, but the state of mind when making it. Black has ideas of ...xd5, Nfe4, Bxb2, Bf5 and Nd3. All enough to prevent any ideas of an `easy' win!

  Ideally, reflecting that after 13. Be2 Bf5 or 13. Bc4 b5 white has difficulties, he should reject the idea of simple development. A move which breaks the black bind slightly, and removes the weak d-pawn, is: 13. d6! exd6 (... e6 is ugly, leaving white all the play) 14. Bxd6 Nce4 and not 15. Nxe4 Nxe4 16. Be5 Rac8 giving black play, but 15. Be5 Be6 16. b3/a3 when the extra pawn is maintained, and Be2 O-O to follow leave white playing for a win.

  13. d6 is imaginative, but not too hard to find, particularly if we are looking for ways to remove the opponent's counter-play and jettison our own weaknesses.

13. Bc4 b5! 14. Nxb5 Bxb5 15. Bxb5 a6 16. Bc4? Nxd5

  Here we have a typical case of blindness. With the rapid clearance of c3 and c4, and white's fixation on keeping the Bc4 defending the pawn on d5, white forgets that 16. Be2 threatens 17. Rxc5! Intended was 17. Be5 Nb4 18. Ke2, but Nd3 forks the rook and bishop and 18. Bxg7 fails to Nd3+ 19. Bxd3 Nxd3+ 20. Ke2 Nxc1+ winning the exchange. After this error in calculation white has to grovel a bit, but things are not all bad as black must waste time regaining his pawn.

17. b3 Bb2 18. Rd1 Nb4 19. O-O Nxa2 20. Ne5 e6 21. Nc6 Rxd1 22. Rxd1 Nc1



White now has two good bishops, an advanced knight and control of the d-file, while black goes for the Q-side pawns. White now tries to exploit the tangled state of the black pieces to win one of them, but in his delight at winning after all, he gets it wrong! Instead, 23. b4! with ... Na4 24. e4, or ... N5b3 24. Bxb3 Nxb3 25. Rb1, or ...Ne4 24. f3 Nc3 25. Rd2 Ba1/a3 26. Rc2 and e4, wins a piece and the game.

  This is another mental error: feeling self-justified in winning due to the earlier superiority, I am careless in the calculation.

23. e4? N1xb3 24. Rb1 Nd4 (simple really!) 25. Ne7+ Kf8 26. Bd6 Nxe4 27. Nxg6+ Kg7 28. Be5+ Kxg6 29. Rxb2 Nc6 30. Bd3 Kf5 31. Bc3 Rd8 32. g4+ Kf4 33. Bxe4 and white lost on time, though 33. ... Kxe4 34. Rb6 Kf3 35. h3 is not totally clear.


Both games are similar in my thinking about winning and not considering an opponent's chances to make my life difficult. In addition, by refusing to give up certain `advantages', I blinded myself to other options and this leads to miscalculation.

  Many of my clock problems are caused by being in this mental state, unable to think clearly, and reluctant to move in consequence. I hope to recognise this critical point of a game in future, and avoid the debilitating effects. Of primary importance is a mental readjustment to reflect changes in fortune on the board.


Working on our own games is often given as the best way to improve. But which of the many games in a season are most instructive? And how do you go about analysing them? I would suggest the third category of games above as the most profitable. Characterised by the sudden reversal of fortune through mistaken thinking, they offer a focus for self-analysis.

  Questioning my emotional state as well as my reasoning, leads to a greater understanding of how I play chess. Although in themselves the analyses above cannot be of personal interest to other players, they may help in showing how to work at one's own games for self- improvement.

  As a practical message: ``Always remember, when things are going well, that they don't have to.''