Your Actual Mistakes

(or, Towards Bona Chess)
Richard Fredlund wrote:
> Hi Dave,
> Would it be possible to look at the kind of mistakes we all tend to make in
> practice in our actual games?
Of course. I'll have a think...


So, here's some thoughts: first, some cherry-picking...

  1. Before we got to tonight, I had a look at the Elements of a profile and thought that the only thing I hadn't done justice to was the opening.  It's interesting to look at people's comments there: most people just said they wanted to improve 'openings' without being at all specific (viz. 'I need an answer to the Sicilian Defence' or 'What's the best line for a solid Black player against the Trompovsky?').  Nigel Davies has identified a tendency for people unfairly to blame their lack of opening knowledge for losses and says, 'Don't blame the opening' (rather, blame your chess sense, or your misunderstanding of the resulting structures).

  2. Andrew Soltis once wrote a whole book about chess mistakes: his classification is to be found elsewhere on the website.

  3. Jonathan Rowson produced a list of The Seven Deadly Chess Sins:
    thinking (unnecessary or erroneous);
    (missing opportunities; lack of resolution);
    (too much concern with the result of the game);
    (lack of attention to non-material factors);
    (insufficient awareness of the opponent and his ideas);
    perfectionism (running short of time, trying too hard);
    ("losing the plot", drifting, poor concentration).

  4. Chris Baker's Learn from your chess mistakes lists:
    poor opening preparation,
    being over-prepared and getting 'stale',
    being caught by your opponent's preparation,
    choice of openings/learning new lines and styles,
    understanding standard and re-occurring themes,
    being caught by move orders and transpositions
    Losing the 'thread' of the position,
    confidence and playing against stronger/weaker opponents,
    middlegame judgement,
    losing the initiative,
    missing your shot
    Endgame technique,
    forming a plan,
    having too many choices and missing tricks,
    understanding 'good and bad pieces',
  5. Dan Heisman thinks that he has identified the 13 Most Common OTB mistakes, among which is not playing appropriately for the chess state that you're in:

    1) playing too fast because of overconfidence   
    2) not recognizing the critical moment   
    3) playing too fast because of carelessness   
    4) being overcautious   
    5) guarding instead of moving   
    6) miscounting   
    7) allowing a removal of the guard tactic   
    8) not adjusting from one phase of the game to another, or not playing differently when way ahead or behind   
    9) counterattacking a guarded rook when an unguarded minor piece is attacked   
    10) not developing all your pieces   
    11) making threats that are easily parried   
    12) overlooking that your move can be easily refuted by a check, capture, or threat   
    13) not asking yourself, "what are all the reasons my opponent made that move?

Of these offerings, Heisman claims his list has been based on his experience as a full-time tutor, but beyond that they all seem pretty impressionistic.  That is, I think they're all important mistakes, but I don't know how common they all are in practice.  Heisman certainly has found miscounting and removing the guard to be of greater importance for his students than he originally thought, but having trolled through a bunch of amateur games myself (with my distinctly amateur eye) I would have said forks were overlooked way more often than anything Heisman picks out.  I'd be interested in doing some serious statistics on a bunch of amateur games; I don't think we know a lot about the natural history of amateur chess.  Anyhow, blinking slightly at the almost complete lack of overlap between these various lists, we can also try something a bit more local:
  1. The nearest I got to doing some serious statistics was showing 111 local games from the East Devon Premier and Major sections to Fritz for a typology of blunders (examples of each).  The single biggest category in terms of tactical theme was an attack on the king, by way of a thinking error was an unmet or overlooked threat, but by way of psychological theme it was simple blindness: not seeing, probably because of not looking.  Dan Heisman calls this 'Hope Chess'; if you are not certain that every one of your opponent's threats can be met on every move, you are merely hoping that you can meet them, and so every move you have to be lucky.  I promise, it won't last.

  2. What I haven't done is a typology of errors other than tactical ones.  I haven't got time to do that before Tuesday, but I'll have a go one day. 

  3. Don't forget where we came in: you're the person best placed to know what mistakes you make in practice.  Take a bona vada at your own games, share your conclusions. I'm pretty good on my own mistakes, Brian's mistakes and some of Jon's; I tried looking for common themes but I think we've all got distinctly individual ways of playing badly... So, Brian has a tendency to let his opponent have the centre and makes odd decisions about who is winning, Jon is inclined to change horses in mid-stream, and I often get muddled with my move order.

  4. I've just whizzed through a few dozen games from the three of us, and, if there is a theme, it's something I've written about before: it is necessary and desirable to set problems and put your opponent under pressure. 

    • And its corollary: when you're under pressure, you need to play twice as well.
    • Without putting your opponent under pressure, you cannot expect them to make mistakes. 
    • If you are the one under pressure, you are more likely to make mistakes. 
    • And so there is nothing more dangerous than 'playing safe', allowing your opponent to build up as they wish.