|(Colorado Chess Informant – October 1994)
By NM Todd Bardwick
One of the more interesting phenomenon’s of chess that I have observed in my last 20+ years of tournament play is the way that the amateur player thinks during the game. Because chess is not taught formally anywhere in the U.S. and few players get instruction from a master level player, players approaches to the game vary as greatly as the personalities involved.
First, lets discuss the thought process that most masters and above use to approach the game and then the most common mistakes that I have observed watching rated games and listening to post-mortems.
The best book that I have read on what to and how to think during a game is Think Like a Grandmaster by Alexander Kotov. Kotov recommends that the player study strategy on his opponents move and tactics on his move. Most players make the mistake of analyzing variations on both their time and their opponent’s time and don’t spend any time considering the strategic nuances of the position.
When analyzing the position, it is a good idea to look first at forced and capture variations before spending time on more subtle variations. Kotov also recommends to first consider which are the candidate moves before delving into the analysis of a particular branch of the analysis tree. This makes it easier to mentally keep everything straight and systematically eliminate candidate moves after determining what they are.
Probably the most useful tip that I can leave the reader is what Kotov refers to as Blumenfeld’s Rule. Blumenfeld was a leading Russian master who studied the psychological aspects of the game and wrote his postgraduate thesis on the subject of trying to eliminate “chess blindness” and mistakes that are obvious. Blumenfeld suggests that when you have finished analyzing all the variations and gone along all the branches of the analysis tree, you write your move down on the score sheet and cover it up with your pen before making it. The idea is that now you will see the position through fresh eyes and in a sense can now see the forest from the trees. Now spend an extra minute to check to see if there are any mates, or pieces hanging of yours or your opponents. This should eliminate most obvious blunders. I have saved myself from making many blunders over the years using this technique. Over half the masters in the 1994 Colorado Closed employed Blumenfeld’s Rule. This idea becomes more critical for the lower rated player than the master due to the much greater frequency of obvious blunders.
Moving too fast. This is especially common in the lower rated sections of a tournament. Have you ever noticed that the Reserve Section games are usually over long before the Open Section? I do recommend staying out of time pressure, but if there is lots of time left on your clock, use it! Make the quality of your move as high as it can be.
Sacking pieces prematurely for initiative. I don’t know how many times I have seen a piece sacked in front of the opposing king for two pawns. Don’t do it unless you can see the future gain of material, a mating attack, or some other significant benefit to the sacrifice. “Hope chess” doesn’t work. If all your opponent has to do is cover up his king, beat off your attack, and get to an endgame with a material advantage, the sac isn’t sound.
Memorizing openings. It is more important to know the ideas behind them. Most Class A players and many experts that I have analyzed with don’t even get the proper move order down – even if they are in their “book”. Player rated in the class ranges should be learning the game, not studying (memorizing) openings.
Not having a plan. Even a bad plan is better than no plan. If you can’t think of anything to do, improve the position of one of your pieces…at least you are doing something positive.
Moving pawns in front of one’s king for no reason. Remember every time you move a pawn in front of your king, you are creating a weak square. Pawns can’t move backwards to cover up weaknesses. Can your opponent take advantage of the weakness you created?
Don’t play for cheapos. Always assume your opponent will make the best response.
Not being objective. It is certainly good to have confidence and a positive mental attitude, but if you have the worst of it on the board, recognize it and proceed from there. I have seen many a foolish player in a post-mortem defend his lousy position riddled with bullet holes and verbally fight to the death that he is better. If your position is worse, admit it to yourself and adjust you play accordingly.
Don’t take won games for granted. Your opponent almost always has cheapo possibilities and he is surely going to look for them once he is behind. Be mentally tough and take your time until the end. Every time I let my guard down, I get an unpleasant surprise.
Putting pieces on bad squares. If a piece is on a bad square, try to get it to a better one. Always strive to put pieces on the best squares in the least number of moves. It is extremely important to have active, well placed pieces.
Don’t give check for the purpose of giving check. The object of the game is checkmate! No rating points or tournament points are awarded for the number of checks.
Passed pawns shouldn’t always be pushed. The goal, of course, is to promote them, but remember to make sure you aren’t pushing them to their death. Many times, the closer they get to promoting, the closer they are to the attack of the enemy king and may be dangerously behind enemy lines.
Don’t exchange pieces for no reason. (especially good pieces for bad ones) The classical example of this typically occurs in the lower rated sections where a bishop that is pinning a knight, exchanges with no positional or tactical benefit and helps out the opposition by releasing what was an irritating pin. The rule of thumb for exchanging pieces is when you are behind in material, exchange pawns (this may eliminate potential all mating material), not pieces, and when you are ahead in material, exchange pieces, not pawns.
Don’t psyche yourself out (or in!) by your opponent’s rating. This is a more widespread phenomenon than you might think. Frequently, a higher rated player takes a lower rated player for granted and gets careless. More commonly though, a lower rated player psyches himself out and loses the game mentally before making his first move. On any individual game, anything can happen. (Earlier this year, and 1800 player upset IM Igor Ivanov! …so anything can happen) Always check your opponent’s rating before playing as it may have some influence on how you approach the game. (For example, a master may be content with a draw against another master where he would play on and try to beat an expert in the same situation.)
An important corollary to this is to not play for a draw at the outset of the game. This is a loser mentality. There is an old chinese proverb: It is better to shoot for a star and hit a barn, than to shoot for the barn and hit a mud puddle. A prime example of this is when a weaker player plays an Exchange French with the white pieces. He is cowardly hoping that the symmetrical pawn structure will eventually lead to a draw. IM John Watson states that black usually wins the vast majority of these games in part due to the “psychological burden” that white must deal with. In other words, why not learn aggressive lines that you can incorporated against everyone? In the end, it is better to play the board instead of the opponent.
Resigning too soon (and resigning etiquette). What should you do in an obvious lost position? In the lower rated sections, playing to mate is not a bad idea, since stalemates are common occurrences. It is definitely obnoxious and disrespectful to play on slowly in hopelessly lost positions against stronger players. All this does is drag out the game and wear down both players for future rounds. The best strategy of how to play in utterly lost positions was demonstrated by GM Larry Christiansen in his “famous” game with Colorado Master Jim Burden several years ago. Christiansen hung his queen (!) in the early middle game and had a hopelessly lost position. He then moved quickly, hoping to get Jim caught up in a faster paced game where the probability of Jim making a mistake was increased. The idea worked as the game actually speeded up to a blitz pace where Jim ended up blundering away a game he would have never lost had he taken his time. Always play out games until the complications have disappeared and things are clearly hopeless. Here is a position from the 1981 Colorado State High School Individual Championships between where I was playing black against Paul Sharpe, who is severe time pressure.
My last move was 38…f2. White resigned!!?
Paul obviously thought that the f-pawn couldn’t be stopped and overlooked the white queen covering the g1 square after 39.Rf1 Rg1 40.Rxg1 fxg1=Q+ 41.Qxg1. (If 40… f1=Q+!?, 41.Rxf1 Qxf1+ 42.Kc2 Qxc4+ 43.Kd2 Qxe4 44.Qa5 and white has the better chances.) After 39.Rf1 Rg2 40.Qe3, white should win having the good knight vs. bad bishop and the extra pawn. Also, the f-pawn can’t promote and, in all probability, will eventually be captured. Not only should white have waited until the smoke cleared before resigning, but both players were in time pressure, and anything can happen then.