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A few words about mistakes

This will hopefully be a short post, as I am rather exhausted, suffering from a cold and four hours of rook and knight vs. rook and knight endgame analysis with Boris Gelfand.

In the cause of events we talked about one of the recurring topics – what constitutes a mistake.

I wrote about this already in Excelling at Chess published back in 2001 and although I cannot remember the words I used, I do not think there was any noticeable difference between what Boris said and what I wrote back then; maybe with the exception that Boris phrased it a bit more accurately.

A mistake is a move that makes your task more difficult.

It is that simple.

The topic came up when I said at one point that I thought that one move he made was maybe not a mistake anyway, if White was able to hold the draw no matter what. I meant this in the objective sense, in which we often use ?!, ? and ??. I have to admit that in my annotations I have a strong tendency to go for ? only in the situations where the objective evaluation of the position is significantly changed. This means after analysis and engine assistance.

But this of course does not tell us anything about how many good moves we still have to find in order to win the game.

In Excelling at Chess I told the story of how a friend of mine was three pawns up and later on complained of how he missed the win when he was one pawn up. It is of course an extreme example, but this is essentially what we are talking about. It is not important if the engine can find a win, but if you can find it at the board; and how easy/difficult it is to do so.

The same with equal positions. There are equal positions that are comfortable, promising and depressing. I know which ones I prefer.

The morale of all of this is that when you analyse your games and think about your play after the game, do not complain that you are not as strong as the engines; instead understand where you needed the engines help to prove your point and where you did not. Obviously this is only relevant if you want to improve your results. Otherwise ignore and continue with your Internet blitz games!

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  1. Paul
    September 2nd, 2014 at 00:38 | #1

    Talking of mistakes, it seems to me the English Chess Federation have dropped a clanger of the highest order by not having a QC on their shortlist for book of the year. I can only assume there is an unwritten rule the same publishing house cannot win 2x in a year, but if this is the case it is a stupid rule.

  2. Sidney
    September 2nd, 2014 at 04:45 | #2

    Hi Jacob, great article! In my journey to improvement, I one day had a theoretical think about what makes a move a mistake in chess in the hopes of avoiding future ones. The answer I came up with were there are only two broad ways to make a mistake in chess: 1. Make a move that ruins your own position (mainly tactical or positional supported by tactical: drop a piece or allow other tactical shot, allow your opponent counterplay etc) or 2. Miss a stronger plan than the plan you chose (mainly positional: allow your opponent out of your pressure, attack on the wrong side of the board etc.). My conclusion was to improve in chess by myself, I would most easily be able to fix #1 even without the help of a trainer or often even computer. Type #2 errors would need books or grandmaster games for examples. These were my own conclusions and I’m sure there are many other ways to view things.

    My question for you is: I didn’t understand your second to last sentence: Do you mean “understand where you needed the engine to prove your point” in the sense that, for example, if one would like to believe a certain position from their game was even and the computer even says even (0.00 or close) but the fact is you’ve made so many mistakes that to a human eye the position looks very difficult to hold – if not lost – in spite of that computer evaluation? Thank you!

  3. Sidney
    September 2nd, 2014 at 06:22 | #3

    I should also add that additional type #2 errors can be tactical also such as flat out missing a tactic for your side for which computers can be invaluable.

  4. Jacob Aagaard
    September 2nd, 2014 at 09:43 | #4

    @Paul
    I have to admit that I know three of these books by name only, while the Sokolov book unfortunately is not very good. What I mean by this is that the analysis are simply wrong too frequently. Ivan is a great writer, passionate and with a mind-boggling understanding of chess. But when the chess in the book is wrong, whatever you say about it will be wrong too. And to me this is not something you can easily compensate for.

    Quality Chess has been a darling of the awards committees for a while. We have won the last six major awards, meaning we have won the grand slam of 2013 and the first two of those in 2014. I cannot see why Pump Up Your Rating is not nominated, but it could be that the committee has been thinking a bit about their first priority, which is to promote chess publishing in general. A goal I cannot find anything but worthy.

    It does not change the quality of our books whether they get nominated or not. I have no evidence that it improves sales to win these awards either. What it does do is give a lot of encouragement to the author. I hope that the winner this year will be as happy as I was when I won in 2011.

  5. Jacob Aagaard
    September 2nd, 2014 at 09:48 | #5

    @Sidney
    There are mistakes you can see for yourself that one move is stronger than another. And maybe you even saw the reason during the game and missed something else. Blundered or whatever.

    Then there are moves where you cannot work it out without analysis with an engine. This can be tactics beyond your reach or just a deep ending. For example: Boris and I could easily understand by comparison why a knight move was wrong in the ending. But we could not work out exactly where the game was lost for White after he got counter chances. Even with the engines. We will see if Karsten Mueller will work it out :-).

    What some people do is think that because the engines see it, you should blame yourself for not seeing it. Rather you should think if this is something you would understand without the engine telling you, or if this is something new for you to understand.

    Where you put your disappointment matters.

  6. Roy-in
    September 2nd, 2014 at 11:55 | #6

    Interesting discussion!
    I like Gelfand definition, but still it is a relative one, because I can take a decision that make the work easier for me, but maybe not another player, or even it can depend on the remaining time in my clock.
    For example, in an endgame, I would probably would exchange queens if i can see a winning position, even if keeping queens would suppose a quicker win. Also maybe a very good player would take this decision if he only have 3 minutes in his clock.

  7. Indra Polak
    September 2nd, 2014 at 13:46 | #7

    I recently lost a difficult game where I was a pawn up but my opponent had a dangerous attack. I was short on time and I had calculated a tactic that would win a queen against a rook using a rook that pinned his queen against his king. However, a couple of moves later, I saw that the tactic would fail because he could counter-pin the pinning rook with his rook, thereby winning a rook.

    So I concluded I was lost and played something else which allowed a mating finish. Later, my engine told me I should have played the line I intended to play, since even a rook down, I would then have a tempo to give perpetual check! I missed that idea completely and when I first saw the position I could not believe it was perpetual check. Only after a detailed concrete analysis of possible variations I had to admit I had missed a perpetual.

    Indeed my conclusion was that I should have calculated my saving line a bit further in the first place, secondly that I should also calculate a bit further before discarding the candidate, and make sure I keep more time available to calculate (this is however not always possible I guess), and finally to sometimes just trust your instinct….

  8. Jacob Aagaard
    September 2nd, 2014 at 13:52 | #8

    @Indra Polak
    I would love to see the game. Maybe I could use it to drive home one of my main points about calculation with it in a few weeks (after the NIC article I wrote has been published).

  9. Michael Bartlett
    September 2nd, 2014 at 15:33 | #9

    I am a much weaker player than you, Indra, but I find myself doing exactly the same. Even just on Sunday on chessgames.com I found the correct puzzle solution after only having earlier dismissed the winning line because I simply did not calculate far enough and abandoned it. I have added that to my little notebook of habits I need to kick. I also got to play a state champion of Michigan last year and had an even game until I made the same mistake. Had I gone a move or two deeper in a tactical skirmish I would have been ok.

  10. Armando Lobato Cepeda
    September 2nd, 2014 at 15:49 | #10

    For the cold: ginger, lemmon and honey. You use natural ginger (not ginger powder ) you cut
    ginger bits like a nali or smaller, you boil 5 or 6 minutes, then strain, add the juice of 1 lemmon
    and honey as you want.

  11. Indra Polak
    September 2nd, 2014 at 16:11 | #11

    My trainer says: you may not stop calculating when there are still forcing moves in the position. So even if all your positional evaluation little voices are screaming “Its clearly better/worse/equal since ….” and then some material count or whatever, just keep calculating until there are no more forcing moves. And then it is a good habit to calculate even one move further (to not miss the so-called silent move at the end of the line). When I think about it, I think I lose 90% because of not following this rule. I also make positional mistakes now and then, but those are often not fatal.

  12. wok64
    September 2nd, 2014 at 16:56 | #12

    Good to hear that from a strong player. In my last tournament I dropped 2 points (i.e. 4x half a point) by stopping may calculation one half move too early in 4 games. If the half move is a tactical one like a check or a capture it’s an obvious mistake. Things get more complicated if the half move is of positional nature and alters the assessment of the position. After all, at some point you have to stop calculating …

  13. Indra Polak
    September 2nd, 2014 at 17:17 | #13

    Here is the game:

    1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Qxd4 Nc6 5. Bb5 Bd7 6. Qd3 Nf6 7. c4 g6 8. h3
    Bg7 9. O-O O-O 10. Nc3 a6 11. Bxc6 Bxc6 12. Nd4 Bd7 13. Be3 Rc8 14. Rac1 Qa5
    15. b3 Qh5 16. Nde2 Bc6 17. Nf4 Qa5 18. Nfd5 Nxd5 19. exd5 Bd7 20. Bd4 Bh6 21.
    Rce1 Rfe8 22. Ne4 Bf5 23. g4 Bxe4 24. Rxe4 Qxa2 25. f4 Qa5 26. g5 Bg7 27. Bxg7
    Kxg7 28. f5 Qc5+ 29. Kg2 gxf5 30.
    Qc3+ Kg8 31. Rxf5 e5 32. Qf3 Re7 33. Rh4 Qa5 34. Qh5 Qd2+ 35. Rf2 Qd3 36. Qg4
    Rce8 37. Rh6 Rd8 38. h4 b5 39. h5 bxc4 40. bxc4 Rc7 41. g6 f5 42. Qg5 Rf8 43. gxh7+ Kh8 44. Rf6 Rfc8 45. Rg6 f4 46. Qf6+ Kxh7 47. Rh6+
    1-0

    And the move I did not play was 44. … Rg7 because of 45.Rxf8 Kxh7 46.Rf7 Rxf7 47.Qg6+ and I would lose a rook but then after 47 Kh8 48. Qxf7 Qe4+ its a perpetual. Therefore white should play 45.Rg6 to keep some advantage. But earlier I should have played 25. b5! the thematic break since after 26.Ra1 I am not losing a queen due to taking on c4. On move 31 I would love to have played 31. … e6 but then 32. Rxf7 Kxf7? 33.Qf6+ Kg8 34.g6! was possible and its all over. Both black and white played bad queen checks, my queen is misplaced on c5 and his queen steps in a pin on c3. His 34. Qh5? is a bad move that lets me off the hook, much better was Qe4! to get on the important diagonal to h7 and Qd2+ can always be answered with Rf2! with a nice double attack. After my 35. Qd3 I thought I was winning again but white keeps the initiative since I can never play e4 due to Qf5. A mind boggling game…white’s king looked very vulnerable but his pieces were better coordinated.

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