Lesson 9 – The 4 most common mistakes in chess

One mistake can usually end the game instantly, even if you made many good moves otherwise.

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Magnus Carlsen, chess world champion, once said: “I am going to make 40 good moves and I challenge my opponent to do the same!” The point here is that it isn’t easy to make 40 good moves in a row. 

In this lesson you will learn the 4 most common mistakes that chess players make. If you understand these types of mistakes then it will help you avoid them in your own games.

Below the video is a transcript (with diagrams).


The 4 most common mistakes in chess

In this lesson, I will show you four types of common mistakes that chess players sometimes make and if you understand these well enough, then it will help you make fewer mistakes in your own games.

Magnus Carlsen, chess world champion, once said “I am going to make 40 good moves and I challenge my opponent to do the same.” What did he mean? Well, a chess game is, on average, 40 moves long. Sometimes it’s less or, sometimes more, but on average a chess game is 40 moves long. And so, when Magnus says he is going to make 40 good moves, he also implies that he is will try not to make any mistakes and if you make 1 mistake he is going to beat you. So if someone had to play against Magnus and they make 39 good moves and just 1 mistake, they will lose the game. And of course, everyone makes mistakes because nobody is perfect. Even Magnus Carlsen occasionally makes a mistake – but, not very often, and that is one of the reasons why he became a world champion.

So, it’s important to remember – the fewer mistakes you make, the more games you will win. And in the rest of this lesson I’ll show you the common mistakes chess players make.

The first type of mistake chess players make, is that they didn’t see their opponent’s threat. Sometimes you are so busy thinking about your own moves, that you forget to think about your opponent’s threats. Here is an example to show you what I mean.

Black moved their knight to d5 and white carelessly responded by moving their rook to d1, attacking the knight.
Black moved their knight to d5 and white carelessly responded by moving their rook to d1, attacking the knight.

On the previous move, black moved their knight here and now it’s white’s turn. White just had a quick look at black’s move and saw black can’t capture him anymore on the next move and then, without thinking any further, moved this rook to d1 to attack black’s knight. But, it was a mistake, because black then moved his knight here and says check…

Black forks the white king and rook. Note that the pawn on e3 is pinned by the rook on e8. This is what white should have realized on the previous move, but now it's too late.
Black forks the white king and rook. Note that the pawn on e3 is pinned by the rook on e8. This is what white should have realized on the previous move, but now it’s too late.

It is a fork because the knight checks the king and also, attacks the rook. And the point is – the pawn can’t capture the knight since this pawn is pinned by the black rook. If the pawn tries to capture the knight then the king will be in check, so white can’t do that. Let’s go back two moves to have another look.

Instead of moving the rook to d1 right away, white should pause to think and realize that black is threatening to fork his king and rook.
Instead of moving the rook to d1 right away, white should pause to think and realize that black is threatening to fork his king and rook.

When black moved the knight to d5, white should have been more careful and thought about what black could be threatening. Then probably he would have realized black is threatening to fork him and then at least white would have been able to try do something about it. For example, he could move the rook here…

White could instead move their rook here to stop black's threat.
White could instead move their rook here to stop black’s threat.

to cover the f4-quare. Now if black moved the knight here, the rook can capture it. So, this is the first type of mistake chess players make – they don’t consider their opponent’s threats carefully. When your opponent makes a move, immediately ask yourself – why did they do that? And don’t just rush your thoughts, pay attention to your opponent’s move because, remember, one mistake could cause you to lose the game instantly. But if you know what your opponent’s threats are, then you can at least try to make a plan to prevent it from happening.

The second type of mistake is to move a piece and to forget the piece did an important job on the square where it was. Here’s an example:

White wants to exchange queens, but this move leaves the bishop on c4 undefended.
White wants to exchange queens, but this move leaves the bishop on c4 undefended.

In this position, you can see the black queen is fairly active near the center, whilst the white queen is a bit passive. And this is why white decided to exchange the queens. White’s idea was to move the queen to e3 and if black captures him, then he will recapture with the bishop. It would be an equal exchange. But the problem is, white forgot that from e2, the queen defended the bishop on c4, and now by moving the queen, the bishop is not defended anymore. Black simply captured the bishop and now white lost material. So, the lesson you can learn from this is that before you move a piece, first check to see what important task that piece is currently doing from the square it’s on.

The third type of mistake is to open up your king. When you open up your king, you expose him to checks and other possible dangers. Here’s an example:

Black is threatening to capture the pawn on e4.
Black is threatening to capture the pawn on e4.

It’s white’s turn to move and white saw that the black knight is threatening to capture his pawn. Of course, white wouldn’t want to lose the pawn for nothing and that is why he moved here…

This was not a good way to defend the pawn because it exposed the white king.
This was not a good way to defend the pawn because it exposed the white king.

defending the pawn. But this move was a mistake because it exposed the king on this diagonal and now black moved his queen here…

Black took advantage of the exposed king and now forks the white king and undefended bishop on e5.
Black took advantage of the exposed king and now forks the white king and undefended bishop on e5.

– a fork, because he is checking the white king and at the same time threatening to capture the bishop. If white understood that it’s dangerous to open up his king, he would look for an alternative way to defend the pawn, for example, he could move the rook here…

This would have been a better way to defend the pawn.
This would have been a better way to defend the pawn.

The lesson you learnt here is that you shouldn’t expose your king, or if you have to do so in some situations, you should understand why it’s dangerous to do so.

The fourth type of mistake happens when you don’t see the whole board. In chess it could easily happen that you are concentrating on one part of the board and then you forget to see the board as a whole. I’ll use this example to show you what I mean.

White focused their attention on the king-side only. This was a mistake.
White focused their attention on the king-side only. This was a mistake.

White only looked on this side of the board and thought it would be a good idea to move his rook over and check the black king…

A mistake. White didn't look at the whole board.
A mistake. White didn’t look at the whole board.

But, this move is actually a mistake because white didn’t see the black bishop on the other end of the board which can capture him. And this is a bad exchange for white because he loses 5 points and gets back only 3 points, which means he loses 2 points in the process. Now you see why it’s important to look at the whole board, and particularly watch out for the bishops because they can be very dangerous on the long open diagonals.

Let’s look at a quick summary of the 4 types of mistakes that chess players sometimes make:

The first type of mistake happens when you don’t take the time to think about your opponent’s threats.

Instead of moving the rook to d1 right away, white should pause to think and realize that black is threatening to fork his king and rook.
Don’t hurry your moves. Think about your opponent’s threats before you plan your own move.

The first thing you should do immediately after your opponent has moved, is to ask yourself – what are they threatening? And don’t hurry the process – take a good look, otherwise you could be making a fatal mistake on the very next move.

The second mistake happens when you forget to think about the job a piece is doing from the square it’s on.

White wants to exchange queens, but this move leaves the bishop on c4 undefended.
Think about the current role of your piece before you move it. The bishop on c4 will be hanging if white moves the queen to e3.

And then if you move that piece, it could be a mistake because it’s not defending one of your pieces anymore. So, before you move a piece, be sure you know what is it’s current role is and that it is actually safe to move it away.

The third type of mistake is to open-up your king and expose him to checks.

This was not a good way to defend the pawn because it exposed the white king.
Be extra careful when you expose your king. It’s usually best to not expose your king at all.

This is dangerous because it can give your opponent an opportunity to use tactics against your king. Sometimes it could be safe to open-up your king, particularly in the endgame, but still, you should be very careful when you consider making a move that will open up your king and put him in danger.

And then the fourth and last mistake you learnt about happens when you don’t see the whole board.

A mistake. White didn't look at the whole board.
Train your mind to see the whole board! It will help you prevent mistakes.

It’s just natural to focus your attention on a particular part of the board and then you overlook the fact that even though a piece may be on the other side of the board, it could still have an effect over a long distance. Remind yourself to be aware of all of the pieces on the board, even if they aren’t close to the action.

To conclude this lesson, I want to remind you that you should always be careful because one mistake can undo all the other good moves you made. Don’t move too quickly, think about each move, because if you simply make fewer mistake, you will automatically win more games. And when you are leading in a game and you think you’re going to win, that is when you must be extra careful, because overconfidence is often the cause of making a mistake. Be careful until the end and try to avoid mistake. Of course, you will still make mistakes because nobody is perfect, but the point is, if you are careful, you will make fewer mistakes.

In the next lesson I will tell you about chess notation. Chess notation is a method chess players use to write down their moves and in the next lesson I’ll show you how it works.

End of Lesson 9 – The 4 most common mistakes in chess