How to Avoid Common Mistakes in Chess

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An average game of chess may last around 40 moves. If you make just one mistake–you can lose on the spot. In other words, a single mistake carries more weight than a bunch of good moves!

In this lesson you will learn how a few simple adjustments in your thinking process can help you avoid blunders.

Table of Contents

In a Nutshell–How to Avoid Mistakes in Chess

The majority of blunders in chess can be avoided if you include 2 important steps in your thinking process:

  1. Always identify your opponent’s threats before you start thinking about your own moves.
  2. Consider the current role of the piece (or pawn) you want to move, and the consequences of moving it. In other words, think about how your opponent could take advantage of your intended move.

In the words of the legendary chess world champion, Bobby Fischer:

How to Avoid Common Mistakes in Chess

Blunders vs Strategic Mistakes

A blunder generally refers to a significant tactical oversight that causes you to lose material or to otherwise lose the game right there and then.

Strategic mistakes, on the other hand, are mistakes that weaken your position strategically but does not rise to the level of a tactical blunder. Such strategic mistakes are usually caused by a lack of positional understanding, rather than an oversight. Technically then, in the moment of the game, you have less control over strategic mistakes than over blunders.

This lesson will focus on learning to avoid blunders (tactical oversights), rather than strategic mistakes (which is another topic in its own right).

The Root Cause of Mistakes

A blunder is more than just a silly oversight. Instead, it’s evidence of a shortcoming in your thinking process. There was something you should’ve considered–but you didn’t.

We all make mistakes, but we should work towards making fewer mistakes and the first step towards making fewer mistakes is to identify the flaws in your thinking process.

5 Things You Can Do to Help You Avoid Mistakes

In chess we naturally tend to focus on our own ideas. However, chess is a game between two players and you must consider our opponent’s ideas with the same respect.

In addition to identifying your opponent’s threats and thinking about the consequences of your intended move, before you move, here’s 5 more things you can do to help you avoid common mistakes in chess:

  1. Try to understand your own mistakes. It’s very useful to review the games you played, particularly the games you lost. Find the mistakes and ask yourself the question “Why did I make this mistake?” By developing a deeper understanding of why you made a mistake you can sensitize your mind to the mistakes you typically make. This understanding can help you avoid similar mistakes in future. Further down on this page you will find 3 blunder training exercises that illustrate typical mistakes chess players make.
  2. Practice a disciplined calculation process. A disciplined calculation process is your first defense against making blunders. This includes learning to identify and calculate your opponent’s threats and ideas. On Day 1 of the 10-Day Chess Challenge you will see a few examples of an effective calculation technique.
  3. Improve your tactical skill. Insufficient knowledge of tactical patterns and motifs make it much harder to calculate variations effectively. Oversights are also more likely if your tactical skills are not good. Improve your tactical skill by studying the motifs that appear in chess tactic puzzles. By doing this you will increase your “pattern awareness” and be able to spot the common mistakes in chess much sooner.
  4. Improve your concentration. Mistakes tend to increase when you become mentally fatigued. You can train your ability to concentrate for prolonged periods of time by challenging yourself with difficult chess puzzles.
  5. Improve your visualization skill. The ability to visualize the consequences of your intended moves, before you move the piece, is probably the single most important skill that will help you avoid blunders.

Exercises to Help You Avoid Blunders

Your chess rating is not only an indication of your ability to find good moves. It’s just as much an indication of your ability to avoid mistakes.

Below is 3 exercises that illustrate typical mistakes chess players make. Studying them will help you avoid similar mistakes in your own games.

Blunder Training Exercise #1

Note: The purpose of these exercises is not to challenge you with their difficulty, easy or hard, but to sensitize you to the typical flaws that are present in an untrained, haphazard and inconsistent thinking process.

blunder alert example 1
Black to play. Why would black’s intended move be a mistake?

Scroll down to view the solution.

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blunder alert example 1 solution
Before touching the d-pawn, black should have been aware that moving this pawn would give up control over the e5-square. White takes advantage of this consequence and plays Be5!, pinning the black queen to her king. Suddenly, in the light of losing the queen, black’s idea to advance their passed pawn on the d-file becomes irrelevant. This example proves again that you should always consider how your opponent could take advantage of your move, before you move it.

Blunder Training Exercise #2

Blunder Training Exercise
White wants to play Rc1–with the idea to put pressure on black’s c7-pawn, threatening Qxc7. But why would Rc1 be a mistake?

Scroll down to view the solution.

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Blunder Training Exercise solution
In thinking about their own idea (to put pressure on the c7-pawn), white didn’t think about their opponent’s threats. Black was threatening Ne2+, which forks the white king and queen. This serves as a reminder that the first step in your calculation process should be to identify your opponent’s threats, before you start to think about your own moves.

Blunder Training Exercise #3

blunder alert example 2
Black wants to neutralize the role of white’s aggresive bishop on c3. The strategy makes sense, but why would 1… Bf6 be a tactical mistake?

Scroll down to view the solution.

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blunder alert example 2 solution
After 1… Bf6, black didn’t foresee the consequences of 2.Bxf6 Rxf6, in that they would give up control of the e7-square. Losing control of the e7-square allows white to play the devastating move 3.Re7, threatening Rxc7 and Qxg7#. An important aspect of visualization is the ability to instinctively notice the subtle consequences of your moves and the tactical ideas that become possible as a result of those consequences. This only improves with dedicated training over time.

Why Mistakes Are Inherent to the Game of Chess

Chess is complicated. Chess is difficult. We are human. Humans will make mistakes, particularly when things get difficult and complicated.

But let us continue by taking a look at the brighter side of things. After all, the ever-present possibility of a mistake, by either player, provides much excitement and anticipation to the game.

In the words of “the Magician from Riga”, Mikhail Tal:

Mikhail Tal made the observation that mistakes give color to a chess game. It suited his playing style. He often opted for complications as a means to add pressure on his opponents. Even if his ideas weren’t always sound, the pressure often led to his opponent’s making a mistake. It’s a very effective strategy–bring pressure to bear on your opponent and let them bring some “color” to the game!

Even grandmasters can make silly mistakes. Vladimir Kramnik is a former world chess champion and highly respected in chess circles. In 2006 he played a match against Deep Fritz (a top chess engine of the time).

In the position below, playing with the black pieces, Kramnik famously blundered by playing 34… Qe3. He completely missed that white was threatening 35.Qh7# (a straight-forward mate in one):

In the diagram above Kramnik played 34… Qe3?? allowing white to play 35.Qh7#

This was, of course, an exception. Grandmasters do not make mistakes often. They have learnt how to minimize their mistakes. As far as I know, Kramnik hasn’t made another “mate-in-one” mistake since this game.

What the Great Chess Masters Say About Mistakes

The value of learning from mistakes is very clear when we consider what the great masters of the game had to say about it.

A move that appears safe to an amateur, may be a fatal error in the eyes of a master. No matter your level of play, you will always be faced with this truth: Avoiding the common mistakes in chess should be equally as important to a beginner as it is to a master.

If you play chess regularly, chances are good that you’ve lost at least once to a player who largely based their strategy on avoiding mistakes. They just make solid moves and waited for you to make a mistake. Then they take advantage of it. It’s annoying, but effective.

I couldn’t help to notice that he specifically mentioned “simple mistakes”. Now a mistake that’s simple to Carlsen wouldn’t be so simple to an amateur, but the point is clear – no matter your level, you must try to avoid the mistakes that are simple on your level. 

Many other chess masters say pretty much the same thing:

According to Karpov, one has to learn to not lose. Learning to not lose is not as simple as it may seem. In fact, there are surprisingly many factors that can cause you to make mistakes. Learning about these will also improve your overall understanding of the game.

The technical phase mostly refers to the endgame – there are fewer pieces on the board and most of the middle-game tension has been resolved.  However, complacency makes the endgame very dangerous territory. Remind yourself that many players have blundered in a seemingly simple endgame position.

Imagine this: You’ve recently spent a lot of time on training tactics. Your tactical skill improved and you’re keen to demonstrate your new abilities. A tactical opportunity seem to be on the board – but it’s rather complicated. Don’t let your desire to demonstrate your tactical skill cloud your objectivity!

Maybe you’ve missed a counter-tactic right at the end of your calculations? If you’re not sure, don’t take the risk. The frustrating thing about a tactic that didn’t work out, is that your opponent didn’t have to do anything special to beat you. It’s better to play within your limitations. (The exception is of course when your position is already objectively lost – in such case it makes sense to enter complications).

How Psychology Relates to Mistakes

Psychology can have a big impact on your performance in chess. For example, an interesting observation is that it is a common occurrence among inexperienced players to make two or three blunders in a row. When they make a mistake, they struggle to recover from the disappointment and tend to follow up their mistake by making another one.

Take a minute to refocus if you need to. By adapting quickly to the new situation, you maximize your chances to get back into the game. (Of course this depends on the severity of the mistake you made).

As a chess player it is very important to remain objective and not allow your subjective feelings to affect your decision. This isn’t easy to do, but it is an important skill in it’s own right.

As a chess player you can probably relate to this:

You’re playing against a higher rated opponent. Your position is solid. You are playing well and confidence is growing.  And then you make a embarrassing mistake that loses on the spot. It’s frustrating.

Confidence can inspire you to play your best, but over-confidence is the enemy of objectivity. It requires patience to see the game through to the end, whilst remaining clinically objective all the way.

Mistakes Present an Unique Learning Opportunity

Chess players usually want to forget their mistakes as quickly as possible. After all, who wants to be reminded of their mistakes?

The irony, however, is that you will only learn how to avoid mistakes if you take the time to study the lessons they teach you.

Of course, Capablanca was not only referring to common blunders, he was also referring to positional mistakes and the value of gaining experience. But the idea is the same – if you want to become a good player, learn from your mistakes.

Your mistakes present a unique opportunity to learn because they are specific to your situation and it indicates exactly where you should focus your attention.

More Reasons Why It Is Important to Work on Making Fewer Mistakes

On top of the obvious fact that you will win more games if you make fewer mistakes, here’s a couple more reasons why you should work on reducing blunders:

  • The frustration that comes from making silly mistakes, repeatedly, can rob you of the enjoyment you get from chess. A silly mistake makes you feel that you couldn’t demonstrate your true ability. This can be discouraging, particularly if you never address the problem.
  • Making frequent blunders can cause you to lose confidence in your abilities. Losing a few games against lower-rated players because of silly mistakes, can seriously hurt your ego.

Closing Comments / The Takeaway

A mistake is more than just a silly oversight. It’s the evidence of a shortcoming in your thinking process. There was something you should’ve thought about, but for some reason, you didn’t.

The two most important improvements you should work into your thinking process, is to:

  1. Identify your opponent’s threats before you start thinking about your own moves and
  2. consider the current role of the piece (or pawn) you want to move, before you move it. In other words, think about how your opponent could take advantage of your intended move.

I hope that after studying this lesson you will be on the road to making fewer blunders!