How to Avoid Common Mistakes in Chess

An average game of chess will last around 40 moves. If you make just one mistake you can lose on the spot. That is why it’s so important to learn how to avoid blunders!

Get your free copy of the 7-Skills Chess Study Plan

Table of Contents

The Root Cause of Mistakes

A blunder is more than just a silly oversight. Instead, it’s the evidence of a shortcoming in your calculation method. In other words, 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 our calculation process.

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).

4 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.

Here’s the 4 things you can do to help you avoid common mistakes in chess.

  1. Study the common mistakes chess players make. Study the mistakes you made in your own games as well as the mistakes other chess players made. By developing a deeper understanding of the common mistakes in chess, you can learn to avoid them. I created Blunder Alert! exercises–specifically for this purpose.
  2. Develop 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. You should also train your ability to concentrate for prolonged periods of time–by playing slow time-controls. It is also helpful to occasionally challenge yourself with difficult chess puzzles.
  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. Learn to respect the known principles of chess. Chess principles have been proven and tested over time. They are a great way to bring the insights of the old chess masters into your game. Amateurs tend to think they can easily find exceptions to the principles but, more often than not, they are wrong. In most cases you will benefit if you simply obey the principles. The only acceptable exception should be when your calculations CLEARLY prove otherwise.

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.

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 the common mistakes in chess.

Before you can work on improving your thinking method, it will be very helpful to sensitize your mind to the common mistakes chess players make.

To this end I created a set of exercises titled “Blunder Alert! These exercises illustrate the common mistakes chess players make and will help you avoid similar mistakes in your own games.

BLUNDER ALERT!

40 exercises that will help you avoid common mistakes.

I created this set of exercises specifically for the purpose of helping you avoid mistakes–by improving critical aspects of your calculation thinking method.

In fact, 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.

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. This is yet another reason why it’s useful to study mistakes. By observing the common mistakes chess players make when they are under pressure, you will also get a better understanding of chess psychology.

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

The frustration that comes from repeating silly mistakes 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.

Making mistakes in chess can also cause you to lose confidence in your ability. Losing a few games against lower-rated players because of a silly mistakes, can seriously hurt your confidence.

It’s human to try forget your mistakes as soon as possible, but keep in mind that studying the common mistakes in chess can help you avoid them in future. The Blunder Alert! exercises will help you with this. It will not only make you a better player, but will even help you get more enjoyment from your chess:

BLUNDER ALERT!

40 exercises that will help you avoid common mistakes.