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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Eliminating Gross Blunders

I often hear players complaining that they practice tactics and get high scores on various server sites but then turn around and still make a lot of stupid blunders in their own games and frequently miss tactical shots, both theirs and the opponent’s. They expected that after doing all those tactical exercises these things wouldn’t happen. They can’t figure out what they are doing wrong.

The question is relatively easy to answer. This malady cannot be improved by solving tactical chess puzzles. You see, the difference between training on a tactical server or doing problems in books and actually playing a game is making a bad move in a game will kill you. On servers and in books, you know there’s a tactical solution and you can keep trying moves until you get it right. There is no such option in an actual game; you have one shot at it. Also, servers often reward finding the solution quickly. In a real game, playing quickly is a good way to lose.

Recognizing tactical patterns doesn’t help if you don’t look for basic things like pins, forks, hanging pieces, etc. for both sides. You must consciously take your time and look over the board after your opponent moves and before you move, scanning ranks files and diagonals. This will eliminate most really gross blunders like hanging pieces and will also alert you to many other things you might otherwise overlook. I can’t tell you how many games I’ve lost because of tunnel vision where I was concentrating on only a small portion of the board while whatever was happening on the rest of it completely escaped my attention. In reality it wasn’t a chess problem in the sense I didn’t know what I was doing. It was a physical problem – a failure to look at the whole board.

When you solve puzzles verifying a move is enough but in an actual game you have to take a different approach. You need to falsify the move you have decided on because, unlike a puzzle situation, there may not be a tactic at all or the tactic may be there, but it is flawed. Studies have shown that chess masters always falsify their plans whereas lower rated players tend to confirm that their intended sequence works.

Short version: you simply must take time to scan the board every move and try to prove to yourself your move is a bad one rather than trying to prove it’s good. That’s the way masters think…as opposed to amateurs, who usually assume their opponent is going to cooperate. Sounds easy, but as was pointed out by one psychologist, people who know their area of expertise are more likely to look for ways that things can go wrong.

A good example of this happened yesterday. I played about a half dozen blitz games with a guy rated in the 1400’s and he must have thought he was a tactical genius because in every game he sacrificed a piece. None of them were warranted by the position. In one position he sac’d his N on f7 so he could play a check…that was it…one check. I kept wondering what the guy was thinking about because sometimes he’d think for 30 or 40 seconds before making such sacrifices. I can’t imagine what he was calculating but he certainly wasn’t using the master technique of falsifying his hypothesis. I’m positive he was running through variations where I was cooperating with his flights of fancy.

Then there was one game where he was clearly suffering from tunnel vision. He was advancing his Q-side P’s when I played a Q-move threatening to capture a N on the K-side…nothing subtle about it. He didn’t notice it and played …b5 and let me have the N. Of course, if he had done a board scan, he would have seen it right away.

I’m convinced many lower rated players know more about chess than their rating would indicate but their ratings are kept low because of mechanical problems like tunnel vision (simply failing to look around) and poor thinking technique.

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