In my 18 (the number that equates to “life in Judaism) years of teaching chess (so far), I have seen beginner and intermediate students make a lot of the same mistakes. Here are ten of the mistakes I often find myself speaking to students rated U-1800, when reviewing their games and playing against them:
1) Trading at all Costs:
Would you be excited if I offered you $100 if you had to return the money the next minute? You may give me the money if you trusted you would it get back but you would definitely not feel like you are winning something. Students often will trade just because they can. However, one should only trade if he benefits from it, most often when he is up in material, has less space or needs to yield off an opponent’s attack or lead in development.
2) Avoiding opening principles:
Students need to remember the basics- control the center, castle and develop. Without a good reason otherwise, every move in the opening (approximately the first 10-15 moves of a game) should relate to at least one of these ideas.
3) Making pawn moves for no reason:
The pawn never moves backwards; therefore every pawn move is transformational and creates a weakness. When moving pawns, one must make sure he is actually gaining something.
4) Checking your opponent and making threats for no reason:
There is the famous saying “Patzer sees check, patzer gives check.” The late National Master Edward Kopiecki used to often say “Always check. It might be mate.” However, not all checks are good. For instance, yesterday I was showing the famous Opera game to one of our school programs and as I usually do in this position, I asked the class how white should continue developing his pieces.
A girl suggested “6.Bb5”. When I asked her why she picked “6.Bb5” versus “Bc4”, she said Bb5 was a check. I then explained to her and rest of class, how after 6…c6, white has to play 6.Bc4 and black basically got an extra move in for free. As check is the most forcing type of move, I encourage students to always look for checks but not always play them.
5) Forgetting the importance of always asking oneself “Why did my opponent make his move?”:
Just like a smart person would never cross the street without looking both ways, a chess player should never make a move without investigating why his opponent made his move and having a good idea where he would go in event he had another turn.
6) Rushing in openings and endgames that they have previously studied:
Students will often rush when playing openings and endgames that they previously studied. Last week I was teaching one of our new private students, who is a litigation attorney. In her game that we were analyzing, there I asked her why she played one of her moves and she mentioned that is the way she normally plays. I then I asked her if she ever saw this same exact position before and she said “no.” I then she agreed with me when I explained how in law you could use previous cases as reference points but each new one is different. Just because in a similar case the judge ruled one way does not mean that he will have the same exact ruling in another. You need to take into account all of the nuances.
Rookie players will often have trouble when doing the major checkmates (The Ladder, King and Queen, King and Rook, etc.), not because they do not know how to do them, but because they rush so quickly, that they will hang one of their pieces or stalemate their opponent. A fool-proof way to not stalemate your opponent when up material is consistently make sure he is at least one legal move until it is checkmate.
Intermediate students will often not take advantage of their opponent’s inaccuracies and blindly follow opening principles. The situation where I see this most is when students do not play the famous Center Fork Trick, which grants black the bishop pair and a slightly better game.
7) Spending too much time studying openings:
Players rated U-2000 need to have a basic opening repertoire with 5-10 moves in each variation as white, usually playing 1.e4 or 1.d4, and good responses to both of those first moves. There is no need to learn a bunch of theory in each line. It is a lot more important for students to do a lot of puzzles and learn how to logistically think and come up with the best moves as per our thought process.
8) Not spending enough time studying checkmating patterns:
Despite how many beginners think kings can get captured, we win a chess games only by checkmate. Therefore, it is important that we spend a lot of time learning the fundamental checkmating patterns, like the simple endgame checkmates, Anastasias Mate, Smothered Mate, Arabian Mate, etc. One of the best books for learning checkmating patterns is How to Beat Your Dad in Chess.
9) Taking offers without thinking about why one’s opponent made them:
Last week I was playing against a novice student and he captured my knight without realizing that on the next turn, I would capture his queen. I played dumb and asked if saw what I would do and of course he replied “no”. Our podcast guest Grandmaster Max Dlugy likes to compare chess to a duel. In a duel, one would not blindly follow what one’s opponent requests as he would expect it to be some sort of trap. Likewise, in chess if your opponent offers you a ‘free piece’, square to move to, draw, etc., your initial reaction should not be to immediately accept it but rather “why is my opponent offering that?”
10) Lacking confidence:
The biggest mistake players of all levels make is that they lack confidence. If you are going to play a more experienced player, thinking from the outset that you are going to lose, you may as well not start playing. Now matter how high rated your opponent is, you should pretend he is 50 points higher rated than you; that way you will give him a little bit of respect but not be underconfident and start playing passively. For more about confidence, read this previous post.
If you are a beginner or intermediate player, I hope you can start to avoid these 10 common mistakes. If you are more experienced and/or are a chess teacher, let us know what areas of improvement you most often see. Conquer the game; master your life!