Deadly Mindsets: 'He Can't/I Can't'

Deadly Mindsets: 'He Can't/I Can't'

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Though I’ve written about chess psychology in my book (How to Reassess Your Chess 4th Edition – almost 90 pages on the subject!) and in articles on, I will continue to do so from time to time since it’s an extremely important topic.

In particular, it stands out in that unlike memorizing an opening or remembering various tactical or positional patterns, chess psychology is more a state of mind -- something you train your mind to do. In fact, it’s an invisible battleground that, sadly, most amateurs don’t even know exists!

So, what is "He can’t/I can’t?

“He can’t” appears when you look at a possible move/plan for the opponent and you say to yourself (consciously or unconsciously), “He can’t do that!”

“I can’t” is similar: “I can’t do that!”

You would be amazed at how often “He can’t/I can’t” appears in amateur chess.

And though it’s a constant there, it also rears its ugly head in grandmaster chess too, though (of course) it’s not nearly as common.


Apparently Black felt he was safe since 29.Bh6 is met by 29...Rg8. However, he missed something he would normally see in a bullet game, namely 29.Rh6 when Laznicka had to resign. How could he miss this move? The answer is simple: while looking at the various complex possibilities (all of which had to be considered many moves earlier), he glossed over Rh6 since the g7-bishop is covering that square. In other words, he was a victim of, “He can’t go there.”

Our next game is even more bizarre. It’s Black to move and the position is evenly balanced: White has a slightly better pawn structure but Black’s pieces are more active. Black’s king is beautifully centralized and, if it wants to move, it has no fewer than four squares to go to: d4, d6, f4, and f6. Clearly, White can’t hurt Black’s king.

Black also noticed that, if it was White’s move, 1.Ng4+ Kf4 2.Nxh6 fails to 2...f5 when White’s knight is far away from home. So, White can’t play 1.Ng4+ followed by chopping on h6.

I’m sure all those things went through Mr. Vidit’s mind (“White can’t play Ng4+ followed by Nxh6” and “White can’t hurt Black’s king since any check is easily dealt with”), but then he noticed that White threatens b3, undermining his knight.  And so, full of confidence due to a multitude of “White can’t do this and that”, and though moves like 1...Kf4 or 1...Kf6 or 1...Rb8 are fully playable, he decided to end the b3 threat with 1...Nf4?? only to come face-to-face with 2.Ng4 mate!

Oddly, Black’s knight move took away no fewer than three of black king's squares: d4, d6, and f4, while the fourth square on f6 is poison due to White’s knight.



Of course, one of the things that masters do that amateurs don’t is have awareness of “I can’t”/“He can’t.” When a master sees the move he wants to play, and then notices “I can’t do that because of blah, blah...” trying to kick his brain into submission, he smiles and fights “I can’t” tooth and nail.

Here’s a typical example:

Black had just played 20...h4, hoping to disrupt White’s kingside pawn cover by ...h4-h3. Ideally, White would like to stop this by 21.h3 (retaining the integrity of his kingside pawns and also freezing the h4-pawn, which could easily turn out to be a target) but then 21…Bxh3 follows. Many players would lament, “I want to play 21.h3 but I can’t due to 21...Bxh3.”

But is that so? If you want to play h3 but fear 21...Bxh3, don’t give up on your h2-h3 move. Instead, look at the position after 21...Bxh3 with clear eyes and see what that position offers.


This game was extremely interesting. But it was only possible due to my challenge to “I can’t” and the negativity that comes with it. 

I’ll finish with a typical amateur “I can’t” moment:

Black is a pawn down and it looks like White threatens Bxe7 removing the f5-bishop’s protection. Sighing sadly, Black said to himself, “I have to trade on d3.”


When you realize that your mind is saying, “I can’t,” ignore it and look for the move you feel the position really wants. Then put all your energy into making that ideal move work.

If, after a deep study, you decide that you really can’t play it, then fair enough. However, once you embrace this kind of thought you’ll find that many of the “I can’t” moves are actually “I can!”

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