Do People Learn From Their Mistakes?

  • GM Gserper
  • | May 20, 2014

The question in the title of the article might sound stupid. We are called Homo Sapiens for a reason: translated from Latin it means "Wise Man." By accumulating the knowledge of the previous generations, humankind has made tremendous progress in the 200,000 years of its existence.

Yet, whenever I read about the life of our predecessors, I cannot help but think that they weren't that much different from us. I could give many examples, but I am sure you know many of them on your own. So, I absolutely subscribe to the theory of Woland from Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita." He observed the people of Moscow, compared them to people who lived thousands of years ago and noted that people are all the same. They just got spoiled by the real estate!

According to a well known quote of Goethe, "By seeking and blundering we learn." We are seeking indeed and blundering for sure, but do we learn? Since our website is about chess, let's see if people learn from their chess mistakes.

In the article It's a Miracle we already saw how GM Reshevsky was blundering a stalemate about every ten years. We can argue that a stalemate is so rare in grandmaster games that it is excusable to forget about it once a decade. Fair enough. But what would you say about the next two games of GM Rubinstein:

It is difficult to imagine how one of the strongest chess players of his time made such a simple tactical oversight. But "by seeking and blundering we learn," don't we?

Akiba Rubinstein | Image Wikipedia

Here is the game Rubinstein played two years later:

Sure we can try to write off such an incredible double blunder on account of Rubinstein being absent minded, but what about our favorite Sailor who beat Bobby Fischer? GM Ratmir Kholmov was anything but absent minded and yet...

And then seven years later...

How could Kholmov fall into a trap that he executed himself in the previous game? Maybe it was the case that we discussed here in Playing Chess While Being Drunk?

The opening is a part of the game the majority of the chess players study the most and yet they repeat the same mistakes again and again. The unquestionable champion in this sad department are the following "twins:"

It is a very beautiful game, even considering that Black's combination could be refuted by 10. Qe1! (instead of the greedy 10.fxg4??). You'll be amazed, but Anderssen already saw this whole combination before:

So, what on Earth is going on here? Did Anderssen simply forget about the painful loss he suffered eight years ago? Or perhaps he remembered that the Black's combination had a hole, but completely forgot the refutation? Your guess is as good as mine, but if we apply the principle of Occam's razor and accept the simplest possible explanation, then we can assume that it is just some sort of a mistake in the database and that one of these games was never played Smile

Now let's jump 120 years forward. GM Artur Yusupov has just won a pretty nice game over a very dangerous opponent in their Candidates' Match:

GM Viktor Korchnoi was never a person to mince words. So, according to the reports, immediately after the game was over, he quipped: " 18 years was not enough for Karpov to learn this opening!." He was obviously referring to this game:

Here I am really puzzled. Even if we imagine that Karpov somehow managed to forget the above mentioned game, how could he forget the classical game of Petrosian, which was published everywhere and could be a good example of the proverbial game that "every Russian schoolboy knows?"

It looks like the human ability to learn is greatly overrated! Smile



  • 2 years ago


    Cool Interesting puzzles! Cool

  • 2 years ago

    NM gbidari

    Great writing and excellent research! A very thought-provoking article!

  • 2 years ago


    So totally aside from the chess content Mr. Serper, kudos to you for quoting one of the ten or twenty best novels of the 20th century anywhere (and certainly one of the ten best novels in Russian literature)! Thanks for bringing even more class to your columns!

  • 2 years ago


    Really nice article !

  • 2 years ago


    nice article, could we also have one on learning from our successes?

  • 2 years ago

    FM backreg

    I always love your articles and this one was no exception, great stuff!

    One tiny nitpick though, I believe Woland was saying something along the lines: "the real estate question has exacerbated their condition".

    This would be referring to housing shortages (communal living - something that I experienced even in 1980s USSR) of 1930s Soviet Union.

    This is also shown by the trip that uncle of Berlioz makes from Kiev to Moscow just to get a "propiska".

  • 2 years ago


    Nice article.

  • 2 years ago


    That's just why i've chosen this name for my account. Smile

  • 2 years ago


    Always good arcticles from Gserper.

    Nice to have this one also.

  • 2 years ago


  • 2 years ago


    Thanks a lot EAPigeon! Your help is greatly appreciated.

  • 2 years ago


    Nice article!

  • 2 years ago


    not bad

  • 2 years ago


  • 2 years ago


    @Brandknew it's because after 13. Nxd5 you gain the pawn and threaten to win the Queen with Bc7. Qa5 as a response is a mistake because of Nxe7+ followed by Rc5 winning the knight due to the threat to the queen. Hence Black must play Nxf4 and after which White is up a pawn.

  • 2 years ago


    try not to learn from your own mistakes. there is just not enough time in life for that. learn from otheres in chess. there are tons and tons of examples. those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

  • 2 years ago


    what a WONDERFUL article! Thank you

  • 2 years ago


    thanks for the article gserper, i hope that it will inspire some chess fans to read the master and margarita - what a book!

  • 2 years ago


    Alphapix, I can grab a book on tactics and learn from it. I could also read a book on strategy and learn new ideas. Both of those scenarios don't involve learning from ones mistakes or anyone else's mistakes for that matter. So learning from mistakes isn't the only way to learn. So they certainly are two distinct questions like I said earlier.

  • 2 years ago


    I've learned that I tend to make the same kinds of mistakes repeatedly. However, I have also avoided making these same kinds of mistakes in games by being aware of my tendencies. I have played many games now where upon consideration of a move I say to myself, “THAT would be one of my mistakes!" and I found a better one.

    But mistakes are part of the game, and it doesn't matter how good you are--you're going to make them. Even Magnus makes mistakes from time to time.

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