Having Fun With Blunders
Recently I was involved in a small discussion about blunders and was shocked that the term’s meaning wasn’t as rock solid as I had thought. Everyone is used to symbols like “?” (poor or bad move), “?!” (dubious), “!” (good or excellent move), “!?” (interesting move, worthy of a closer look), “!!” (brilliant move), and “??” (blunder). All of these seem to speak for themselves, with “!!” being a move that reaches the highest heights and, at the other end of the spectrum, “??” being a move that denotes the lowest lows. Simple, right? Evidently not.
To me, a blunder causes a massive (negative) change in the evaluation of a position. The person that plays the blunder turns (with one horrific move) a perfectly playable position (even, slightly better, slightly worse, or winning) into a loss. Another example of this huge change is turning a winning position into a draw.
However, almost every part of that explanation has been challenged by people who want it to be something it’s (in my view) not. Here are four opposing views:
A blunder is...
- A move that walks head first into an instant beat-down. This can be a move that allows instant (or a quick) mate, or a move that simply hangs a piece. A more complex mistake isn’t a blunder.
- A losing move that is not within the range of the players in the game. Thus, if one side plays a losing move but the other side isn’t strong enough to find the refutation, then it’s not a blunder.
- A blunder is some sort of tactical oversight. There’s no such thing as a positional or strategic blunder.
- For a move to be a real blunder, it depends on why the person made the mistake.
I thought this was nonsense, and after mumbling, “Those poor, deluded fools”, I decided to end the discussion right away by quoting the usually very dependable Oxford Companion to Chess:
“Blunder: A bad move, usually a decisive error, but whether a decisive error is called a blunder depends on how difficult it is to detect, and this may depend upon the strength of the players. Some blunders are obvious to all; others so labeled by grandmasters might pass unnoticed by lesser mortals.”
WHAT? I couldn’t believe my eyes! Total madness! Basically these views tell us that a simple, easy-to-understand term can be interpreted and/or labeled in almost any way a person wants to. How can this be?
Let me address all these contrary points. It’s obvious that allowing a quick mate or hanging a piece is indeed a blunder. But a blunder can also be complex, tactical, or strategic. As for why the person made a blunder, that’s always an interesting question, but it’s not going to change the reality that your opponent just took your queen with his pawn and you’re now forced to resign.
Since the Oxford Companion to Chess failed me, I turned to five international masters who would surely bring sanity back to the table.
Anthony Saidy (a living legend who has crossed swords with five World Champions and played Fischer eight times!) came up with views so strange that I can’t voice them for fear of becoming permanently insane. All I know after ending our “blunder-conversation” is that I’ll need therapy for the rest of my life.
Jack Peters agreed with me, but then asked two of his students who both felt that rating should have something to do with what is and isn’t a blunder. I saw a pattern forming!
Cyrus Lakdawala agreed with me, thought the Oxford Companion to Chess should be burned and its ashes tossed into the sea (oddly, I had already done just that to my copy), but felt that if a refutation is something that no human could find nor understand (meaning a string of nonsensical computer moves) then you can’t call it a blunder.
John Watson agreed with me, but did feel that at times a lone question mark might be more appropriate with lower rated players. I mentioned this to John Donaldson, who called this kind of tweaked symbol definition “an act of kindness.”
John Donaldson agreed and said that a blunder is a move that causes catastrophic damage to your position. No ratings, no why you blundered, no language changes to make people feel better. A blunder is a blunder, period.
So what to make of opposing views? I think we’re experiencing something I call the “Oprah Effect (OE)”. It’s a form of political correctness gone mad. In the world of OE you never want to do anything that might hurt someone’s feelings. Truth/reality takes a back seat to OE. Thus instead of telling a beginner, “That’s a blunder,” you should say, “Great move! Wonderful. You are so talented! However, in this case your queen can be taken by 12 enemy pieces. Chalk it up to bad luck. BTW, look under your seat and you’ll find a hundred dollar bill.”
The reality of life is that you can refer to mud as lunch, or say your blunders are “brilliant illustrations of what’s right with the human race.” These things don’t make any sense, but if it makes you happy and/or massages your ego and convinces you that you’re the genius you always imagined yourself to be, then go for it.
Donaldson offered up the most efficient definition of a blunder: “A move that causes catastrophic damage to your position.” Simple, crystal clear, and to the point. Rating doesn’t change this. Gender doesn’t change this. Age doesn’t change this. Difficulty doesn’t change this. Whether the offending move is tactical or strategic doesn’t change this. You making the bad move because your wife just left you doesn’t change this. It’s just a simple term with a simple meaning.
BUT… blunders are also something else. They are extremely entertaining! Well, they aren’t quite as entertaining to those that make the blunders, but players who seek truth often get by the pain by accepting their moment of madness and:
- Ask, “Why did I miss this?” This is the proper way to view your blunder. It’s not an excuse or a denial, it’s a desire to avoid it in the future. The “why” is important. To me, the pain of botching a masterpiece sometimes lasts a lifetime, but the “why” helps me avoid repeating that agonizing moment in the future.
- Laugh at the absurdity of it all. If you aren’t able to laugh at yourself (since we are all ridiculous), you have a serious problem.
- Appreciate that you missed something really cool! That's right - sometimes the refutation of your move is so cool that you can't do anything but applaud.
I don’t play anymore, but at times (when I feel the need to pretend I’m still a chess player) I lie in bed (around 4AM) and play a long game against one of the many chess engines I have on my iPad. Here’s a game I played two days ago vs. Stockfish, which is around 2500 strength.
I was pretty happy with the way I handled this game (the technical phase in particular was tricky), and didn’t think I made any serious errors. The next day I went over it with Houdini, which is (of course) stronger than Stockfish. It showed me that I had made a serious blunder. Instead of 26.Rc2?? I should have played 26.Kf1. By making the move I played, I turned a winning position into a draw (or even a loss if I didn’t wake up). The puzzle below gives you a chance to demonstrate how Stockfish should have played.
Who knew that Harry Houdini was such a strong chess player?
I should point out that I could evoke the Cyrus theorem (“If a refutation is something that no human could find nor understand [meaning a string of nonsensical computer moves] then you can’t call it a blunder”), but I will only accept the Cyrus theorem IF, when I see the solution, it’s something I still have trouble grasping and I feel Kasparov would also have trouble grasping. In the case of my error (26.Rc2), the computer’s refutation is crystal clear and easy to grasp. Indeed, I should have noticed it.
This dance between the “impossible to see” view and the “It’s not a blunder if I couldn’t find it” view is an important one. Here’s a fascinating example that came up in WIM Iryna Zenyuk’s excellent article, Blunders in Modern Play, Part One.
Here Black played 13...c5??. Black’s game was slightly worse but fully playable before this, but now it’s pretty much lost. Thus, it’s a blunder.
14.Bh5!! Bd6 15.Bxf7+ Ke7 16.Qg5 Bxe5
17.Qxg7 Ne8 18.Qxe5 Kxf7 19.dxc5 Qc7 20.Qh5+ Kf8 21.Bc3 Ng7 22.Qh6 and White has material equality (three pawns for the piece), total domination on the dark squares, and strong pressure against the enemy king. The position is so nice that no strong player would hesitate to play in this manner. White won on the 41st move.
To me, this alone makes 13...c5 a blunder. But when you realize that White could actually improve his play on move 17 by 17.Bh5!!, then our “blunder” assignation is a no-brainer. Here’s a quick (woefully inadequate) analysis:
17.Bh5!! Bc7 18.dxc5 wins immediately while 17…Kf8 (the best defense) still leads to a miserable position for Black after 18.Qxe5 Nxh5 19.Qxh5 cxd4 20.Rc1 d3 (20…dxe3 21.fxe3 opens the f-file to Black’s king. 20...Qd6! puts up better resistance, though it’s hard to believe he’ll survive) 21.Bb4+ Kg8 22.Qe5 Rc8 23.0-0 Kf7 24.Qh5+ g6 25.Qe5 and Black’s dark-squared weaknesses will kill him.
The position after 17.Bh5 elicited an interesting comment by Iryna Zenyuk, who said, “This computer move is impossible to find at the board.”
She’s bringing up the Cyrus theorem! However, does this qualify? In my view 17.Bh5 is far from impossible to find. With one move you get the bishop out of danger, threaten to recapture on e5, and also threaten to win the house by Qxg7+. I suspect that grandmaster Leitao considered the position after 17.Qxg7+ so tasty that he didn’t bother looking for anything else.
Chess.com member johnsmithson had his own views about this game. In a nutshell, he felt that the refutation was much too difficult (he wrote: “Punishing 13…c5 in that position requires some pretty serious insight into the position. There is NO chance I would see the combination that follows OTB chess and not even very likely in turn-based chess.”), and then he mentioned something or other about it being a trap.
First off, if you have a playable position and fall for a trap, you made a blunder. It doesn’t matter if your blunder is the result of a trap, lack of sleep, terrible strategic understanding, or poor tactical understanding, it’s still a blunder. Second, the fact that johnsmithson wouldn’t be able to see the punishment for 13...c5 has no bearing on the issue. Johnsmithson’s personal skill level (or a beginner’s skill level or my skill level) has nothing to do with the definition of a blunder.
There is no shame (even for grandmasters) if you drown in overwhelming complications. It happens to everyone. And there’s no shame if your brain fritzes out and you overlook an obvious mate in one. I am saying that a move that causes catastrophic damage to your position is a blunder. People that want to change the definition of a term because it might bruise their ego are free to call a blunder anything they wish.
The “I blundered and lost, but the refutation was lovely!” scenario is something lovers of truth and beauty can appreciate. But one also runs into really silly blunders that leave the loser laughing out loud at himself. The following, played a couple weeks ago, is a great example of this.
Cyrus Lakdawala is a very strong IM who has, in the last few years, become one of the world’s finest chess writers. His latest book (from Everyman Chess) is Botvinnik: Move by Move. At the moment, he’s working on a book about Alekhine’s Defense. And, since he’s writing a book on that opening, it’s only natural that he used it!
D. Aldama – Cyrus Lakdawala
Gambito 622, 2013
1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.c4 Nb6 4.d4 d6 5.f4 g6 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.Nf3 O-O 8.Be3 Be6 9.Qb3 a5 10.d5 Bg4 11.Be2 a4 (Black has an excellent position.) 12.Qc2 Bxf3
Lakdawala: “I studied this position for my Alekhine’s Defense book and forgot my own suggestion of 12...N8d7.”
13.gxf3 dxe5 14.fxe5
In this position one would think Black would play 14...Bxe5. However, he saw something better! Something that gives him a clear advantage!
14...Nxc4?? (This would be brilliant if Black’s e-pawn wasn’t on e7.) 15.Bxc4 and now Cyrus happily reached for his queen so he could regain his piece with 15...Qh4+ followed by 16...Qxc4. Lakdawala: “I reached over to play ...Qh4+!! and suddenly noted that this move is illegal!” Black resigned.
I might have leaped over the board and started choking my opponent, or I might have screamed, “Why? Why? Shoot me now! Somebody please, shoot me now!” But Cyrus took it in stride and laughs about it in his usual good-natured manner.
A great example of a strategic blunder was shown by Lakdawala in his book on Botvinnik:
M. Botvinnik – Gy Szilagyi
1.g3 d5 2.Nf3 c6 3.Bg2 Bg4 4.d3 Nd7 5.h3 Bxf3 6.Bxf3 e5 7.Nd2 Ngf6 8.e4! dxe4 9.dxe4 Bc5 10.0-0 Qe7 11.c3 0-0 12.b4 Bb6 13.a4 Rfd8 14.Qc2 Rac8 15.Be2
15...c5?? (JS: I put the double question mark here.)
Lakdawala (who gave the move a “?!” – I would have demanded that he change this to “??” but it’s too late, the book is already out!) had this to say: “The position’s reality is clearly at odds with Szilagyi’s misperceptions of what constitutes truth. Black envisages a happy future of abundant counterplay, peace, prosperity and longevity – none of which come to pass. This makeshift attempt at a queenside ‘attack’ resembles actors playing at war, rather than war itself. A serious strategic error, which by today’s standards, would easily deserve a “??.” Question: Why? It looks thematic. Black finally challenges White on the queenside. Answer: The move violates the principle: Don’t fix your pawns on the same color as your remaining bishop. This game is destined to become the poster child for this principle’s violation!”
In our conversation, Lakdawala admitted that Black was lost after 15...c5. In other words, Black went from slightly worse to lost with one move. That, my friends, is a blunder.
Cyrus: “Believe it or not, Black should be in desperation mode already and simply give away his c-pawn with 16...c4!? to clear c5 and organize play down the c-file. In this case he is still probably busted but at least he doesn’t suffer the joyless, counterplayless, distopian future which ensues in the game.”
17.Nc4 Nd6 18.Bg5! f6 19.Be3 Nxc4 20.Bxc4+ Kh8 21.a5 Bc7 22.Rfd1 Nf8 23.Qa2 Rxd1+ 24.Rxd1 Rd8 25.Rxd8 Bxd8 26.a6! b6 27.Kg2 Qd7 28.Qe2 Ng6 29.Bb3! Ne7 30.Qc4 h6 31.Qf7 Kh7 32.Bc4 Qd6 33.h4 Qd1 34.Qe8 f5 35.exf5 Nxf5 36.Bg8+ Kh8 1-0.
[Most of the puzzles offer invisible prose and variations. After you try and solve the puzzle, click SOLUTION followed by MOVE LIST so you can all the hidden goodies.]
The “beauty” of blunders is that they make the mightiest of the mighty vulnerable to just about anyone that’s sitting across the board from them. The following puzzles will give you the chance to beat the world’s elite. I’ll set up the scenario, show the blunder in puzzle form, and then it’s up to you to beat a chess god (or, in some cases, a mere demigod). Enjoy!
Puzzle 1 (Beat Karpov):
Instead of 65.b7, Karpov played 65.Kg3?? which allows you, the reader, to beat one of the top five players of all time.
Puzzle 2 (Beat Nigel Short):
White’s been winning for a long time, and now the obvious 58.Nxf6 is an easy win. However, Nigel decided to leave his opponent in total helplessness and played 58.Ke6??. How should Black respond?
Puzzle 3 (Beat Jean Taubenhaus]:
Jean Taubenhaus was a very good player who knocked heads with all the best of his time. His opponent, Persifor Frazer, wasn't in Taubenhaus' class. But who cares about class when you can ply your esteemed foe with several bottles of wine and then beat him like a drum? (Okay, I made the wine thing up. But there's something romantic about smashing an intoxicated foe that should be smashing you.)
Persifor Frazer – Jean Taubenhaus
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Qh4 is known to win a pawn by force (if White doesn’t sacrifice a pawn he’ll be worse). White’s main lines are 5.Nc3 (as in our game) and 5.Nb5.
Now 5...Bb4 is Black’s correct move. However, in our game he tried 5...Nf6?? How do you refute this move?
Puzzle 4 (Beat Kramnik):
Here Kramnik blundered with 31...Bxf8?? Instead, 31...Kxf8! 32.Qg6 Qe2 33.Qxg6 Bg5!! was correct, leading to interesting complications and mutual chances that, with best play, are more or less equal. How can White punish the blunder?
Puzzle 5 (Beat Silman! Nooooo!!! Have mercy!):
This was one of those tournaments where everything that can go wrong does go wrong. I was hanging stuff right and left (trauma from alien abduction is a possible excuse), and after this game I was beside myself. Venting my confusion and shame at the late grandmaster Edmar Mednis, he calmed me down and then shared some advice that actually proved helpful. He said, “Jeremy, the only cure for a tournament like this is the next tournament.”
My position is fine here, but then, as if in a fog, I played 22...g5?? When White played his reply, I almost fell out of my chair!
Puzzle 6 (Beat Kramnik again!):
In this game Kramnik played magnificently, outplaying the machine in a complex strategic and tactical struggle. The machine, though a bit worse, was holding a difficult position. And, after Kramnik missed a slight opportunity to grab some winning chances, a drawn position arose.
Here he played 34...Qe3?? and calmly rose from his seat. Chaos ensued.
Puzzle 7 (Beat four guys at the same time!):
Simultaneous exhibition, Palma de Mallorca 1935
1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nd7
This line is a favorite of Karpov and, closer to home, Cyrus Lakdawala! Black intends to develop comfortably with 5...Ngf6. White’s most popular lines are 5.Bc4, 5.Ng5, and 5.Nf3. However, from time to time White tosses out the very ugly 5.Qe2 when 5...e6 is Black’s most popular response. In the present game, Black played 5...Ngf6??
Puzzle 8 (Beat Ruben Fine):
Ruben Fine was one of the finest (an often used pun... sorry!) players in the world during the 30s and 40s. Harry Borochow wasn’t as famous, and wasn’t as strong, but make no mistake about it – he could beat anyone on a given day. After 1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 (Seirawan has the following tale to tell: “Bobby Fischer told me a funny story about this position. In the early days of computers his little silicon opponent tried 2...Rg8??, causing Bobby to burst into laughter. ‘The idea was that after I won a whole knight with 3.exf6 gxf6, Black possessed the half-open g-file.’ While Bobby didn’t think too highly of this idea, it brought him a lot of glee.”) 3.c4 Nb6 4.d4 Black’s best move is 4...d6. Deciding that he’d confuse his opponent, Fine gave 4...Nc6?? a shot and, as a result, suffered the fastest defeat of his career.
Puzzle 9 (Beat Richard Réti):
Réti was one of the top five players in the world during the 1920s. But, as we’ve seen, sometimes the bigger you are the harder you fall. This game started in bizarre fashion: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 Nf6 3.Nc3 e5 4.dxe5 Ng4 5.Nf3 Bb4 6.Bd2 Qe7?? (His opening play was terrible, but 6...d4 would have kept him in the game.).
I don’t know what Réti was drinking before (or even during!?) this game, but it has to be one of the worst opening disasters I’ve ever seen.
Puzzle 10 (Beat Sammy Reshevsky):
Robert Fischer – Samuel Reshevsky
U.S. Championship, 1958
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6 5.Be3 Nf6 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.Bc4 0-0 8.Bb3 Na5 9.e5 Ne8??
At one point in his career, Reshevsky might well have been the best player in the world. However, he was never particularly good at the openings, and this game is a case in point. How would you beat the mighty Reshevsky?
Puzzle 11 (Rudolf Spielmann):
I would expect anyone with a 1500 rating to draw this game as White. It should be a piece of cake for a player like Spielmann (he was one of the top five players in the world during the 1920s. In fact, he had an even score against Capablanca: +2, -2, =8!). However, Black set a small trap and Spielmann, no doubt wondering why his opponent hadn’t agreed to a draw yet, fell for it by playing 99.Rf4??
Puzzle 12 (Beat Mark Taimanov):
This was the fifth game in the historic match between these two great players. Many felt that Taimanov would win this match, but after the first four games it became clear that they had “slightly” underestimated Fischer’s strength (the score was 4-0 in favor of Fischer). The present position should be drawn, but Taimanov was reeling and uncorked an epic blunder: 46.Rxf6?? This is your chance to beat the legendary Taimanov. Don’t blow it!
Puzzle 13 (Beat Tigran Petrosian):
The initial moves were: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Bg5 Be7 6.e3 c6 7.Qc2
This is a normal position in the QGD, and one would expect a player like Petrosian, even such a young Petrosian, to handle it properly. Yet, he goes down fast and hard after 7...Ne4?? Since Petrosian in his prime was almost unbeatable, this is a rare chance to take him down.
Puzzle 14 (Beat Alexander Beliavsky):
In his prime, Beliavsky was one of the strongest players in the world. Imagine that you’ve played your best game ever, and you’re more or less equal and hoping to draw your first super-grandmaster.
Of course, you know White wants to win, and that probably means a long, drawn out defense. And then he plays 69.Kf4?? How would you respond?
Puzzle 15 (Beat Viswanathan Anand):
The initial moves were: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.Nc3 Bf5??
Anand, the World Chess Champion, has always been a tough guy to beat. Here the 19-year-old grandmaster learns a valuable lesson. He was looking at various games in the Petroff Defense and noticed one where 5...Bf5 was used to make an easy draw for Black. Trusting the players and deciding that it was worth a try, he didn’t do any serious analysis and just gave it a punt when the opportunity presented itself. This will be your only chance to beat the Indian legend.
Puzzle 16 (Beat Boris Spassky):
After 1.e5 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.d3 Nc6 5.f4 d6 6.Na4 Bxg1 7.Rxg1 Ng4 8.g3 exf4 9.Bxf4 Spassky found himself with an excellent position.
For example, something like 9...Nge5 10.Rf1 Bg4 is very annoying for White. Having a clear advantage with Black by move nine is a rare luxury, and Spassky lost his sense of danger and decided to get everything he could from this position. And so he played 9...Nxh2?? Imagine the thrill of having White and seeing a World Champion giving you this gift! Don’t forget, it’s rude to refuse a gift!
Puzzle 17 (Beat Mikhail Chigorin):
This position offers chances for both sides. Solid moves are 18.Qc2 (bolstering e4) or 18.Re1 (defending e4 and getting out of the pin along the d1-h5 diagonal). Instead the legendary Chigorin played the unfortunate 18.h3??
Puzzle 18 (Beat Johannes Zukertort):
Aside from being one of the very best players on earth (which he clearly was), Zukertort also pointed out that he was of aristocratic descent, a master of the sword, world class in dominoes and whist, played thousands of offhand games against Adolf Anderssen, fought in numerous battles and was awarded the Order of the Red Eagle and the Iron Cross, earned a doctorate in medicine in 1865, and was fluent in 14 languages.
In this game, Joseph Blackburne (England’s best player, who was also known as “The Black Death”) didn’t seem overly impressed by his opponent’s endless accomplishments and claims.
Puzzle 19 (Beat Bent Larsen):
Sergio Giardelli didn’t have a very good score against the mighty Bent Larsen (the book of Larsen’s best games is a must-read). In fact, going into their final game in 2004 (other games took place in 1980, 1982, 1983, and 2001) the score was three wins for Larsen and one draw. Unfortunately Bent’s health started failing in the late 90s, and diabetes eventually dragged him down in 2010. I was very fond of Bent Larsen, and news of his demise was a painful blow.
In this position Black should play 20...f5 21.Qd1 e5 with an acceptable position. Instead he shocked his opponent with 20...exd5??
Puzzle 20 (Beat Aron Nimzowitsch):
Black can draw with the easy-to-find 25...Rxf2 26.Kxf2 Qc2+ 27.Qd2 Qf5+ 28.Kg2 Qe4+ 29.Kh3 Qf5+ 30.Kh4 (30.Kg2 Qe4+ 31.Kg1?? [31.Kh3 accepts the draw] 31...Bc5+ 32.Bd4 Rd8 wins for Black; 30.g4 Qf3+ 31.Kh4 h6 is also something White should avoid.) 30...Re8 31.g4 Re4 32.Rg1 Be7 33.h3 h6 or 33.Ba3 h5 34.h3 c5 and only Black can be better.
Instead of this, Black played the “powerful” (or so he obviously thought) 25...Bc5?? What can White do?
Puzzle 21 (Beating yourself, example 1):
It’s Black to move and things look bad. Really bad. White threatens Nxd4 and there’s nothing Black can do about it. Thus, he made a horrific verbal blunder and resigned. What would you have done?
Puzzle 22 [Beating yourself, example 2]:
We’ll end with a completely different kind of blunder. In The Art of Bisguier, Selected Games 1961-2003, Bisguier discusses the game Fischer - Bisguier, Poughkeepsie 1963:
“Paired against Bobby in the New York State Open that year, I noticed that he was taking a long time to move. Then I saw that he’d fallen sound asleep. In a few minutes the flag on his clock would fall, and he’d lose on time. That’s not the way I like to win games, tourneys or titles. So I made what some called my biggest blunder of the tournament. I awakened Fischer. Bobby yawned, made a move, punched his clock and proceeded to beat me. It ended up in his My 60 Memorable Games. Later I heard that Fischer had stayed up late the previous night playing speed chess for money.”
The puzzle is: If your opponent falls asleep at the board, should you wake him up?
For those that want to see the game, here it is:
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