Misevaluations in Chess
Life is about defining priorities and making choices. Sometimes we tend to overestimate or underestimate certain factors. Chess is not an exception.
First of all, sometimes we misevaluate what’s happening on the board itself. Secondly, quite often we incorrectly assess our own and our opponents’ options.
Positional evaluation is a key element of the game. It helps us choose the correct plan. If you misevaluate the position, you are likely to lose quickly, while a deep assessment can help outwit the opponent. Overestimating one’s position is a common sin among chess players that leads to excessively aggressive plans, reckless attacks and other uncalled-for activities. Underestimating one’s position can lead to passive play, failing to find the right defensive resources and even resigning prematurely. Misevaluations occur due to lack of mastery, psychological factors, or specifics of the course of the game. For example, let’s say a player has lost the initiative after an unobvious mistake. Instead of switching to playing for a draw, he keeps pushing, while the position objectively doesn’t encourage it. Or, after having been defending for quite a while, a chess player gets a chance to sway the balance in his favor. Instead, he is happy to offer a draw asap and go home. Great chess players like Karpov or Carlsen have been known for being able to “play the board”, i.e. treat any position objectively, without falling for such logical fallacies (“I was close to lost, so if I make a draw, I’ll be happy”).
By gaining more chess knowledge and becoming stronger a chess player starts making fewer mistakes when evaluating the position.
Another common situation is overestimating or underestimating a player, or just not being comfortable facing him over the board. A lot has been said about this in the “Customers and Nemesis” article. Sometimes the results are very hard to explain. For example, recently I’ve heard that Nigel Short hasn’t won a single game against Alexei Shirov (the score is about 8 wins, 10 draws for Shirov). Both are very strong tactical players, so how can that happen? Or, likewise, how could Kasparov score +17 =15 against Shirov?
Nonetheless, one shouldn’t be religious about attributing his losses to the “nemesis” theory. After all, it spawns future losses, as you are self-hypnotizing yourself. Therefore, it makes sense to find the objective reasons for the failure. Were you not prepared enough psychologically? Does he choose an opening structure that you don’t understand? Is his style unpleasant for you (e.g., you are an attacker, and he prefers to keep the game closed and “dull”)? By coming up with the right diagnosis you increase the chances of getting rid of that nemesis complex.
In the computer age the average level of play has risen significantly. A lot of players are quite well-versed in their openings: they know the right move order, the plans, and even the typical endgames that occur in those lines. Therefore, quite often we see top players lose to amateurs rated like 2000, 2100, 2200. It is also often connected with underestimating the opponent and math expectancy (one is supposed to take a lot of risks, especially with Black, to sustain one’s rating by beating lower-rated players). However, objectively speaking, we should pay more attention to the position than to the rating number on the opponent’s badge. This will save us from taking too many risks.
Another widespread phenomenon is quite typical of open tournaments. Let’s say you have lost/drawn a player rated 200-300 points above you. Then you get paired with someone rated about the same as you. Your thoughts may be something like this: “Ok, now I’ve got a patzer! Let’s dispatch him and get back to playing the really tough guys!”. Meanwhile, you are forgetting that the opponent‘s strength is objectively about the same as yours, and he is by no means a loyal customer willing to donate some rating points to you. Hence, if you persist with your snobbish approach, you are likely to lose.
The ability to cool down and make a rational and objective decision is valuable not only in chess, but in life in general. This is one of the most important skills a person can develop in himself.
Here is a game example from the Women’s World Team Chess Championship’11:
I made a bad opening choice and had to struggle for equality most of the game. When a draw was within reach, I blundered and played 31…Ra1. The nature of this mistake lies in overestimating one’s position. I decided: “Ok, I have a draw, but why not try to outplay my opponent?”. Being bored of having to defend passively, I was excited about the opportunity of playing actively, and talked myself into a dubious continuation. The punishment was severe and swift.