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The Most Foolish Opening Mistake

The Most Foolish Opening Mistake

I bet that some of you, my dear readers, think that I am going to talk about "Fool's Mate" or "Scholar's Mate." Indeed, there is no way to get checkmated faster than Fool's Mate:

And there is no more popular beginner's opening than Scholar's Mate:

But let's be realistic, when was the last time you saw a Fool's Mate in a tournament? OK, I hear you, the world champion was very close to getting this kind of a checkmate recently, as we discussed in this article. But of course that was not a real game.

To tell you the truth, I have never seen the actual Fool's Mate played in serious tournaments! Even in scholastic events, no one is so foolish as to allow this two-move checkmate.

Scholar's Mate is the total opposite, though. I don't know a single chess player who never got checkmated this way as a kid. And, of course, we all tried to checkmate our opponents this way at some point of our chess career. Some chess players even tried their luck against strong grandmasters:

A younger Nakamura was toying with moves like 2.Qh5.

So, we are not going to talk about these two openings for exactly this reason: One of them never happens, and another one is too well known to discuss. Moreover, we are not going to discuss any particular opening.

What we are going to talk about is one of the most common mistakes chess players make. They play too fast in the openings! There are numerous reasons for this sad fact, so let's discuss them one by one.

1) It is just an opening, what can go wrong?

Many chess players (especially kids) treat an opening as preparation for the game. They think: "Let's develop our pieces, castle, and then we can start the real fight!" Yes, at the very beginning of the game, most of the pieces are still sleeping at their initial positions, but it doesn't mean that you cannot lose pretty quickly in the opening.

Here is one of my favorite traps that I use in simuls. When I see that my opponent plays 1.d4 followed by 2.Nf3, it immediately signals to me what can possibly happen. It is not a big secret that many kids play what I call a "lazy" opening (a.k.a. the "London system"). I call it "lazy" because it is easy for many kids and their coaches to play this way. You just develop your pieces the following way, almost disregarding the moves of your opponent:

The opening is indeed very sound: White gets good development and a very solid center. But even here bad things can happen to a chess player who makes his moves too mechanically. I have won at least a dozen of games in my simuls this way:

Therefore, remember, the game of chess starts from the very first move, and tactics can happen very early in the game! 

A similar accident happened in the following famous game.

There is no doubt that a very strong player and one of the best theoreticians of his time, Semion Alapin, expected the customary 5.d4, and therefore he followed his intended set up without paying much attention to the moves of his opponent. He realized his mistake only when his knight disappeared from the board!

Not the best move ever by Semion Alapin. | Image Wikipedia.

2) A very good knowledge of the opening

You might think that I've gone crazy implying that a very good knowledge of the openings is a bad thing. Of course it is not, the real problem is different. In most of the cases the opening experts become very complacent. The feel of invincibility in the opening makes you prone to all kind of problems. The following well-known game is a very good illustration:

Karpov's most famous blunder!?

How could one of the best chess players in history lose like this? Well, Karpov was one of the leading experts of this variation at that time. Look at the next positional masterpiece as an example of his fine play in this opening:

As I already mentioned above, your extensive knowledge and success in the opening may make you too complacent and that can lead to foolish mistakes. I have no doubt that Karpov played his mechanical move 11...Bd6?? against GM Christiansen very quickly, and as a result the game ended instantly.

Very recently we witnessed a similar opening catastrophe:

Zhu Chen vs Ju Wenjun at the recent Women's World Championship. | Photo David Llada.

How could a former world champion lose essentially in 9 moves?  I think the reason is the same as in Karpov's game. The opening position is very well known and good for White. All she needs to do is to defend against the obvious threat of 9...Qh4+. We will never known if Zhu Chen was going to follow the old classic:

Or maybe she was aiming at more recent masterpiece:

The simple fact is: Fast play in the opening cost White the game and the match!

3) Pure accidents

It is true that accidents can happen to anyone at anytime. But I think you'd agree that if you drive 100 miles per hour the chance of an accident is significantly higher than if you drive 35 miles per hour. Therefore, when you blitz out your opening moves, it is just a matter of time until you get an embarrassing accident, like this one, described by the famous Soviet coach Vladimir Zak in his book "The Way Of Improvement."

Black had 4...Be7 written on his score-sheet, but by mistake, he thought that this move had already been played and expecting 5.e5 Nfd7 he moved his knight right away!

A similar mistake, but with less dramatic consequences, was made by Alekhine:

Here is what Alekhine wrote in his annotation to 4.Bd2: "A lapsus-manus. I intended to play this move after 4.e5 c5, the way I already played versus Nimzowitsch in San Remo 1930, but instead moved the bishop right away." Here you can see Alekhine smoking nervously after his fingerslip.

Alexander Alekhine. | Photo Wikipedia.

I hope that I have managed to convince you that an extra 10-15 minutes you spend at the beginning of the game is a very good investment, but there lies a problem. Most of the local scholastic tournaments in the U.S. are played with a time control of 25 or 30 minutes per game. With this time control, you haven't the luxury to spend extra time on your opening moves. I don't know how to fix this problem, and therefore I recommend all my students rated above USCF 1500 to skip the scholastic events with a short time control and play adult tournaments instead.

In conclusion, I encourage you to share in the comment section your funny stories of opening accidents caused by fast play!

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