"Psychology of Chess Mistakes" by Alexander Ilyin-Zhenevsky

Jan 17, 2011, 6:33 AM |

This article was written by Ilyin-Zhenevsky in 1928, but I think it still has both historical and practical value. I took the liberty to omit the long introduction.


During my long chess career I've studied a lot of games and found several types of mistakes that appear again and again. All those mistakes are psychology-based, and knowing them can be beneficial both for deep studying of chess games and for practical play. Knowing the essence of a negative occurrence is the first step in overcoming it.

There are many types of such mistakes, and I'll show but a few of them, mostly from my own practice. I'll demonstrate only one example of each type, but most readers, without a doubt, shall be able to find more examples in their own practice.


1. Disappearing square. We often make a mistake because we have board and pieces before our eyes. Let me explain. To think a combination through, you have to forget the position on the board and imagine a new position that will appear after several moves made by both opponents. In this case, the position on the board isn't helpful at all, it can even do much more harm than help. Sometimes it leads to grave mistakes in calculations. Here's an example.

In the game against V. N. Nenarokov (Black), played in 1922 at Moscow quadruple round robin, I got this position after Black's 33rd move:

White is clearly winning. The Black King is caught in the mating net. And so I, without thinking much, decided to do a mate in six: 1. Bf7+! Kf8 (if 1... Kxf7, then 2. Rf6+ Ke8 3. Qg8+ Kd7 4. Qg7+ Ke8 5. Rf8#) 2. Qh6+ Kxf7 3. Rxf6+. Now I expected 3... Ke8, and then 4. Qf8+ Kd7 5. Qg7+ Kc8 6. Rf8#, and suddenly, oh, the horror! 3... Kg8, and there's no mate at all. It took me a lot of effort to draw this game. But if I just played 2. Qxg4, Black could just give up, because after 2... Kxf7, there's a real mate in three.

Why did I overlook such a simple move - 3... Kg8? It's very simple! Look at the beginning position. The g8 square is attacked both by Bb3 and Qg5. And so, while calculating my combination, I was under a false impression that the King can't go to g8.

2. Destroyed partition. A different subtype of previous mistake. In 1923, in the third game of the match against the same player, V. Nenarokov, after Black's 13th move I got this position:


The position is nearly equal. To get some initiative, I decided to open the "f" file and played 1. Rf1 g6 2. Qe3 Ne7. Now nothing could stop me from executing my plan, so I happily played 3. f4 and got this: 3... exf4 4. Qxf4 Qxb5. I didn't plan anything like that. Yes, I did open the file, but lost a piece.

You might say that I just blundered. That's true, but what's interesting is the psychology of this blunder. When I started my plan, I saw that Qg5 and Bb5 are set apart by the e5 pawn. This impression was so strong in my mind that even when the Queen captured the Bishop, I first thought that it actually jumped over the pawn.

3. Forgotten piece. This type of mistake is also similar to previous ones, but in other aspects. I found the best demonstration of it in the game Alekhine - Blackburne played in 1914 at the St. Petersburg international tournament. Here's the position after Black's 10th move.


Alekhine played 1. Nd2, followed by 1... Qa5 2. a4 a6, losing the Bishop. Only Alekhine's incredible ingenuity allowed him to draw this hopeless game. "How can you explain such a blunder?", I asked Alekhine sometime later. "For goodness' sake", said Alekhine, "I just forgot the bishop. I forgot about its existence."

Such forgetfulness occurs often, but it doesn't always lead to such catastrophes.

4. "Natural move". Enthusiasm towards "natural" moves or hoping for a "natural" response from the opponent also may quickly lead to demise. Here's an example. In 1920 in Moscow I played against N. I. Grekov (White) in a quadruple round robin. After White's 8th move I got this position:


The first thing we can see in this position is that Black can easily attack the White's queenside castling position, while White first needs to prepare. So, without thinking much, I played 1... b5. This move is in general vein of the Philidor Defence chosen by Black, and here, it's also justified by White's long castling. The opponent's reply seemed obvious to me: 2. Bd3. If a piece is en prise, it should move away. But instead, there was 2. dxe5! dxe5 (I had to! If 2... bxc4, then 3. exf6 Nxf6 4. Qxc4 with a winning position.) 3. Nxe5! bxc4 4. Nxc6 Qe8 5. e5. The highlight of the combination! The Nf6 has nowhere to go. White win the piece back and get a winning position. Miraculously, I managed to draw this hopeless game. But if I just played 1... Qc7, I'd have kept all my advantages.

5. Dangers of success. We often see cases when a player achieves a considerable positional or material advantage, but then starts playing carelessly and ultimately can't convert advantage into victory. In my game against Emanuel Lasker played at 1925 Moscow international tournament, I got this position after White's 13th move.


Instead of exchanging Queens, Lasker suddenly played 1... Qxa2 2. Ra1 Qxb2 3. Rfb1 Qxb1+ 4. Rxb1, giving away his Queen for Rook, Bishop and pawn. To tell the truth, I still don't understand this combination and I think that after this sacrifice, Black has all chances to lose. But over the board, I just thought that Lasker made a mistake. Other players thought the same. This excited me. Can you believe it - yesterday I won against Capablanca, today I'm winning against Lasker! Nothing can stop me now! And so I started to play quite hastily. Though I was also somewhat short on time. 4... Rfd8 5. c4 Ne8 6. f4 a6 7. Kh1 Nc7 8. Qe3 Rb8 9. Rd1 Nb4 10. Qc3 a5 11. Ra1 b6 12. Qe3. This was followed by 12... e5, and Lasker won the exchange, and soon after that, he won the game. My last move was, of course, a blunder, but my position was already poor even without it. That's the price of excitement over success.

6. Chasing for beauty. This type of defeat is similar to the previous one. Sometimes a chess player, having achieved positional advantage, gets excited and fails to convert it. There are lots of examples available. In my game against Ya. D. Danyushevsky (White), played in 1920 at the USSR Championship, I got this position after Black's 24th move.

White is clearly better. He has two Bishops and an opportunity to create a strong passed pawn in the center. Finally, his King is much more safer than the Black's. A simple 1. d5 gave him good chances for a win. Meanwhile, Danyushevsky saw a pretty mating combination and played 1. Qe7+ Rf7 2. Qe5 Kg6 3. d5 (threatening a spectacular Queen sacrifice: 4. Qxf5+ Kxf5 5. Bd3+ Ne4 6. Bxe4#). But Black easily refutes this threat: 3... cxd5 4. cxd5 Re8 5. Qd4 (White has to exchange Queens, and this isn't in his favour) 5... Qxd4 6. Rxd4 Rc7, and Black eventually won.

7. A sudden check. So many games were lost because of a sudden check! That's a real scourge of the combination! Psychologically, it's similar to my first two examples. The position on the board complicates calculations. But from the very first moves some lines get opened, others get closed, and pieces often get an opportunity for a sudden attack. It's very hard to calculate all that over the board.

In the fifth game of my match against M. G. Klyatskin (Black) in 1922 I got this position after Black's 22nd move:

I already had a Knight for two pawns and a good position. Naturally, I wanted to win quickly. And I came up with this "pretty" combination: 1. exf6 Bxf6 2. Ne5 (attacking both Queen and Bf5) 2... Qe6 (if 2... Bxe5, then Black lost both his bishops and weakened the d5 pawn) 3. Ba3. Everything is forced and works pretty good. Now, I thought, Black also lose an exchange. 3... Rf7 4. Qb5 (almost all black pieces are en prise!) 4... Bxe5 5. Bxd5 (and suddenly!..) 5... Qg6+. The simplest thing to do was to abandon hope to win the exchange, accept the loss of my Knight and play 6. Bg2, but I made a rash decision 6. Kh1, which was followed by 6... Be4+ 7. Bxe4 Qxe4+ 8. Kg1 Qe3+, and I resigned due to impending mate. If we look at the position two moves before the check, it becomes very clear why I missed it. Bf6 barred the road to g6 for Queen, and my King was covered by Bg2. The check had become possible only because both Bishops left their respective squares.

8. Idea mixture. Sometimes it's possible to have two game plans in one position. In this case, the worst possible thing is trying to advance both plans at once. The ideas mix, and both plans ultimately fail. In the fourth game of my match against N. D. Grigoriev (Black), played in 1919, after Black's 22nd move I got this position:

Here, I had two game plans. First - use the poor position of the Rook and play 1. Bf1 Ra4 2. Qe2, threatening 3. Qb5, or 2. Bd3, threatening both Bc2 and Qe2. In this case, the Black queenside pieces get into a poor situation. Another plan was to exploit weakness of the d5 pawn with 1. f4 g6 2. g4! and then a5. But the planes mixed in my head, and I played 1. h3. A very poor move: the Bishop can't go to g4 anyway due to Bxd5. 1... b5 2. f4. Losing a valuable tempo, I chose the second plan, but now it's too late. 2... b4 3. axb4 axb4 4. Bf1. And that's the first plan, or, more accurately, a feeble parody of it. 4... bxc3 5. Bxc4 Qxc4 6. bxc3 Bxh3, and several moves later I've had to resign.

That was my last example. All those examples illustrate, in my opinion, some important points.

1) Games come and go, ideas remain.

2) It is possible to classify chess ideas by types.

3) Such classification can be helpful for studying of chess games.

Some may think that my names for types of chess mistakes seem too bizarre or far-fetched. It may be so. My goal was not to solve the problem, but rather to demonstrate that it exists, not to classify, but to demonstrate the possibility of it. The solution of this problem may require many years of work. But there's no doubt that it can be eventually solved.