Isn't chess blunderful?
Typography courtesy of the National Library of Poland's Polona Typo project

Isn't chess blunderful?


As much as I enjoy chess, I often find it frustrating that virtually every game I play is rife with mistakes.

Every time I finish a game, I'm repeatedly reminded of my all-too-human imperfections as soon as I run a Stockfish analysis that "objectively" points out my many errors.

Almost every time that the stern god of artificial intelligence forces me to confront my embarrassing blunders, I confess the error of my ways and vow next time not to hang my queen or miss mate in one.

But not today! 

Here's a position that popped up in a 3/2 blitz game I just played. 

It's Black's move. What would you do?

Stockfish certainly has strong feelings about how it believes this game should be played.

I chose to take a totally different tack.

Perhaps because Stockfish presumes that we should not merely welcome but even slavishly imitate our new computer overlords, its judgment of my play was harsh, assessing my 24...Rxc3 as a blunder and assigning it two question marks.

Stockfish's censure certainly inspired this post but this post isn't a defense of my supposed blunder, it's a celebration of "blunders" in chess.

Thinking is sinful

Lately I've been reading GM Jonathan Rowson's The Seven Deadly Chess Sins, a book that's a heck of a lot more fun than the typical boring chess treatise. 

Rowson argues that thinking is the most fundamental and most important sin in chess — a position I find appealing, given my view that thinking is hard, boring and not that much fun.

Believing that we should cultivate our intuition, Rowson suggests that "humour" is an incredibly important quality for chess players to possess. 

Here's what Rowson says:

[S]urprise is a big component of humour. We often read about the virtues of surprising the opponent, but if what I've said about pattern-recognition and vision makes sense, then it may be more important for us to surprise ourselves. Indeed if we are to avoid being slaves to our patterns, we need somehow to look beyond what we naturally see and I would like to suggest that looking for 'jokes' is one good way to do this....

[T]hink of all the exclamation marks we use to denote good moves. It seems that we frequently let good moves pass without punctuation but when we do award a ! or a !! it is because the move is in some sense unusual, witty or surprising....

[P]ay extra attention to the moves that you find pleasing. If you need hedonism to see the important patterns then you need humour to see the exceptional ones. I'm not sure about this, but certainly we are inclined to stay interested in that which is pleasurable or amusing, and anything which helps you to look at a position in a different light can only benefit your appreciation of the game, your motivation, and consequently your playing strength.

Human, all too human

Rowson has company. Fellow blogger @RoaringPawn has been on the warpath, exalting creativity, imagination, fantasy, ambiguity, intuition, curiosity, inspiration, empathy and risk-taking over logic, precision and safety. 

Here's how @RoaringPawn puts it:

  • The role of chess art (if we may consider chess being art in part) should not be all about winning (at least to me ). Its role should be to express the triumph of the human spirit over the mundane and the déjà-vu… Its role should be to carry beauty and ideas at the same time; to ignite and create; to inspire and stimulate our imagination.
  • In the New Chess Age with all technology and engines and stuff nothing is (properly) judged any more -- only counted.
  • The chess engines are merely pre-programmed tactical monster crunchers of bits and bytes, and that’s where their abilities stop. They don't understand the game, and there's no even the "S" of strategy in their "knowledge". There's no intuition ("the only real valuable thing," Einstein) either, no imagination, no ability for creative effort, no spontaneity, no fantasy.

@RoaringPawn profiled Vladimir Simagin as a paragon of creativity in chess:

  • He was content if the games were rich in original and creative ideas, consistent from the beginning to the end. For example, in the 1944 Moscow championship (Botvinnik, Smyslov, Kotov, Ragozin, Mikenas, Panov, Alatortsev, Lisitsyn took part) Simagin won eight games and lost eight. No draws. So much unlike today’s masters. No imagination, no creativity, no risks – twenty point rating loss would freak them out. An original talent, Simagin was experimenting a lot, searching his own way. Again contrary to today’s players who are mostly searching what their beloved chess engines have to say.
  • For Simagin, scoring points was not the main business in chess. He was more of a gold digger – each chess game was an opportunity for his artistic expression as he was looking for precious golden nuggets of chess beauty.

@RoaringPawn also shared with us a valuable yet long-forgotten interview of David Bronstein, in which Bronstein made these points:

  • Art of chess has long ago been reduced to a struggle for space. So following that logic, he who knows how to take up and use space is a chess pro, while he who doesn’t is an amateur.
  • Chess has lost its creative component. It is no more the game it used to be fifty years ago. The primacy of the struggle for space has led to the fact that chess ceased to be a game.
  • In the past chess was sort of intriguing, pieces somehow get engaged and performance begins. Each actor puts forward his plan, mounts challenge, shows boldness. But only the result is important now.
  • In chess, like in the theater, there should be lively play, not clash of strategies. Actors do not go on stage to do the drill. The audience will chase them out. They should perform a play. Likewise, the chess players should be playing, not going over the same lines over and over again.
  • I too was praised for the results, and not for the beauty of my games. It is a shame!

Go berserk!

So back to my blitz game that inspired this post. Once again, here's the position with Black to move.

One of my knights had already forked White's queen and rook, winning a knight for rook exchange so I was up in material and knew I was ahead. Still it's a 3/2 blitz game and I lose on time tons of games where I hold a winning position.

In the 6.6 seconds I spent on this move I glanced at ...Rcd8 and ...Qd1+ and felt that they were good positional moves but I didn't see any immediate advantage I could get.

Thinking CCT, I noticed that White's king and queen were on the same dark diagonal and that all I needed to do was to shift my Gufeld bishop to d4 and I might win White's queen. The only problem is White's protected pawn on c3. How can I get rid of it?

That's how I arrived at ...Rxc3.

I quickly realized that I'd win at least two pawns for the rook and would earn simultaneous threats against White's queen and its rook. I wasn't sure how White would respond but I felt confident that I'd still hold an advantage. Most importantly, I felt that this line would be fun to play and I wanted to see how it would turn out.

Here's how the game ended.

I was and am still surprised that Stockfish labels ...Rxc3 as a blunder. I'd play that move again in a heartbeat in a daily game against a strong opponent. After all, even with best play by White, the rook sac gives Black a winnable advantage with a game that I personally find easier to play than Stockfish's preferred line.


When is a blunder really a blunder?

I chose to turn this particular supposed "blunder" into a blog post because I've been thinking lately of whether and when a blunder really is a blunder.

Here's a recent daily game that highlights my question.

If you run a Stockfish analysis, it'll charge me with an inaccuracy (11...Bg4, pinning White's knight), a mistake (10...O-O, safeguarding Black's king) and a blunder (12...cxd3, capturing a pawn and threatening White's bishop but leaving Black's bishop en prise). I'll readily admit that if I were playing Stockfish or any other 3000+ rated opponent in a daily game and I made these moves, I'd lose. (To my surprise, Stockfish endorses 13...f5, which leaves the bishop en prise, as Black's best move, although it scores the position at +3.4.)

Of course, I'd lose to Stockfish anyway and more importantly I wasn't playing Stockfish, I was playing a reasonably good and higher rated human opponent. I was presenting him with choices where he had to make decisions and would bear the consequences. He was doing exactly the same to me.

Let's imagine that instead of chess, @AK3012 and I were playing heads up no-limit Texas hold 'em. I'm dealt decent hole cards, I bet pre-flop, I check raise a dangerous looking flop and my opponent ends up folding. He never saw my hole cards. I never saw his. Did I err? Did he?

Or sticking with poker, let's say that I lost a big pot when my opponent called my bluff. Did I err? Did he?

If you're looking at just a single hand or even a single match, it's awfully hard to say that any particular play is a mistake.

I'm coming to view chess more like poker. While it's entirely accurate to view my moves in my game against @AK3012 as a mistake and a blunder, it's also possible to simultaneously view exactly the same moves as the moves that won the game because they posed challenges to my opponent that he wasn't able to overcome.

I'm not at all sure whether this approach is accurate if my goal is to play the strongest chess and maximize my rating. But I am sure of one thing — it's a lot more fun to play blunderful chess than it is to beat myself up because I can't replicate the moves of the latest engine.