Avoiding the BIG mistake

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     Over the years I have reviewed thousands of games played by intermediate players. The blunder that ended the following recent game, shown to me by a student last night, is typical of the type of "big" mistake you often find in those players' games:

     Anyone can make a big mistake like 19...Bg4??. Black was attracted by the potential skewer of the queen and rook, and the "weakening" of White's kingside and e3 square by the "forced" 20.e3. When asked why they make moves like this, intermediate players have a variety of answers, such as:

  1. I thought the piece was guarded (as in this case),
  2. I did not see the piece that captured it,
  3. I played too fast, or 
  4. I did not check to see if it was safe.
     However, though this type of mistake is partly psychological - after all, everyone above absolute beginner knows you should not give your opponent a free piece - similar blunders occur far more often in the play of intermediate players than they do in games of strong players. It's worth repeating: even though all players know equally well not to make such an easy mistake, intermediate players "allow" this type of mistake to occur much more often.
     Because such mistakes are so disastrous to your results, it is incumbent upon instructors like myself to ask the questions "Why does this 'big mistake' occur more often even though the player that avoiding it is absolutely necessary?" and "What can be adjustment can be made by these players so that they won't will minimize this type of mistake in the future?"
     I think the principle answer to the first question lies in my observation that "strategy is the tiebreak of equally safe moves". Yet when I listen to players think out loud (see my book "The Improving Chess Thinker") or ask them what happened after such a big mistake, I often hear reasons similar to what I heard from this player, about skewers and weakening of the kingside. In other words, they are putting the consequences of the move before and above the first question "Is it safe?"
     When I am thinking during a game, safety is a much higher/first priority. Although strategy might help me pick out a bunch of candidate moves and ideas, as I am "forming my candidate list", so to speak (I don't do this consciously, by the way; I DON'T say to myself "Now that I know what both players are trying to do, the next step is to form a list of candidate moves that might either stop what he is trying to do or help what I am trying to do..."), I am also weeding out the list with "Is it safe?" For example, I might think "I need to develop my queen to the kingside so Qf3, Qg4, and Qh5 are moves that do that, but if I play Qg4 he has Bc8xg4, so that leaves Qf3 and Qh5 as possible moves."
     But my students don't always think that way. When they look at a move they often get involved with the consequences of the move before determining the safety. And in some cases they never get around to asking "Is my candidate move safe? Can my opponent play a check, capture, or threat in response that I can't meet?" This omission is not only dangerous, but it also means that slower players often waste time looking at ideas that are not relevant if they just asked if the candidate moves initiating these sequences were safe first.
     If you are prone to this type of blunder, then I suggest you try something I don't do (because my "safe" priority makes it unnecessary). Before you make a move, do a "sanity check" and ask if your move is crazy: Does it just leave a piece en prise, can you get back-rank mated, etc? You dont' have to re-analyze everything about your final move - that would be a waste of time. But at least give yourself one final chance to eliminate the BIG mistake.
     It all gets back to the chess improvement formula featured on the front page of my website Slow => Safe => Active => Everything Else. Slow and safe implies careful, and careful is a good trait...