Our successes are our own. Yet conversely, our mistakes are not our fault, at least not entirely. For we are all suffering from systemic biases in the way we see, perceive, remember and learn about the world around us, and these biases make us prone to making all kind of errors.

Today we are going to see the Psychology of chess mistakes article, written by Alexander Ilyin-Zhenevsky1 in the Shakhmatny Listok, #19, back in 1928, discussing eight types of mistakes we are making in chess (next time we will see the remaining four).

The Art of Chess at the Saatchi Gallery

What’s in the game? Do we have the right glasses for it?

It is interesting to see how Ilyin-Zhenevsky saw the character of chess mistakes more than eighty years ago. His article was subtitled Material for a future researcher.  Since then, have we learned how the brain works and why we make mistakes? Well, just today President Obama unveiled his new brain research initiative to map it all out; the initiative’s “ultimate aim is to learn how the brain generates thoughts, perceptions and other mental images; how it stores and retrieves vast quantities of data; and how it learns from experience or education.” So one day we may know all about mistakes we are making. But not as yet.2

Meanwhile let’s see what Ilyin-Zhenevsky had to say in his article – it was translated by Alex Spektrowski on his blog at Chess.com; Alex posts a lot of great stuff there from various Russian sources making it available for the Western reader.

Александр РЕЗАНКO, 64 No19, 1987

Chess cartoon by Alexander Rezanko, from The magazine 64, #19, 1987

Psychology of Chess Mistakes

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:

Position from Ilyin-Zhenevsky - Nenarokov, Moscow 1922

Ilyin-Zhenevsky – Nenarokov, Moscow, 1922

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:

Position from Ilyin-Zhenevsky - Nenarokov, m(3), 1923

Ilyin-Zhenevsky – Nenarokov, m(3), 1923

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 - Blackburn, St. Petersburg 1914

Alekhine – Blackburne, St. Petersburg 1914

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:

Position from Grekov - Ilyin-Zhenevsky, Moscow 1920

Grekov – Ilyin-Zhenevsky, Moscow 1920

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.

Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes. –Oscar Wilde


1. Alexander Ilyin-Zhenevsky (1894-1941) was a Soviet chess master and organizer, one of founders of the Soviet chess school; he was part of the system, an Old-Guard Bolshevik cadre, writer, military organizer and diplomat. Having suffered from shell-shock in the WWI, he had, they say, to learn how to play chess for the second time. He was awarded his Master title in 1925. The same year he defeated Capablanca, then the World champion, at the great Moscow tournament. He promoted the use of chess as an instrument for developing tactical and strategical comprehension during military training and he was the main responsible for spreading of chess as a way to teach the basics of scientific and rational thought.

2. “The study is to find out how billions of brain cells and complex neural circuits interact.” Funny, it is not that easy for our brain to comprehend how just few pieces interact and coordinate their action on the chess board. Else, we’d all have the GM title…

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