Why is chess thinking process failing?

To err is human. Even the best-trained and talented mess up sometimes. The reason is that their brain efficiency comes from the use of automatic shortcuts. They can save time while making decisions in complex situations, but at the same time they create opening for errors.

But what interests us here is mistakes that result from getting caught in cognition traps. These are product of broken education which impairs our judgement and decision-making.

Below are the remaining four mistakes Ilyin-Zhenevsky described in his Psichology of Chess Mistakes article in the 1929 Shakhmatny Listok #19 (translation by Alex Spektrowski; Part I is here).

The author worked back through his thought process to find the source of errors made. For each error described, you can think of potential ways to make it less likely for the error to happen to you. This may improve your thinking pattern by eliminating faulty steps in it.

Chess Glasses

How to find the right glasses for chess myopia (author unknown)

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 turn advantage into victory. In my game against Emanuel Lasker, played at 1925 Moscow international tournament, I got this position after White’s 13th move:


Ilyin-Zhenevsky – Dr. Em. Lasker, Moscow 1925

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. I was also somewhat short on time though. 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:

Position from Danyushevsky - Ilyin-Zhenevsky, 1920

Danyushevsky – Ilyin-Zhenevsky, 1920

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. 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 calculation. 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:

Position from Ilyin-Zhenevsky - Klyatskin, 1922

Ilyin-Zhenevsky – Klyatskin, 1922

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 smoothly. Here, I was under impression Black was also going to 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 the 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:

Position from Ilyin-Zhenevsky - Grigoriev, 1919

Ilyin-Zhenevsky – Grigoriev, 1919

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’s pieces on the queenside find themselves in an unenviable 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. 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.

Shakhmatny Listok #19, 1929

Caricature by Claus Grupen

Tweaking the mistake-proof mental procedure of chess player (cartoon by Claus Grupen, Physics Dept., Siegen University, Germany)

There is no mistake-proof mental procedure for playing good chess, or any other human activity for that matter. And long established habits of thinking are hard to break. Yet, if we want to improve our performance and reduce the number of errors, we should try to identify and eliminate the steps in our thought process that cause errors.

By understanding how we make mistakes, we can avoid their pitfalls.

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