The Psychology of Chess Blindness

In my book, Better Thinking for Better Chess, I addressed some of the causes of mistakes and various forms of chess blindness. One thing that I left out of my book was getting careless because I did not give my opponent enough respect. I did address having an unpleasant opponent and this game illustrates that to a point. I went into this round tied for first place and had what should have been an easy-to-beat opponent. My opponent was a ten-year-old boy with a 646 rating. Instead of an easy win this game turned out to be my most embarrassing loss in 30 years! Prior to the start of this game no one had told me that Omry had a habit of making unsound sacrifices and that he was a Kamikaze who would come at me with everything including the kitchen sink! I was so shocked that Omry had the audacity to try what he did that I did not recover emotionally in time to find the refutation to his sacrifice. My blindness was caused mostly by my irritation that someone rated 854 points below me would even try such a thing. Then, he followed up on his sacrifice correctly. His play was tactically unsound, but it turned out to be psychologically correct. In the rematch a month later I was expecting him to try another unsound sacrifice and when he did I easily beat him. I now have an even score against this kid.

Here are some excerpts from my book:

An article by Dr. Don Ifill appeared in the April 1966 issue of Chess Life. He did a survey of 83 players ranging from under 1400 to over 2400. He wanted to know to what the different levels of players attributed their respective wins and losses. He found that 56 out of 83 players said they win because of skill and lose because of blunders! The “eight” most likely reasons for miscues were then rank ordered. A ninth reason was added in by four players. The reasons were as follows: 1) Poor chess judgment; 2) Faulty analysis of a complicated position; 3) Falling into a “trap” set by the opponent; 4) Under time pressure; 5) Fatigued after a long playing session; 6) Tried an unsound sacrifice; 7) Overconfident when winning; 8) Recognized an error before the opponent replied; and 9) Moved too rapidly (the added one). He found that those who win because of skill lose because they move too quickly, or faulty analysis of complicated positions. Those who win because of luck, lose because they have poor chess judgment.

Krogius … devotes a whole chapter to attention. He says that many blunders are inexplicable if we were to consider the nature of the errors and the players who made them. For example, how does one explain the master who overlooks that his Queen is en prise? The master could claim fatigue or time pressure for some of these errors, but not all. The more likely explanation, according to Krogius, is to examine the individual peculiarities of a player’s attention. These personal and quite typical defects in attention can appear at the worst time and with regularity.

Krogius lists four reasons that attention can fall off during a game. The first reason is unfamiliar conditions at a competition. He cites as an example a time when he “bravely” sacrificed a pawn without much thought in order to relieve tension caused by playing at an unfamiliar site. He then speculated that this may be the reason that some foreign players perform well below their respective strengths at international tournaments. The second reason is one’s position in the tournament and the significance of the result of the game. Some players are in a must win situation and will take chances that they might not otherwise take. Also, this can cause an over-excitement that could cloud judgment. The third reason is an “unpleasant” opponent. Once a player loses to a particular player, the first may experience a feeling of doom when paired with that player again. This feeling may cause one player to consistently lose to the same player even though he can beat other players of the same strength. This may also fall into the category of personal grudges to some degree. The last reason is the opponent’s behavior. By watching one’s opponent, one can gain insight into his personality. We can also assess his emotional state at any given time. Don’t let your opponent’s good mood shake your confidence in your own position. But, if you know how to legally rattle your opponent, then by all means do so. One example of this is when a player sits back in his or her seat, stretches his or her arms and seems quite relaxed. This may be a sign of overconfidence.

Mike Serovey, MA, MISM
Author of Better Thinking for Better Chess