Chess Blindness

Is it true that your chess results are always a product of your own efforts? Of course this is a trick question – obviously your opponent’s efforts also count for something! Just because you win doesn’t necessarily mean that you played well … and sometimes when you lose it’s because your opponent played “the game of their life.” Sure. But much more often, you can’t escape the truth that you are to blame for your own pitiful bad results. So stop whining and making excuses. Improvement starts with taking personal responsibility.

By “Chess Blindness” (for lack of a better term) I mean a particular kind of blunder – a failure to even consider an immediate, transparent response by the opponent. A response that is obvious to everyone in the room except the blunderer, and, if considered at all, would certainly have resulted in avoidance of said  blunder. A  classic example is the rook ending in which, with just a few pieces remaining on the board, blunderer places a whole rook en prise to the opponent’s nearby King or pawn, which “lurk” a mere one square away from the sad, doomed rook. I have witnessed this tragedy several times – the self-inflicted victims including even very strong players. Other lapses include forgetting that a King has already moved and so cannot castle (Mikhail Tal), missing a mate in one (Sammy Reshevsky, Vladimir Kramnik vs Deep Junior and many lesser players, including myself at least twice), hanging your queen in the simplest possible way – piece attacks Q, ignore it, piece shockingly takes Q (Petrosian in Candidates Match vs. Bronstein –  I even did this once in a correspondence game!). What is the explanation? Why does Chess Blindness happen?

Often the explanation is fatigue – in the fifth or sixth hour of play one’s physical conditioning plays a big role, or maybe lack of sleep is a factor, and probably our brain chemistry changes in some undesirable way over the hours of intense concentration (I have also heard that the brain needs a regular source of sugar, if only in small amounts). The question is – what can you do to minimize such “cognitive failures.” Playing in tournaments with shorter time controls is certainly not the answer – in those tournaments you have to play more rounds per day and, essentially, more blitz at the end of each game. Not exactly a formula for minimizing errors.

There are many causes of “error” in chess, including, but not limited to, the following examples: a player attempts the smothered mate pattern in the h8-corner in which, after Qg8+, the opponent captures with queen instead of rook or knight (didn’t really understand the pattern), or player memorized an opening line but fatally transposed moves (Kasparov’s Caro Kann vs Deep Blue), or memorized an opening line but didn’t quite understand it and collapsed at the opponent’s first deviation (perhaps applies to a club player you know), or understands the bishop-plus-wrong-rook’s-pawn endgame draw but not that the bishop plus two (or even six) wrong rook’s pawns also draws, or makes a mistake in time trouble (chronic time trouble is itself a mistake), or simply gets outplayed in a complex tactical situation (a mistake, maybe, but one that alot of players might make), or touches the wrong rook, or forgets to turn off the cell phone, or forgets to set the alarm clock, or fails to sign the score sheet (wait, … that’s golf), or tragicomically resigns in a won position (the chess equivalent of running like the wind towards the wrong football goal, fans and team mates screaming in horror, “scoring” and then viciously spiking the ball), or overlooking an in-between move, overlooking a small deflecting move, assuming an automatic recapture, etc., etc., etc. – In general, the false assumption will get you every time.

Many authors have been written through the Ages about “mistakes in chess,”  how to avoid them, how to cause them and, more generally, the subject of “psychology in chess.” In fact, many pages would be required just for a decent bibliography. A few books that I’ve actually read and could even sort of  recommend include: Krogius Psychology in Chess, Soltis Catalog of Chess Mistakes, Kotov Think Like a Grandmaster and, a second volume, Play Like a Grandmaster, and finally, my personal favorite, Drink Like a Grandmaster, which is actually a coffee cup I presently have filled with pencils and pens.

Restricting ourselves, again, to just a subset of all chess mistakes, “Chess Blindness,” the following game is submitted as a desperate search for “an explanation.” This guy is no help; I asked, but he can’t tell me why.

In the Continental Chess Association’s recent Boardwalk Open (Asbury Park, New Jersey), my first round opponent, Jessica Regam, was the ultimate co-winner of the U2100 Section (she is now 2114). The diagram below shows the position after White’s 13.Re1. Here, playing the Black side of an obscure variation of the French Defense, I contemplated my backward e-pawn, the bad light-squared bishop and how best to wrest control of the e5-square – all of which made me think of the move…Ng4, which, in turn, led me to think of the totally wild sacrifice …Nxf2!  But, because of  my old age, I knew that such a violent undertaking would fail if one’s preparation was incomplete … and so, after 13 minutes thought, I played the obvious developing move 13…Rc8 (labeled move 1 below). This seemed to focus attention on the Q-side, as my opponent quickly played the defensive a2-a3, keeping one black knight off of the b4 square (possibly intending Qc2 or Bc2/Qd3) … but, aha, allowing the other knight free access to g4. After the anticipated h2-h3, I took on f2. White then has to take the knight, at which point you might ask, what does Black get for the sacrificed piece? Well, I thought … two important pawns, White’s shattered K-side pawn structure, very active development of one bishop with tempo …Bc5+, the Black Queen’s easy access to h4 with attack on h3, f2 and f3, the probably-dangerous rook lift …Rf6 and doubling …Raf8, and the imminent pawn roller …e6-e5-e4 solving all of my afore-mentioned problems. All this, while White’s Q-side is still a bit undeveloped. It seemed like a good deal. And it was a good deal. Then the end of the fourth hour of play approached, in a 40 moves in 2 hours format … The rest is in the notes to the game and the Post Mortem at the end..

Post Mortem:

First, in the middle of an attack, I suddenly became worried about the safety of by pieces and Q-side pawns. I took my eye off the target and played the safety move … Kh8. This loss of time allowed White to develop the Q-side and put up a fight, whereas the game could have been decided immediately.

Then I agreed to minor piece exchanges when it would have been better to keep them on the board. I could feel the loss of momentum when I played …Bxe3.

With plenty of time on my clock, plenty of sleep, a good meal, plenty of caffeinated beverages, I spent just a few minutes before playing …Rxf3?? I evaluated  both Qxf3 and Bxf3 as winning for Black. That’s it! I stopped thinking there and excitedly played …Rxf3. After a few minutes thought my opponent simply took my rook with the King. Stunned, like a deer caught in  headlights, I tried to put on my best poker face. The truth is that I never even saw White’s capture with the King! Even though it was sitting right next to my rook. I even give lectures to the kids – “The King is like an old tired Lion. He doesn’t move so fast but he still bites. So keep your rooks far away from the bite of the King. Another factor is that, when you are attacking, you don’t expect the attacked King to move towards the center, unless absolutely forced. Here Kxf3 never entered my conscious mind – I filtered it out at some subconscious level. I was also plagued by the notion of “doing something.” I felt that the position required “more” than a problematic ending with one extra pawn. This was true, but …Rxf3 was not the solution!

Then I compounded my omission in analysis (King bites rook) by quickly playing…Rf8+ -, nothing more than a poker bluff, thereby blowing the perpetual check that was still there, forced by …Qh5+. Everyone has read (but do they truly know?) that after making a mistake you must regain composure and play the best move in the position as it stands. It’s the same in golf – if you hit it in the gorse, you have to go find it and play it as it lies … or take the penalty. Here, after all my mistakes, I could have salvaged a draw by remaining cool and optimistic. Related quotes:

Reporter to Fischer: “Do you ever lose your cool during a game?”

Fischer: (Incredulous) “No. That’s part of the game, your cool.”

Reshevsky: “I rarely become discouraged in an inferior situation, and I fear no one.

Fischer on Reshevsky: “Reshevsky was the top player in the world in the mid-1950’s.” Reshevsky beat reigning World Champion Botvinnik 2.5 – 1.5 in their 1955 match. I will have more to say about Reshevsky in the future. I met him and played him a long time ago.

Finally, on the subject of creating “masterpieces” and “brilliancies”: I considered (briefly) then rejected …Bxe4 as “not enough.” I was still tethered to the feeling that there must be something better. The “work of art” delusion. A player needs to decide if he wants results or works of art. As Dr. Ariel Mengarini and others have pointed out, below the very highest levels, it is probably delusional to think you’ll crank out a bunch of masterpieces. Kasparov has said that the average Grandmaster makes three mistakes per game … and the average club player makes three mistakes per move! So be practical – play for results, but have fun while you’re at it.