Basic Mistakes To Avoid: Improve Your Chess Significantly

I posted the following answer on Quora quite a while ago. It was my first post on Quora (one of my only posts there so far), just to see how it works, but the response turned out to be popular, so I figured — what better first real post than a test-proven success?

Here’s that post:

  1. An amateur’s chess game is most improved by avoiding cheap tactics. Amateurs often spend too much time on ‘strategy,’ trying to look at the positional pros and cons of hypothetical situations 10 moves ahead, only to be forked by a pawn on the next move.
  2. Amateurs make the mistake of spending too much time studying openings. It is possible to become a 2200 player on almost no opening knowledge, by improving your tactics.
  3. A common mistake, not just for amateurs, is to avoid thinking about certain moves as if thinking about them meant playing them. For example, a person will often avoid considering a Rook sacrifice for a pawn, because their brain immediately assigns a negative feeling to such a move (fear of losing material). Awareness of that will give yourself permission to contemplate the said brilliant Rook sacrifice.
  4. Having said all this, when no tactics are in sight, some general guidelines are available to guide your play. They are to
  • control the center (not by occupying those squares, but by having pieces attack them. For example, a knight on f3 controls the center squares d4 and e5, while a knight jumping to e5 releases control of those squares).
  • avoid having any hanging/unprotected pieces or fortify those said pieces.
  • avoid letting your opponent occupy any advanced posts for too long.
  • double check your move for any tactical errors before it is played.

Looking back at this post, I would modify the word “tactics” in point #2 with “chess vision,” because tactics, in the sense that it is usually defined, is only one (albeit important) piece of the puzzle that must be developed when improving chess vision. I want to go into this in more detail in future posts, because that difference is pivotal in understanding how to study chess. Also, the list here is rather simplistic and misses many other important parts of the thought process, but I’ll be sure to get into that in future posts!

Why Cavemen Suck at Chess

Turn back time several thousand years and imagine this situation:

You’re traveling with your tribe, trying to get to your cave before dusk. You get tired and decide to stop by a fallen tree to rest. Suddenly, you hear a noise in the shadows behind you. You leap to your feet and duck your head, fiercely sweeping your eyes back and forth, spear in hand. Unsure what caused the rustle in the leaves, you run back to rejoin with the rest of the group.

Your decision in this scenario is instinctive but actually quite logical. The noise might be a rabbit to game, but it might also be a wolf ready to attack. Your brain is hardwired to know that it’s more costly to miss the sign of a threat than to miss the sign of an opportunity.

Due to this ingrained truth, our brain is much more vigilant of negative scenarios, and we have far greater incentive to avoid negative events than we do to go after positive ones.

This was well summed up by Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson when he said:

To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities).

This is true for all of us, due to our common humanity. To avoid these three mistakes is a most difficult task, because like some of the biggest mistakes in life, they’re errors of omission. You make errors of omission by default, and you have to constantly remind yourself to avoid them.

We are all subject to this, because of that same common humanity. This is true in life in general, and guess what — life imitates chess. Let us roll the clock right back to present time, and imagine this situation:

It’s your move and you’ve been contemplating the same moves over and over in your head. You feel like you’ve thought long enough and the return on investment for additional thinking time is severely diminishing. You make your move and your nerves are starting to calm down when — damnit! You just missed a brilliant Rook sacrifice that would have made Mikhail Tal proud.

There is a whole host of reasons that you may have missed the Rook sacrifice. You may be very nervous about your friend’s board, not feeling well because you missed your snack, suffering from lack of sleep, or distracted by something. However, it would be a mistake to overlook the possibility that negativity bias is at play.

All too often, we avoid thinking about ‘losing a Rook for a pawn,’ because our brain has assigned negative feelings to such a move. Furthermore, the brain’s overwhelming inclination to dwell on this negative occurrence (missing that move, for example) can leave us unable to play well for the rest of the game. What’s more — it may be a move that you never would have missed in a tactical exercise (more on this later, though). Psychology is key in chess (one reason why it’s better to play against people than computers when you’re trying to improve). That is why the first game of a world championship match can have drastic effects on the rest of the match and alter history.

What’s even more interesting, though, going back to the Rook sacrifice example, is that your brain will usually also assign negative feelings to even contemplating such a Rook sacrifice. Your reptilian brain will keep you from taking on the correct thought processes required to analyse your move! That brings us to the next psychological phenomenon, magical thinking, which we all do naturally to some extent. This phenomenon affects our chess play in some really interesting ways, and often works together with the negativity bias. This will be the subject of another article soon. The point to bring home here is that by actively being aware of underlying thought processes, you can greatly improve your chess.

Magical Thinking

In clinical psychology, magical thinking is a condition that causes the patient to experience irrational fear of performing certain acts or having certain thoughts because they assume a correlation with their acts and threatening calamities.

In the most severe cases, magical thinking is a sign of psychosis, whereby a person has difficulty differentiating between reality and the fiction created in their minds.  People with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder often fear that thinking certain things will make them happen, so they create habitual motions or gestures to which they have likewise attributed certain results.

While in its extreme forms, it can be a sign of OCD or psychosis, magical thinking occurs for everyone to an extent, and it filters into the thought processes used in deciding your move during a game of chess.

Based on negativity bias from earlier bad experiences, or even just simply from generalization, your brain may assign a negative feeling associated with a certain type of move (like a Queen takes Knight sacrifice), and then due to magical thinking, your brain averts you from considering the sacrifice, as if thinking it meant playing it. Magical thinking can also take the form of pretending (and subconsciously believing) that if you avoid thinking about what your opponents replies or threats might be, they won’t happen. Players up to 1600 do this all the time, and stronger players fall victim to it too, though more rarely. If you recognize that you do this, think also about why you do it.  Some people fall into this mind-trap only after several games, and this could be mental exhaustion or frustration – it is easier to use this mental ‘tactic’ than to analyze the position. Perhaps you are not having fun playing right now and just don’t feel like trying your hardest. It’s a separate point but if you’re not just killing some time and are trying to improve, try your best every move or don’t play at all! Playing when you’re not having fun is a quick way to get burned out, and it’s not sustainable. You can’t improve if you’re not having fun.

Magical thinking is not all bad, as it can be a way of coping with stress or inspire confidence, like having a good luck charm. However, it can also hurt your chess if you are not aware of it. When I was was much younger, I would sometimes exert full concentration into hoping my opponent would play into a trap move, as if that would make it more likely to occur. It would be beneficial for the player to recognize when these psychological phenomenon occur.  If you recognize and acknowledge that you are using generalization to determine what will ‘likely be a good move’ without paying attention to the nuances of the specific position, you can start actively recognizing your assumptions during the game and create a goal to overcome them. Specific goals like this can be more fruitful than just having a goal to win. Start to think about these things, especially during your slow games!

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