Friday, February 17, 2017

Four Beginner Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."
-Shunryu Suzuki 

I was playing in a tournament recently and was watching some of the games in the U1000 section. Most of the players had just started playing that year and it was good to see their enthusiasm and competitive spirit. It was also a special tournament for me because my own children started their chess journey and played in the unrated section for their first tournament.

As I watched their games, I began to notice a few common types of mistakes the players were making in their games. I've been there too. In this article, we'll discuss a few of the prominent ones I noticed and how to avoid them.

Ignoring Your Opponent's Moves

The tell-tale sign of this was seeing the player's hand make a move and press the clock and then hover over the next piece he plans on moving (often the same one he just moved). All of this without even looking at his opponent's side of the board. 

Remember in chess that it takes two to tango. Chess is a very interesting art because not only do you use your own creative powers along with your logic and reasoning, your opponent does as well. In fact, his creative and reasoning ability is focused on plans and intentions diametrically opposed to yours! We just can't ignore what he's doing or capable of doing.

Here is one of the positions I saw.

This is an extreme example but it is not an uncommon one for beginners to make.

Our next example comes from a more conventional middlegame position. In this case, Black sees the simple threat of an under-defended piece and makes a move to resolve the situation. However, she ignores (or doesn't see) the potential tactical shot.

Often times, when beginners make these mistakes they often kick themselves, because it is not necessarily a concept that they don't understand, but usually a move they did not see.

In the example above, if Black was given the position in from White's point of view and told that it was White to "Move and Win" she would have seen the fork in less than 10 seconds. However, because Black isn't in the habit of considering her opponent's responses, it wasn't a part of her decision making process.

How can we fix this mistake? First, I think a lot of experience will help naturally as players will start to come up with ways to avoid simple mistakes lest they continue to lose because of them.. I think we can accelerate the process though by being aware of it and taking action. Here are a few ideas:

  • Follow Blumenfeld's Rule: Before you make your next move, as yourself, "Am I allowing mate in one? Am I allowing my queen to get taken? Am I allowing my rook to get taken?" and so on. Although this may seem like it takes a lot of time, it will become automatic and it will save a lot of heartache as you avoid dropping those queens!
  • When studying master games or going through your own games, identify the attack and defense relationships between the pieces. For example, when you move a piece, identify what pieces are attacked by it or defended by it. This will help you develop your awareness.
  • Practice checkmate problems. Although I primarily use Chess Tempo and Chessity for tactics training, I really like Ideachess for its ability to select checkmate problems from two-movers to four-movers. Start with two-movers and move on to mates-in-three. Doing these will develop your board vision as you will need to know how each piece works to checkmate or defend the opposing king.

Lone Wolf Pieces

The second thing I noticed was that the players were often sending in one (maybe two) pieces to attack a target.

Sometimes this might be in the opening when a player gets his knight or queen out, and then tries to probe for weaknesses that just don't appear. Or they see a piece that's en prise so they attack it, only for it to be defended on the next move.

Here are a few tips to cure this particular issue:

  • Remember to develop your pieces in the opening before starting an attack. I discuss this topic more fully in my article on learning opening moves.
  • When you decide to attack a target, think about your opponent's response and how you will follow-up to the initial defense. See if you can build up an attack on a single target.
  • Make sure that all of your pieces are participating in the game. When you're not sure what to do, ask yourself, "Which of my pieces are not doing anything yet?" Find something for it to do.
  • Study the games of the great masters for examples of how players coordinate their pieces. See the Morphy game I have included below.
Here is an example of planning ahead and building up pressure on a simple target using the example of an isolated pawn.

One of the great Paul Morphy's skills was using all of his pieces to conduct an attack. Here he demonstrates this ability in fine fashion against Spanish-Cuban master Celso Golmayo. You can also check out my video on this game.

There are times when one must "go it alone." However, your chess pieces in general shouldn't!

Lacking Basic Endgame Knowledge

There are many reasons why studying the endgame is very useful for beginners.
  • Endgame positions involved fewer pieces and thus are simpler to learn.
  • Endgame knowledge transfers to other parts of the game.
  • Since many beginners (and intermediate players) neglect the endgame, your knowledge of the endgame will give you a competitive advantage.
Here was the ending of a game that was painful for everyone to watch. Both players were rated around 600.

In the beginning, you don't need to know that many concepts and specific endgames. However, the following are useful and very common at all levels:

  • Queen and King versus King (shown above)
  • Rook and King versus King
  • Two Rooks and King versus King
  • King and Pawn versus King
  • Understanding the concept of the opposition
  • Understanding the "square" of the pawn.
You can study these in Jeremy Silman's very useful Silman's Complete Endgame Course. For overall chess training, including a comprehensive endgame course, I also recommend GM Nigel Davies' Tiger Chess program.

Missing Opportunities

The final beginner mistake I will discuss today is missing opportunities. Specifically, in this tournament I saw a lot of missed mates-in-one and hanging pieces. In a way, this is the opposite of the first mistake. Instead of ignoring your opponent's threats, you are ignoring your own opportunities. 

Here is a game I saw between two beginners in their first tournament.

There may be many reasons for this. For example, one side may overvalue the threats of their opponent (like we saw above). However, I think a lot of this is general board awareness and being careful. The solutions are similar to what I mentioned above:

  • Follow Blumenfeld's Rule for offense: "Can I checkmate my opponent? Can I take his queen? Can I take his rook?"
  • Before making a move, ask yourself, "Can I find a better move?"
  • Study basic tactics problems on Chessity or from a book like Chess Tactics for Students by John Bain.
  • Study checkmate problems on Ideachess or from a book like the massive Chess: 5334 Problems, Combinations, and Games by Laszlo Polgar (father of the famous Polgar sisters).

Enjoying the Journey

I hope this article provided some useful advice. I think the first step to improvement is awareness that you need to improve. The second step is to take action towards that improvement. I hope you find the tips and suggestions I provided helpful for you.

It was a joy to watch my children play in their first tournament, and I remember the pain I felt when I lost because of a "silly" mistake. With continued study and experience, you'll avoid these common mistakes. Until then, keep playing and enjoying this beautiful game of ours.

Your Turn

Did you enjoy this article?

If you are a beginner, what is your biggest struggle at the moment? Put it in the comments and I'll see if I can create more articles or videos to help you get through them.


  1. I am sorry, but I cannot see any pictures (games) at the last article. What should be done to "turn it on"? Any advice?

    BTW. Normally I see everything at 95% of chess websites or blogs.

    1. Tomasz...I'm not sure. They show up on several computers and my phone as well. Do you see them on my other articles?

    2. Now it works fine! The flash was probably not updated.

      Thank you very much for your great articles! I know how hard is to write high quality articles and show really interesting things with very well defined conclusions.

      I appreciate your writings my friend and I am glad I can read these! They inspire me and give me a continuous pondering over the things you are talking (writing) about! Keep up great things going!

    3. Dear Tomasz,
      I'm glad it worked for you. I appreciate your positive feedback. It keeps me going. I hope that my writing help people somehow. I realize I have a long way to go myself with regard to my chess journey, as well as to improve as a writer. However, I try my best with the time I have and if it helps someone, then it is worth it.