By: GM Damian Lemos
Mistake #1: Reacting to your Opponent
The first mistake I see club players make all the time is reacting to what their opponent has just played. While we should try and understand what they are up to, we shouldn’t let them dictate play.
Emanuel Lasker (Black) has just played 17…Qb6 avoiding the exchange of Queens. What would you play here?
Over half the players I show this position to choose 18.Qe2. The logic is that Black’s last move prepares …Rad8, attacking the Queen and occupying the open file. Therefore, White should move the Queen and get ready to play 19.Rfd1.
This is a case of reacting to our opponent’s move. 18.Qe2? doesn’t lose, doesn’t drop material but it does see the initiative disappear.
Instead of worrying about what Black wants to do next, look at what you can do right now. White controls the d-file and the e5 Knight is loose.
Alekhine played 18.Qd6! I imagine you would have no problem finding that move – but what’s so good about it?
First, it’s a forcing move. The Queen has moved to a more active square with tempo as the e5 Knight must be defended. A move like 18…Rfe8 is no good either because White has 19.Nh6+! gxh6 20.Qxf6 shattering Black’s King position.
Second, the Queen will be able to quickly switch to g3 creating a threat of mate on g7. Again, this move will be “with tempo” as Black must react to it immediately.
Third, the Queen has vacated a square for one of her Rooks to occupy. A later Rfd1 will vastly improve the activity of that Rook. Also, the Rooks are now “connected” meaning they protect one another.
In the game, Alekhine’s attack just flowed from here. In fact, Lasker’s 17…Qb6 was probably the losing move.
While this move isn’t too tough to find, it illustrates principles that will help you find strong moves in other positions.
Remember: don’t just react to what your opponent is doing, focus on what you can do.
Look for moves that:
- Force your opponent to react to a threat (the attack on the Knight here)
- Bring pieces to more active or important squares (generally in the center)
- Allow you to re-route your piece to a more threatening square (Qd1-d6-g3)
- Improve your other pieces (the Rooks in this case)
Mistake #2: Making Assumptions
Most of the time, we see this with captures and sacrifices. Players assume that, because they’ve taken a piece, their opponent is going to recapture next move. Or, because they’ve sacrificed a piece, their opponent has to take it.
Here’s an example from a game played by Paul Morphy, one of the chess greats:
Morphy, playing Black, has just put his Knight on e4, threatening f2. White could just castle but he thought “I can capture the Knight, Morphy will recapture, then I castle. This leaves Black with doubled, isolated c-pawns.”
What happened? 10.Bxe4 Qh4! an in-between move. Black attacks f2 and the Bishop. Now, if White castles, Morphy can take the Bishop with his Queen, keeping the strong pawn on d5.
Play continued, 11.Qe2 (determined to wreck Black’s pawn structure) dxe4 12.Be3? (diagram).
Another mistake based on an assumption! White desperately wants to neutralize the aggressive Bishop aiming at his Kingside so offers a trade. Black must either move the Bishop away from this diagonal or exchange it, right?
12…Bg4! No! Paul Morphy increases the pressure, attacking the defender of the Bishop (note, the f2 pawn isn’t really defending as it’s pinned). If 13.Qd2 Rd8 threatens the Queen and mate on d1. White resigned soon after 13.Qc4 Bxe3.
We need to be especially careful about sacrifices made without check as our opponent has time to counter with an attack of their own.
Here’s an example taken from a club game. White’s Queen is attacked but that didn’t stop him playing 19.Nh5+. The assumption being that 19…gxh5 20.Qg5+ Kh8 21.Qxh5 is going to be dangerous for Black.
As it turns out, Black can accept the sacrifice, but he’d have to be feeling brave and be very sure of his analysis. Instead, he played the simple 19…Kh8. Now White has 2 pieces under attack.
Black got an advantage just by ignoring the sacrifice. A few moves later, this position was reached.
White should just retreat the Bishop to d3 but decided to mix things up with23.Bxg6 making the assumption Black would take, and he’d get 2 pawns and a Rook for Knight and Bishop. Instead, Black played 23…Ng8! revealing an attack on the f4 Knight. With 2 pieces (and a pawn) under attack, White was losing material.
Notice how this also follows on from Mistake #1: Reacting to your opponent. The reactionary move would have been to capture the pieces offered, whether a recapture, trade or sacrifice.
- Don’t assume your opponent must make a certain move. Unless they’re in check, they probably have a ton of options!
- If your opponent captures a piece, offers a trade or a sacrifice, take a minute to consider if you have an in-between move to put more pressure on them.
Mistake #3: Neglecting King Safety
This might sound like a basic mistake but you’d be surprised how vulnerable the King can be. This lesson will show you how to spot attacking opportunities and take advantage of them.
This position is from the classic Field-Tenner game. White has just played 13.Nb3 attacking our Bishop. He will be checkmated 5 moves later! So, what should we notice about this position?
First, we are far ahead in development. Essentially White has castled and put a Knight on b3 while we have castled, developed all our minor pieces and got a more active Queen compared to our opponent’s.
Second, the White King is kind of on his own on the Kingside. Only the Bishop can get to that side of the board quickly. On the other hand, we have a Knight and Bishop there and can swing the Queen over too. Our d4 pawn is also helping by denying White use of the d3 and f3 squares.
We are more active and should consider an attack.
Now, what threats can we make? To get at the King we will need to bring in more pieces and perhaps open lines by attacking the pawns.
Imagine we had some free moves and placed the Queen on g4 and the Bishop on f3/h3. We would be threatening Qxg2# and if g3 then Qh3/f3 and mate the next move.
The Bishop is occupying the g4 square though and we haven’t go time to move it because of Nxc5. However, if we create a threat, we might be able to buy the time we need.
What about Bf3 and Bh3? If White takes our c5 Bishop we can play Qg4 and force mate. But what if he takes the light-squared Bishop?
After 13…Bh3 White doesn’t have to capture – he can bring a piece to defend with 14.Bf4! and we still have 2 pieces en prise.
13…Bf3 has an advantage over …Bh3 as 14.gxf3 allows exf3 and we keep our g2 threats. For example, 15.Kh1 Qh3 16.Rg1 Bd6! (you have to find this move) and mate follows on h2.
So far so good. But we also need to analyze the line played in the game: 14.Bf4. A sensible move by White – we have 2 pieces en prise and he is planning to block the g-file from the Queen. 14…Qg4 15.Bg3.
Now what? We have 2 pieces en prise, but it’s important to note that White cannot take the f3 Bishop nor can the g3 Bishop move. And if h3 is played, we can take the g3 Bishop because the f2 pawn is pinned.
This allows us a bit of time but we must make maximum use of it or our attack will run out of steam.
The g2 pawn/square is the weak spot so we need to attack it with another piece.
15…Nh5! 16.Nxc5 Nf4 17.Nxe4
Time for the finishing blow! Something like 17…Bg2 is too slow, White will gain time and improve his pieces with 18.Qd2 attacking the Knight.
Combine the idea of attacking the g2 square with your checkmate patterns and you should find the beautiful sacrifice 17…Qh3!! If White leaves the Queen, mate on g2 follows and 18.gxh3 is met by Nxh3
What I’d like you to remember from this game is:
- A lead in development and an unprotected King are signals to start an attack.
- We want to attack as quickly as possible and should be willing to sacrifice material for speed.
- We should also consider sacrificing material to vacate important squares (like Qg4 in the game) or break open the enemy pawn cover.
- Advanced pawns can be a great help in attack.
- Put as much pressure on the opponent’s weakness (g2 in the game) as you can.
Mistake #4: Not Looking for Double-Attacks
Creating multiple threats is a quick way to give your opponent a real headache and increase the chance of them making a game-losing mistake. Start looking for double attacks at every move and you’ll put your rival under incredible pressure – and avoid running into one yourself.
Remember, the threat doesn’t have to win material, it could have a positional goal such as wrecking their pawn structure or restricting a piece.
Here is a great example taken from my “Aggressive Chess Guide” (Empire Chess 55), part of the 20 volume Club Player’s Manifesto.
In this game White notices our c4 pawn is pinned against the Bishop on b5 and plays 18.b4!? which attacks our Knight and, if we retreat, wins the pawn. Not only will it win the pawn, our Knight will also be on the awkward g7 square.
However, there is a creative solution:18…cxb3 en passant! Doesn’t this lose a piece? No, remember every move changes something about the position and White’s b4 opened up the long diagonal a1-h8 allowing us some tactical tricks.
If 19.Bxb5 we open the diagonal completely by sacrificing another piece …Ng4+! 20.hxg4 Bxc3. We’re a piece down but we’re attacking the a1 Rook, d2 Knight and b5 Bishop – we’re going to win our material back and we have a passed pawn on b3!
Let’s follow the game. White played 19.Nxb5 and we exploit the open diagonal with …Nxd5! So, we have 2 pawns for our Bishop, we’re attacking the a1 Rook, the e3 pawn and threatening to fork Queen and Rook.
After 20. Rxa5 I know many club players would take the Rook – it’s an automatic response to instantly recapture and mistake #2 in this series.
You will win many games if you remember to always look for an in-between move first …Nxe3! Note the Queen cannot protect the a5 Rook from a1 as the square is guarded by our Bishop.
21.Qxb3? Losing but many people would play it. 21.Nc4 was necessary. …Nxf1+ 22.Nxf1 Qxa5 White has 3 minor pieces for 2 Rooks and 2 pawns – not enough. Now he thinks he can win back some pawns… 23.Bxe7 Rfe8skewering the Bishops but can White escape?
24. Bxd6 Rxe2 25.Bxb8 Qa8! Threatening mate on g2, the Bishop is lost and White will have to give up more material soon.
- Look for lines opened or pieces left unguarded after your opponent’s move
- Exploit ways to make a move with tempo (as with 19…Nxd5!)
- Look out for in-between moves (20…Nxe3!)
- If 2 unprotected pieces are in a line (or a Knight fork away) see if you can win them (23…Rfe8)
- Find squares that allow you to attack 2 pieces/squares simultaneously (25…Qa8!)
Mistake #5: Leaving the King in the Center
While this may be seen as a beginner’s mistake, it really isn’t. Players of all strengths prefer to develop their other pieces if their King looks safe in the center. As we’re about to see, however, appearances can be deceptive.
Chess genius Mikhail Tal used to say that for however long his opponent’s King stayed in the center, he would prioritize finding ways to attack it.
To give you some ideas of how to achieve this, we’ll look at another lesson from the Club Player’s Manifesto, the training program that teaches you how a GM thinks.
This position is taken from a Caro-Kann Defense played between 2 Grandmasters, Pablo Ricardi and Daniel Campora. White has just played 11.Bg5 setting a tiny trap Black was never going to fall for. The natural move …Be7 allows 12.Nd6+! exploiting the pin to wreak havoc in Black’s position.
Instead Black replied with the logical 11…f6. The Bishop will have to retreat and Black will be able to pressure e5 and eventually gain space in the center.12.exf6 gxf6 13.Bh4 cxd4.
Now 14…d3 is threatened, trapping the Bishop but White has it all in hand. Notice how he maintained the pin on f6 with 13.Bh4.
14.Nfe5! protecting the c4 Knight (in case of …d3), opening up the d1-h5 diagonal for the Bishop to move to and claiming a powerful central square. …Nxc4 15.Nxc6 bxc6 16.Bxc4 Now Black just wants to move his Bishop, solidify his center and he should have a good game. 16…Be7 17.Re1 e5.
18. Rxe5!! Resigns!
Where did that come from? The clues are all there. The King is stuck in the center, the f6 pawn is pinned, the e7 Bishop can only be protected by the King and Queen, the light squared Bishop is loose. Qh5+ is tempting but Bg6 covers.
The sacrifice must be taken as the f5 Bishop is attacked and, if it moves, 19.Bxf6 follows.
After 18.Rxe5!! fxe5 the fun starts! 19.Qh5+ Bg6 (else the Bishop drops with check) 20.Qxe5 attacking the Rook…Rf8 21.Re1! and there’s no good way to defend the Bishop and escape the deadly discovered checks that will follow.
Notice that with the King in the center it’s more difficult for the Rooks to come to the 7th rank and help defend the pinned piece.
- When the King is in the center look for ways to open lines and control the squares around him (notice how the Bc4 controls f7).
- Make use of pins and other tactical means to get aggressive squares for your pieces, even if it is only short-term.
- Take note of unprotected pieces and those that can only be defended once or twice.
- Make sure you can bring in extra firepower quickly and preferably with tempo (either a check or a threat, see 21.Re1).