Bulletin No.29 – Blunders Part 3: Why Do Blunders Happen?

Colourised version of photo by Bletchhhy (WikiMedia) under GNU 1.2

Previously in Bulletin 29 we have looked at World Championship Blunders and other International Blunders. Today we discuss why blunders happen and illustrate them with a few examples from some of Dorset’s strongest players. Next week we will finish with more local blunders.


We all hate making blunders and would love to eradicate them from our play.  It’s not just that they affect our results, there is an embarrassment factor too!

Unlike many articles on blunders, this bulletin approaches the problem by attempting to identify the main underlying causes of blunders as opposed to jumping straight to solutions or at the other end of the spectrum getting into an analysis of what the conscious and subconscious do when playing chess.

It goes on to suggest some methods that might just help to reduce your blunder rate, though we definitely don’t make any promises on that!

Before starting we need to understand what really constitutes a blunder in this context.  We are not talking about bad positional misjudgements or miscalculating in even moderately complicated variations but a howler that either loses material or leads to mate, or an easy missed opportunity  to win immediately.

Why Blunders Happen

Accepting that there can be a degree of overlap, we suggest that blunders by experienced players are mainly caused by five types of flaw in thinking processes.

1. Auto-pilot

You are on familiar ground in a position you have either played before or of the type you know well.   This might be in an opening where you know the relevant ideas and moves and play one without checking to see if you have the sequence right.  Or it might be in a middlegame where you know a tactical idea and do not check properly if it works in this particular position.  Auto-pilot errors are due to a lack of proper focus on what you are doing, i.e. being too casual and not concentrating properly.

Here is a clear example of an autopilot error.   David Fowler is playing Martin Simons.   Martin says “I have reached this position twice before in matches and on both previous occasions I have played the correct 6 … Bxc3 followed by 7 … e4 but this time I forgot to play Bxc3 first hence the game ended quickly (6 … e4?? 7. Nxd5 Black resigns! 1-0) and caused much embarrassment particularly as I had to then explain the quick game to my teammates!

2. Getting wrapped up in details.

You are thinking really hard about some variations, trying to work everything out, and in so doing you miss something really obvious.   We believe this happens in three main scenarios:

  • Hunting for a forced win when you think one is there.
  • During a long defence when you have been checking for X and Y and Z for ages, and you are still checking this, that and the other, and you overlook something really simple that has not come up before.
  • Calculating anything really complicated but overlooking something really simple.

It might be tempting to put these types of mistakes down to tiredness, but whilst there may be an element of that it is unlikely to be the fundamental problem, as no matter how tired you are you would probably spot the pitfall instantly if you stood up, walked around for 10 to 20 seconds and came back to the board.   The problem really arises from concentrating too hard and losing perspective, i.e just the opposite of auto-pilot blunders.

Here is Peter Anderson playing Mark Hebdon.  Peter says, “Having been in a bit of trouble earlier in the game I had reached an endgame which I knew was at least drawn for me but which I increasingly thought might be winning.  Hebden had just played Bc6 and with 6 minutes on my clock and 30 seconds increment I spent 3 minutes calculating really hard trying to find a forced win.   I played 49.Rf2?? and felt pretty confident until 49…Bxe8.   I was so engrossed in the variations I hadn’t even seen the rook was en prise.  A year and half on, this game still annoys me.”

3. Trusting your opponent

Double blunders (where a player makes a bad mistake and their opponent misses it) seem to be relatively common.   This must either mean the blunder is not so obvious at all or that somehow we subconsciously trust our opponent and play on autopilot when we should be looking harder.   Given the frequency of double blunders and the simplicity of some examples in these bulletins, it seems likely there is an element of the latter.

It’s Christian Westrap vs Dave Fuller, white to move.   Dave picks up the commentary…. ” After a gruelling game with chances for both sides I was getting tired (excuse #1, it’s an age thing). We were both down to less than a minute with 30 second increments (excuse #2). The position is dead drawn and given the match situation etc I decided that I would offer a draw next move.

Christian played 43.a5?? and I immediately replied 43…h5??  and I offered my hand, draw agreed… and 3 milliseconds later the pieces were packed away (we were running late).

Madness! The obvious point came to me driving home  43…bxa5 44 bxa5 before 44…h5 and Black wins on the spot. I don’t think Christian realised this at the time, either that or he is a good actor!

I am not saying that this was my worst move ever, but probably the most annoying.  Supplementary Question: Was my ‘worst move’ h5, or the draw offer? Hard to say”

4. Pure chess blindness

You are not doing any of the above 3 things but you still overlook something that you would normally see in a second.   Whilst this chess blindness sometimes happens at the beginning of a game, it is probably more common well into a game and therefore often related to fatigue.  Perhaps it can also be related to a lack of calmness.

We can all suffer from chess blindness to varying degrees; most of us find backward moves harder to spot than other moves (remember Karpov’s blunder from the previous bulletin), some will suffer from it once in 500 games, whilst others may do so once or more a season.  So whilst it can hit any of us at any time, some of us have a greater propensity for it, i.e. an in-built weakness in our thinking.

It is Taylor vs Mike Waddington and Mike is winning in style.  His intention is Rxg4+ Kh3 Rh4+ Kg3 Nh5++ and if the knight moves Bf4+ and Rh2++ but first he has to get out of check.  Mike played 1…Kh6? and his opponent replied 2.Rh1+ winning a piece.  In Mike’s words “This was impossible! I assumed in my mind’s eye the bishop was on f1!”   Playing 1…Kf8 instead would have crowned a fine game for Mike.  Fortunately he managed to rescue a draw.

5. Tension

Time trouble can exacerbate any of the above problems just because we have to do things quickly.   But for some of us it goes beyond that – extreme tension creeps in and impairs the clarity of our thinking.  Many of us play worse with 3 minutes on our clock for a few moves than we would in an entire 3 minutes blitz game.

Tension can arise for other reasons, for instance when playing a GM we may be so worried about how strong they are that we can’t focus on our own game, or getting irritated when someone does not resign a lost position.  For a few of us it can be present from the beginning of a game regardless of the opposition, and whilst it can add extra drive it can also gradually cause fatigue and muddled thinking.

How to avoid blunders?

This is the six million dollar question and unfortunately there is no silver bullet solution. It is important that whatever adjustments you make, these do not interfere too much in the positive aspects of your thinking processes and compromise your overall play.   But if  you blunder a lot, you might like to consider the following ideas.

Find “the threat” behind your opponent’s last move. This is normally advice given to beginners and experienced players usually do it automatically as soon as their opponent moves. However, you will see examples in this and the next bulletin where experienced players have overlooked a one-move threat so perhaps we could all do with a reminder about this!

Before moving, do a quick “tactics check”. This might help if you are on auto-pilot, wrapped up in details or suffering from chess blindness. Make an effort to take the whole board in and try to look at the position afresh.   In the extreme, if you feel you may have gone too deep and cannot see the wood for the trees, stand up, walk around for 30 seconds and come back to the board again and have another look.

Make as few assumptions as possible. Do not trust your opponent, they make blunders too and look out for the unusual but brilliant chess move! This is probably the trickiest piece of advice of all in terms of balance, given that we can’t look at everything as we would run out of mental energy and time, which leads us to…

Keep an eye on your clock! We are not saying never get into time trouble as sometimes you have to think as deeply as possible, but rather make sure that if you are using a lot of time that you are getting good value for it. Do spend 10 minutes on something that might win you game, but don’t spend 10 minutes on something that makes a fractional difference.

Try to stay calm whether you are in time trouble or not.  We have no idea of how to do this apart from undergoing several years of psychotherapy!

All simple to say and hard to do, but we know from experience that if applied judiciously, these methods can work.

Summary & Feedback

The moral of this bulletin is that we should always look (again and again) before we leap (time permitting), otherwise there just might be a car crash waiting to happen!

Do you have any spectacular or memorable blunders?  Please, feel free to send them in using the form below as we might be able to include a few in next week’s bulletin on local blunders.

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