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Learning From Your Losses Print E-mail
By Matan Prilleltensky   
August 1, 2010
Matan Prilleltensky
Chess is a psychologically taxing game. You sit in silence for hours, pouring mental energy into dozens of difficult decisions. Defeat is the direct result of making weaker moves than the opponent, and this is an unpleasant fact to face. Books could be filled with the stories we tell ourselves, rather than accept the opponent's superiority. 

Some stories attribute the outcome to luck, as if chess was a game of dice. "Yeah, I was better, but he had this weird move neither of us saw in advance." "I outplayed him, but made some random blunder and lost." Some of them invoke circumstances beyond our control. "I could barely sleep last night, and I don't feel well." Others dismiss losing as part of the learning curve. "It was my first time playing that opening, now I know what to do next time."

Eventually most of us move past this. We lose enough games to accept that just like the win and the draw, the loss is a natural result: It is fully traceable to playing worse than the person sitting across from you. We let go of the excuses, the rationalizations, and the loss itself. We move on. After all, there are three more rounds to play this weekend! Most of us will never look at the game again.

This is very understandable. Analyzing your losses brings you face to face with your weaknesses as a chess player. It forces you to revisit your worst moments at the board and accept responsibility for them. Are the Grandmasters telling us to do it simply sadists?

Of course not. Examining our mistakes shows us our flawed thinking processes. It lets us see why, with the clock ticking, we made decisions we now know to have been faulty. According to the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, "An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field." Of course, this assumes we learn from our errors! By truly understanding the seeds of our mistakes, we dramatically improve our chances of making better moves in the future. Our losses are the best teachers we have, and we ignore them at our peril.        

The following was my first serious study of a defeat. (It only took ten years.) I was in equal first place with 3-0, and this board 1 game was between the co-leaders. I was very annoyed with the quality of my play, and resolved not to blindly repeat my mistakes. The computer-free analysis (full of mistakes, no doubt) was made a week after the game.

1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3 g6 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.d3 d6 6.f4 e6
GM Dorian Rogozenko explains black's setup as follows: "this prepares ...Nge7, which will oblige white to play g4 if he wishes to play f4-f5. After g4 black must be prepared to answer ...f5, thus blockading the pawn on f4. The tension created on the kingside will favor black, since he has slightly better control of the central squares. White can easily end up with many weaknesses on the kingside as a consequence of playing g4."
7.Nf3 Nge7 8.0-0 0-0 9.Be3 b6
So, we reach a normal opening position. I had studied this but certainly didn't remember the theory. After switching all my openings during a year off of tournament chess, I learned you can't remember everything at once! Back to Rogozenko: "Black wants to finish his development and support c5, neutralizing white's e4-e5 idea. Guarding c5 also puts ...d5 on the agenda. Black is not worried about 10.d4, since his pieces exert good pressure on white's center."
This move enables white to meet 10...d5 with either 11.e5 (as in the game) or 11.exd5 exd5 12.d4, since ...Nf5 would not hit the bishop. Rogozenko recommends 10...Ba6. By preventing d4, black can continue developing without worrying about a central pawn break. 11.Qd2 Qd7 12.Rae1 Rae8 13.g4 f5 14.gxf5 exf5 left black well placed for central action in Spassky-Atalik. I played the premature
Not really understanding White's previous move. I also didn't know how to setup my undeveloped pieces. In situations like this (i.e., don't really know what to do) I have an impulse to go forwards, frequently with a pawn move. This destructive habit manifested itself several times in this game. My thought process went, "10.Bf2, normal move, but I don't know what to do against it" followed by the pawn push. It would have been better to think: "What was the point of his move? Why does he want his dark squared bishop on f2 instead of e3?" Not knowing thematic ideas or theory is no reason to not even attempt to understand the position.
11.e5 Ba6
I vaguely thought I should discourage d3-d4.
I believe White's idea was to play c3 and d4 with a superior pawn structure/more space. I now made another impulsive, "don't know what to do" pawn push which weakened my position.
I think this was a product of general discomfort with blocked positions without clear plans. Sometimes I think of chess as demonstrating what you know (wrong attitude), which is particularly problematic when you don't know anything about the position! Again, lack of knowledge is a poor excuse to play sloppy moves, rather than trying to come up with a productive idea. Here I should have played 12...Qd7, followed by deciding where to put my rooks.
13.exf6 Bxf6 14.c3 e5
An extension of my misguided treatment of the position.
15.fxe5 Nxe5 16.Nf4
The fact that I missed this obvious positional move, focusing on the weakness on e6, indicates a lack of concentration. I had been looking at Nf3-g5 ideas earlier but neglected to examine Nf4, not taking into account that after fxe5 White would have the f4 square free for his knight. Before playing ...e5, simply looking for White's forcing options would lead to seeing this move.
16...Qd6 17.Re1 Rae8
Maybe because I felt the position was turning against me, I didn't even examine 17...Ng4. Then 18.Ne6 Nxf2 19.Kxf2 Rfe8 20.Bh3 is certainly not great for Black, but it should have at least been looked at.
Tactical blackout. I saw 19.Re6 Qd7, noticed he could insert 19.dxc5 bxc5 before playing Re6, and decided it made no difference! This was the second time this game my calculations did not account for a change in pawn structure. (Not seeing Nf4 earlier was the first time).  Here my a6 bishop was not originally en prise, and I didn't see how trading pawns would change this. I also think not knowing what is going on strategically can lead to tactical lapses, and that I was completely out of sorts this game!
19.dxc5 bxc5 20.Re6 Nxf2
I was shocked to see my opponent play this, thinking he would be easily winning after recapturing the knight: 21.Kxf2 Qb8 22.Rxa6 Qb2+ 23.Kg1 Qxc3 24.Rc1 Qe3+ 25.Kh1 is what my opponent was worried about, but I think White is winning.
21...Nxd1 22.Rxd1 Bb7 23.Ne6 Nf5 24.Rd7 Rxe6

I played this move with a hopeful draw offer. I was surprised to be alive and wanted the game to end, the earlier oversights having undermined by confidence in my calculating ability. I should have viewed this position as a "new game" or fresh start and fought hard for a draw.
25.Rxb7 Re7 26.Rb5 Ne3 27.Rd2 Ref7
Probably too optimistic. 27...Rc7, guarding the c-pawn, seems to keep things together. The aggressive ...Ref7 might have something to do with my natural tendency (exacerbated by time pressure) to "do things" and make threats, rather than keep a manageable disadvantage within bounds. Other times I have noticed my ability to fight for a draw compromised by the desire to win the game, even from positions where half a point would be a success.
A major question here is whether Rxc5 is good for White. 28.Rxc5 Bd8 29.Rc8 Ne4 30.Rf2 Bb6 31.Rxf8+ Rxf8 32.Nd4 would win for White. 30...Nd6 31.Rb8 also keeps the extra pawn, so Black needs to try something different. 28...Bg5 was suggested by my opponent in the postmortem. 29.h4 Nxg2 30.Nxg5 is no use; 29...Be7 30.Rc7 also looks winning for White. 28...Be7 29.Rc7 Rxf3 30.Bxf3 Rxf3 was also examined in the postmortem. 31.Rf2 Rxf2 32.Kxf2 Ng4+ 33.Ke2 Kf7 34.h3 Ne5 35.Rxa7 is, I think, winning for White. 32...Nf5 33.g4 Bh4+ 34.Kf3 followed by Rxa7 should also be won for White. So my tentative conclusion is that 28. Rxc5 would have refuted 27...Ref7. My opponent said afterwards he wanted to play safely in my time pressure and keep his positional advantage without entering lines he wasn't sure about. I think Black can defend here: 28...Nxg2 29.Kxg2 Bxc3 30.bxc3 Rxf3 R8f5 32.Rcxd5 Rxd5 33.Rxd5 Rxc3 34.Rd8+ Kf7 35.Rd7+ Kf6 36.Rxa7 h5 and I am pretty sure this endgame is drawn. Unfortunately I didn't work it out in my zeitnot. Michael Adams has discussed the tendency to play too slowly early on when you dislike your position, which is what happened in this game. He points out that later on (i.e., here) there will very often be opportunities you are far more likely to exploit if you are not in time pressure. In the game, I blundered with
28...d4 29.cxd4 Nxg2 30.Kxg2 cxd4 31.Nxd4 and lost the pawn-down ending: 1-0.

Somehow I thought I would be winning the b2 pawn. ...d4 looks like the impulse to go forwards producing a silly move. I was worried about Bh3 if he was allowed to keep his light squared bishop, but if he doesn't just give away a pawn Black should have very good drawing chances.

Lessons: Don't just push pawns because you don't know what to do, try to come up with an actual plan.

Don't be afraid of tension; find ways to improve your position (or at least not worsen it) instead of just creating weaknesses or giving pawns away.

Have confidence in your ability to play well, regardless of knowing or not knowing the thematic ideas or theory. Lack of confidence diminishes your ability to think for yourself!

Ok, that was an extreme example. The repetitive nature of my mistakes made analyzing this game particularly educational for me. Most losses won't be this bad, so they won't be this instructive either. But my (recent) experience is that there is always something valuable to take away.

Obviously my annotating style is not given for emulation; it's just what works for me. What's important is that you are honest with yourself about your thoughts and calculations during the game. I also think it's critical for your annotations to be h-u-m-a-n. It's tempting to watch Rybka's evaluations fluctuate throughout for 45 moves and call that analysis. But you'll learn far more about a position from moving the pieces around and trying to figure it out yourself.

Matan Prilleltensky's last in-depth article, "How to Score a Summer Upset", was recognized in Best of CLO 2009 as the #8 article of the year.

July - Chess Life Online 2010

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