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Tactical, Positional, and Opening Mistakes Print E-mail
By Daniel Gurevich   
February 2, 2011
Tactical, positional, or opening mistakes? What is the difference? Are they not all the same?

No! The differences are radical, and paying attention to the differences is important. Therefore, we will consider the different natures and causes of the three types of mistakes one can make in chess— tactical, positional, and opening—and see how each of them may be prevented.

Tactical mistakes are most common on lower levels, and the simplest to notice. When a player misses one of his opponent’s moves, or does not take into account one of his own, this can mean he has committed a tactical mistake.

This kind of mistake is often easy to notice because the oversight leads to a decisive and conspicuous change in the evaluation of the position. For example, a tactical mistake may result in the loss of a piece, or forced checkmate.

You might make these mistakes if you experience a lapse in concentration, time trouble, lack of recent practice, or a combination of these factors. Solving tactical puzzles may help reduce the number of your tactical errors, and careful time management is a valuable tool in avoiding time pressure, a common source of these mistakes.

Players on every level make tactical mistakes, from time to time, so do not worry; the strongest grandmasters occasionally hang their pieces too! Only the mistakes’ frequency and severity set apart strong tactical players from others. Here is a famous game of former world champion Anatoly Karpov, where his opening “novelty” turns out to be a horrendous tactical blunder:

Christiansen, Larry Mark (2620)
Karpov, Anatoly (2725)

Hoogovens Wijk aan Zee, 1993

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6 The Queen's Indian. 4.a3 Ba6!? 5.Qc2
5.e3 is answered with ...d5! 5...Bb7!

Karpov is in essence betting on the queen standing worse on c2 than it would have on d1. 6.Nc3 c5 Challenging White’s center. 7.e4 cxd4 8.Nxd4 Nc6 9.Nxc6 Bxc6 10.Bf4 Nh5! Karpov stops the potential idea of 0-0-0 and Bd6 by harassing the bishop. 11.Be3 Bd6 (Novelty).
An interesting novelty. All earlier games continued with either ...Bc5 or ...Qb8, with an approximately equal position. Black’s idea with ...Bd6 is to prepare either ...Nf4 or ...Bf4, while g3 simply creates weaknesses on f3 and h3. 12.Qd1!! A move that is, at first, quite hard to see. Black has no way to defend both hanging pieces. The former world champion had nothing left to do but resign.

Meanwhile, positional mistakes hide in the shadows. On lower levels, they often go unnoticed; the importance of severe tactical mistakes eclipses their importance.

However, on higher levels, positional mistakes are much more relevant, as they become much more common than tactical mistakes.

Positional mistakes are generally more subtle than tactical mistakes, because a positional mistake is an error in evaluating the position; often, it is not easy to evaluate each side’s chances in an unbalanced position objectively.

Even computers often have trouble evaluating a position accurately; the importance of the many different factors contributing to a position’s evaluation depends entirely on the nature of the position itself.

It is hard to prevent most positional mistakes, but studying the standard plans in common positions helps, although such work can be very time-consuming. Generally, experience is also a very good asset in reducing the number of positional mistakes. Here is an example of a serious positional mistake:

Training Position

White’s position is slightly better. All of his pieces are well-placed, while Black pieces are all uncoordinated. While White’s pawn structure is almost perfect, Black’s pawns on the queenside are vulnerable. However, with just one positional mistake, White can change the evaluation of the position drastically. 1.Bxh5? White is trying to win the pawn on a7! 1…Rxh5!
After just one move, White’s position takes a turn for the worse. White has traded his strong light-squared bishop for Black’s misplaced knight, and improved the position of Black’s rook. The squares around his king have been weakened, and Black now has the two bishops.

Black threatens to open the long diagonal for his bishop after 2…c5+, and he has the winning threat of 2…Qh3+. Game over. All because of one positional mistake. Although this example may be extreme, it is also instructive; White’s troubles stem from a mistake that is not tactical at all.

Opening mistakes
are less common than the other two types. The opening is generally a fleeting stage of the game, usually not lasting longer than a third of the game. Moreover, most games do not feature new moves until after the opening.

In the opening, you memorize theory, because theory has been tried and tested by stronger players many times.

An opening mistake, as the name suggests, is a mistake happening in the opening, caused by a player not knowing, or simply forgetting, which move is the best. As it is sometimes hard to “reinvent the wheel” after forgetting which move is best, opening mistakes can have disastrous consequences, especially in complicated and therefore dangerous positions.

An important rule is to never lose your head in these cases! If you think about fundamental rules, like developing your pieces and castling quickly, you are much more likely to make a strong move anyway. In the end, you can make opening mistakes less often if you look at your openings again and again. Here is an example of how even a strong player can be punished for making an opening mistake:

Ibragimov, Ildar (2590)
Zhelnin, Vladimir V (2490)

RUS-Cup02 Moscow (8), 1998

1.d4 d6 2.Nf3 Nd7 3.e4 g6 4.Bc4 Bg7?? The decisive mistake comes on move four!
5.Bxf7+!! Black resigned immediately. He could not take the bishop because, after 6.Ng5+, he either would lose his queen or get mated. Meanwhile, continuing the game, down a pawn and with his king under fire, would have been pointless against a player as strong as Grandmaster Ildar Ibragimov.

Whether the goal is to improve tactically, positionally, or in your openings, it is necessary that there be variety in your study, because strength in one field often helps little if another area is too weak. Remember: in chess, a well-rounded player is a solid player!

National Master Daniel Gurevich is ready, willing, and able to answer all your questions about chess! Make him work! Send your questions to: [email protected].