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Why You Lose at Chess

Why You Lose at Chess

by Tim Harding

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This updated chess classic demonstrates how to learn from your losses by recognizing the warning signs as they develop and by analyzing games gone wrong. In addition to expert analysis of each stage of the game, this guide offers insights into why players lose from good positions as well as weak ones, and how the pressures of time can be a problem. The change from


This updated chess classic demonstrates how to learn from your losses by recognizing the warning signs as they develop and by analyzing games gone wrong. In addition to expert analysis of each stage of the game, this guide offers insights into why players lose from good positions as well as weak ones, and how the pressures of time can be a problem. The change from traditional correspondence chess to forms of play based on email and the Internet is examined, along with the intricacies of computer chess and the ways in which practice with computers can benefit players from novice to grandmaster.
To demonstrate that blunders occur at all levels of play, author Tim Harding profiles his own most instructive loss as well as similar losses by three International Masters. He also presents a fascinating analysis of the famous face-off between Gary Kasparov and IBM's chess-playing supercomputer, Deep Blue.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Chess Series
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5.42(w) x 8.48(h) x 0.34(d)

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Why You Lose at Chess

By T. D. Harding

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2001 T. D. Harding
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14950-9


My Most Instructive Loss

Games you see published in books and magazines are almost invariably annotated from the winner's point of view. However, there was a second player; the winner could not have won if the loser had not made a mistake or two, maybe more. Yet how often do game notes concentrate on the loser's thought-processes? Not very often, I think you will agree.

Yet as viewers of BBC television's annual chess series The Master Game know, the loser's comments can be most illuminating. (In that programme, both players try to reconstruct their ideas and calculations afterwards and are recorded 'thinking aloud'; the loser's change of heart from optimism to pessimism to despair is sometimes amusing, when the loser is a good actor.)

There is a well-known saying, and a largely true one, among chess players: 'You learn more from the games that you lose than from the games you win.' Of course, to learn from your lost games you have to have the strength to face up to them rather than trying to forget that they ever happened.

Let us look at how some masters analyse their defeats and seek to learn from them. I persuaded three British holders of the International Master title to 'abase' themselves by contributing notes to 'My Most Instructive Loss'. They are Cenek Kottnauer, George Botterill and Bob Wade. But first it is my own head on the block ...

I had some difficulty deciding which game to give as my own most instructive loss. Part of the problem was that in the 1970s, when I averaged about one hundred match and tournament games a year, I did not preserve more than the best ten or so each year — mostly wins. In the years when I did preserve all the games, by copying them into a scorebook, I found few candidates. Most of the losses of this period seemed to be due to blunders and misjudgements which will find their places as examples later in the book, but the game as a whole would not be worthwhile.

In the years when I had the honour of losing to such masters as Sosonko, Tarjan, Speelman, Basman and Chandler (all on their way up to greater things) I managed to lose the records of most of those battles, some inglorious, others more interesting. Due to vanity, I tended to preserve rather those encounters in which I succeeded in drawing or (rarely) winning.

No doubt because of the eminence of my opponent I did inscribe the following loss in one of my score-books. The lesson was short and salutory:

T.D. Harding-J. Penrose

Oxfordshire-Essex, 1972

1 e4 c5 2 [??] f3 e6 3 d3

Although Jonathan Penrose in 1972 was nearing the end of his international career, he was still one of the strongest players in Britain and, at that time when the new crop of younger masters were still seeking their titles, he was one of the few International Masters in the country. In fact, FIDE subsequently reviewed his performances from the 1950s and 1960s and made Penrose a grandmaster; moreover, he later earned the title of correspondence grandmaster too.

It was therefore somewhat surprising to encounter Penrose on board two in a county match. However, the Vienna-born Ernst Klein, British Champion in 1951, had at this time briefly emerged from retirement and Penrose modestly conceded him top board.

Faced with Penrose, I avoided 3 d4 because forms of Open Sicilian, such as the Kan or Taimanov variations that would then have arisen, were certainly much better known to him than to me. I opted for a King's Indian Attack formation since I had played this, on and off, for a few years and hoped to feel more at home in it.

3 ... [??] c6 4g3 d5 5 [??] bd2 d6

The formation with ... [??] f6 and ... [??] e7 was what I had hoped for since I had played it quite often with both colours. Now I was in a position which I had not previously played, although I had studied it a little.

6 [??] g2 [??]ge7 7 0-0 0-0 8 [??]h4

This move I knew from the game Fischer-Ivkov, Santa Monica 1966, in which after 8 ... b6 9 f4 de 10 de [??]a6 11 [??]e1 c4 12 c3 [??]a5? 13 e5 [??]c5+ 14 White had obtained a winning attack. Penrose found, or already knew, a superior plan for Black.

8 .. [??]. d7 9 f4 f5!

I was now in something of a quandary and forced to think for myself. Being of a naive turn of mind, in those days anyway, it seemed to me that a good attacking chance was to post my bishop on the long dark diagonal. If Black sought to shut it out by ... d4 then I could play a4 followed by [??]c4. However, 10 c3 (which was played in a subsequent game Ciocaltea-Padevsky, Istanbul 1975, that ended in a draw) might be sounder as it would keep out the black knights. Penrose suggested 10 [??]e2 and [??]df3.

10 b3!? b5 11 ef

I cannot remember why I played this move. Simply 11 Bb2, keeping the centre tense and the e-file closed, would be more consistent.

11 ... ef 12 [??] b2 [??]b6 13 [??]h1 [??]ae8 14 [??]h5!?

A bold attacking idea remembered from the Fischer-Ivkov game. If Black plays 14 ... g6 then 15 [??]h6 puts the queen on a good attacking square from which she cannot easily be driven. However, White has no immediate threat.

14 ... [??]b4! 15 [??]df3! (I)

My main idea here was to bring the knight to g5. If Black is tempted to take the offered pawn he may lose as can be seen from the variation 15 ... [??]xc2?? 16 [??]g5 h6 17 [??] xd5+! [??]xd5 (or 17 ... [??]h8 18 [??]xh6 mate) 18 [??]g6 [??]f6 19 [??] xf6 [??]xf6 20 [??] h7+ [??]f8 21 [??]h8+ [??]e7 22 [??]xg7+ [??]d8 23 [??]xf6+. However, this is not clear, despite White's material advantage, because of the threats to his knights and rooks and the possibility of a dangerous check on the long White diagonal. Yet 23 ... [??]c7 24 [??]gf3 [??]xal 25 [??]xal would at least keep White a pawn ahead, so Penrose was right to reject this course of action. He told me after the game that it looked too dangerous to take the pawn and he did not attempt to analyse the line to its end — good judgement and economy of effort characteristic of a strong, strategically-orientated master.

15 ... d4! 16 [??]f2?

This move and the next completely throw away any initiative White has. It was necessary to continue offering the pawn and to challenge Black's occupation of the e-file (recklessly opened at move 11) with 16 [??]ael. Then if 16 ... [??]xc2 17 [??]g5 h6 White breaks through by 18 [??]xe7! followed by 19 [??] d5+. However, Penrose would probably have chosen 16 ... [??]bd5, which threatens [??]e3 and enables Black to meet 17 [??]g5 by 17 ... [??]f6. Then, at least, there would have been a lot of play left in the position.

Now the passivity of my play (and my lack of caution in placing the rook on an exposed square) was rapidly punished by a simple manoeuvre which somehow had escaped my attention.

16 ... [??]7d5 17 a3?

Had I appreciated the force of Black's play I should certainly have prepared a retreat for my queen by 17 [??]e5 which, although it costs a pawn, is not without venom and would have kept me in the fight.

17 ... [??]f6 18 [??]g5 [??]g4 19 [??]d2 [??] e7 20 [??]h5 g6

Evidently I had not seen in time that ... [??]e7 enabled Black to defend g6 with his queen. I should have resigned here.

21 [??]xg6 hg 22 [??]h3 [??]c6 23 [??]e1 [??]f6 White resigned.

This painful brevity illustrates two chief failings in White's play.

Firstly, my attitude to my distinguished opponent was wrong. I aimed at a rapid and naive attack in the hope of striking a blow before my opponent could put a strategic grip on the game. In doing so I became excited by the various tactical possibilities which a lesser opponent might have allowed me to pull off but which a player of Penrose's skill and experience would have had to be badly off form to permit. This led me to give more attention to my possibilities than those of my opponent, which led to my overlooking his winning manoeuvre.

The second failing was that when the game started to go out of my control, at moves sixteen and seventeen, I already expected I would lose and did not put up any real fight.

However, a loss of mine which I consider more instructive, and which has considerably more merit as a game, is the following, which was played in a European Master Class group of the International Correspondence Chess Federation, beginning in September 1976 and ending in February 1978. My opponent was the eventual winner of the tournament, winning nearly all his games.

T. D. Harding-Niels Henrik Bastholm [Denmark ]

1 e4 c5 2 [??]f3 d6 3 d4 cd 4 [??]xd4 [??]f6 5 [??]c3 a6 6 [??]g5 e6 7 f4 b5

I was surprised to meet the Polugayevsky Variation in a postal game — surely it was too risky? At the time the game started, the line was not in good theoretical standing and I probably expected a fairly easy victory, without knowing exactly how it was to be accomplished. I began by looking up all I could find on the Polugayevsky, using the Batsford book Sicilian Najdorf by Michael Stean (published in 1976) as my point of reference. I also had the Encyclopaedia of Chess Openings, Volume B, but Polugayevsky's own book was not yet in print.

8 e5 de 9 fe [??]c7

Because of the use of conditional continuations, it was now only five weeks since the start of the game and now I had to make my first major decision, between 10 ef and the move played, both of which seemed at the time to offer winning prospects.

10 [??]e2 [??]fd7 11 0-0-0 [??]b7 12 [??]g4 [??]b6 (2)

The main line in Stean's book was 12 ... [??]xe5 when two main lines were analysed: 13 [??]d3 h6! which was good for Black and the latest idea at the time 13 [??]xb5!? ab 14 [??]hel (I also looked at 14 [??]cxb5 which had won in a Soviet schools game in 1976) 14 ... h5 15 [??]h4 [??]c5 16 [??]g3 [??]a6 17 [??]xe6 which had won for White in Stean-Ungureanu at Netanya 1976.

About the time that the early moves of this present game were being exchanged, and I was working out how to deal with the Polugayevsky, the FIDE Olympiad at Haifa was played and in the game Rayner-Amos a significant improvement for Black was found: 16 ... [??] c6! And when Stean met Sigurjonsson in a telex match shortly afterwards, a new idea, 13 [??]e2?, failed against 13 ... [??]c5!

So had my opponent chosen 12 ... [??]xe5 I would have been in some difficulty as the balance of favour was swinging to Black just as I had become committed to this line of attack. Such are the dangers, for both players, of being involved in a sharp theoretical opening line in a postal game.

My opponent, Bastholm, however had to make his choice early in December 1976 when he, most probably, was as ignorant of these two improvements for Black as I was. After ten days thought he chose 12 ... [??]b6 which had also been played in some interesting games earlier in this year, notably Balashov-Mecking and Kavalek-Polugayevsky at the Manila Interzonal tournament.

13 [??]e2 [??]xe5

The alternative for Black is 13 ... h6 as in another game quoted by Stean: Kavalek-Polugayevsky, Las Palmas 1974, which continued 14 [??]h3 [??]xe5 15 [??]hel [??]bd7 16 [??]h4 g6 17 [??]g4 h5 18 [??]xe6 [??]h6+ 19 [??]b1 fe 20 [??]xe6 [??]h7? when 21 [??]xd7! would lead to a winning attack. So I was not afraid of 13 ... h6, because the improvement 20 ... [??]f7! had escaped my attention. (This, and many other ideas for Black, were first published by Polugayevsky in 1977.)

14 [??]h3 [??]bd7 15 [??]hel h6 16 [??]h4 g5

16 ... g6 would have transposed to the previous variation.

17 [??]xg5 hg!?

I half-expected this exchange sacrifice because it had been suggested by the Soviet grandmaster Balashov in the October 1976 number of the Russian magazine Shakhmatny Bulletin. I thought it would lead to an interesting game, but I did not fear it. Although I lost this game, it may be that White's play can be improved at some point.

More seriously, I once again 'trusted' Stean who gave the alternative line 17 ... [??]g8 18 [??]xe6 hg 19 [??]h5 [??]d6 20 [??]f5 h8 [??]21 [??]Af7+ [??]e7 22 [??]xg5 h6 (following the second Kavalek-Polugayevsky game) now saying that White should be able to win with 23 [??]ge4. Once again I failed to examine this variation deeply and critically for myself. As Polugayevsky pointed out in his book, 19 ... [??]d6 was a blunder and 19 ... g4! would instead have been good for Black, given the correct follow-up. Fortunately for me, my opponent was evidently working from the same published sources and also did not look deeper. 18 [??]xh8 0-0-0 (3)

Now the real game begins.

Although I spent a week on my next move, it is possibly not best. I would have liked to play a simplifying move such as 19 [??] f3 or 19 [??]f3 but 19 ... [??]c5, discovering an attack on my queen, seemed too strong. 19 [??]h7 [??]f6 and 19 [??]h5 [??]f6 also seemed to help Black so I decided on a passive-looking retreat which at least had the advantage of defending g2.

19 [??]h3 [??]c5 20 [??]b3 [??]f2! 21 [??]f1 f5

This was a surprise. I had spent much more time looking at lines like 21 ... [??]e3+ 22 [??]b1 b4 23 [??]xe3 [??]xe3 24 [??]a4 [??] c6 25 [??]xa6+ [??]c7 26 [??]fe 1 [??]a7 27 [??]ac5 [??]xc5 28 [??]xc5 [??]xc5 29 [??]xd8 [??]xd8 30 [??]xe5 [??]xa6 31 [??]xg5 with an ending of rook and two pawns against bishop and knight.

In an over-the-board game, it would be hard to analyse thus far, but in a postal game there is more time and the liberty to move the pieces while analysing. If an endgame that is unclear can arise, it is necessary to look at it further and so I did. 31 ... [??]e7 32 g3 [??]d5 seemed good for Black but then I realised that the chance of creating a passed pawn on either wing should prove troublesome to Black, so I intended 32 h4 followed by [??]g3 and the threat of h5-h6 in combination with a3 to open up the Q-side. However, whether my opponent saw much of this or not, he wisely avoided the queen exchange, preferring to play for an attack.

23 [??]f3

I had considered the counter-sacrifice 22 [??]xf2 [??]xf2 23 [??]xb5 ab (If 23 ... g4 24 [??]xd7+ [??]xd7 25 [??]h8+ or 24 ... [??]xd7 25 [??]d3 [??]xg2 26 [??]d6) 24 [??]xb5 threatening 25 [??]c3+ but 24 ... [??]b6 seems quite sufficient for Black. I hoped that the simplifications following the exchange of minor pieces would help me neutralise Black's pressure, and especially the threats to my queen, but another fairly forced sequence developed which I had not foreseen in as much detail as I should have.

22 ... [??]xf3 23 gf b4 24 [??]b1

24 [??]a4 and 24 [??]e2 can both be met by 24 ... [??]e3+ winning at least the f-pawn.

24 ... [??]e3+ 25 [??]1d2 [??]e5 26 [??]b1

White no longer has any obvious positive plan. To survive, and he hopes to win, he must defend well and refute his opponent's ideas. Here the plan was simply to unpin the knight at d2.

26 ... [??]f4 (4)

If 26 ... a5 (threatening to win a piece by ... a4) I planned 27 [??]g3 [??]f4 28 [??]el [??]xh2 29 [??]e2 [??]f4 30 [??]c4 regaining the initiative; or if 27 ... [??]c7 I considered giving up the piece by 28 h4 a4 29 hg.

The move played by Black was less direct. Probably I could now have found a better move had I realised my danger in time.

27 [??]h6?!

The idea is to pin the g-pawn, which Black probably wants to advance, and also to put pressure on the potential weakness at e6.

27 ... [??]b8

A wise and cautious move. I had prepared answers to over-active Black tries, e.g. 27 ... a5 28 [??]xa5! [??]xa5 29 [??]xe6+ [??]b8 30 [??]b3 [??]xd1+ 31 [??]xd1 [??]c7 32 [??]e8+ and 27 ... [??]xf3 28 [??]xf3 [??]xf3 29 [??]xd8+ [??]xd8 30 [??]xe6. My next move was intended to exploit the pin on Black's g-pawn, but I had underestimated the power of Black's attack which now comes with great force and in the nick of time. However, my knights were in such a tangle that it was hard to find another move (28[??] cl [??]xd2 29 [??]xd2 [??]xd2 30 [??]h8+ is fine but 28 ... [??]d6! is embarrassing).

28 h4?!

This would be very strong — were it not for the even stronger reply. The real trouble with 28 h4 is that I never get time to play hg and at move 38 Black's margin of victory is that he has ... gh. So a quieter move, such as 28 h3 or 28 a3 might well have been considered. I suspect, however, that White is now lost, without making any obvious error, except that of going into an opening variation which he did not really understand, and one in which the difference between defeat and victory is often a knife-edge.


Excerpted from Why You Lose at Chess by T. D. Harding. Copyright © 2001 T. D. Harding. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Chess player and author Timothy David Harding possesses a particular expertise in correspondence chess. From 1996-2006 he published a correspondence chess magazine, Chess Mail, and from 1996-2015 wrote the ChessCafe.com column "The Kibitzer."

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