Peter Zhdanov
11 August 2021

Lists of Mistakes: Chess and General

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

Albert Einstein


One of the critical reasons chess players stop improving is that they don’t analyze their games and fail to pay enough attention to their mistakes at and away from the board. After a win, they are happy and don’t even bother rechecking the variations, and in the case of a tough loss, you may hear from them something along the lines of “I blundered a bishop for no particular reason; if I had played Qc7, I would have been fine”. What should they do differently? In this particular case, it makes sense to try to pinpoint the reason for the blunder and find out why exactly Qc7 was better, and to arrive at a more general conclusion than “this is the strongest move in this particular position”.

When making brief notes after a tournament game, you can already write down your concerns and the problems you have encountered. However, since your time and energy during the event are limited and should be spent in a more efficient manner, it is better to come up with a list of mistakes when you are back home and have analyzed your games in detail.

Creating a list of chess mistakes

Unless you are an experienced player, it may be hard for you to create your own classification of the categories of chess mistakes. There is no universally accepted one. You can find some examples of such classifications in the books by GM Axel Smith, IM Mark Dvoretzky, and other respectable authors. The most recent example that I have encountered was presented in GM Davorin Kuljaevic’s highly instructive book “How to Study Chess on Your Own: Creating a Plan and Sticking to It” (New in Chess, 2021). I won’t be reproducing all his suggestions and just give you a sneak preview of what the “Calculation”, “Time management” and “Psychological mistakes” tabs may look like:

• Lazy calculation, not calculating deeply/concretely enough, not overcoming resistance
• Not considering relevant candidate moves
• Not considering relevant candidate moves for the opponent – missing the opponent’s resources

Time management
• Wasting time in positions with several non-forcing possibilities
• Mistakes due to time pressure

Psychological mistakes
• Overestimating opponent’s chances (unreasonable fear of counterplay, avoiding risk)
• Avoiding imbalanced positions/tendency to force balanced positions
• Rushed decisions/not improving the position patiently

The other tabs he mentions are “Tactics”, Endgames” and “Openings” with a further breakdown of possible issues.

It is preferable to have a small database of at least 30-50 games of yours in order to obtain enough statistics and to come to a conclusion on which areas you should improve in. However, if you don’t play that many tournaments, you may have to do with a smaller sample (sometimes even nine games – one tournament) since it would take too long to collect the desired number of games. While it is tempting to add your training rapid/blitz games to the mix to solve this issue, I wouldn’t recommend doing that since your mistakes will probably differ depending on the time control. If you have enough patience, you may want to create separate lists of mistakes for classical/rapid/blitz or focus on the format you believe is the most important for you.

Once you process all the games in the database, you should calculate how many times each type of mistake has occurred.

For example, let’s say that you end up seeing “Not considering relevant candidate moves for the opponent – missing the opponent’s resources” pop up in 37 games out of 50 and being the most popular chess mistake you make. Clearly, this means that you should work on your prophylactic thinking. One of the possible solutions could be to work through a book such as “Recognizing Your Opponent’s Resources: Developing Preventive Thinking” by IM Mark Dvoretzky.

Let’s say the next item on the list, 28 games out of 50, is “Not considering relevant candidate moves”. You may want to check out a section in the Magnus Trainer app about chess calculation, where you will find tips on how to improve your calculation methods and to make the most of candidate moves, as well as solve a number of exercises to develop the optimal thinking habits.

Rinse and repeat as long as you have items left on the list, as well as time and willingness to study.

Creating a list of general mistakes

One common problem with most chess books is that they leave the human factor out of the equation and treat chess players as if they were chess engines: emotionless, tireless, perfectly fit, etc.

In reality, having the right chess skills is no guarantee whatsoever that you will perform well in the game if your body or mind fails you for some reason at a critical moment. Therefore, it is useful to assess the outcome of each tournament critically and to suggest a “cure” for each “disease” you have encountered. To give you a better idea of what I am talking about, here is an illustration of how a list of an inexperienced chess player might look like after an event:

When it comes to top pros, they usually have a stringent regime that they follow during tournaments. It is tailored specifically towards their needs and works like a Swiss watch. However, even they encounter hiccups from time to time and would benefit from doing a quick self-check after every tournament. And if we are talking about club players, they typically make a huge number of general mistakes, eliminating which could potentially significantly improve their tournament performances.


Creating a perfect list of mistakes and proposing adequate solutions is not something one can expect right away from an average tournament player. However, please don’t be dismayed by the daunting task in front of you. Take one step at a time, consult a chess coach or other credible sources of chess information, and one day you will become a much stronger player than you are now!

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