Preventing Mistakes (Seven Slots, Part 6)

How to avoid mistakes and how to recover when they happen anyway.

We made it to the end.

Thank you for your enthusiasm and attention throughout the first big series for 2024.

Today, I’m going to connect all this theory we’ve been exploring to something more tangible.

Something you can apply immediately.

You now know the mechanisms around our seven slots and the forces that affect them. They are the one key resource our brain has to manage when we play Chess. If our brains don’t manage them well, mistakes happen.

Now we explore those mistakes.

In his book, The Psychology of Chess, FM and psychologist Fernand Gobet proposed that there are 6 categories of mistakes players make in their Chess. I agreed with some of them, and not other ones, so I’ve adapted it to line up with my own research. But the bones of this remain his.

Below are the 8 different categories of mistakes we make in our games.

1) Automatic Moves

The intuitive move, played without checking. It’s when the move “feels right” but is actually a horrible blunder. This happens when our slots are too full and we freewheel, when we misidentify a pattern, or when we’re tired/distracted.

Quick tip: be skeptical of the moves that come too easily. Treat your intuition like you would an enthusiastic friend who is rated 300 points below you. Double check.

2) Leftover Stories

To help squeeze more information into each slot, your brain creates stories about what’s happening. Sometimes those stories stop being relevant, and can cause mistakes if we don’t adapt.

For example, let’s say your knight has been pinned to your king for most of the game. Then your opponent’s bishop moves, and your knight is no longer pinned. But in your mind it is still pinned, so you don’t even consider moving the knight. And you miss a great opportunity for a fork.

Quick tip: As each move happens, ask yourself “what is no longer true about the position?” You’ll avoid leftover stories and maybe even spot a few hanging pieces this way.

3) Ghost Pieces

When you calculate a line, pieces change squares in your mind. But the board in front of you remains the same. Often what we see with our eyes overrides what’s happening in our mind and confuses our calculations. This is a major issue at all levels of play, and it’s why Hikaru, Magnus, and Danya look away from the board to calculate tricky lines.

Quick tip: the only way to eliminate this is to learn to calculate while looking away from the board. That’s difficult and takes a while to master. So in the meantime, make an effort to not just move a piece to a new square when calculating, but also to consciously take it off its old square in your mind.

4) Overloads

There’s so much information in a standard Chess position. When we run out of space in our seven slots, our brains will likely jettison some of that information to make some room. Sometimes that means we get tunnel vision and forget key details (like that long-distance bishop), leading to painful mistakes.

Quick tip: blindfold training is the best way to resolve overload issues. As a starting place, try reading Chess books without a board. Cut a small hole in an index card, and use it to make sure you only read one move at a time. Start from the beginning whenever you lose track of what’s happening. Conceptualize it in your mind, and don’t go on to the next move until you feel clear about the previous one.

5) Emotional Strain

As we discussed last week, our emotions can clog our slots. First we have the emotion, which takes a slot. Then we try to suppress the emotion, which takes a slot. Then the emotion builds and we have to work harder to suppress it, which takes another slot. When emotions get the better of us, they will clog our slots FAST, and we’ll eventually overload.

Quick tip: when emotions come in a Chess game, accept them as simply a part of the game. Try speaking to yourself in the third person to create a mental separation from your emotions and stop them cascading.

6) Insufficient Knowledge

Sometimes our mistakes come down to a simple lack of knowledge in some part of the game. Perhaps we forgot our opening prep, or we haven’t taken in the nuances of positional strategy. Thankfully, knowledge errors are among the easiest to resolve when correctly identified.

Quick tip: when you find a mistake in your game analysis, ask if it’s a knowledge error or some other kind. If it’s a knowledge error, ask yourself if you actually need to learn that knowledge to reach the next level of your game. Some knowledge (like bishop and knight mates, for example) simply won’t show up enough to be worth learning until you’re already very strong. A good coach can help with this.

7) Time Trouble

Time trouble leaves us with an almost total reliance on our intuition- we don’t have the time for deeper thinking. And it’s stressful, so we have all the issues in the Emotional Factors section too.

There’s no real way to avoid time trouble. We can try to manage our time better, but we’ll never avoid it entirely. The best we can do is tune our intuition, and not beat ourselves up too badly when we make mistakes.

Quick tip: bullet Chess is very useful for helping us build a level of comfort in time pressure. Add some bullet to your training regimen here and there to build confidence in a time scramble. Analyze those games to identify the strengths and weaknesses in your pure intuition. Don’t overdo this, though. Too much bullet may reinforce less-than-optimal mental habits.

8) Tiredness and Distraction

It’s a brutal truth of Chess that the phase of a game requiring the deepest thought happens right at the end. We’re at our maximum level of tiredness during the toughest part of the game. Our slots take energy and effort to use well. When we’re tired, our brains can’t be efficient with our slots, and we’ll make more mistakes.

We can combat this by building our physical and mental endurance. Healthy eating, regular exercise, and focus training will go a long way to increasing your endurance.

Quick tip: set a timer before doing something that requires focus, like reading or studying. Start with 15 minutes, and build up from there. Promise yourself that you will only do that one activity until the timer goes off. It’s critical to build a reputation with yourself as that you are someone who can focus for long periods.

Our mental slots are the one key resource for our Chess game.

When we have space in our slots, we can think clearly, plan creatively, and play our best Chess. When they’re strained, well, you’ve just read an 8,000+ word series about that.

It’s my hope that you have come away from this series with a deeper understanding of your amazing brain, and why it sometimes makes painful mistakes.

And I hope this knowledge helps you to be a little kinder to yourself when those mistakes happen.

If I had to boil the entire series down to one sentence, it’d be this:

Most of your mistakes aren’t because you’re a bad player; they’re because you’re human.

We’re each operating on millions-of-years-old hardware that was not built to engage with something as complex and mentally taxing as the game of Chess.

The fact that any of us can play it at all is incredible.

Every time we sit at the Chessboard, we push the limits of our psychology. We push the limits of our humanity. And that’s awesome.

When you push your limits in anything, you’re going to make mistakes.

The key is not to focus on the mistake. Focus instead on the fact that you’re trying. That you keep sitting down at that board. You keep studying. You keep going.

Against those astounding achievements, who cares about the odd blunder.

And when the blunders come, use the things you’ve learned in this series. Identify why the blunder happened, forgive yourself for it, and learn from it. Then get back out there.

Be proud.

Every day you go into battle with the limits of human psychology. You don’t shy away from the challenge of it. You embrace it.

That’s a far more worthy reason to be proud than some increase in that little number next to your name.

About the author

Aiden Rayner writes about how to make the adult brain better at Chess. Using science-backed insights, he works to change the narratives around adult improvement, and help adults discover the power of their Chess brains.

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