"Weak in Chess": Why otherwise average players make bad moves

by John Rummel

(originally written as an article in the Compuserve Chess Forum's CHAT newsletter, published in November 1994. It appears here slightly revised and updated)

This is the inaugural column in what may become a monthly feature in CHAT. I state this with a measure of uncertainty because I actually don't *know* what will happen to "Weak in Chess," I only know that this is the only one that I plan to write. My hope is that others will take up the torch from month to month because I know this is a theme that is common to many chess players in my category (Life Patzers).

The truth is, if you've played tournament chess, you've been in a position where you have ruined a perfectly good position with a move that, from the perspective of hindsight, you know was a howler. But over the board, you played it believing with all your heart that it was the right thing to do at the right time. Why does this occur? Is there some element of cognitive blindness with which class players are afflicted? Do sunspots really affect the quality of my chess play (my current theory)?

From my file of games, I select two examples from recent play. Both games were postal (played as Chess Forum casual games) and both were against the same opponent. Oddly enough, both are also King's Gambits (I'm beginning to wonder if the moon is also lined up with Mars tonight, but that's a different CIS forum).

Rummel,John-Panuzzo,John Corr Casual CompuServe 1993

1.e4 e5 2.f4 d5

This is the signature move of the Falkbeer. Rather than accepting white's offered gambit pawn, black offers his own. Our moves continue to follow well established theory:

3.exd5 e4 4.d3 Nf6 5.dxe4 Nxe4 6.Nf3 Bc5 7.Qe2 Bf5 8.Nc3 Qe7 9.Be3 Nxc3 10.Bxc5 Nxe2 11.Bxe7 Nxf4 12.Ba3

Now, for those of you who are really up on your Falkbeer theory, the foregoing is all 'book.' That is, to a postal fish like me, all this stuff is written down somewhere by a really good player (in this case GM Joe Gallagher in his book on the King's Gambit), and all I have to do is follow along with his lines in the book and play what he says to play. Thus far, we've been following the moves of Bronstein-Tal (Riga 1968, pages 140 and following in _Winning with the King's Gambit_ by Gallagher). Bronstein is an old favorite of mine, so I figured I could do worse than to play the moves that he played against Tal. Bronstein even won the game, so how can I go wrong?

I also had an database file of some 1600 King's Gambit games to draw upon for additional game references (and there were several). The problem comes with black's 12th move:

12. ...Nxd5?

Gallagher says this fails (Nd7 was played by Tal). The exact note he gives is: "After 12. ...Nxd5 13.0-0-0 c6 14.Ng5!, the threat of Re1+ is very hard to meet." That's all. Yes, I'm a patzer, but I can understand this. Black's game could be in trouble if white is allowed to get in Ng5 coupled with the threat of Re1+.

OK, so here I am, on move 12 of this postal game, and I've just achieved what every postal player dreams of - my opponent has played into a "known bad line" as documented in a book by a bona fide Grandmaster. I'm feeling pretty good. All I have to do now is play the right moves! After a bit of mental high-fiving it with myself, I continue:

13.0-0-0 Be6

Uh oh. This isn't what Gallagher said black is supposed to play in this bad line. He's supposed to protect the Knight by playing 13. ...c6. OK, but he didn't. He played a new move (as far as my limited database could tell). Since his move isn't even mentioned by Gallagher, it must be *really* bad, right? OK. He didn't play the move, but what he played must be worse, so I can win from here on my own, right? Play on!

14.Bc4 Ne3

Hmmm. Hadn't really counted on this. But I think my threats are still real enough to leave the Rook hanging. I'll sac the exchange to keep the attack going!

15.Bxe6 fxe6 16.Rde1 Nf5 17.Rxe6+

Possibly the move that threw the win away. Taking the pawn now was simply playing too fast. Much better was 17.Ng5! since black can't adequately defend the pawn anyway. Then ...Nc6 18.Rxe6+ Kd7 19.Rd1+ Kc8. There's no "knockout punch", but black is cramped, his Rook is buried, and white has time to get his pieces organized and gain a lasting advantage, theoretically.

The problem, of course, is that theory doesn't matter much when patzers are at the controls.

By now I'm getting a little annoyed at John Panuzzo. Doesn't he realize he's blown it by playing a line verified bad by a GM (in a book yet, so it must be true)? Apparently not, since he doesn't even follow the prescribed "bad" moves. Truthfully, I think he should have had the good grace to resign after his 12th move. After all, that's where he blew it, right?. But Panuzzo obviously didn't have the sense to use this book. I seriously considered copying down Gallagher's note on his 12th move and sending it to him, with the implication, "see, you've lost. Resign," but I resisted this as possibly lacking in taste.

The rest of the game is a wash. I played badly. Not badly enough to lose, just badly enough to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory!

...Kd7 18.Re5 Nd6 19.Rhe1 Nc6 20.Rd5 Rhe8 21.Red1 Re6 22.Ng5 Rh6 23.Bxd6 cxd6 24.Nf7 Rxh2 25.Rxd6+ Ke8 26.Rd7 Rxg2 27.Rxb7 Kf8 28.Rc7

1/2

The question is, why, at move 17, couldn't I 'see' that Ng5 was better? I even had Gallagher's analysis (different move order, but the idea was still there) to guide me. The truth is, in the heat of battle, common sense and objectivity often go out the window, and I resist good instincts to play a move that somehow "feels" right at the moment, but does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.

The additional point -- that opening preparation alone is not worth much at this level -- goes without saying. Getting a won game, and winning the game, are two completely different things when you're rated 1400.

The final game, mercifully brief, illustrates the point even better.

Rummel,John-Panuzzo,John Corr Casual CompuServe 1994

1.e4 e5 2.f4 Bc5 3.Nf3 d6 4.c3 Nf6 5.d4 exd4 6.cxd4 Bb6 7.Nc3 d5 8.e5 Ne4

So far so good, now I unleash an absolutely terrible move, the fully deserves to lose instantly:

9.Na4??

OK, OK! -- I can hear the howling, stop already. Why did I play Na4? I can honestly say that I completely failed to see that black could simply play the checking Ba5 on his next move. I thought I had trapped his Bishop and was going to stick him with doubled pawns. This was an example of complete blindness to something so concrete, so clear, that it can only be explained by severe brain damage or sunspots (which is why the latter is my current favorite theory).

The rest needs no comment. Black played good sound chess, and white fell apart at the seams. The old cliche' applies, "If it were a boxing match, the ref woulda stopped it...."

...Ba5+ 10.Bd2 Bxd2+ 11.Nxd2 Qh4+ 12.g3 Nxg3 13.hxg3 Qxg3+ 14.Ke2 Bg4+ 15.Nf3 Qxf3+ 16.Kd2 Qxf4+ 0-1

A bit of historical digression to end this piece. John Panuzzo was a newcomer to the forum when these games were played. During his first weeks in the forum, he stunned us all by beating a national master in a live simul in one of our conference rooms. Soon after he was awarded game of the month in the forum for another of his pretty postal wins. Who is this guy anyway?

Something good did come of this loss. These days, just when I least expect it, I receive a very brief message from Mr. Panuzzo. The only thing in the message body is "Na4? HA-HA-HAR-DEE-HAR."

This does wonders to my ability to be humble about my chess abilities.

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