Avoiding the Biggest Chess Mistakes

Playing chess
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When it comes to improving your chess, you’ll hear a lot of very good ideas from a lot of very good players. They’ll tell you to focus on tactics, doing problems and learning motifs like forks, pins, and skewers. They’ll give you positional and strategic advice as well, helping you better position your pieces and understand how to play the endgame.

The problem is that none of this advice is what absolute beginners and many casual players need to hear. Technically, the tactical advice is correct, though it is still too advanced and complex to help beginners avoid the biggest mistakes in chess – those that anyone who wants to take chess seriously needs to remove from their game in order to progress to the next level.

Safety First

Those major mistakes are the one-move errors that are avoidable by any player of any skill level. These mistakes include one-move checkmates, as well as allowing pieces to be captured simply because you didn’t notice they could be taken by your opponent (or failing to capture pieces that are unprotected themselves).

There are two reasons why I classify these errors as the largest ones in chess. First, they have extremely serious consequences for you when you make them: an instant checkmate ends the game immediately while leaving a piece unprotected can give your opponent enough of a material advantage that you’ll never be able to overcome it. Second, these mistakes are so simple that not only should you avoid them, but it’s unlikely that your opponents will miss them.

Luckily, it’s fairly easy to take these mistakes out of your game. Here are a few easy steps you can take to cut down on (and eventually all but eliminate) these mistakes:

  • Make sure to take a look at all potential checks and captures on every move – for both you and your opponent. This is a hard habit to get into, and it may slow you down a lot at first. But eventually, it will become like second nature, and you’ll find that this ensures that your pieces don’t suddenly walk off the board (and that you’ll always catch the mistakes your opponents make when they leave their pieces undefended).
  • Whenever a piece of yours is captured, your first instinct should be to recapture it. That doesn’t mean this is always the right move; nothing in chess should be done automatically without checking to see if there isn’t a better option first. But unless you have a really good reason for doing something different, make sure you get your fair share of any exchanges (or if you’ve given up some material, that you’re at least getting back any material you can). And if you’re in severe time trouble or playing blitz, it’s usually best to just recapture rather than think too hard about anything more complicated until you start to feel more comfortable about not making these mistakes on a regular basis.
  • The first question you should ask yourself when you consider moving a piece to a new square should be: is this square safe? Always check to ensure that your piece is going somewhere where it cannot be taken for free, or by a piece of lesser value. Only when you are sure that your piece is safe is it okay to move it.
  • Always keep one eye on your king. Nothing is more important than avoiding checkmate, so always be sure to take note of whether your opponent has any checks, and what you can do about them if they happen. On a similar note, you should also be doing the same for your opponent’s king – though, for beginners, it’s more important to focus on their own king’s safety than that of their opponents. This is because allowing an opponent to checkmate you will end the game in a loss immediately while missing a potential checkmate doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t win the game later.