Lessons from a Painful Game

True lessons are rarely learned from just one game, but sometimes it takes an unexpectedly nasty game to make you realize what you’ve been missing! Before moving on, it might be helpful to see my most recent game (as much as I was able to record) to see what you notice.

Immediately, it’s apparent that there’s a lot of craziness in that game, and unfortunately, a lot of it is not good (from either side). Of course, from the vantage point of a computer (or anyone screening for perfection, really), there are many mistakes to be found in almost any amateur game. So that should not take away from this G/120 victory by local Class A veteran Jeff Schragin, who did well to pour on the heat throughout the opening and, despite losing the thread later on, saw the benefits of a good time reserve as he eked out the win in a tricky knight ending.

It bears repeating that basic-looking mistakes are surprisingly common even among strong players (who can get pretty forgetful), and that worthwhile lessons are rarely limited to just one game. But there are many that show themselves in this game more than many other games I’ve played:

  • First things first; any mention of why I lost this game must start with my ridiculous time management. In particular, Black (at least with my endgame skills) simply cannot expect to waltz through that knight endgame (dynamically equal, with Black trying to use the extra pawn before White cleans up on the queenside) with 2 minutes on the clock. That situation was undoubtedly caused by several terrible decisions earlier on, starting with a nearly 15-minute think on move 5 (see next point!). Along with my traditionally time-consuming habits in the more complicated positions, this gave me no chance to calculate accurately in the later stages of the game.
  • While deep expertise in specific openings is far from necessary at almost all levels, going in completely cold is not a reliable strategy; it is important to develop a sound opening repertoire. Being surprised by a novelty or taking time in an unexpectedly complicated early middlegame is fine, but it’s probably a good idea to be familiar enough to breeze through the first 5-10 moves almost every time. You are likely not in good shape if you are spending 15 minutes on move 5 (in my case, I had been aiming for a Hedgehog but didn’t bother to remember any move orders and ended up flustered early on – this is something I’ll definitely fix in future games). Black’s somewhat-forced 10…c5 is a testament to how positionally dominant White remained for the better part of the opening.
  • Wild computer evaluations usually means major mistakes were made, and in this game plenty were made from both sides. By a certain level, most players will roll their eyes at checking all “checks, captures, and threats” but when you forget this at a fundamental level, you’re vulnerable to errors like 24…Bd6? and 25. Nd3?, which both miss 25. Nxf7 just picking up a pawn. Probably the costliest error of the game, 36…Ng4?? (which still leaves Black better, but complicated to play with 2 minutes left) could have been prevented by just checking 36…Bxc1, which immediately wins as Black brings in Nd3-b4. For his part, my opponent, who ended the game with a whole hour on his clock, probably could have benefited from a few extra seconds of blunder checking (although it is understandable to save energy and save time for later), although it should be noted that more time does not imply more accuracy, as I spent too much time on several moves checking lines that ended up not being very relevant.
  • Sometimes, the most you can do is cause as many problems as possible for your opponent to win, and sometimes it works. The caveat here is that you have to go all the way. I thought my opening position was borderline unsalvageable, but all I could do was try my best to avoid any immediate tactical disasters (which led to some technically inferior moves such as 12…Kxd8 instead of allowing 12….Rxd8 13. Bc7). Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough for me as I ran into time trouble near the end. On the other hand, it is also difficult to endure a much worse or losing position after having held an edge for so long, and my opponent did well to pull off the win after I missed the win on move 36.

This is certainly not the first or the last time I’ve seen these ideas in play, but this game really puts these principles in perspective. While it’s never easy to analyze these kinds of games in depth, they can be surprisingly instructive and make us stronger as players!

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