In my previous article (Having Fun With Blunders), I gave my personal definition of a blunder (some will choose to make use of it, others won’t, and the world will continue to turn). To make the article fun to read, I mixed a serious and firm hand (though in real life I’m rarely serious about anything), a bit of humor (the comment about finding money under Oprah’s chair is something all Oprah fans will understand), various levels of sarcasm, and other perspectives too (various International Masters and a chess.com member) so that the reader would be able to plow through the rather long exposition with a smile or a frown, depending on how his brain translated the information.
I was pretty sure the article would engender lots of discussion since it is quite an interesting topic. The readers didn’t let me down.
However, now that chess.com members have indeed had some fun with blunders, it’s time to add a very important caveat: while giving a move two question marks (which announces that it’s a really, really bad mistake) is part of the truth of chess, some aspects of the game have nothing to do with truth!
LET’S DO THE TIME WARP AGAIN!
It’s just a jump to the left…
If I’m writing an article about opening theory, and if I use an example where one side makes a common losing move (an opening trap, for example), the move will get the “??” symbol of horror since it’s a blunder and, more importantly, the reader needs to know it’s a blunder so he doesn’t make the same mistake. If the sample game that showed someone making that blunder was between two World Champions or two beginners, I would still have to label the move with “??” no matter who the protagonists were.
This same “truth” is necessary in books on strategy or books on endgames. When you’re trying to learn, you count on whatever book you’re reading to tell you the truth. In fact, when you’re studying chess and trying to elevate your skills, it’s very important to seek truth (no matter how harsh it might be) over any kind of self-aggrandizement.
Here’s an interesting example of viewing one’s own game in an honest manner:
Grandmaster Pilnik was famous for his attacking skills, but thanks to a good opening, I’d managed to brush aside his aggressive efforts and was feeling pretty good about my position. In fact, I thought I was winning. I wanted to finish the guy off, and when I noticed a little tactic, I analyzed it for a full hour, trying to make sure that I’d explored all white’s options.
Here’s the main line I’d worked out at that time (using the same punctuation I used in my old 1975 notes):
28…Nxc4!!/?? (I gave this two exclamation marks in my head when I was analyzing it, but changed that to two question marks after the game!) 29.Bxg7 Qc5+!
I decided that this check was the most accurate move. I also looked at:
* 29...Kxg7?? 30.Qxc4, which is simply awful for Black.
* 29...Nxd2 30.Qxg4 Nxf1 (30...Kxg7?? 31.Qd4+) 31.Bxf8 Nd2 32.Rd1 Nxb3 33.Bxe7 Re8 (33...Qxe7 34.fxg6 Rc2 35.gxh7+ Kh8 still favors Black, but I didn’t want to open my King up so I rejected this path.) 34.f6 Na5 35.h5 Nc4 36.hxg6 hxg6 37.Qh4 Ne3 38.Qh6 (38.Rf1 Qc5 and white’s dead.) 38...Nf5 and black’s winning. However, I decided to look for something else (which is how I came upon 29…Qc5+!) since in the lines with 29…Nxd2 one small miscalculation would have meant doom for me.
30.Kh1 Nxd2 31.Qxd2 (31.Bxf8 Nxf1 32.Qxg4 Qf2! [I got really excited when I noticed this move!] 33.Qg2 Qxh4+ 34.Kg1 Ne3 35.Qf3 Qxg5+ 36.Kh1 Kxf8 and it’s over.) 31...Kxg7 32.f6+ (32.Qf4 Ne3 33.f6+ exf6 34.gxf6+ Kh8 35.Qh6 Rg8 didn’t bother me) 32…exf6 33.gxf6+ Kh8 34.Rf4 Qe3 35.Qxe3 Nxe3 36.Re4 Nf5 37.Kg2 (37.h5?? Ng3+) 37…Rc3 and I was positive that I’d win this endgame.
I’d used a lot of time, but I felt that I knew all the position’s secrets and would easily be able to end the game without worrying about clock considerations. So, full of confidence (and youthful ego), I played 28…Nxc4?? and, after he thought for a few seconds, he played 29.f6! which turns my winning position into a more or less equal one!
Thus 28…Nxc4 deserves two question marks, not only for the abrupt swing in assessment, but also because all my calculations were pie in the sky. The big joke to me is that, due to my taking so long for my 28th move, I ended up losing on time!
So far I’ve explained how I would annotate games/analysis in articles/books on theory or any other part of the game. And I’ve also demonstrated how I use our “??” buddy in my own games. But how would I use the various exclamation marks and question marks when annotating my students’ games, and does their rating change the way I use these symbols? Here’s a general exposition on what I do when teaching:
If I’m annotating a game for a master level student and he makes a blunder, I’ll give it a “??” since he’s paying me to get him past the basic master level, and pretending his blunder is okay won’t get the job done.
One of my students is rated in the 1400s (based on over-the-board events). He made it clear – from the very first lesson – that I had to be brutal and tell him the truth about his moves/game. And so I’ve always honored his request and give a really, really bad move the time-honored “??”
Here’s an example of the annotations I use when I teach the student (he’s black in this game) who demands honest brutality.
[I should add that this student and I have been friends for over 15 years. We rave at each other nonstop during boxing matches and just about everywhere else, which explains our insane dynamic at the chessboard.]
On the previous move White showed he had zero understanding of the position by playing 16.R1f3?, which wasted a move and misplaced his Rook. White needed to be aware of two things: his c4-pawn is in peril and his ultimate target is black’s weak pawn on c5 (ideally Ba3 at some point, but if that isn’t in the cards then at least bring a Rook to c1 and give c4 some support while also X-raying to the c5-pawn). Instead of addressing any of those things, White followed the all too common credo of, “Attack the enemy King! Death before dishonor!” Unfortunately for White, the only kingside attack on the chessboard is in white’s mind, and there’s no honor to be found by playing banjo on the kingside while Rome burns on the queenside.
Here’s the note I gave my student:
It’s impossible to be too harsh with this move. Part of me wants to give it three question marks to show that it not only leads to serious repercussions, but also raises my blood pressure to such extremes that I should charge him for the doctor’s visit that I’ll surely need due to the h4 atrocity.
Okay, now it’s time for you to punish this guy! No mercy! Kill! Kill! You’ll actually do White a favor by wiping him out since then DS might (maybe, perhaps) learn something.
And another note for my student:
WHAT? Noooooo!!! Nooooo!!! It can’t be?!? Pain! I’m dying! What kind of move is this????? It’s so bad that I almost slashed my wrists... that’s how bad the pain from this move was.
With one move you turn both your Bishops into lifeless paperweights, you kill your b8-Rook, and you take all the pressure off of c4. Instead 17...dxc4 18.Bc3 Bb5 is VERY good for Black (a pawn up, both Rooks have an open file, and the light-squared Bishop is very strong).
Though White continued to strive for the loss, Black went on to lose. I think I used up my yearly quota of double question marks in this game.
So far our examples are all about truth. BUT... what if truth has NOTHING to do the goings on?
Let’s take a step to the right...
THROWING TRUTH OUT THE WINDOW
It might surprise you, but when I teach students that don’t give me the “tell me the truth” dictate, I rarely employ any punctuation at all when annotating their games. And, when I do stick symbols like “!” or “!!” or “?” or “??” by their moves, I tend to use them in ways that have nothing to do with the accepted definitions. Instead, I use them to highlight key points that I tried to teach them in previous lessons.
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.Bc4 0-0 8.Ne2
This main line Grunfeld position appeared in a student’s first ever try (as Black) at this highly popular and theoretical opening. Black’s main idea is simple: he wants to exert maximum pressure against white’s pawn center. One way of doing this is …c7-c5, …Nc6, …Qc7, and …Rd8 when we have a true team effort against d4.
In his notes to the game, my student (rated 1121) played 8...Qd7 which is a respectable alternative to ...c5 (Black usually follows 9...Nc6 with 10...b6, 11...Bb7, 12...Na5 and finally 13...c5 hitting white’s center or, depending on how White plays, …f5 is possible). When he told me (before this game) he was playing the Grunfeld, I tried to talk him out of it since I thought it was “too much opening” (which it was!). But he insisted and that was that.
However, when I annotated his game, I gave his 8...Qd7 a double question mark (8...Qd7??). Considering that 8...Qd7 is a fine move, why would I label it in that manner? The answer is all about making an important point in a manner that he’ll remember – the two question marks weren’t really directed at the move, but rather at black’s intent. His note read: “I intended to follow with ...Qg4 attacking two pawns at once.”
Thus, with 8...Qd7 he had not only forgotten about the opening’s main concept (attack white’s center), but also was seeking basic tricks (that didn’t even work) instead of any strategy. I needed to make a powerful statement and put him on the right track, and that wonderful little “??” was a good way to start the process.
However, even students that do give me the “tell it like it is” dictum will get a mixture of truth (which they asked for) and highlighted use of chess symbols so I can stress whatever I deem is important for them.
My student (playing Black) has a little problem with castling – he often leaves his King in the middle and gets punished for it. I keep raving at him about this, imploring him to get castled as quickly as possible. During our previous lesson, my usual “Castle! For the love of god, castle!” was a constant soundbyte. So when this position appeared and he played 11...0-0 he smiled and said, “There! I castled.”
Then he looked at the notes I had written before the lesson and, to his horror, saw that I gave this move a question mark! The poor guy finally castled and was “honored” with a question mark for doing so!
We had a good laugh about the insanity of it all, and then I explained that I would normally give the move a dubious mark (11...0-0?!) but instead gave him the “full monty” because I really wanted to push home the whole castling dilemma. Though I usually want students to castle quickly and safety their King, one has to think about it first since there is no such thing as “always.” Keep in mind that one castles to get one’s King out of danger and to get the Rook into the battle. However, in the present situation black’s King (thanks to copious exchanges) is better off in the center. Thus, in this position I would prefer 11...Ra8 or 11...dxc4 12.Bxc4 b5 or 11...Ke7. Note the King is far better placed on e7 than g8 since, on e7, it covers key squares (later in the game White was able to do some damage with Nf3-e5-d7 – a King on e7 would prevent that) and is ready and able to help out the rest of its army.
Of course, the teacher will also use positive symbols (solid gold coins also work) to praise his student and give him a boost of confidence. The same student (1590) was Black (White was rated 1671) in this position:
A few months earlier I had described the very useful strategic plan known as the Minority Attack (one side uses a minority of pawns to assault a majority of enemy pawns to create pawn weaknesses in the enemy camp). I was absolutely delighted when he played 14…a6! 15.Rfe1 b5! employing the Minority Attack! It reaped instant dividends: 16.Nh5 Nxh5 17.Qxh5 b4 18.Rac1 bxc3 19.Rxc3 Qb6 and Black won a pawn and, eventually, the game. If I was annotating a master game I wouldn’t give 14…a6 or 15…b5 any marks at all. But in this case they both got an exclamation mark since Black showed that he not only remembered our old lesson but actually absorbed and understood it.
Personally I feel that a serious player who wants to improve should be harsh with himself when looking over his own games. Symbols like “?” (bad) and “??” (really, really bad – a blunder) and “???” (I should be eaten by rabid wolverines) help keep you, in a no-nonsense manner, on the straight and narrow.
However, when using these symbols for teaching purposes, they can stand for anything the teacher wants them to stand for. If it helps the student, it’s fair game.
I’ll add that of all the basic symbols (“!”, “!!”, “?”, “??”), the easiest to quantify are the negative marks – “??” and “?” since horrible and poor/bad are pretty straightforward (in regard to the cold light of honest analysis). The others are far more malleable and conform to rating and taste and emotional appeal in that once you ascertain whether it’s a good move, taking it to “excellent” or “brilliant” really is a matter of personal perspective.
We’ll do something a little different this week. I’ll present a diagram, mention a move, and you should write down whether it’s a good move (“!”), a bad move (“?”), a brilliant move (“!!”), or a blunder (“??”). If you wish, you might also want to write down some moves/variations too and see if you come close to those given in the solutions.
Afterwards scroll down and you’ll see the answers with the game’s moves and/or analysis. Enjoy!
OH... I should also mention that all of the puzzles are from the games of Magnus Carlsen when he was between the ages of 10 to 12!
In this position Black decided on a combination and played 18...Nxg2. Please adorn this move with either “!”, “!!”, “?”, or “??”
White played 14.c5. Please adorn this move with either “!”, “!!”, “?”, or “??”
This one is a traditional puzzle. I expect you to figure out black’s first move and adorn it with either “!”, “!!”. I also expect you to solve the entire sequence, just for fun.
White played 13.d5. Please adorn this move with either “!”, “!!”, “?”, or “??”
White played the surprising 25.Qf7. Please adorn this move with either “!”, “!!”, “?”, or “??”
Black just played 19...h6, hacking at white’s Knight. Find white’s best reply and adorn it with either “!”, “!!”
White has been working hard to crack black’s queenside pawn structure and, with b2-b4 it seems he’s succeeded. In this position White played 14.bxc5. Please adorn this move with either “!”, “!!”, “?”, or “??”
Black played 26...Qxf4. Please adorn this move with either “!”, “!!”, “?”, or “??”
Black played 40...Kc5. Please adorn this move with either “!”, “!!”, “?”, or “??”
White has a strong attack and now he played 23.Nxc5, which might be very strong or simply wrong. Please adorn this move with either “!”, “!!”, “?”, or “??”
ANSWERS TO PUZZLES
Black has many fine moves here (18...Qc7, 18...Qd6, 18...Re8, 18...f6), all of which give him an overwhelming advantage. Unfortunately, 18...Nxg2 turns a clear advantage into a clear disadvantage and deserves “??”
The game went 18...Nxg2?? 19.Qxh6 Nxe1??
(Losing on the spot. He should have tried 19...Bxf3 20.Bxf3 Nxe1 21.Rxe1 Qf6 22.Kg2 though black’s game is very bad) 20.Ng5
(In the game White played 20.Nxe1 and after 20...Qf6 Black had an edge and went on to win.) and Black has to give up his Queen for the Knight.
14.c5! is a strong, snappy positional move that opens up the center, activates his dark-squared Bishop and c1-Rook, and puts White firmly in charge. It deserves an exclamation point.
Black’s 23...Ne3!! is flashy and crushing. Some would give it a single exclamation point since the analysis isn’t very taxing. However, I’d give it two exclamations points because it’s full of flair, ignites one’s emotions, and is lots of fun.
13.d5! is an excellent move that either opens lines in the center and/or allows White to grab some serious squares in the enemy camp. It fully deserves the exclamation point I gave it.
White played 25.Qf7. I’d give it one exclamation mark since it’s based on an obvious back rank theme designed to exchange everything off, leaving White with an easily winning pawn up King and pawn endgame. On the other hand, lower rated players who are in awe of any situation where one gives up a Queen, might be compelled to give it two exclamation marks.
Black just played 19...h6, hacking at white’s Knight. This allowed some fireworks: 20.Qxa7!! (Giving it one exclamation point is valid, but here the move seems to come from a different time zone. It’s shocking, it would be incredible fun to play it in an actual game, and it’s crushing. Two exclamation marks on emotional appeal alone!) 20...Rb8 21.Qxb8! Nxb8 22.Rxc8+ Kd7 23.Rxh8 Nc6 24.Nf3 and Black resigned on the 35th move.
White has been working hard to crack black’s queenside pawn structure and, with b2-b4 it seems he’s succeeded. In this position White played 14.bxc5, which loses material and earns a heartfelt “??”
14.bxc5?? b5! and now White has to let Black chop off his a4-Knight or retreat it with 15.Nb2 when 15...Nc3, which threatens both 16...Nxd1 and 16...Nxe2+, is completely decisive.
Black played 26...Qxf4. Correct was 26...Qxc5 27.Re1 Bd8 with an interesting battle ahead. Unfortunately, after 26...Qxf4?? Black is more or less lost: 27.Qxf4 Bxf4 28.Rxa6! (in the game 28.Rf2 was played when 28...Bxc1 29.Rxf5 Rxf5 30.Bxf5+ Kg8 31.Rxa6 led to a White victory.) 28...Bxd2 29.Bxd2 and white’s three to nothing queenside pawn majority should prove decisive. Since 26...Qxf4 took the game from a position with chances for both sides to miserable for Black, it earned the “??” label.
Black played 40...Kc5, which is a poor move that makes life difficult for Black. An experienced player would trade off with 40...Rd3 41.Rxd3 Nxd3 42.Bxf7 Ne1+ 43.Kb3 (43.Kd2 Nf3+ followed by ...Nxg5) 43...Ke5 44.f6 gxf6 45.gxf6 Kxf6 and White can resign. Note how this line avoids any complications and makes everything straightforward and safe. Since 40...Kc5? turns an easy and safe win into a chore (still winning, but no longer easy) where things can go wrong if more errors are made, it gets a solid “?” If this was my game and I played 40...Kc5, I would give it two question marks since I’m merciless when it comes to my own moves. But in general, two question marks aren’t called for here. After 40…Kc5 things did indeed go sour for Black: 41.Be4 Rh2+?? (Now the win is gone. Correct was 41...f6 42.Rd5+ Kc4 and now 43.Rd4+ Kb5 44.gxf6 gxf6 45.Rd6 is met with the pleasing 45...Rh2+ 46.Kb3 Rb2+!) 42.Kb3 Ng4 43.Rd5+ Kc6 44.Bf3 Ne3?? (And now the draw is gone! Black should have played 44...Rh3 when the game would be drawn.) 45.Rd2+, 1-0. This kind of agonizing debacle happens to everyone (it’s happened to me many times).
White’s 23.Nxc5! deserves an exclamation mark since it rips open the enemy King’s pawn cover and gives White a winning advantage. If it’s your game and you want to make yourself feel good, by all means give it two exclamation marks. If you’re on a first date with a chess-playing lady and want to impress her, give it four exclamations marks!
However 23.b4!! might be the most accurate move in the position. The threat is simply 24.bxc5 winning a piece and retaining an attack (groovy). Here are two sample lines:
* 23...Kd5 24.bxc5 Nd7 25.Rad1+ Ke5 26.f4+ Kf5 27.Rd5+ Kg4 28.Qe2+ Kh3 29.Qg2+ Kg4 30.h3 mate.
* 23...e3 24.Rad1! (threatening 25.b5 mate!) 24...cxb4 25.Nxb6 cxb6 26.Qa4+ Kc7 27.Qxa7+ Kc6 28.Rc1+ Kb5 29.a4+ bxa3 30.Rb1+ Kc4 31.Qa6+ Kd5 32.Qxb6 and Black won’t survive the assault.
All that is very nice, but 23.Nxc5! is more than any human could handle, as shown by the actual game continuation: 23...Kxc5? (He was busted anyway, and this suicidal move might have been a purposeful gift to the spectators!) 24.Rfd1 Qe5 25.b4+ Kxb4 26.Rab1+ Kc3 27.Rb3+ Kc2 28.Qe2 mate.