What's Worse? Missed Mate or Missed Trade?

At our club tonight the following position occurred:







Black, an inexperienced player, did not wish to trade queens, and so played 1...Qa6?? allowing 2.Qg7#

We know the tactical consequences of allowing 2.Qg7# are far worse than the strategic consequences of not trading queens when ahead.

But let's change the issue and ask "From an instructional standpoint, is it worse that Black refused to trade queens when winning or is it worse that he overlooked a mate in one?" Your opinion on this question can't be wrong so long as it's your honest opinion!

In an article for Chess Life over a decade ago, IM Jeremy Silman argued that, from an instructional standpoint, it is clearly worse to fail to make a favorable trade of queens when you are winning than it is to put your queen en prise or miss your opponent's checkmate in one.

I agreed with him, and wrote a Novice Nook to this effect: Accidental and Purposeful Errors (http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman97.pdf).

The gist of the argument is that anyone can make a mistake, and for an instructor to point out to a player rated ~1000 "You should not miss that your opponent is threatening mate nor allow your opponent to checkmate you" is not telling him anything he did not know. The instructor can discuss advantages and methods to taking your time, being careful, asking "What are ALL the things my opponent's last move does?", and developing board vision and tactical vision to spot these threats; however, telling him that allowing checkmate is bad is not news nor very helpful.

On the other hand, failing to trade into a winning endgame (or its cousin, purposely and unnecessarily trading into a losing endgame) is something that is only done by volition. I normally make the analogy that a player who consistently refuses to trade pieces when ahead in material is like a football coach who tells the scorekeeper not to run the clock when his team is ahead. You don't win many games that way!

An absolute beginner might not know this, but a player at Black level should know better. He can't claim that he "accidentally" played 1...Qa6, failing to trade queens. He can claim he didn't see 2.Qg7# and we should all believe him; that was an accident, and accidents happen. But when you don't do as you are taught (like follow the strong principle "Normally when you are ahead material, you should trade pieces but not necessarily pawns") then reasons like "I did not want to trade queens - I wanted to threaten 2...Qxc4+" are open to legitimate constructive criticism. You don't always trade queens when you are ahead in material (it's a principle, not a rule), but you normally learn to Walk Before You Can Run (http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman116.pdf).


  • 4 years ago



  • 4 years ago


    I realize now that from a instructional point of view the mate has no much to talk about but the avoiding of the trade of queens has more interest from a teachers's point of view because the explanation could be quite long. Acctually I think mate in one it's pretty easy but knowing when to trade it's more complicated, so I agree now with Silman and Dan

  • 4 years ago


    I think that from an instructional viewpoint, it is still worse for a student to miss mate in 1 than to fail to make a favorable exchange. Somebody who misses mate in 1 regularly will lose lots of games as a result, whereas the person who fails to make a favorable exchange regularly will lose fewer games as a result of the failure to trade.

    The issue of which of the two mistakes gives the instructor more opportunity for teaching is another matter altogether, unless there is some kind of stipulation that "worse from an instructional viewpoint" doesn't refer to the negative impact it has on the student's game (that's what I interpreted it to mean) and instead refers to something like the potential benefit to the student by virtue of teaching about the mistake.

    I would agree with Silman and Heisman if it wasn't missing a mate in 1 but was instead making a more subtle kind of tactical error. But missing a mate in 1 (if this happens regularly in slow games) is such a huge error that the student must have some severe problems with board vision and a deficient thought process that doesn't even consider his opponent's threats. Those are much more harmful to one's game than failing to make a favorable exchange, even if that also is a serious problem that should be addressed. I realize that GMs (e.g., Kramnik) have missed mate in 1, but it happens extremely rarely, while the problem of not making a favorable exchange does happen with more frequency at all levels, even if it is still rarer the better you are.

  • 4 years ago


    To be honest, I think Silman is trying to be too clever. I see his point, that sometimes missing checkmate is not a matter of deep understanding, and that it's possible for a strong player with high understanding and knowledge of the mate to still miss it.

    However, just because the miss of a mate in 1 is accidental, not the result of the lack of knowledge, absolutely does not mean that it is ok! It is a huge problem to miss mate in 1 under any circumstances at all (yes, even if you only miss it once in a blue moon), because that means that you can play great chess for 40 moves, and screw it all up with just one move (in an easily exploitable way, too). You cannot allow your opponents to get away with playing worse than you for 99% of the game and then being gifted a win.

    Maybe black would see the mate 95% of the time. But 100% of the time is a lot better than 95%.

    It's like how you should learn to hang pieces at a rate extremely close to 0%. Even if you only hang pieces 1% of the time ("everyone makes mistakes"), you will lose some key points once in a while, especially in time pressure; perhaps that is an excuse to hang a piece, but strong players can often make the best of time pressure and still make life difficult for their opponents by not making an extremely obvious mistake.

    Black should learn the rule about trading when ahead -- but that won't do him much good if he still misses mates in 1.

    And yes, the fact that Petrosian only managed to blunder his queen .00000001% of the time (once!), cost him a key point in the game where he did, a point that his opponent didn't have to work for.

    ""Given a limited amount of time, should the teacher discuss that Black didn't trade queens or that he missed the mate in one?"  I think it's much more instructive to discuss why black didn't want to trade queens than that he missed the mate. "

    If the question is worded like this, then yes, I think discussing the queen trade situation is more useful content-wise, as there isn't much to talk about in terms of deep ideas about a mate in 1. Just because it doesn't take as long to go over the problem of missing mate in 1, though, does not mean that it is a less important mistake. If I were a coach, I'd probably give a speech about how easy you make life for your opponent when you tell them that they can play horribly for most of the game but still count on you giving them a way to easily win anyway.

  • 4 years ago


    I'm wondering if there is any puzzles book which focuses on pre-tactical stage, I mean a book that has problems with solutions that could be a development's move or a favourable trade, I think that "practical chess exercises" by Cheng does not have the usual only tactical solution but I dont know if it has those that I want. Do you have any other book recommendation??

  • 4 years ago


    I think that is worse to miss a mate than not make a favourable trade, but i think that it's worse player that who does not know where a trade (like the one on the example) than the one who miss a mate in one (even Gm´s miss sometimes a mate in one, like Short against  Beliavsky in Linares 1992). I believe that both mistakes must be avoided  but miss a mate can be accidental, instead a missing  trade could mean a lack of understanding of the game. 

    Of course, if one player always miss mates in one, it would be another theme, but i guess that´s not the question, am I right?

  • 4 years ago


    I'm not a tournament player, so I don't know what a rating of 1000 is considered for the official rating systems, but for chess.com, it's pretty low, especially if you're talking about the "online games" rating.  But I think Dan might consider 1000 to be fairly intermediate, given his discussion of the opening in Walk Before You Can Run http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman116.pdf.  The hypothetical feedback given to the 1000 player is pretty involved for someone that is just learning basic checks, threats, and captures.  Based on Dan's example in Walk.. it seems that the 1000 rated player is ready to incorporate other important chess concepts.

    Admittedly, I was a little confused about Black's level too.  In the beginning the article says he's "inexperienced" which made me think it was their first, or close to first, time at the club.  But at the end, it says, "Black should've known better." Whether the player was prepared for the discussion about trading queens might be the point at which the disagreement occurs, and that might just be our own preconceptions.  Again, Dan does not underestimate the importance of low level players knowing their tactics.  It's one of his soapboxes, and I'm a better player for it. Smile

  • 4 years ago


    Quote:  But let's change the issue and ask "From an instructional standpoint, is it worse that Black refused to trade queens when winning or is it worse that he overlooked a mate in one?"


    I interpreted this question as, "Given a limited amount of time, should the teacher discuss that Black didn't trade queens or that he missed the mate in one?"  I think it's much more instructive to discuss why black didn't want to trade queens than that he missed the mate.  The player would've known that he missed the mate in one immediately.  What else could the teacher say about it, other than give him exercises to improve his board vision?  Dan is a huge proponent of beginning chess players learning basic tactics so they have them down cold, so I don't think he's minimizing the importance of black's  ability to spot the threat. 


    The discussion about why the player didn't want to trade pieces could be very enlightening.  In a few recent games, I've not taken the opportunity to trade down when ahead and I think I've been worse for it.  The concept,  "Normally when you are ahead material, you should trade pieces but not necessarily pawns," is difficult for low level players like myself to internalize for a couple reasons: 


    1)  The player might not have the skillset and/or confidence that they can win the game with their left over material.  In the position given in the article,  white's rooks are better positioned and it looks like black is about to lose his c and d pawn for white's c pawn.  I can understand why that would make the player hesitant if he's not very strong.  That'd be a hard fought game for me too.  


    2) This principle to trade down when you're ahead and not to when your behind is counter intuitive, even if you know the rationalization behind it. Intuition (mine, at least) says, "I'm up material, so I can use my army to overwhelm his king.  The more pieces, the better."  or, "I'm behind in material, I'd like to get his army as small as possible so I have less threats."  Even when it's been pointed out that the importance of material advantage increases with fewer pieces on the board, it's hard to internalize this without experience to back it up.


    So, then maybe the question is, is it useful to discuss trading material when ahead when the player still misses simple tactics?  I think learning to play chess is a lot less linear than I first thought.  You really need to make incremental improvements in many areas rather than master one area before going on to another area.  I recently suffered an embarrassing loss to a back rank mate because I forgot the threat was there.    People that reviewed my game said my problem was I didn't fully develop my pieces to connect my rooks.   I was inclined to believe I lost because I misplayed the move before the mate.  But after thinking about it for a while, I realized that had I gotten my rooks connected, I wouldn't have had to remember about the back rank threat.  That's not to say that if you follow the principles you don't have to worry about tactics.  That's certainly nothing I've ever heard. (Quite the opposite!) Rather, I think the lesson is if you can avoid unfavorable tactics by following good principles, you're better for it.  That seems very, very similar to the situation Dan presented.


    Quote:  "It's not sound advice to inform them that losing the game is okay as long as it was accidental, especially when the goal is to win ("You don't win many games that way!")."


    I didn't read that in Dan's article at all and think that's a rather unfair interpretation.  He's not saying that losses by accidents shouldn't be addressed too, he's saying that a loss from something you purposefully did or didn't do provides more opportunity for instruction than a loss where you simply overlooked something.


    And at the risk of misinterpreting  the above quote (which I just accused the author of doing), the message seems to be, "it's never okay to lose."  I know I'm stretching this beyond what the author probably intended (sort of purposefully) but that message gives me concern.  Chess is a tough game and no one gets good without losing a lot.  So if you can't accept losing, you're in for a long slough.  It's important to develop the right attitude about losing and "it's not okay" is not it.

  • 4 years ago


    nice :)

  • 4 years ago


    Nothing can be worst as mate in one. Even uncertain trade could keeps some chance for the future and the game would continue. In other words, better alive without the queen than dead with it.

  • 4 years ago

    NM danheisman

    Interesting that I ask the question about which error the readers think is worse (not meant to be rhetorical) and, of the first 189 views, not one opinion! Smile Guess (almost) everyone agrees with Silman (and me) Smile

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