At lower level, we often blunder many times and do not make the best moves, so there can be multiple ways to win. But at the top level, for example, during the candidate matches going on now, the masters do not blunder often and they do not make very many mistakes, so I have noticed a theme which is not just in these games, but in others, and that is that the difference between winning and losing can come down to a single pawn for them and they will often fight to the death over one square. I have noticed that for example if white attacks e4, black will immediately strive to defend it and they will battle over one square. Is my assessment correct on this? Are there other factors at the top level?

  • 1
    Whoever down-voted, care to explain why?
    – xaisoft
    Mar 27, 2013 at 10:52

4 Answers 4


Note: I'm an average player, who learnt chess about 2 years ago, maybe I'm not the right guy to answer such question but I will try.

I wanted to ask a similar question, maybe I will today or tomorrow. As for your question.

Top level players do make mistakes, maybe they underestimate the opponent, maybe under time pressure, maybe they just don't see the moves, or maybe they are focusing on the attack.

To prove my point I'll show you 2 games and I"ll talk about the mistakes, you can click on the links to watch the videos

Levon Aronian vs Boris Gelfand Round 2 Candidates Tournament 2013

[FEN ""]
[White "Levon Aronian"]
[Black "Boris Gelfand"]
[Event "2013 Candidates Tournament"]
1. Nf3 c5 2. c4 Nc6 3. Nc3 g6 4. e3 Nf6 5. d4 cxd4 6. exd4 d5 7. cxd5 Nxd5 8. Qb3 Nxc3 9. Bc4 Nd5 10. Bxd5 e6 11. Bxc6 bxc6 12. O-O Be7 13. Be3 Qd5 14. Rfc1 Qxb3 15. axb3 Bb7 16. Ne5 O-O 17. Ra4 Rfd8 18. Nc4 Bf6 19. Na5 Rd7 20. Rb4 Ba6 21. Nxc6 Rb7 22. h3 Kg7 23. Rxb7 Bxb7 24. Ne5 Bd8 25. b4 Rc8 26. Bh6 Kg8 27. Rxc8 Bxc8 28. Nc6 Bf6 29. b5 Bd7 30. g4 g5 31. h4 gxh4 32. g5 Bxc6 33. bxc6 Bd8 34. Kg2 Bc7 35. Kh3

If you want a full analysis on that game you can watch the video, I"ll talk about 2 moves that changed the game.

16. Ne5 getting the knight involved, the more brilliant move is 18. Nc4 and 19. Na5 I didn't see that coming! putting pressure on the pawn, basically that knight destroyed black in my opinion.

Did Boris see it coming? Maybe he did, maybe he just ignored the knight, we all do ignore our opponent's moves, in the end of the middle game, especially if the opponent is attacking, we have to counter-attack, and we don't defend anymore, keep in mind that in this particular tournament, you get 2 hours for the first 40 moves, no time pressure, the game ended in 35 moves.

The next move is 26. Bh6 which finished Boris off. If the king takes, then eventually the knight will fork the black bishop. Didn't he see it? He should see that. The first thing I look at is the major minor pieces of my opponent. If black focused a bit he could've seen it, (Boris is a GM) so white has a knight, a rook and a bishop, it's obvious, has no where to go, if he didn't check the king, so Boris should have thought about what happens if the bishop attacks his king.

Bobby Fischer vs James Sherwin 1957 US Chess Championship

[FEN ""]
[White "Bobby Fischer"]
[Black "James Sherwin"]
[Event "1957 US Chess Championship"]
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Bc4 e6 7. O-O b5 8. Bb3 b4 9. Nb1 Bd7 10. Be3 Nc6 11. f3 Be7 12. c3 bxc3 13. Nxc6 Bxc6 14. Nxc3 O-O 15. Rc1 Qb8 16. Nd5 exd5 17. Rxc6 dxe4 18. fxe4 Qb5 19. Rb6 Qe5 20. Bd4 Qg5 21. Qf3 Nd7 22. Rb7 Ne5 23. Qe2 Bf6 24. Kh1 a5 25. Bd5 Rac8 26. Bc3 a4 27. Ra7 Ng4 28. Rxa4 Bxc3 29. bxc3 Rxc3 30. Rxf7 Rc1 31. Qf1 h5 32. Qxc1 Qh4 33. Rxf8 Kh7 34. h3 Qg3 35. hxg4 h4 36. Be6 

Let's focus on 30. Rxf7 Rc1 31. Qf1. Black didn't see Rxf7 and of course he didn't see Qf1. That's how you outsmart your opponent! I had to show a game played by Fischer. It answers your question perfectly. Let's say if

Rxf1+Rxf1+ Qxd5Rxf8+ Kxf8exd5

And white has a passed pawn.

All I want to say is that GMs do make mistakes, they do underestimate the opponent, ignore a move, or maybe they just don't see the game so well. But sometimes they are just outsmarted!


Almost by definition, the advantage needed to win gets smaller and smaller, the higher level the players get.

Between two rank beginners, the loss of a pawn or even a piece means very little, because such players will lose pawns and pieces to each other almost at random. One of them wins after the the other has made several mistakes, and gotten several pieces behind.

Among top level players, it takes very little "extra" to win. For instance, a board has 64 squares. I was once told that if a top player got control of five more squares than his "fair share" (e.g. 37 vs. 27), that was practically a winning advantage unless the other player had compensation in the form of an extra pawn or a kingside attack.

A "mistake" consists of giving the other player what he needs to be sure of winning. At the very top levels, these would consist of omissions that no one at say, the intermediate level would care about, because only a top player could exploit them. Conversely, for very bad players, the loss of a SINGLE pawn or even a piece that an "average" player would bemoan, might not make a difference.

  • 2
    I would not agree completely to your first statement. It is true that GM are very good at converting small advantages, but on the other hand they are also much stronger at defending worse positions. So there might be examples where a game ends in a draw between two top players, while the same position played between average 2000 players has a decisive result because they are not as good at defending. May 10, 2017 at 10:16

Simply, at the top-level, a player has enough technique to exploit every little advantage. That's not always true at lower levels.

Thus, losing a pawn without compensation may be a little blunder in a match between two beginners, since the opponent could make a bigger blunder on the next moves, and lose the advantage.

In a match between 2 pros, a blunder like that will lead to a defeat (or to a tormented draw), because a top-level player will make very few mistakes (if none) and probably won't give away his advantage.

Of course even World Champions blunder spectacularly (Deep Fritz-Kramnik anyone?).


The goal of chess players is, ultimately, to create a threat that cannot be stopped. But chess is a famously balanced game. There is no way to create an unstoppable threat unless one of the players errs. In the simple case, one player moves, the other counters, etc. No one makes any headway.

At the higher levels, players drop material so rarely that it doesn't come into play. And by drop material, I mean they don't just leave pieces hanging for the taking.

So how does a master win? It comes down to efficiency. A player must choose moves that provide more benefit than those chosen by the opponent. Eventually, the sum of the efficiency gains build to the point that a dual threat can be created. This generally results in the uncompensated loss of material. Now the game is unbalanced and the player that is down will likely lose.

But this is not easy to do. That's why there are so many draws at the master level. So what's a master to do? Sometimes they sacrifice in order to create efficiencies that would not otherwise be possible. Of course, they must jealously hoard the efficiencies gained and turn them into something tangible before their material disadvantage comes into play. That is, a local advantage must be exploited before a global disadvantage asserts itself. Sometimes, they will simply work on building positions imcrementally such that their moves improve their positions more than their opponents' moves improve theirs. Eventually the efficiencies can be converted to tangible gain.

One common way to talk about the accumulation of efficiencies is to use the common chess term "tempo." This word works well when talking about maintaining the advantage after sacrificing a piece. It works less well when talking about positional gains but the underlying efficiency is still there. It's just harder to see.

Examples: 1. A player puts a knight on a great square. The opponent needs to spend three moves to boot it out. Those three moves can be used by the first player to make more mischief.

  1. A player allows himself to have a backward pawn. The position does not allow the pawn to be attacked. No efficiencies are lost.

  2. A player has a backward pawn on a half-open file. The opponent piles rooks on that file. The first player has to spend time defending a pawn while the opponent is building an attacking force that will not go away once the pawn is lost. Meanwhile, the pieces defending the pawn can't be used elsewhere.

  3. White allows Black to play a Posioned Pawn variant of the Sicilian reasoning that the loss of the b pawn is worth the resulting efficiencies gained while simultenously threatening the Black Q and developing half a box of pieces.

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