Coming to terms with missed opportunities

In chess there are out-and-out blunders – bad moves that are obvious in retrospect. And there are missed opportunities – glorious (but hard-to-find) moves that elude you. Which are harder for a player to deal with?

Peter Andrews

Peter Andrews reflects on what might have been

What is the difference between a blunder and a missed opportunity? Do we feel differently about them? Are they a metaphor for life? Can our friends enjoy our creations even if they were only unearthed after the event? Or, if you prefer to avoid mental anguish over the Christmas season and would rather not address these philosophical questions, you could just enjoy some of my near-misses and see if you could have done better.

Blunders v missed opportunities

It is not unusual when analysing a game using an engine to find that the computer evaluation of one’s position falls sharply after a move, meaning that the move was a mistake. Sometimes the move was bad: it failed to deal with an obvious threat, lost a piece or compromised the position. We would call such a move a blunder – a player of our ability should have been able to see what was wrong and avoid it, and there were reasonable alternatives available. Probably we knew before we got there that the machine would disapprove of our choice.  

Sometimes the change in evaluation comes as a surprise and the reason is not obvious. Perhaps there was only one move which would have maintained the evaluation, and anything else was inferior. And perhaps that move was not one that a player of our ability would expect to find over the board, with all the usual pressures – time shortage, concern about the position in the match, and so on. In such a case we might refer to a missed opportunity.  

I recently drew with Frank Zurstiege in a Thames Valley League match against Hounslow but missed a lovely trick to convert my positional advantage into a winning endgame. The opportunity arose in this position:

That Hounslow game also contained a missed opportunity for my opponent in a king and pawn endgame, where a misguided pawn advance by me permitted an instant counter-strike that would have won the game for Black. Happily (for me at least) my opponent missed it and his opportunity was lost. In the next day or so, if I awoke at night, the possibility of having lost that game in such a manner made it difficult to nod off again. The missed opportunities on both sides in that game made me ponder other such moments in my 50-plus years of competitive chess.

The three examples below set a high bar in terms of both the significance of the opportunity and the degree of mental anguish which followed (though there is, as you will discover, a pleasurable coda to the third “missed” opportunity). All three games were against players higher rated than me, so winning would have been at least a worthwhile achievement and maybe one of those red-letter days to be enjoyed for the rest of one’s chess career. They might have given me the illusion that I could really play at the same level as these people, rather than approach it occasionally like an FA Cup upset. 

They all involved good play up to the point of the opportunity. Perhaps that is to be expected. If one is to have an opportunity against a player stronger than oneself, it is natural that one has to play above oneself. And they feature attractive play at the critical point. Combining these factors means that the opportunity will be rare – there may never again be another chance to beat that particular opponent or play that particular combination.

All that leads to a regret so palpable that it can resurface after over 40 years. It is an emotion slightly different from that of the memory of a blunder. It is a sadness at something unfulfilled, rather than embarrassment or humiliation – a little like being out in the nineties at cricket before one has made one’s maiden century. No surprise, no shame, but the chance of a lifetime forsaken. Fortunately, to the best of my recollection, none of the three examples below was costly for my team, so there is no guilt on top of the regret.

In each of these examples, I give a diagram showing the crucial position, to allow you to find what I missed before the winning move is shown, alongside some game context.  

Position 1: Brandon Kwan v Peter Andrews

This position was included in Chess magazine’s Find the Winning Move in October 2023. I was Black in this game, playing for the Bank of England, against Brandon Kwan of Barclays in the final of the City Chess Association‘s Major Cup on 17 May 2023. Barclays, perennial league winners, are the Manchester City of the CCA. Kwan is a little stronger than me, rated in the 2080s at the time of the game. I failed to find the brilliant win.

Why did I miss this? I had about six minutes to Brandon’s two, and the opportunity to win material and keep an advantage in an important game was so clear as to preclude spending precious time on looking for something else. Fundamentally, I did not see the mating net that Black could weave in mid-board. A shame after achieving such a crushing position as Black against a stronger opponent in only 23 moves. Because I won the game and the BoE won the match anyway, the regret is less sharp than it would have been, but mere competitive success pales alongside not having played the game that I might have done.

Position 2: Peter Andrews v Marcus Osborne

I was White against Marcus Osborne for Kingston B against South Norwood on 29 May 2023, less than two weeks after the Kwan game. Marcus is rated around 2250. I must have only a dozen or so wins against players over 2200 in my life, so it would have been one to remember. And it was an important match – avoiding a large defeat meant that Kingston B avoided relegation from Surrey League Division 2.  

I felt at the time, and Stockfish confirmed the next morning, that I had outplayed him up to this point, but time was short and I was not surprisingly worried that his passed d-pawn, supported by his queen, would promote near my king and mate me. I felt that 32. Rf7 was the right move, but if 32… d2 33. Bxg7+ Rxg7 I could not see how to win. The answer of course is 34. Qd8+ Rg8 35. Qf6+ mating, a backward diagonal queen move, notoriously hard to see. 

Having missed Rf7, I blundered in the time scramble and got mated. Fortunately we won the match anyway.

Position 3: Glenn Flear v Peter Andrews

Sometimes the lost opportunity is an illusion. In March 1981 I played the strongest opposition of my life. I played IM Paul Littlewood (and lost in 18 moves) in the National Club Championship on 8 March, GM John Nunn in the Oxford University college league on 12 March, and David Goodman, also in the college league, on Friday 13th. I lost both of those as well, unluckily against Nunn where I blundered away a draw just before the 30-move time control (that game was a candidate for this column too, but belongs in the blunder rather than the missed opportunity bucket). On the Saturday I was due to play for Oxfordshire against Surrey in a county match. In those days few university players played for Oxfordshire (whereas the Cambridgeshire county team more or less was the university plus some dons), so the county side was very weak and on this occasion I found myself, with some trepidation, on board 1 against Glenn Flear, already close to 2300 and on his way to becoming a GM. 

As I looked at the game for the first time since then, it was clear that the modest 37. Kh1 is a draw, although he might have missed it or been reluctant to concede it against a much weaker opponent. Writing this blog has finally exorcised that regret, as compensation for reliving more recent ones. Perhaps if you have an idle moment over the holiday season, putting your old games through an engine will similarly console you.

So what of the other questions with which I started? Are these missed opportunities over the chessboard a metaphor for life? I can think of a few occasions in my professional life when I should have said something in a meeting that I did not, which might have led to better career outcomes as well as better policy-making, and the odd occasion in my personal life. But those lost opportunities were mainly a failure of courage, whereas my first two examples above were really failures of imagination. Perhaps the last example leads to a saner conclusion: there are all sorts of alternative avenues which one might have tried, some of them superficially attractive, some of them pressed by those around you, but often they might not have made much difference; you end up with what you deserve.

And as for my last question: can one’s friends enjoy our creations even if they only come to light afterwards? That I leave to you.