Grandmaster Q&A Part 3

In the autumn of 2013 I gave ten hours of training to a GM who has been struggling for years, unable to improve his play and slowly bleeding rating points. I felt he had certain problems in concrete positions, but in general needed to work more on improving his play.

After the sessions he sent me a long list of additional questions that I agreed to answer, if I was allowed to share them with the readers of the blog. As long as I kept his name confidential, he saw no problem with this.

As we are talking quite a lot of material, I have decided to cut up the Q&A session into five posts that will come over the summer.

This post continues from last week’s post.

6) How to accept defeat and move on during the tournament? We all know how it feels to lose a game in a long game of Chess especially after getting a very good or completely winning position or missing an excellent opportunity to finish the tournament at the very top. My question here is rather psychological.

The first thing is to accept your emotions. If you are upset after a defeat, I do not believe that you should suppress that emotion.

But it makes sense to question why you have those negative emotions. Often it is because of how we see ourselves in the situation we are in. A great saying is: Disappointment requires adequate planning! – that thing you wanted/expected, did not happen.

What are your rules for how you view chess? I try to like chess for all the positive things. When I was very young I saw it as a vehicle for my own ego, status and so on. I suffered very badly. Today I see it as an opportunity to experience all the great emotions that run through us when we play. The tension, the excitement, the thrill of winning, the stubbornness of fighting against the dying of the light.

I have come to a point where I care a lot about the effort I put in. But at times my opponents play better than me, even when I do the best I can. In those cases I might feel disappointed; but I also know that what I did wrong was perhaps not training enough, not preparing in the right way and so on. It was not my effort during the game.

I am quite a passionate tennis player. Also rather weak, but this is not so important. The main thing is that at times, when I play doubles, my partner makes a bad shot and then spirals out of control in disappointment. I am rarely affected. I know that being a weak club player means that I will make a lot of mistakes that better players do not. In the same way I know I will make mistakes when I play chess; I am a Grandmaster, but not an especially great one. By adjusting my expectations to my own play (and that of my opponent), I am better prepared to do what I really need to do:

Solve the problem: What should I play on the next move.

Results come. Game ends. We cannot force them to end as we wish. What we can do is learn to solve the problems in front of us better and to improve our persistence in doing so.

7) I always try to avoid a Queen Exchange and kind of avoid playing endgame. Funnily Endgame comes very rarely in my games and if it comes then it becomes quite clear most of the time. Should I deliberately change this approach?

I am like Bobby Fischer; I believe in the psychology of good moves. Obviously there are situations where we have choices based on our taste. But at some point we should also be willing to go into the better ending.

But obviously you need to know how to play it.

This brings me to a wider issue, which I think is really important for the development of a chess player: making your weakness your strength.

Personally I struggled for a long time as Black against the Reti and as White against the French. I then looked seriously into how to deal with these systems and they are now my favourite openings. Simply because I invested time into learning how to deal with them. As it is a while ago, they have the danger of slipping into weak spots, but this is the way things are. We are usually good at the things we have studied. Figure that.

8) How many tournaments in a row would be ideal you feel? Sometimes I have played 5-7 tournaments at a stretch, does playing more helps to be in shape or playing less and selective tournament and working on chess is a more effective approach?

I do not want to give this sort of advice. I think everyone has a different approach. I personally have used playing frequently as a way to get into shape. I will usually lose rating in the first tournament and then win them back in the second and win even more in the third. By the fourth or fifth I will start losing again.

I would guess that statistics will help, studying the level of your play and of your results (give some space for swings; chance does exist in chess). The right way to decide on something is usually to invest time into studying it seriously. How could I give you advice on what fits your unique self without doing this work?

I do think it is important to have time to study; to train, to improve. But I do not see a necessary conflict between playing a lot of tournaments and then spending time for reflection after the tournaments. In other sports they work towards peaking at certain times; why not in chess?

I would recommend that you intensify the opening memorising, the physical training and the solving before tournaments, where it is more useful. And spend time on reflecting on your play; learning to play technical positions (or certain middlegames – whatever you decide to learn) after your spree of tournaments.

Common sense really.

6 thoughts on “Grandmaster Q&A Part 3”

  1. Indeed common sense, but always good to be reminded of it 🙂 Thanks again for sharing your insights with us!

  2. Dennis Broadway

    Physical training is much neglected by chess players. They will function much better if they get out -walk or run or play sport.A healthy mind is fed by a healthy body,

  3. @(6), Without claiming to be a trainer except at a very limited amateur beginner level, I think that this is the next big thing in chess training/coaching. One of the books I read as a result of a blog by J Shahade is on mental toughness in poker and how that itself came across from golf. I think mental toughness as a separate and valid area of training to gain an advantage will be become critical. The area overlaps with other but I think you can narrow it down sufficiently to specifically train for it.
    I think this or similar training is applicable to all areas of competitive endeavour requiring a high degree of excellence and technique including music concert performance.

  4. Alasdair Alexander

    Re the mental toughness and recovering form bad moves/play, I can’t remember which GM it was said the best book they had read about chess was Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Gallwey.

  5. Jacob Aagaard

    One of the reasons I like working with young people a lot is that their characters are not yet fully formed. It gives the chance for me to help them become tougher. I especially like the way Sabino turned from a frail teenager to the monster of confidence he is today. Obviously he grew up; but I also think the many conversations we had about dealing with resistance helped. Btw. yesterday he mated Sutovsky in 25 moves…

  6. @ Jacob,
    The greatest danger to promising children chess player, IMHO, are the parents who are too results-oriented. Focusing on results (and ratings), in the new psychology of mental toughness, is the chief culprit of below-par performance.
    re Brunello-Sutovsky, yes, great game but I will not pretend to understand everything happening!
    The two great books for the moment on children (and perhaps adults) and learning are Carol Dweck’s Mindset – The New Psychology of Success and Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed.
    On another note but still on mental toughness, for a time, I thought Karjakin’s lack of success (relatively speaking!) relative to the “great promise” was due to mental toughness or lack thereof. However, his results in consecutive years in Norway has sort of undermined my proposition. Another so-called challenger to Carlsen who has a fair bit to understand about mental toughness is Nakamura. His tweets and comments, IMHO, reveals a lack of understanding.
    A youngster who I think has quite good grasp of mental toughness is Fabiano Caruana. The way he bounces back from a defeat and win in the immediate next round is nothing short of remarkable.
    All the above are my speculations based on nothing much more than observations on the WWW. Please take it with a huge dose of salt!

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