No Fear

I spent the last 10 days on holiday in Denmark and have been thinking very little on chess (with the exception of looking up how Gelfand was doing in Baku), but going on the roller coasters with my oldest daughter (6 years old) made me think a bit about how flexible our emotions are.
Many times have I had the conversation with a young promising player, where I present my understanding about how to react to setbacks and disappointments.

The basic idea is this: negative emotions do not in themselves create anything positive.

Almost everyone develop an emotional system that makes us happy when we win and unhappy when we lose. Hardly anyone has questioned whether or not this useful (many even believes that it is) and even fewer believe that they have a choice at all.

When I was young I could get almost suicidal after a disappointing defeat. I would feel a combination of pointlessness, hopelessness and deep embarrassment. I am sure I am not the only one.

At some point I decided to change my internal rules. Instead of connecting my happiness to the result, I connected it to my effort. This meant that at times I would feel badly, because my work at the board (and/or before) was insufficient. At other times I would fight hard and make a lot of good decisions. Even if I would lose, I would be happy.

The big hero and model for this way of thinking is Veselin Topalov. 10 years ago he would often start tournaments poorly, but win them because of his level-headedness. He never seemed to lose heart as he lost games.

I have worked with students that would be deeply unhappy when they failed to solve an exercise. A few years later they could lose 2-3 games in a row against lower rated players, without losing heart and drift into depression, which is what those bad feelings actually lead to.

My wife will tell me that she does not want to be unemotional about her work, when I tell her about this, which is entirely missing the point. The replacement of bad emotions is not being numb, but being calm. It is far more resourceful; and if anything, I am probably a more loving, more happy person now than I was before I was 30. I also deal much better with setbacks, at an age where it seems that a lot of my friends deal very very poorly with any adversary…

Back to Legoland. Anne went once with Cathy on “Extreme Racers” and did not like the sounds it made and some of the twists and turns (on engineering grounds). I have always suffered from rather serious vertigo, though I have been better at handling it in adulthood. But to be able to keep sort of calm when going in a cable car is not the same as accepting an almost vertical drop!

But Cathy was so excited about it that I decided to give myself a challenge. I went with her, for the simple reason that she otherwise could not go. I did not do it to challenge my vertigo, to stare into the eyes of my fears, though I probably should have. So, I cheated. I closed my eyes at the start of the big drop. It looks quite funny in the photo, but actually I was really calm.


And the reason for this is that I had focused on my breath and when I had thoughts that did not help, I let them go without taking them more seriously than if some crazy guy was shouting at me on the street.

I do not want to give prescriptions to how people should think and feel about winning, losing and so on. I just wanted to share the thinking I adhere to and maybe inspire a few to consider if losing a game of chess – which very often have to have a loser – is really worth becoming unhappy about.

By the way, Cathy wanted to go to the reception at Legoland Hotel to see if she had won in the “Build and Win” competition one morning, but was afraid to go on her own, as on the way there was a large Lego model of Darth Vader and the theme tune from Star Wars…

3 thoughts on “No Fear”

  1. Congratulations for challenging one of your fears!

    In the past my worst chess-related fear was that I’m not well enough prepared for a game. I frequently stepped back from tournaments because I didn’t dare to play due to bad preparation. As a result I hardly played more than 20 tournament games per year and was close to quit chess (actually I did for a year). At some point I finally managed to convince myself that I had reached my current rating with exactly that level of bad preparation, so obviously I’m always well enough prepared to play on my current level. In addition I realized that playing is an important part of improving. As a result 2014 will be my first year with more than 40 tournament games. For sure fear has some important place in life but in my case it was just plain stupidity and I’m happy that I managed to overcome it. Amazing how such attitudes can creep in. Thanks a lot for your inspiring article(s)

  2. It even seems to happen to the (second) best:

    “It was un-nerving in a sense made me question myself; made me question my chess. But then I came to the realisation that worry never helps you. The more you think about it, the more you get pulled down in the muck. It’s like quick sand – the more you struggle, the faster you sink”

    Excerpt from an interview of Vishy Anand.

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