Taking it easy

When I was young I took chess way too seriously. I would cry when I lost some games and I would start to doubt my whole existence. I remember one game where I was playing for an IM-norm against a player I have 11.5/13 against, including a quick draw in 1989. You guessed right – the loss was in the game where I was playing for the norm.

This lifetime score might not fully reflect the difference in level between us, but it does reflect the difference in me once I was in a demanding situation. I froze. Too much emotion, no space left for chess in my system.

I see the same happening from time to time with students, but as a lot of our action is online, I mainly see a lot of this stuff on the tennis courts. Some of the guys I play with behave well under all circumstances. Some behave appallingly. Especially when they miss a shot.

What I have noticed is that their play disintegrates from this moment. Giving yourself space to be disappointed might be good, but the shouting and shooting balls in the fence and so on, is not only a pain to people around you, it makes you more likely to lose the next shot.

Yesterday I lost a game 6-4, 7-6 against a friend who is a rather accomplished player. It was a fair result, but part of the story is that I was serving at 3-3 in the first set, 40-0 up. I made a beautiful ace, hitting the outside of the line. My opponent called it out. I was disappointed. I quickly lost my way and it was 40-40. I regained composure, but against good shots, a good attitude will not always be enough. We had a chat at 3-4 about it. He said that the ball might have been in, but that he honestly called it as he saw it, which is certainly true. Still, it was definitely in and of course it was disappointing.

Yes, I broke back to 4-4, but was then broken again. This time by his strong backhand. I was also broken to 5-6 in the second set and managed to break back. I went down 4-1 in the tie-break and got back to 4-5, losing 7-4 in the end.

He was the better player on the day and the question is if I would have been able to break him, had I not suffered a few misfortunes. I do not think I was able to win the game. Obviously I really, really wanted to win this close game (as I did last week against him), but it was not my day. Mainly because I had been out for a few drinks the night before, I think…

Having a healthy attitude, where you direct your energy into the next shot, the next decision, the next move, the next game, does not guarantee success at all times. But it is much better than the disappointment, self-destructive self-doubt and other dark emotions that will present themselves as inevitable, but work entirely like cancers. The more they are fed, the more they spread and the more they destroy.

There are people who believe that they will do better in the future by punishing themselves in the present for bad performances. I don’t believe that is actually true for many – and I would go as far as to claim that the few that it is true for, would probably perform equally well with a more positive, focused approach.

We should not think it is wrong to care or to be disappointed. It is a natural emotion. But to think that it will be a servant to us if we indulge its impulses is a dangerous self-deluding mistake. Not only do you look bad and unsociable, you also become a less effective player.

37 thoughts on “Taking it easy”

  1. Michael Bartlett

    I got into chess around the time of Short V Kasparov and tied the chess school champion 12-12 in our own 24 game marathon (after being down 9-3 at one point – I’m a quick learner, or was). I remember I played “Battle Chess” on my Atari STE on its top level in a regular time control game and beat it and got a very good feel for the game in general (listening to hours of commentary from Daniel King and Raymond Keene on channel4 helped immensely). But then I would lose to human players and found myself not ‘thinking’ during games. So much of my energy was being rerouted subconsciously from the ‘thinking’ part of my brain to the nervous part of my brain. It’s like I became paralyzed. It was always worse when there were spectators. So I gave it up. This didn’t just apply to chess. I remember I did a presentation about ‘rave music’ to my class as part of my GCSE English Assignment and when it came to press the ‘play’ button on the ghetto-blaster, I could not see the buttons through sheer nerves.

    Then fast forward to 2004 – I am older and wiser and thankfully my nervousness is going away. I play in chess clubs again and suddenly I find two new qualities. (1) I am not scared of losing. I use losses as an opportunity to learn and grow. (2) I never believe I can lose a game, even when I am down material or have blundered. Suddenly my love of chess has returned and that is more important than winning, although ironically I won a lot more because of it. This is what I did not realize (or was incapable or realizing maybe through nerves) when I was younger. Right now I rarely play. I enjoy studying the game more. I play occasionally against a free app that is about 2000 elo strength named “Chess Free” on my android tablet. Can currently beat it on level 9 but not had a victory yet on level 10. And that’s just fine 🙂

  2. Howard Goldowsky

    Okay, maybe the third-best chess psychology book of all time, right after Jonathan Rowson’s masterpieces.

  3. An interesting juxtaposition of topics (1) An ethical point: I was raised to be, and saw the rightness of being a gentleman and a sportsman at all times. I usually got the award for being the mad dog who gave 110% in American football that the coach called “the Red badge of courage.” As a point of personal honor I could not see doing anything less. BUT I did not give a “rat’s patoot” about winning or losing, and I disliked big talk and meanness. As long as I gave my all without flinching I was good when the whistle blew. (2) In tennis I simply call any ball close or questionable as “in”as a courtesy to my opponent. Who wants to win on a dubious call?? My opponents actually note this and sometimes correct my in call. We have A LOT of delusional jackasses here in club tennis who engage in all kinds of gamesmanship. I take the high road—most have adopted the American obsession with winning so ethics passes unnoticed. It must be done for its own sake and for self-definition. (3) An observation—you, GM Aagaard have a “winners attitude” and I greet painful chess losses with a “loser’s attitude.” I had some horrible self destruct ions against much lower rated players in overwhelmingly won positions that really zapped my rating. I tend to start panicking when I see a win, and I rush to get it in the bag. Some of these self destructions bothered me for days as I reviewed the easy win that might have been if I had used the more than ample amount of time on my clock. Here is the difference as I see it. When I lose the heartbreaker I say: “see just like the rest of your life—you are your own worst enemy, you snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.” I blame myself and see it as part of my essence to lose. YOU see your loss as a cruel unjust twist of fate and others conspiring against you. You see winning as your true essence, as what you deserve, what you are worth. So, an opponents bad call, and the fact that you went for drinks derailed your win. You even reminded yourself that you beat him the week before. I would have reminded myself of the last blundering blow up of a win. My Serbian IM coach when we go over my games has me winning most as the middle game is reached—then I blow up usually by rushing (with no objective time pressure).I just started rated real life play this year, but it is funny that I have blundered in several games, BUT no opponent of mine has yet done so—I even find that frustrating.

  4. I know it is all psychology but there is psychology and there is psychology. I think the contemporary term for the subject of the blogpost is “mental toughness” or the older term “mental game”. It is different from the psychology of chess, I think. Some of the books published with the phrase “psychology of chess” are very “laughable”!
    I too like Jonathan Rowson’s books but it is slightly different from “mental toughness”. It is broader and is more about the game of chess in general. Mental toughness is about “competing” and what to do and not to do when competing, especially not allowing the conscious mind to interfere with the subconscious/unconscious.
    The trite remark that we are aiming for unconscious competence means that allowing the conscious to interfere will destroy one’s performance.
    [Obviously mental toughness is based on a certain psychology and theory, i.e. certainly not Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis.)
    From my armchair amateur observation of online broadcast of chess games and the performance of the top players, I think some of the players desperately need to strengthen their mental game. I think this is the next level of competition in addition to opening analysis, endgame training etc.
    A very common lesson in mental toughness is the lesson to concentrate not he process not the result which is exactly apposite in view of the blogpost by Jacob. But, I think Jacob’s points need to be analysed further and refined. At the moment, it reads like psychology of chess advice not mental toughness.
    Lastly, mental toughness is for sporting competition on the next level but it is also increasingly being used in performing arts as well, i.e. music competitions (piano, violin etc) as well as music performances (nerves, butterflies in stomach, stage fright etc).

  5. @ Jacob, I hope that Jacob will address some of these issues either in a new supplement to his GM Prep series or include in his “last” book in the series, “Thinking Inside the Box”. Most chess improvement books have addressed the intellectual/content side of chess but what has been glaringly absent is books on the mental side.
    C’mon, QC, be the first, again!

  6. @Mark Moorman
    I am not sure that reacting badly to a dodgy call is a winners attitude! Neither do I think when you feel utterly trashed in the morning and do not forget about it when it is time to write a blog post is explaining away the loss. I do clearly write that I do not believe I would have been able to win the game. The other things mentioned could be equally objective!?

    But there is a “inside the boat” aspect that might be interesting to address. I looked for the explanation to my loss almost exclusively within things that were under my control: my own behaviour. I do believe that this is a winning attitude…

  7. @Mark Moorman

    A serious question for you: is it possible for you to post anything without including a humblebrag about your essential goodness while simultaneously bemoaning the fact that you are an American? Even in something as seemingly innocuous as a post on sports psychology?

  8. When I play, I simply try my best. I can only control how I perform, though I can make it harder on my opponent by playing well. The weather and sun affect us both. If my opponent is better, I’m going to lose but I can still try to play as hard as possible (and learn something from the hard-fought match). Much like going up against a GM.
    And occasionally, you have to remember that tennis can be a cruel game (as when Djokovic touched the net in the 5th set in Paris last year; though I was glad since I’m a Rafa partisan).

  9. @weng siow
    I am very much a process man. But which process? And are you trying to ignore that there is feedback during the game, or are you relating to it in a constructive way.

    I rarely get disappointed. But when I do, I allow myself to be disappointed without judging myself or thinking it is wrong. I just do not want it to be the only emotion, nor the main one…

  10. I have plenty of flaws Bill—I just accused myself of having a “loser’s attitude.” I always admit here that I am a novice at chess (no pretending). I have many flaws—that I will be happy to mention if they are germane to a post—as here where I showed a kind of lack of confidence. It so happens I am a gentleman in sports and chess. I guess I talk about it because there are so many a-holes out there being selfish, rude, and petty. I think it is quite rude of you to attack me in this way. As to America I am deeply ashamed of my country—which is my right. I was polite by not listing the reasons for my dislike of the United States which would go beyond chess, as you have done in your post attacking me. I do admit my posts are a bit too much bio—BUT Mr Aagaard told a personal story so I went overboard. I should realize that people are interested in his life and not in mine. Therefore, I will again leave—noty sure why I popped in again after 9 months away. I thought this might be fun and informative, BUT every posty I make get s people riled up so it is better for the community that I self-exile. Ainsi soit il ! I should just stick to flag burning.

  11. @Mark Moorman
    I do not have a problem with people coming with personal thoughts and emotions here. I think if you do not like what people say about themselves, you should do as I do: ignore it…

  12. I should briefly add: (1) part of my problem with being too biographical is that other fora I participate in, e.g., fly fishing—are a matter of equals sharing their experiences. There are no ratings or hierarchy, and being “personal” is welcome. My mistake. (2) It is so funny how most Americans cannot tolerate vague hints at dissatisfaction, or overt criticism of the USA. Imagine how I must feel. Every second the flag is being worshipped, the troops praised no matter what the cause or action, the pledge of allegiance said, the national anthem sung, military jets buzzing every stadium, everyone saying “we are the greatest nation on earth,” “the most powerful ever,” and USA!, USA! God and Jesus being trotted out at every turn. So, I am sorry to say Bill I don’t feel sorry for you—I feel sorry for me. I consider disliking my country to be an act of public service at the service of the truth. Its a family tradition—my great, great, great grandfather Aaron Baker Regester was a quaker abolitionist who worked on the Underground railway. Ooops too much bio again, AND related to being good.

  13. @Mark Moorman
    I jusrt want to say I totally sympathise with you :-). I can’t imagine children in e.g. The Netherlands having to start each day on school with the National Anthem or our prime minister ending every speech with ‘God bless The Netherlands.’ It seems kind of silly to me. But hey, it’s just an opinion 🙂

  14. I remember as a 12 year old beating my main local rival in an age group national championships and stumbling across him in tears in another part of the venue after the game. He’d held it together at the board and while I was chuffed at the game, felt it was one game in a ding-dong battle which went my way and was totally bewildered at his reaction. He hardly played after that game. I also made a mental note that day that I should try not to show emotions (good or bad) to my opponents and probably bottled them up.

    Don’t know if it was related, but I wasted the rest of my teenage years being scared to lose and drawing far too many games and others went past me. Only my last age group championships, when I didn’t care so much and knew that there would be no consequences (e.g. national selection), did I play above myself. After that I drew far fewer games and I had a significant jump in performance.

  15. @Mark Moorman
    Not judging you, just observing: You seem to attach a lot of persona to your own comments and the subsequent reactions of others. So some unwanted advise:
    1] Study Jacob’s attack and defence to keep the upper hand and you can keep feeling threatened by every post
    2] or read Rowson’s opinion on defending (chess for zebra’s) and you will live a healthier life
    Basically he explains that by detaching your persona from the (defending) task, you will be much more efficient.

  16. regarding taking it easy:

    We shouldn’t forget how harsh chess can be. Meaning that the result is not always linear with your effort. Therefore I have learned with the time to value my effort instead of the result.
    According to my girlfriend, I may have taken this attitude to far. When she sees me after a game, she can’t tell if I won or lost. Since I’m often extremely pissed after winning a game with bad play.

  17. Grinding—ty for your advice. I did ADMIT to including too much ME in my posts—and I guess it is unavoidable briefly now. “Persona” means “mask” in Latin and usually is taken to mean ones public character, but I take it you mean that I take remarks on my remarks too personally. Well, I will try to ignore them as GMA suggests. It would be nice if others would simply ignore elements of my remarks that irk them too. I do NOT feel threatened and in real life I am not thin skinned. I tend to respond when someone writes “@Mark Moorman” followed by an insult. I do have both of the books you mentioned, but they are on the “to do” list.

  18. Jacob Aagaard :@Mark Moorman I do not have a problem with people coming with personal thoughts and emotions here. I think if you do not like what people say about themselves, you should do as I do: ignore it…

    This is true. It’s been a long time since I’ve read one of Mark’s posts. I’ll go back to ignoring him after today.

  19. I have had many bad losses and taken away won games. However some of the moments were A LOT harder to cope with than others. One of the best moment was playing against player rated about 2150-2200 (I was just 1980 or so) and reaching winning position. It was needed to play JUST 2-3 good (quite simple actually) moves and his position started to fall apart. After I fail to do so, I played really bad and instead of “escaping with a draw” I started to “win again”. The rest you can think by yourself. After SUCH LOSS I was totally mentally emotionally CRUSHED! I could not see my face and I hated myself in a period of about 2 weeks! I wanted to give up chess after such a “self-destruction”. I have experienced quite bad feelings and I blamed myself and called “stupid chess idiot”. It was extremally painful to me, but finally I realized it is NOT the end of the world and I accepted my lack of perfection. As far as I heard – there are (were) some people who quit chess definitely after such a self-destruction.

    I agree completely – chess is (may be) REALLY faiful and cruel experience! 🙂

  20. @Bill I was at the anti-police brutality protests in DC today and I bought a homeless man lunch.
    @ Jacob Aagaard It is amazing to me that MY remarks are being moderated, BUT not people attacking me. What in my initial post was an attack on anyone? What was grounds for moderating? Replying to attack requires moderating. A very modest, friendly reply to grinding toyla’s “advice”did not make it through moderation. Do you have any sense of justice? This is the same thing that happened last time. So, Bill can post his last jab at me and THAT passes muster, BUT I can’t reply?? Do me a favor and screen all “@ Mark Moormans too.
    I am also surprised that I AM THE ONe getting all of the advice, NOT the person attacking me out of the blue. He did not take issue with the truth of the content of my post—just with me. Very odd double standards. Will THIS make it through “moderation?”

  21. The most painful loss I’ve suffered was in the Nottingham Congress a couple years ago. I was completely winning on the White side of a fianchetto King’s Indian. We reached an endgame where I was a passed pawn up and I miscalculated when queening the pawn that I’m just losing the pawn for nothing. The mind set I was in was “I’m completely winning why doesn’t he just resign” and I stopped calculating and took the win for granted. After I realised I just blundered the pawn by queening it because the queening sq was overprotected I fell apart psychologically and even ended up losing the endgame in slow and painful manner, I could see on my opponents face that even he felt bad for me. He was also 25ish ECF rating pts lower than me. It’s been 2 years since that game and it still hurts me to think about it. It also hurt more because the King’s Indian is my nemesis, I have a terrible score against it. I’ve tried all the safe lines: fianchetto, averbakh, h3 lines and don’t feel comfortable against it. When I see it otb I have a feeling of dread. Atm I’m still playing the fianchetto variation but I’ve never won with it. 1 loss and 2 draws so far. I’m currently 165 ECF atm but I’m hoping I’ll jump past 170 for the first time in the Jan update.

  22. Part of winning won positions is realizing that it’s just one more phase of the game you have to play. That allows one to calm down and keep playing good moves.

    It’s also important that large advantages are not all created equal. A “winning” position where you have to convert a pawn plus endgame is NOT the same as a “winning” position where you have to find 3-4 “Fritz” moves in a row, with all other moves leading to equality.

    And at the end of the day, no one will convert “winning” positions 100% of the time. You will fail some of the time, even with your best effort. This is something one has to learn to accept.

    However, with the right attitude, you can increase the percentage of converting those winning positions. I’m not saying I’ve mastered this attitude by any stretch of the imagination, but I have improved it. In 2013, I scored 80% against those rated below my rating and in 2014 I kept up the same percentage. Next year I hope to improve this to 85% or 90%.

    It’s those higher-rated players that are causing me problems right now. Oh well. Fix one leak and another pops up.

  23. an ordinary chessplayer

    @James – What has worked for me when I have poor results against an opening is to start playing it from the other side. My opponents have usually been very happy to demonstrate correct play against it.

    RE the original topic, I remember taking touch-typing tests back in school, the test was how many words in two minutes but only two mistakes allowed, words after the third mistake didn’t count. I was not a bad typist, but my score would usually be a lowish 60 wpm. The awful thing was, I was alert enough to know while typing when the mistakes happened, as they were happening. The first one would be at, say, 25-35 words. No worries. Another 25-35 words on would be the second mistake, the mind says “just one more” and bang! Instantly mistake number 3. So frustrating.

    @Howard Goldowsky – The Galwey book is excellent, I wish I had read it before the typing class.

  24. @an ordinary chessplayer
    Good advice! I used to have a very bad score against the French, and then I started playing it myself with black and my score with white approved as well. On the other hand, I guess some positions just don’t suit you. E.g., I have a very bad score with white against the Modern Benoni, because it’s so hard to keep control of the game (which is what I like). I’ve also tried to play it with black and have a bad score as well, because it’s so hard to keep control of the game 🙂

    Regarding the topic of this post: I used to be upset in the past if I lost, but now I don’t care that much anymore about the result. I wouldn’t say I’ve become a better chess player because of this change in attitude, but I do know I’m enjoying the process more and can appreciate it if my opponent finds a great move / combination. I guess in the end that’s what counts if you’re an amateur anyway.

  25. @Mark Moorman

    Mark, no human is “moderating” your comments. WordPress put one of your comments in the “Pending” folder all on its own. It did the same to one of Seth’s comments. It occasionally does the same to Jacob’s. Then the comments sit invisibly until someone (in this case me) “approves” them.

  26. Michael Bartlett

    If it makes you feel better I did the same thing when I was 16 (many years ago). There was a bishop over-protecting the queening square which I completely missed. However after my blunder I was so annoyed I marched my king up the board and refused to go out with a whimper. It was a weird game as it ended K+R Vs K and the kid accepted a draw not realizing he could force a win. And he beat himself up after the game, apparently devastated by king walk haha I was pretty annoyed with myself after as he was the best in the school and I know I had him.

  27. I remember being on the other side of several of these “gifts” when I was playing. I managed to win or draw a lot of dead-lost positions where there was (objectively) no hope. I remember once when I was rated around 2000 playing someone slightly higher-rated than myself. Time control was 40/2 with no increment (it was a long time ago!). He was about 45 minutes late and played slowly, albeit very well. I, on the other hand, played quickly but really badly, with one blunder after another. After about 30 moves I am completely busted but he only had 2-3 minutes left, so I decided to play on rather than resign.
    He found a mating attack where he made small sacrifice and drove my king all the way across the board, so it ended up adjacent to his king. At that point we both suddenly realized he had no more checks and I had forced mate in two, courtesy of my king blocking his king. I was apologetic for the win, but I took it!

  28. My worst loss was against a player rated 600 points more then me (my first year playing chess I was 21 and rated 1600elo) in which I had Queen and pawns against a Rook Knight and pawns. I still needed some technique to queen another pawn, and as my opponent kept asking for a draw on every move, I sac’d my queen for rook forgetting that his knight was on time to stop my pawn from queening.

    At the time It would have been my greatest scalp, so I was on the brink of killing that guy but instead congratulated him for his amazing effort and talent for draw asking.

  29. Michael Bartlett :@James However after my blunder I was so annoyed I marched my king up the board and refused to go out with a whimper…….. And he beat himself up after the game, apparently devastated by king walk haha I was pretty annoyed with myself after as he was the best in the school and I know I had him.

    Sounds like Magnus went over your game and employed the same strategy in game 11. 😉

  30. @Mark Moorman
    I did not moderate anything. If the website for some reason picked up on something, I think you will have to ask someone else why that is. It happens to me sometimes as well.

  31. @Mark Moorman
    Have you considered posting your feelings on The Huffington Post website? I think you’d receive a lot of support there for your views. I’m sorry you feel attacked and moderated here. I believe in freedom of speech, and I know Jacob would never censor anyone.

  32. @Michael Bartlett
    It is not true. We would censor people for bad use of language or if they were deliberately trolling and harassing. Obviously this is not the case here. Who knows what these programs are meant to do :-).

  33. My another three cents 😉

    1. Most (amateur approach) people feels the pressure of being awareded the WHOLE point when they get the advantage. The bigger the advantage the more they are “obliged” to get the win.
    2. Many chessplayers FORGETS that realizing the advantage into the win is probably the most difficult part of the whole game.
    3. A lot of players are not concious enough to notice that the side being worse – is LOOKING for any way to escape with a draw or even try to make a swindle… and win!
    4. Most amateur players when they gain the advantage – RELAX and thinks the game win itself.

    I have played many weaker players (against about 300-400 different opponents) and escape before “chess death” (losing the game being much worse or deadly lost) many times. My main idea was to make the game much more weird to them. If I was worse against an attacker – I tried to “slow down” the game and steer it into ANY type of drawn zone (ending) or played (built) such positions that my opponent had to make MANY moves before he could convert the advantage. And when I have played against positional players – after I realized my position is much worse, I simpy started playing sharp and dynamical way and/or layed traps all the time. Many times it worked really well 😉 🙂

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