Goal setting – or setting yourself up for failure

This blog post is inspired by IM Lawrence Trent’s public announcement that he is retiring from competitive chess, but is by no means meant as advice to Lawrence or a comment on his very personal decision. But it is a small note on goal setting and the way you can set yourself up for failure.

I have personally aimed at the IM title and the GM title at various times in my life. I achieved both rather quickly at the time when I was ready for them, getting all the norms in less than 12 months. It took me an additional three years to surpass 2500 in rating and it is only from this that I learned some quite valuable lessons; what had worked for me and what did not.

First of all, no matter how much I desired the grandmaster title, the desire did not give me an inch of competitive advantage. Rather the contrary – the overload of importance my decision making was suffering from meant that I struggled to work things out that should have been achievable for me. Every defeat was a heartbreak and caused immense emotional suffering. I have since then had to hold my ill child in a scanner for 20 minutes while she was crying and begging me to let her go, so I have definitely experienced worse, but where that was probably 9/10, losing to a 2100 in Cappelle in 2005 was about a 7/10. If I had not been entirely demolished, it might have felt worse.

The way I got past it was actually simple. I allowed myself to fail. I decided that as long as I was trying my best, it was OK. If that was enough, then it was enough. And if not, then it was not.

In 2006 I lost a blitz play-off game at the Danish Championship where I was apparently winning. I went from 1st to 6th place in less than 30 seconds. I knew already then that I would probably never win the championship of my birth country, as I had already changed affiliation to Scotland. Still, there was no pain, no regret, no remorse. I had tried.

In 2007 I became British Champion and surpassed 2500 on the way.

What I recommend to students facing such tasks is to play it move by move. If you are close to GM-level, but constantly failing (as is happening with one guy I am helping at the moment), maybe the thing to do is to improve your chess skills and knowledge? To do the work required to be more than 2500 once; to become a GM for life, if indeed this is your wish. Because if you do not like chess, the whole thing seems rather pointless to me anyway…

25 thoughts on “Goal setting – or setting yourself up for failure”

  1. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    To care enough to try my best, and not to care one bit more than that, is a tricky thing.

  2. ‘I allowed myself to fail’ reminds me of a photo I saw of Carlsen wearing a t-shirt that said ‘Make Mistakes.’ I sometimes get too worried about losing rating points, or get cautious and take a draw instead of fighting. I think Carlsen’s fighting spirit is an inspiration. You are going to make mistakes and fail, and that is expected in chess.

  3. @Jay
    think absolutely the same!
    fight instead of easy draws and in the long term it pays off, as Carlsen demonstrates

  4. for me the most important thing is to enjoy myself without loosing the seriousness; good feeling when the flow kicks in ….; “goals” don´t seem to work for me, then i neglect the “now”

  5. Jacob Aagaard

    Goals are fine if they are about a sense of direction. I play a lot of tennis. Last night at a team match my partner for the night was constantly talking about “let’s win the next one” and stuff like this, as if wanting it makes you play better. It doesn’t. Instead he got tense and made mistakes. I was very nervous at points, because I want to make a good impression, but when that happened I just kept eye-contact with the ball and kept smiling. At 5-3 and 30-all in the last set my partner double faulted twice, losing the plot. At 5-4 I cannoned three great returns at our opponents and we broke their serve again, taking the final set. I was very chuffed :-). And the system worked once again…

  6. I copied the most important answers (to this moment) from IM Lawrence Trent’s Twitter (A – it is an answer provided by Laurence to his readers represented by Q).

    Q: Sorry to hear that. Hope you stay on with Chess24 as I enjoy your commentary.
    A: yes of course, it’s just the playing I’ve decided to put an end to!

    Q: one norm short … so tough. Good luck. Love your commentary.
    A: thanks Greg. Too much heartbreak! I’ll stay on the mic though. Love that

    Q: the stress of competition? if you enjoy the commentary I would think the game still holds interest. Still play in small ?
    A: yes find it way too stressful. Might play a rapid event or something but longplay is just too much

    [source: https://twitter.com/LawrenceTrentIM/status/601859885035315200%5D

    I make the same decision (half year ago) as Lawrence. Of course I am much lower in rating hierarachy then him (just B-class player). I found playing long (classical) time controls game too stressful. I could not cope with the level of stress and beside that I completely quit (stopped) preparing for tournaments (not to mention to specific games or opponents).

    I STILL love reading about chess, teaching others (but only those who treat it seriously) or playing for fun. However I have to many commitments to stay with chess on the “heavy track” (i.e. being serious about it and practice systematically, going to tournaments, analysing the games, solving puzzles, etc.)

    I do not write this as a form of defence…

  7. continued…

    I do not write this as a form of defence (“If I would practice right/seriously I would have been able to reach 2200, 2400 or obtain an FM title”), but as a proof that not all of us need to be great players or obtain “such and such” rating or title. Nowadays I do not care of the level I am playing as long as it gives me fun and I can enjoy what I do (anything related or connected to chess in any way).

    I decided that I want to learn Math much better and improve my level of English. It is a concious decision and I accepted that fact that I will not obtain any titles (even this lowest one – CM=candidater master) to the end of my live. It was difficult decision, but I have finally understood that with my approach to chess (“lazy approach” to put it mildly) I am sentenced to (big) failure in a long term.

    BTW. What about expanding the limit to 2500 elements? (1500 is too short to express something more than a VERY short answers). It will be a very nice if you expand it a bit more. Thanks in advance!

  8. I must say I’m not a big fan of these kinds of chess professionals quitting tournament play. If somebody wants to tell me what’s going on on the chess board, whether as trainer or commentator or author, he should know the struggle, he should be really in the game, basically, he should be one of us!
    I know that’s not particularly fair and doesn’t reflect on the real qualities as trainer/commentator/author but its how I feel whenever I hear about somebody like that quitting tournament play.

  9. Jacob Aagaard

    I find it unpleasant that some of you are slamming Lawrence here. I will discuss it with John and probably we will remove those comments. It is not the tone we want on this blog.

  10. As you will note, I have removed some content from some comments above. There was nothing obscene or libellous, but there were a few unneeded shots at Lawrence. The idea of the post was not to set up an opportunity to give one of our friends a kicking.

  11. I don’t want to be rude but retirement of a player (in whatever sport) is a news only if the player is top level. The retirement of Kasparov (or Zidane or Casey Stoner or Michael Jordan) is interesting but I don’t understand why a “common” IM has the need to inform us he’s going to retire. Ok, don’t play anymore, where’s the news? If tomorrow you’ll like to play another tournament will you inform us of your comeback?

  12. Jacob Aagaard

    Garryk – you are being a bit rude, even if you don’t mean to. There is no reason to belittle a player because of something he says on his private Facebook account. The fact that I refer to it when talking about a slightly different subject is not an excuse to belittle Lawrence or anyone else. It was not portrayed as news either.

    This is said as a friend and for all to see, because it is about how we talk about things here :-).

  13. @garryk

    I think he is more than an IM. He is known in chess circles maybe better than a lot of GMs. He is not retiring from the thing he is known for, but he has his share of popularity.

  14. It doesn’t matter who he is – he tweeted to his personal friends, fans, and followers that he was retiring from competitive chess. It’s not like he wrote a Chess24 article about it and widely publicized it and made a huge deal out of it. Jacob was merely using him as an example of goal-setting, not focusing on his retirement at all. I think garryk is either misunderstanding the situation or being far too harsh.

  15. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    “as if wanting it makes you play better”. I think this is a mistake made by many amateurs and fans of sport. Each professional has an idiosyncratic approach to competition, some do better by psyching themselves up, others do better by psyching themselves down. The amateur only “notices” the first approach and when it is successful they ignore all statistics and come to believe it is the only approach that works. Even those professionals who psych themselves up only do it in isolated competitive moments, as it is very tiring. But that is the moment captured on camera and replayed endlessly on the highlights.

  16. Why I like QC? Because they care. And they do classics also. Karpov, Petrosian, Tal, Polgar, now Gelfand who is a big fan of Rubinstein…. And all gms are saying that classics are important. Thanks for providing us those books. I have Kramnik move by move and Capablanca move by move. But dont like those books. Yours classics rocks, hope Gelfands and Jacobs project will soon come out, already ordered it.

    Ignoring classics cant make you understand chess better, their ideas are in pure form and you learn a lot from their well annotated games because you see strategic ideas in its pure form, their opponents were way behind them in chess understanding.

    I would compare ignoring classics like trying to play blues or rnr guitar but not knowing or hearing for Hendrix, Steve Ray Vaughan, M Waters, Robert Johnson,…..just practicing scales or harmonies cant make you a good player as in chess, training tactics, learning openings and endgames cant make you an excellent player.

  17. @Jacob Aagaard
    Sorry for being rude, consider that english is not my native language so I may misunderstand what is being told. I try to clarify my point. Most IM that I know don’t make a living out of their tournaments so they don’t need to announce their retirement as they have never been “employed” as professional chessplayer. They simply play less and, after some months or years without playing, they understand their competitive career has ended. Announcing a retire for a player that probably doesn’t make a living as a chessplayer seems strange to me. No personal offense was intended.

  18. I think Lawrence may have made a wise choice. He may be a good chess player but he’s a truly excellent presenter with wit, warmth and a knowledge of his audience. If he continues to focus on continuing a chess career but shifting the focus away from the playing side. Who knows what his other commitments are as well- family/partner for instance.
    In my dreams I’d be a professional chess player travelling the world playing the game I love but the reality is my 9 to 5 job here means I see my wife and kids every day and all weekend and I don’t have to live in a hotel half the month like Kramnik et al have to do- chess players have very long commutes to work!

  19. @Johnnyboy

    Read this interview with Beljavski. He is also talking about playing and training other people.


    But ok, there are several different approaches. There is a huge difference when you are a second and a trainer for lower rated players.

  20. E.SUROV: Why do you play the European Championship?

    A.BELYAVSKY: Just to keep my hand in. This is a competition that still requires putting in some fairly decent effort. And even to engage in coaching work, it is necessary not to lose touch with the real game. Because if you lose touch with the real game, nowadays, you simply become an appendage of the computer. You must not just think in terms of whether an opening is any good, but whether it is suitable for human beings or not. There are some great lines, which are not for humans.

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