Another of the “balancing acts” that chess players make is between the poles of consistency and flexibility. We all know that human chess players need a plan in order to play a decent game. We cannot calculate every single move the way a machine can. In order to determine what kind of moves to look at, we must have some general idea what we are doing and what we are trying to accomplish. Consistently following a plan is crucial to success in chess.
However, at the same time the situation on the chess board is constantly changing. In a changed situation, continuing with the same plan could be foolish and destructive. You have to be able to change your mind, to change your plan, or even admit mistakes and change your path. This is flexibility.
My last three articles on the psychology of chess have covered polar opposite qualities that we must balance to play well. Courage vs. Caution, Apathy vs. Responsibility, and Flexibility vs. Consistency – these are all things we balance when we play chess. They are also qualities we balance in life. It is quite clichéd to talk about how chess mirrors life, and in many cases I think it doesn’t. But here I can see a big similarity. In life we must also learn how to be courageous without being reckless; to learn how to care enough but not so much that it drives us crazy; and to follow a path consistently but be ready to vary from it if the situation changes. The difference is that in life there are more results than just “win”, “loss”, or “draw”; and it is much harder to evaluate one’s “position”.
Flexibility or lack thereof could be seen over the course of a whole game, or in one’s private thinking about a single move. It is quite easy to become focused on one idea and forget to look for alternatives. In this way you can not only overlook something stronger, you can also miss something totally obvious staring you right in the face. Thus the chess player must be not only ready to change his plan over the course of the game when the situation changes, but also to change his thinking on one specific move when it becomes clear that it is going in the wrong direction.
On the other side of the spectrum are those players who play schizophrenically, looking all the time for random tactical chances but seemingly without a unifying idea. It is necessary to balance the two qualities.
The following famous game is an excellent example of flexible thought. Right from the opening Bobby Fischer created a plan for playing against Petrosian’s isolated d-pawn and creating a dark square weakness and bad light squared bishop in Black’s camp. He fixes the black a-pawn and d-pawn on light squares, trades the dark-squared bishops, and generally seems to be aiming to exploit the “good knight versus bad bishop” positional advantage, along with the dark-square weakness and some isolated pawns. But then out of nowhere on move 22 he trades off the “bad” black bishop for his beautiful knight and begins play on the light squares! It would take some very flexible thinking to decide on such a move, in addition to some very good judgment to determine its correctness.
Flexibility of thought is certainly an important quality. It has also been said that it was one of Anatoly Karpov’s greatest strengths. He could make a move and then retract it two moves later in a changed situation. It is important to be able to change your mind and forget previous positions, looking at the current one with an unbiased eye.
So how could too much flexibility of thought be a fault? It can, if you are unable to play a consistent game; if you look only at individual moves and cannot unify them with a central idea. To illustrate this I will show you a bad game I played during a time last year when I was in poor form. In a crucial last round game my opponent played very provocatively in the opening, presenting me with a multitude of delicious attacking ideas. I felt sure that not only was the position objectively good for me, but also that it was “my” type of position. Nevertheless (perhaps tiredness was a factor) I was unable to put together a reasonable idea – instead I jumped from idea to idea, got bogged down in long variations, and could not find a central idea when it was very important.
So, once again we see that balance is the key. I hope you have enjoyed my attempts at insight into the psychology of chess. While it is true that a large part of success in chess is the ability to calculate, the ability to accurately evaluate positions, and one’s knowledge of opening and endgame theory – nevertheless, a huge deciding factor, especially in the games between relatively equal opponents, is based on the players’ abilities to manage their own psychologies.