Dear GM Panchanathan,
I have psychology problems in the game of chess. My rating usually goes up and down from 1900 to 2050. One of my weaknesses is that I cannot control external feelings (i.e. fear, stress, overconfidence) when playing chess. I love to play players with higher rating than me because I understand that I would gain valuable experience. However, when it comes to playing lower rated players I would fear losing the game so I would have to go all out. Sometimes when I notice that the low rated player has made upset victory in the last round, I would be afraid to play against him. Also, sometimes my tournament schedule is in conflict with school and I couldn't stop thinking about the exam or homework when thinking on the chessboard. Another situation is when I face against a player who I know I can beat and this overconfidence sometimes blinds me from making correct moves according to the position. I am wondering if you can shed some light on how to correct this problem.
Thanks in advance!
You have brought up some very important questions regarding the psychological aspect of the game. Most players encounter problems during a game that is not related to the actual game itself. The reason we believe chess imitates life is because a chess game is filled with decisions that reflect one's personality. So, your feelings are most likely to play a huge role in your decision-making and a good player tends to know how to keep those feelings under control. The first thing you should already be happy about is that you seem to know some of your key issues over the board. Trust me, it can sometimes take ages just to figure that much out.
Your question cannot come at a better time for me as I experienced an interesting episode myself during an important match recently. I am going to try and explain my situation and how I handled it, hopefully that will help you. I recently played in the Badalona International tournament that I ended up winning. I have already shared the last game of that tournament in one of my previous articles. Today I will discuss a different game that gave me some psychological issues.
Let me explain the format of the tournament a little so you will have an idea about my situation. The first six rounds are played in the regular swiss format, but after round six, the top eight players are qualified to play in a knock out format to decide the top eight spots in the final ranking. Interestingly the rest of the players who did not qualify will end up continuing their tournament in the regular swiss format.
Having had a splendid record in the previous editions in Badalona, I was very confident going into the quarter finals (I managed to qualify without any difficulty). I played out a draw with the black pieces against a Cuban Grandmaster Yuri Gonzalez in round seven. The knock out format meant that a draw would be followed by a tie break to decide who moves forward. As we were getting ready for our first tie-break game which was a ten minute rapid game where I had the white pieces, I started panicking. I started thinking that if I lose the quarter finals, the best result for me in the tournament can only be a 5th place (the worst would be 8th place).
I kept telling myself that everything was normal, but somehow my mind started playing tricks on me and I was frantically walking up and down the corridor. The fact that I started thinking about the possibility of losing started getting me further worried. Being a sportsman for the last twenty years, one thing I know for sure is when you start pondering about losing before a game, that does not exactly enhance your chances to win!
I entered the rest room about two minutes before the game and desperately tried to talk myself into calming down. All my efforts seemed in vain as I felt my heart pounding harder and harder as the game approached. This all looked weird to me as I have been similar situations a thousand times before, but I could not understand why this sudden nervous break down? As I sat down at the board, just as the arbiter asked us to turn our cell phones off and start the game a sudden peace of mind hit me from no where. All my nervousness had vanished in just a second, I realized the fact that I cannot control my results as much as I think I can. I remembered a famous quote from the 'Kungfu Panda' movie where Master Oogway (the old tortoise) asks Shifu to let go of the illusion of control!
The point I am trying to make here is that even if you have faced such problems before in a tournament and you have learned to overcome them, they can still come back at times and haunt you. The only thing you can do is to try and tell your mind to do the right thing and hope it listens at some point!
The truth is that all our fear, stress, overconfidence and other psychological issues stem out of a main root cause, winning. As you have pointed out clearly in your question, your psychological issue seem to feed from the fact that you want to meet some expectations. You do not have problems playing higher rated opponents because you are not expected to get a good result, but that is not the case for a lower rated opponent. In my opinion this could be because you are concerned about the rating and the result a bit too much. My way of dealing with such problems is to try and take my focus off results. Try to put in the best effort and forget about the outcome. I understand this is easier said than done, but it has worked for me in the past. We are all humans in the end and at times our emotions overwhelm us and we cannot do much about it.
I just wanted to share one of my favorite songs here, might be a tad bit spiritual, but it is just plain good!
Here is the rapid game I won against GM Yuri Gonzalez.
Coming to your second question of mixing school with chess, my sincere advice is never do that. I have had situations similar to this and I can very frankly tell you, that doing both at the same time just does not work. I actually completed my Grandmaster title while I was pursuing my bachelor's degree at the University of Texas at Dallas. I would attribute that success to the fact that somehow I managed to keep them apart. I played during summers when I did not have to worry about assignments and exams. I understand this might or might not be possible for everyone; you might not have a choice. In that case, my advice would be at the least clear your mind of any immediate submission or test. Going into a game with the mind set that when you get out, you have to work 10 hours for an assignment or study for an exam is just going to be bad. There is no easy cure for this, this kind of stress will definitely take its toll on the quality of the game. It is best to avoid such situations. Trying to finish your assignments a little ahead of time when you plan for a tournament might help out.
PS – I am writing this article before the 7th round game in the Bratta Open Chess tournament. A perfect example of what not to do! What can I say, HUMAN!
And your last question about being overconfident playing against weaker players has an answer within it. There is no other way to answer this question other than saying “Just don't do that!” You know your weaknesses now, try to be conscious about it during the game and tell yourself clearly when you are up against a weak player that you will not take it easy. Remember, nothing is over until it is really over! Your opponent might be weaker than you on paper, but it is your duty to show over the board that your rating actually means something. You might be a queen up or a checkmate is coming up in a few moves, that makes no difference. If the game is going on, it is still going on. Keep up your throttle until that score sheet has been signed.
I have already signed off with this phrase in an earlier article, but I will do it again since I believe it is quite apt for this article too.