A Deep Self-Reflection: Dr Jekyll vs Mr Hyde!
I know what you're thinking: Here we go again! Another ridiculous, self-deprecating blog/rant by International Master Daniel Rensch... Well, after my performance at the SPICE Cup (North American Masters) in Chicago, I am left with no choice but to come to some terms with myselves.
I scored 2.5 out of 9 in a tournament that, at different moments, showed everything about my play (both the good and the bad). My horrible score clearly suggests that we saw a little more of the "Bad Danny" and not enough of the "Good Danny" , but that's besides the point for now. If we take a look at my tournament from the perspective that all chess players feel at times (that a "Dr. Jekyll vs Mr. Hyde struggle" exists inside of all our "chess consciousnesses"), then there is much to expound upon about this event. We will go through the games as I share with you the most important lessons/thing(s) I learned about myself as a chess player and as a person during this tournament.
First, the good and bad things I learned about myself as a chess player:
My play reaffirmed something we've (the "we" being me and the Chess.com Communiy via our work together here in Danny's Corner , ie you guys putting up with my ranting, raving and delusions about my chess game, and providing your helpful feedback and words of encouragement when necessary ) already established about my chess game: I need to work harder! Every stage of my game could use some work!! I would say the one area I felt pretty satisfied with after this event were my openings (which comes to me as a surprise since I've never prided myself on being that well prepared).
With a couple exceptions (starting with my first round loss to GM Josh Friedel) I would say I achieved everything I wanted in the first stage of my games. I generally guessed right about the openings my opponents would choose, and I achieved at least a comfortable position with some pull as white (if not more) and equalized pretty easily as black.
That said, it was the rest of my game that was lacking. In many cases, I chose the wrong plans, mis-evaluated the position, and in a couple games I blundered immediately after my preparation ended. My calculation was poor in all aspects; I stopped short and made multiple "Quiessence Errors"; and I lacked focus and discipline (making blunders at times, playing too fast at others, etc) in the critical moments. Blowing a much better/nearly winning position in round 2 vs GM Bykhovsky as black was just the tip of the iceberg. I blundered against IM Milman, IM Aleskerov, and IM Felecan. It was gross!!! So, I have work to do. More puzzles to solve, more exercises to "engage my brain" in a real way to emulate tournament situations, and more work on all the things I tell my students to do ...
I will do this! I have already been putting more work into developing a "real plan for improvement" in the last couple days (once my tournament was clearly going down hill) than I have in the last few years. Everyone has their own "tipping point" of frustration, and let's just pray (for my sake) that I have finally reached mine. This is not the time for my "sob story" about my work and family life dominating my time. We have been there, done that. It's time to do this thing the right way! That doesn't mean I will be a Grandmaster in 6 months, but progress is progress, and I need to get some! I must find some level of discipline in my chess game/studies.
Staying on the subject of what I learned about myself as a chess player, I did do some things well (believe it or not ) this tournament. In round 3 for example, I put it all together in a win against IM Darwin Yang:
I had prepared some stuff in this line, but when the youngster misplayed the opening with 13...Qb6, I didn't have to use it. It felt good to get this win (making up momentarilly for my blown loss against Bykohvsky -- this game is haunting me -- the night before) and giving me some hope for the future.
Round 4 was a tough loss to IM Justin Sarkar, and though it stung to lose this game (effectively killing my Norm chances) it didn't hurt that bad because, well, it was fun! The game was exciting, Justin and I played pretty well in a crazy position (even according to Houdini) and though I had multiple chances to take a draw and equalize the game out, I realized afterward that I would have done the same things again (at least in terms of trying to win and not letting the game peter out) next time, but Justin's play was superb, finding the brilliant 38...Nd2! shot with less than 30 seconds on his clock... Enjoy:
My score, 1 out of 4, at this point was upsetting "on paper", and probably looked pretty bad to all of you following the event , but since I didn't have "Norm expectations" coming in, I simply tried to stay focused on my continued goal at this point in my chess career: Just get better and make progress with each game! So yeah, my loss to Bykhovsky notwithstanding (still haunting me ), I felt my games against Yang and Sarkar were pretty good and I remained positive.
I took those good vibes into my 5th round game against IM Niemer, and I played my best game of the tournament! Note, it was my "best game" because it really required drive and determination to grind out the equal Queen and Pawn Ending that arose. I really had to want it and be accurate to win that position, and I felt like a good "Russian School Boy" after earning the full point. Enjoy the game and my detailed analysis:
I really feel that this game represents all the things that have become right and are good about my game: 1) I equalized easily and quickly with black and 2) I didn't try for too much or make anything crazy (that second part is key for me since it's been a pretty bad habit of mine, and one that I "fell off the wagon with" later in this tournament). The whole game was accurately calculated (computer checked ) and finally, I showed pretty good endgame technique towards the end. Sure there were "other ways" to play the position for both me and my opponent, but Queen and Pawn endings can be really tricky anyway, let alone when both players are under time pressure! I feel I showed maturity and discipline that I, unfortunately, lacked in my other games.
So, taking that confidence into round 6 against GM Boros, I played my second best game of the tournament. Note that this game has to be considered my "second best" because I played the opening/early middlegame transition so poorly -- BUT in some respects, it could also be considered my best game. Why? I actually played defense! I feel one of the major holes in my game has been my over-the-board determination once things have gone wrong. My opponent missed one "kill shot" to put me away (17...Bxc4!!), but after that, we both played well and I defended a worse position for over 30 moves:
So, I had survived to round 7. At this point, I was still feeling like my play was better than my current 2.5 out of 6 score reflected (which it really was), but this is where the "figurative expletive" hit the fan , and my weaknesses -- on all practical, psychological and spiritual levels were exposed...
I had prepared perfectly for IM Lev Milman, guessing exactly what he would choose (the 6.h3 variation of the Najdorf), and I worked out the lines with Houdini to easy equality (with some practical chances to even win) for black. We played the first 20 moves, and the clock showed roughly twenty minutes left for my opponent, while an hour and twenty minutes remained for me. I was feeling comfortbale, sensing that my opponent would likely offer a draw any minute to try and "bail out" of his time pressure (something he confirmed he was thinking about after the game) and suddenly, without warning, My Hyde woke up and I decided to self-destruct...
My "poor bathroom management" aside-- described in detail in the analysis above -- I should have slowed down at the end of my preparation to take stock of all the tactics possible in the position. 24.Bxg6 is not hard to see; moreover, if I had had the prophylactic frame of mind to recognize it as a threat, I could have made a simple move and left white with nothing whatsoever to play for in the resulting position. As the analysis shows, the position is completely equal after 23...Ne7, let alone the idea of 22...Na5.
So why did I do this? Why did I put myself in such a stupid position by not getting up for the needed "break". I certainly had the time to spare! Unfortunately, I didn't have the time to ponder these questions before I needed to get ready for my next game against IM Aleskerov. In looking back on this game, I can see the writing was on the wall: I was so frustrated with myself for getting such a great position against Milman and blowing it in one/two moves that I was "hell-bent" on destroying my next opponent. As chess players, I think we sometimes feel the "Chess Gods" owe us one after a tough loss, and we take that attitude into the next game. Why is this a big mistake?
Because my next opponent had nothing to do with me playing like an idiot the round before! Because it wasn't his fault I couldn't hold my bladder !! Because it wasn't his fault I screwed up a perfect position (that I prepared for) with one bad decision!!! And it certainly wasn't his fault that my frustration over the Bykohvsky game (yes, still haunting me at this point ) had been sub-consciously building up ever since I screwed up the winning endgame in round 2.
You see, my experience here reminds us (for all of you now) that our next opponent is just there to play chess. He hasn't done anything wrong to deserve your hatred. The Mr. Hyde in you doesn't care, he just wants revenge, but you have to keep him under control...
This common mistake of having too much of a "bonzai attitude" has cost me many a losing streak in my day. One bad loss can be forgotten (the Bykohvsky game still haunting ), but after you do something stupid again in the same tournament, it is much harder to have the discipline to swallow hard, learn your lesson, and take a clear head into the next game... BUT you MUST do this! I am not saying you can't be "pumped up" to avenge yourself, but don't be reckless. You are not "owed" by the Chess Gods! Just play chess, have fun, and continue to focus on the only thing you can control: What's in front of you!!!
Well, I didn't do all of that in my last game against IM Felecan:
Instead, as you learned from my notes to the game, I made the decision to go nuts in the opening. The "psychologist" in me realizes now why I did this: I was still feeling the mixed emotions of needing to avenge myself and at the same time, I was "falling off the wagon" by reverting back to my old ways of being too aggressive when I start feeling insecure about my chess skills (something a lot of people do).
What I learned about myself as a person:
I need to relax a little bit . Funny, but true. My wife suggested that perhaps I am playing chess with a sub-conscious starving artist mentality (i.e. the old saying that without great pain there cannot be great creativity). She says I just enjoy writing articles like this... At first I laughed it off, but then I realized I didn't write a long piece like this after my great tournament in Northern California a couple months ago ... so maybe she has a point?
The part of me that is still insecure about my own chess skills is that same part of me that lashes out with overly aggressive opening choices (the losses to Friedel and Felecan). I believe it's the same part of me that always relies on the most active, sometimes reckless approach to a position and often leads to blunders (Milman and Aleskerov). I also think my out of balance need to prove something (to myself before anyone else) makes me over-critical of my own moves and mistakes during games. After a game its OK to critique your play (in fact, self-criticism is a necessary part of becoming good at anything) -- BUT when you find you're beating yourself (too much self going on here ) over the head during games, you know you have a problem. This takes away from any effort/energy that could be spent on trying to fight back.
Reglardless of me still not overcoming my spiritual deficiencies (the need for negative attention we talked about here) -- The simple truth remains that I just need to work harder. I have a tendency to think of all the deepest reasons/problems that might be causing my mistakes, instead of just focusing on the X's and O's and being honest with myself about the fact that I just haven't done enough chess or worked hard enough to expect the results I want... Those are the cold hard facts, and hopefully acknowledging that truth will set my chess game free. That and a little more studying .
Thanks for listening.