Chess Psychology 101

Chess Psychology 101

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In last week’s article, I pointed out that chess psychology plays an enormous part of one’s results.

There are many facets of chess psychology: self-confidence (or the lack thereof), fear of threats (real or imagined), fear of losing, etc. These psychological “illnesses” often manifest via extremely powerful internal phrases that drag you on paths that you never should have walked on. Thus, when that internal voice says, “I have to!” or “I can’t!” you obey, falling victim to an unconscious demand.

In my book, How to Reassess Your Chess 4th Edition, I look at these things in depth because everyone falls victim to it. Amateurs bathe in the waters of unconscious demands (they are, of course, not aware that they are doing it), and even grandmasters get snookered by those gremlin voices from time to time. And, as we all know, if you aren’t aware that you have a disease, you won’t be able to cure it.

So how can we rid ourselves of this chess scourge? The first step is to acknowledge that there’s a problem: first recognize it, then take note when you fall victim to it (a qualified chess teacher can be a big help), and finally root it out with more positive phrases. For example, here are some titles in my book’s psychology section:



  • Fear of Giving Up or Taking Material
  • Bowing to Panic
  • The Curse of “I can’t”
  • Lazy/Soft Moves
  • Lack of Patience



  • Stepping Beyond Fear
  • It’s My Party and I’ll Move What I Want to
  • The Art of Insistence
  • Pushing Your Own Agenda


It’s important to understand that, though you might try hard to avoid those nasty internal voices, these things are very hard to notice during a tough game. I had (and have) students that proudly show me a game where they insist they avoided all the psychological pitfalls we’re discussing here, only to discover (during the lesson) that they were still far off the mark.

In the following game, Black has a very comfortable position, and he has decided that he wants to trade his undeveloped dark-squared bishop for White’s active f4-bishop. Okay, nothing wrong with that. However, he first played 5...a6, proudly explaining how it’s keeping his opponent’s pieces at bay.

I was not too happy with this. It’s playable of course, but (since ...Bd6 is what Black wants to do) why not just DO it? However, instead of “just do it,” Black bowed to a common will-o-the-wisp.

As I mentioned earlier, this same kind of fear (“Maybe he’ll do that move, so I have to stop it!”) affects much higher-rated players too. Here’s a game where a master plays solid moves that simply aren’t up to snuff in the greater scheme of things:

All in all, chess is a game of mental and creative domination. You create a certain agenda (one that embraces the imbalances) and you do your best to force your opponent to drink your Kool-Aid (i.e., to accept your vision of what’s going on, thereby making your opponent follow your lead even though he is probably not aware of doing so).

There WILL be many, many moments where you can cave in to your opponent’s demands or threats or his overall vision. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to kick all of that to the curb and win the battle of wills.

Here’s a great example by the great Capablanca.

Black’s move (17...Qd5) makes an announcement: you HAVE TO move or protect your bishop! How did Capablanca react?

In this game Spielmann was comprehensively outplayed. Capablanca outplayed him in the opening, and when the middlegame appeared, Capablanca refused to bow to the fear of various scary complications. Instead, he pushed his agenda and (after his intuition and calculation both assured him that all was well) was ready to face whatever positional and tactical landmines his opponent would use.

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