Decisive Games

  • GM BryanSmith
  • | Mar 27, 2013

Few games test a player psychologically as much as the last-round game of a tournament (or the decisive game of a match). When the prize money, championship, or norm is on the line, the tension becomes extremely high. In this situation you can find anything from reckless attacks and nervous play or blunders to brilliant and self-controlled play. Some people make quick draws and take a much lower prize because they cannot deal with the tension. How does one cope with the crucial last-round game?

There are a few things which can impact a player's performance in the crucial game. First of all, this is usually the end of a tournament, so tiredness is a factor. Obviously, nervousness is the most important - there are no more games, there won't be a chance to "come back" next round - the music stops after this one.

A player's mindset, psychology, and even life circumstances strongly affect how they experience the last round. I strongly believe that if you do not have stable life circumstances - particularly if you are a professional chess player - you will have trouble in the last round. By this I mean if you are poor and need to win to pay the rent. Generally that will negatively affect your performance, although it also plays off your psychology - some people would even play better in such a situation.

A famous quote by Mikhail Tal explains a very important point: "Later I began to succeed in decisive games. Perhaps because I realized a very simple truth: not only was I worried, but also my opponent." Essentially, if you are too focused inward you will experience more problems. In that case you take all the tension of the situation on yourself.

As most chess players do, I have a lot of experience with decisive games. At one point I had severe problems with the last round. It seemed then that I had not won an important last round game in years. Perhaps this is connected to what is - to this day - perhaps the most important game in my life.

At this point I was 22 years old and had a FIDE rating of 2412. This is not particularly impressive, considering how young people become GMs, but on the other hand I basically only started playing serious tournaments when I moved out of Alaska at 18, so it seemed that the future held lots of promise. After college ended I returned to Alaska for a month or so, but then went to Philadelphia on a one-way ticket to play in the World Open. Since I had a scholarship for graduate school in Russia that fall, I planned to just spend the summer somewhere on the east coast and play chess. I didn't know where I would live, but I supposed I would figure it out somehow.

I started the tournament badly, with a loss against a lower rated player in the first round and a draw in the second. I began to realize that I had no idea where I would live once the tournament was over and had very little money. I guess I wasn't very practical or worldly then, but I did understand that winning a good prize would help a lot.

After that I managed to score 5.5/6, including wins against two grandmasters. In the last round I played against GM Johnathan Rowson. If I drew the game I would get an IM norm, a spot in the U.S. Championship, and a decent prize. Winning would have given me a tie for first place.

After eighteen moves the following position arose:

Naturally I saw 19.Rxa5 Qxa5 20.Nc6 Qb6 21.Nxb8 Qxb8 22.Ba3, leading to this position:

Black has a very nice knight on d5, but his king is locked in the center. Allowing Bd6 will lead to a very dangerous position for Black - there will be no way to develop the rook except by ...Kd7, but the kingside pawns will still be under fire and the black king will not be safe. The other option is 22...b4, which I expected he would have to play, and would be met by 23.Rb1 0-0 24.Bxb4. Then White has an extra pawn, and while the knight on d5 gives Black compensation, White really cannot lose. Using the extra pawn would be impossible, but White can play h4-h5 to create threats on the kingside, with some hope of victory.

However, in my nervousness I found a way to "improve" this variation by inserting the moves 19.Qg4? g6 first. Then I discovered that 20.Rxa5 Qxa5 21.Nc6 Qb6 22.Nxb8 Qxb8 23.Ba3 is no longer good, because the e5 pawn is hanging - 23...Qxe5. Instead I played 20.Nf3? and quickly fell apart.

I don't want to go into details of why this game had such an impact on me, but essentially afterwards some things went wrong and I ended up stuck in Alaska for two years, basically unable to play chess or even really take part in life. I think if I had won this game - or even perhaps if I drew it - that could have been avoided.

Later things started to get better as far as last-round games are concerned. Slowly I got over my fear. The key is to realize that if you lose the game, nothing terrible is going to happen. Life goes on. And as Tal said, it is not just you, but also your opponent that is nervous. Many chess players have a strong ego and are selfish. For many chess players, their own experience is paramount, and they do not see themselves as an organic part of the world. Their own thoughts and feelings become all that is real, and they can forget that others are not automatons. I do not mean any moral judgment by this - such a person can be a good person, but is just "too much in his own head" and suffers because of this.

Finally, physical and mental tiredness is usually a factor in last-round games. While tiredness obviously affects the quality of your play, worrying about your tiredness multiplies the effect. The key is to - first of all - realize that your opponent also is tired. And second, you have to see your exhaustion as something to fight through like a trooper.

Later I had much more success in last-round games. Here is my last round game against GM Darmen Sadvakasov, which allowed me to win the King's Island Open:


  • 4 years ago



    Word rage is absolutely a thing...Linguists have documented it thoroughly. When people like you take umbridge at a particular manner of phrasing something which conveys a message in an intelligible way, it is referred to by linguists as word rage.  You can't will reality to conform with your pseudo-intellectual nitpicking.

    In any case, I had two points.  First: you knew exactly what was meant, so getting upset about it makes no sense.  Second: substituting issues for problems is trivial, and not an example of political correctness. I think I have a third now.  

    I don't think you know what political correctness is.  You have asserted, without any argument in the proposition's favor, that political correctness is somehow erosive to our very culture.  This is a question worthy of debate, but I think defining your terms might be worth your while...because I don't think you know what you're talking about.  Political correctness is the substitution of benign language so as to avoid offending a broad audience.  The word "problem" is, in itself, as inoffensive a word as I can imagine.  The word "issue" seems to be its equal, rather than some amelioration of a stinging feeling you get when you hear "problems."

    To sum up: you are behaving irrationally for getting upset by the way someone words something when you get the message clearly.  You are more irrational yet for being upset over this particular substitution.  Moreover,you don't seem to know what you are talking about on any issue (word rage especially, but I suspect political correctness).  Finally, by way of advice, if you are going to troll people for what you perceive as an assault on the integrity of our language, you might spell/grammar check your own comments.

  • 4 years ago


    Belo Jogo

  • 4 years ago


    7Beaufeet7 is actually suffering from something called word rage.  This is an irrationally angry response to a trivial linguistic issue.  Saying issues vs. problems is not an issue for any level-headed person.  We all know exactly what the writer or speaker is saying.  Get over yourself, and also please don't lump in "political correctness" to your tirades, as it is an increasingly meaningless phrase.  Why do I say that?  Somehow, in 7beau's tiny mind, the substitution of the word "issues" rather than "problems" represents an affront to honesty in the interests of not offending someone.  This is how the integrity of the meaning of phrases degrades, not by using synonyms interchangeably. 

  • 4 years ago



  • 4 years ago


    Nice article! It was interesting to hear how various things shaped your journey in life. Also nice insights into the human psyche.

    I have found that when I'm playing a game of chess nervousness might be there at first, but as a I play move 1, then move 2 and on it slowly goes away. It's almost like I forget about those things and only concentrate on game, I'm entering a state of mind where I enjoy the tension and the battle.

    In general I think there are some things one can do to lessen the impact of nervousness and improve performance (I have found):
    -Go into the game with the mindset that you will enjoy the tension and the battle.
    -Don't think about losing or winning, only focus on making the best move in each position and the result will take care of itself.
    -Focus on playing the color rather than the player. This draws the attention away from which player you are facing, especially useful if there are certain associations associated to the player being faced (famous/titled)

  • 4 years ago


    I'm Johnpeter101. Friend me!Cool

  • 4 years ago


    Yes, if you followed the Candidates (and we are talking of the best players on earth), their performance and how they faced the press conferences you conclude that dealing with pressure is one of the biggest issues on OTB chess. i.ex.

    Carlsen. He started as expected but then he got stucked and in the press room he spoke very little and constantly wheeling over the chair. Then after his first loss vs. Ivanchuk he unpressured slightly and began behaving as the MC we always knew. I guess that being the clear favourite increased the weight almost to unbearable levels. He looked really tired.

    Radjabov. He looked very relaxed and was more chatty than usual. He stated at the beginning of the tourn. that he due to family issues, couldn't prepare properly.

    Ivanchuk. His constant flagging at the beginning was not casual. This guy never could handle the pressure of fighting for a WC. He needed to lose enough games to play with comfort.

    Svidler and Gelfand. This guys were the lower rated but almost always do better than expected in important tournaments: Candidates, World Cup, etc. Very mature emotionally both of them.

    Aronian. His strategy was very risky, win as much games as possible. After his first unexpected loss he fall apart.

    Kramnik. His comeback in the 2nd round was not casual (beside his lucky wins vs. the other russians). He has been a WC during 7 years, dethroned Kasparov and has enough experience in this kind of races.

    Grischuk. What can you expect of a professional poker player? He is in love with pressure.

  • 4 years ago


    you are true to yourself through this article about decisive game, that is normal feeling of nervous, execitement,etc.. your article is helpful to those who feels something pschologically nervous, tired etc.. i like it. it feels that even you bryan feels nervous sometimes against GM in your tournament. i thought those titled players like you IM bryan do not feel nervous during tournament.. but the important is.. you are prepared in tournament no matter what..Laughing

  • 4 years ago


    Although psychology plays a role, sometimes I think it is overestimated. Ultimately you just have to be willing to have the same clarity of thought as you always do, be willing to solve problems on the board, and not expect to be coasted through just because you've done well for most of the tournament -- a tournament is a best out of x games, not a best out of x-1 games. Nonetheless, it's still just about playing good moves as best you can -- sometimes it works out, sometimes not, just like any round -- it's not necessarily because of psychology. I can have a lot of feelings on the board -- calmness or nervousness for example -- but I believe that it's not enough to keep me from conforming to sound chess ideas -- if I feel really nervous at a certain moment, I'll just block it out in my mind because I know what I have to do, regardless of my feelings.

    Tiredness is the biggest factor in my opinion, except that everyone has the same disadvantage Smile, which I guess underscores your point that you should consider not just your own feelings but also your opponent's. I just try to anticipate my tiredness and remind myself I can put all my energy into just one last round as I can totally relax afterwards. A lot of times when we say we are tired, it doesn't really mean that we don't have a lot of energy, but that we don't feel like exerting it, so finding a way to get motivation to play good chess may be important.

    These were some nice insights for sure.

  • 4 years ago


    Don't look at your rating or age, just look at your play.. You should not tell us about this, just tell us about your capability to destroy GMs because you have a brain of GM, I suppose.. :))

  • 4 years ago


    I second Pawnslinger1's comment. You're awesome, Bryan.

  • 4 years ago


    You are refreshingly honest Bryan with a heart of humility and a keen, frank insight to human psychology, ...the prevalent projection of self (as a trap of sorts) @ the expense of empathy within this sea of human interconnectivity. Perhaps this is your strength. Writer, ...for sure. Chess teacher, ...absolutely. Good luck on those GM norms & thank you. Agree with ShivaLSD & Pawnslinger1, ...very unique perspective for such an accomplished player. Your contribution is enlightening. Thanks for sharing bro. Peace!  

  • 4 years ago


    this is a very good post Bryan - On a slightly unrelated note, I am now living in Anchorage, AK and missing the live chess so freely available to me in Minnesota - I suspect I'll be living on ICC for a couple years unless there's some good AK possibilities up here - easy to forget this is the edge of civilization sometimes - pax - RB

  • 4 years ago


    "For many chess players, their own experience is paramount, and they do not see themselves as an organic part of the world. Their own thoughts and feelings become all that is real, and they can forget that others are not automatons. I do not mean any moral judgment by this - such a person can be a good person, but is just "too much in his own head" and suffers because of this."

    WHOAA!! this knocked me off my feet!! what an observation!!!

  • 4 years ago


    Nice insight tks

  • 4 years ago



  • 4 years ago


    Great article. It is a pleasure to read ur articles.

  • 4 years ago


    Nice article. Thoughts very well illustrated by two games. Thank you.

  • 4 years ago


    very nice article. question. ow close r u 2 becoming a gm.

  • 4 years ago


    Very nice writing and story. I think we, average players and lovers of chess, have lot to learn from your thoughts and experience of your chess journey.

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