Pandolfini's Mailbag: Lost In Losing

Pandolfini's Mailbag: Lost In Losing

| 58 | Strategy

Topic for next month: Speed Chess

(Please start submitting questions concerning the above topic for the next column. Questions different from the above theme should be submitted to other departments.)


Question 1: (Submitted by Warrior200)

I have experienced the following situation a hundred times, maybe a thousand. When I am paired in a tournament with a lower-rated or an unrated player, for the sake of my dignity, how do I not lose?  In this pressure, 7/10 times, I have lost. Next round, I have a nervous breakdown because I again get a lower or unrated player due to my loss. I somehow win. But this decreases my interest to continue the tournament, and as a result I don't play with much confidence. The tournament was a total loss. So, what do you recommend after losing to a much weaker opponent, and how to reduce social stress outside and inside the playing hall?



Answer 1

You’ve possibly experienced the situation you’ve described a hundred times, maybe a thousand? Losing to a player below you takes away from your dignity? Such hyperbole suggests you might be carrying this a tad too far. For one, you seem to be stressing winning at the expense of everything else. For another, you’re apparently placing too much emphasis on rating. Win or lose, higher rating, lower rating, or no rating, it’s only a chess game, to paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock’s sage advice to a preoccupied actor obsessively concerned with bringing out his character’s true essence.

I also find it funny that though you don’t want to lose to lower rated players, you don’t like beating them either. That sounds like a lose/lose situation if ever I heard one. Look, we all want to win. Discounting certain masochists, nobody enjoys losing. But on occasion everyone does lose, even the best of us. And when the best do lose, logically they must lose to inferior players.

After Karpov had become the best player in the world, he still lost some games to weaker players. After Kasparov vanquished Karpov, he still lost some games to weaker players. And now that Carlsen is the champ, he still loses some games to weaker players. Are we getting the picture here?

Clearly, the best players don’t always win. They lose to weaker players, just like you sometimes do. Hey, we’re all human beings, even the best of us, possessing all the foibles and frailties thereby implied.

I can’t speak for these chess greats, Karpov, Kasparov, and Carlsen, but evidently, after losing a tough game to a less strong entity, they don’t dwell on it to the extent of having a nervous breakdown. They get over it. Instead of bemoaning their outcast state, they try to win their next game. Perhaps they recognize that winning and losing, polar opposites that they are, yin and yang, are both part of life’s overall experience.


So stop feeling so much pressure. You’re simply part of a grander scheme, where winning and losing each have a place. Once you come to accept this you’ll be philosophically much better positioned to handle everything, including losing to weaker players. Actually, I think you don’t mean weaker players so much. Instead I think you're referring to lower-rated players or even unrated ones.

As you should know, a player’s rating is not necessarily a true index of his or her playing ability. Not all ratings of the same number have the same meaning. Speed ratings don’t mean the same thing as standard ratings. What’s more, a player can be stronger than his or her rating, or weaker than his or her rating. True, established ratings can be fairly reliable, especially if calculated over many games, under comparable conditions. On the other hand, ratings achieved from a mere handful of games can be terribly unreliable. A rating’s accuracy to predict results is a function of how many games the rating is based upon, the pool from which the rating was determined, and various other factors, tangible and intangible.

It’s hard to give advice on something like this. After all, I’m not a licensed therapist, and this very definitely seems to be an emotional problem more than an objective one. But throughout my life I’ve always said outrageous things, so why should I stop now? Accordingly, I recommend that you change your mindset. (I know it’s hard, but try.) While of course you’re playing to win every game, don’t settle merely for that. Start appreciating other aspects of chess as well. The puzzles Caissa poses, the process of working out plans, the art and beauty of chess, all of that offers so much more than the does the mere act of winning. Besides, not all winning is great. Does it really have much value to win when your opponent plays badly and you win with indifference and inexact play?

In your tournaments, try some of this. After losing a game, no matter your opponent, surely attempt to understand why you lost and what you could have done about it. But then get the game out of your head. Make a clear break. Start preparing for the next round. Eat something perhaps. Take a walk. Maybe exercise for five or ten minutes. Listen to a short piece of beautiful music. Find some peace and try to regain your equilibrium. Once you’ve escaped from the past you can begin to tackle the next game.

If you approach each game on its own merits, unfettered by the past, you won’t have to worry about the rating of your opponent in the next round. You can just play chess, trying to do the best you can. Hopefully, you’ll win most of the time. But when you don’t win, try to gain from the experience anyway. You know, learn something. Good luck, my friend, and stop doing a number on yourself. You deserve much better.


Question 2: (submitted by ChessGodExtreme)

I am 50. I have loved chess all my life. That doesn’t mean I am very good. Maybe I am ~1600-1800 OTB. My goal is to get to >2000 OTB. I have broken down my efforts over the last year to two things. 1. Calculation 2. Analysis of my games I have lost. Right now I use Lucas analysis to run through loses at 1 sec per move. Then I look at the bad moves or review the openings. Right now I make about 1 stinker per game (<-1.5 pawns) and 2 bad moves (-1 pawn). Other then that I get 80% + computer moves.
 What is the best way to analyze a game I lost?


Answer 2:

I appreciate your modesty, but I think you’re being too hard on yourself. Based on what you’ve said, you seem to be a sensibly good player. Moreover, your goal of reaching the next rating class is not an unreasonable one. I also like that you’ve tried to understand the problems you’ve had and are now trying to do something about them.

Even so, I’m not sure you’re focusing on the aspects of chess that should concern you the most. Are you sure the problems you've cited truly are the ones that pester you the most? You’ve mentioned calculation and the analysis of your own games. They’re different, but they're not unrelated.  In fact, calculation is a subset of analysis. It’s just one of the tasks you must perform when analyzing a position. When you refer to “calculation,” however, the implication is that you’re having trouble figuring out sequences of moves both during actual play and also while generally considering positions. Whether or not you learn how to analyze your lost games, or even bother to analyze them at all, you're still going to have to improve your skill at calculating moves. Indeed, it's impossible to play intelligent chess without being armed with such facility.

I also don’t know how you’ve determined what you should be working on. To get a clearer picture, even with your considerable experience, you might want to get your game assessed for weaknesses and strengths under the eyes of a professional teacher or strong player. It could be that you’ve misevaluated your situation and, consequently, are going about trying to remedy the state of affairs in fruitless or counterproductive ways. Even if you've hit upon the right problem areas to correct or ameliorate, it still can’t hurt to get confirmation from another experienced voice. It will empower you to proceed with greater assurance, and confidence is vital to success in practically every endeavor.

Of course your question about how to analyze your losses has very wide interest. It’s something all of us must do. Too often many of us just wing it, without applying any definite method. Complicating it further is that there isn’t just one workable approach to analyzing our own games, whether won, lost or drawn. Amid the forest of possibilities, nonetheless, let’s try to put down some structure a levelheaded player such as yourself could follow after losing a game.


1. Discuss the game with your opponent: A great source of clarification can occur immediately after the game, when you have an opportunity to analyze the game with your opponent. It’s a chance to understand some things that escaped you while engaged in combat. Moreover, the game is fresh in your mind, so most of its important features are still accessible to your conscious thinking. It also gives you the opportunity to ask questions that may unearth or trigger additionally valuable thoughts. Finally, you might pick up on all kinds of intangibly subtle things that don’t necessarily come out during the play of the game yet impact it significantly. In this period of interchange don’t ignore or minimize the human element. Chess is not just a nuts and bolts game. It’s certainly all of that, but it’s also much more.

2. Take notes: Either carry a little book with you or create a file on your phone or by using some other modern-day tool. If you don’t do this, all sorts of far-reaching notions may get lost. Furthermore, you should review these notes fairly regularly to see if certain patterns emerge. They may provide clues to the telling problems that must be addressed. What types of items should you put into your dossier? Virtually anything that comes to mind, even the ostensibly trivial. It’s not always clear when some small point may prove to carry great weight as time goes by. You can always cross it out later, when rereading and summarizing your notes. To get more specific, note any questions you have about the opening and the other phases, plans you think laudable, whether partially implemented or rejected, moves and shots overlooked, lines you were considering playing but didn't, especially those you'd like to reconnoiter further, and anything of any substance to which your mind is drawn. You never know when something might turn out to be subsequently fruitful.

3. Analyze when you get home: This should be done first without the benefit of analytic software. You’ll want to see if the passage of time has altered or reconstituted any of your thinking. It’s amazing how much your perspective can change once the subconscious mind has had some time to mull it all over. Furthermore, now that you’re no longer under the pressure of immediacy, you could get a whole new take on things not so easily obtained while actually playing or within the period instantly ensuing the initial analysis. You may be amazed from this "second look" at how many questions are suddenly answered. Just like that, you may think of commendable yet unexplored ideas ignored or overlooked both in the play of the game as well as during the instant aftermath. 

4. Input the game into analytic software: You may be quite surprised by what the different engines tell you. The evaluations can reflect variance. Even so, I would turn to at least two analytic evaluators, hoping to extend the parameters of overview. In the process, particularly footnote assessments drastically incommensurate with your own. When such radical differences in estimation arise, mark those points for further consideration. Also keep a kind of index. It should indicate the percentage of moves in which your evaluations were profoundly in clash with the appraisals of the software. View a quarter-point difference as being substantial. While you don’t want to think entirely like a computer (heck, you can’t anyway), over time you’ll want this index not to flail about wildly. If it does sway, hopefully it will gradually move in a positive direction. In the end, use whatever software you have, certainly to answer questions, but also to generate more refined questions that practically produce answers. While doing all of this, try not to see any of it as being work. View it as a fun activity and that's when it works effectively and best.

5. Review the opening: Whether with software, on the Internet, or by reading literature, try to clear up some of the opening questions generated by both your game and its subsequent treatment. Especially try to increase your comprehension of the length of the line you’ve been playing. If you know it satisfactorily eight moves deep, for instance, try to expand your knowledge to at least twelve moves deep, if not further. Using the implements available, see what moves are most popular at the highest levels, even if you don’t fully fathom the reasoning behind those moves. Play over any suggested games the software or service cites, even if you're compelled to do so at a fairly rapid pace. You can always stop and analyze in greater depth positions that especially intrigue you. Play through enough games and eventually the key ideas will become integrated and serviceable, with crucial questions about the moves being cleared up from game to game. Of particular interest should be games played between top players, say at the 2600 level or above. It’s not that players of lower rating can’t paladin excellent moves and concepts. They can and do, but you don't have the time probably to look at every game there is. Assuming that's true, it makes sense to focus your efforts on the elite. As a group they tend to be more chessically reliable. Moreover, you'll find yourself in harmony with the words of Oscar Wilde when he said: “I have the simplest tastes; I like only the best.”


6. Work with a partner: If you can, find another player of analogous strength, even if he or she plays different lines. Make a habit of reconsidering your lost games with your "partner." Use him or her for feedback and to test your judgments. Why do this? Quite naturally, we tend to accept our own ideas without much discrimination. Even when we're trying to be critical we too easily accept our own thinking. So it can’t hurt to have our reasoning questioned and challenged by eyes adversarial yet not unsupportive. Many things we take for granted just aren’t so, and so it can help us if we have in our camp somebody to wake us from our "slumbers," as David Hume apparently did for Immanuel Kant. In the same spirit, you can provide suitable service for your partner, even if he or she relies on an entirely different repertoire. Besides, seeing openings you seldom get into is a way to augment your general and specific knowledge of the game. Who knows? You may even encounter opening ideas you wind up liking better and thereby change your repertory for good.

7. Play speed chess: This applies to positions you especially want to scrutinize further. For example, suppose, in trying to understand certain openings, particularly those variations arising in your lost games, you come to a point in your analysis when you reach the very last move of a key opening variation. You will still want to know more, to extend the line at least a few moves further into the middlegame. You can do the following. Take that branching position and input it into a playing tool. From that point, play a bunch of quick games against the software. Whether you get killed or not (and you will probably get killed), the concentrated effort should brew up lots of ideas to place under the analytic microscope. Surely, it will help you extend your opening comprehension at least by a few moves, and that in itself can be a critical weapon. You can also do the same thing with your partner. That is, as you did with the software, you can set up positions for exploratory work, playing lots of speed games from the launch pad of the opening's last analyzed move against your comrade. And as before, you can provide the same function for your associate and his or her opening repertory. Fair is fair.

8. Go over your games with a teacher:  I don’t wish to add to your expense, but it’s not a bad idea to have your games gone over by a more sophisticated analyst. I’m not suggesting taking regular lessons so much. Rather, collect your losses (and games in general) and see the analyst perhaps once a month or so, as games to be analyzed accumulate. In such sessions, many questions may be cleared up that otherwise escape resolution. After all, software tools can evaluate nicely, generally better than most humans, but typically computer responses don't come out as intelligible sentences. Anyhow, a teacher could also spell out more particularized programs for buttressing and for subsequent study. Let's face it, it's reasonable to conclude that the assessments of an observant and veteran analyst/teacher are much more likely to be on the money than your own.

9. Diagram key positions: Chess is a highly visual game. To that end, it can be desirable to create useful diagrams that can be seen and understood at an instant. You can do this with software or by taping the cutout diagrams into a little book or onto index cards. Make sure to review these diagrams pretty often. They will serve as helpful reminders and reinforcements. You can vivify these chess pictures even more so by adding around them helpful, explanatory words and phrases. Even better, draw arrows on the diagrams to highlight worthy plans and maneuvers. If it will help you get into the proper mindset here, pretend you’re a football coach telling the players where to go (that is, on the field). This kind of vector analysis can be extremely worthwhile and indelibly memorable.


10. Create an audio recording: Soon after finishing a lost contest, make a short audio review of the game. Keep adding to this growing account, one loss to the next. The accumulating sound bytes can become the nucleus of a kind of mantra. As you listen to it over time, comparing your earlier reactions to later ones, you will be shocked at first by the sheer repetitions. It will seem at first as if you're not making any progress at all. But after awhile, even more surprisingly, the problems you first had will begin to disappear. What will they be replaced by? New problems, especially those that indicate you've developed as a player, reaching a higher level of understanding and capability.

Of course, you don’t have to do any of this. But if you do some of it, don't be afraid to put your own stamp on it, making sure the entire enterprise is one of joy and pleasure. To be sure, there are lots of other things you could also do to assist in the analysis of your own lost games. But various aspects of the above algorithm, while not at all definitive, have been used by average and above average players to help them better understand their losses. I hope some it may be helpful to you.


Question 3: (submitted by SpeedyBird876)

How do you recommend recovering from a string of losses to regain your confidence? 

Answer 3: If I knew that I might know some very important stuff. I don’t really know what will work for you or anyone in particular. We all react so differently to a series of setbacks. Response ranges from wanting to do something definite about it to giving up playing chess altogether. Let’s throw away the act of total surrender. Nobody ever won by giving up, or so they say. But I do often get concerned students coming to me with this very problem. So in the remaining 10 minutes or so, before I have to submit my column, let me take a whack at it. 

If you've been losing a lot, surely try to figure out what’s been happening. If you can, have your games analyzed. See if an experienced judge can determine what’s been going wrong. Really try to get answers to certain questions. Are your losses indicative of particular problems? Have you been losing in different ways? Perhaps you’ve actually played better than you think. Unfortunately, your opponents may have played very well. That’s possible you know. Chess can be like that. We can play quite well and hang mate on move 30. In that case, we didn’t play badly but we lost anyway. Or we can play terribly and our opponent hangs mate on move 30. We won alright, but did we play well? Of course not! So it becomes incumbent upon you to ascertain what the heck has been happening in those losses.

Now you you may not have any zest for follow-up after losing a bunch of games. That would be true for many of us. If that is so, it makes sense to take a break. There’s nothing wrong with putting the game of chess aside for a bit. In the interim, try doing other things you like, that give you pleasure. Eventually the chess gods will beckon you back. With renewed energy you can resume the game you love, perhaps emphasizing chess for fun over chess for blood. Once you’ve come back to the fold you can review the earlier losses, if you wish, possibly with greater objectivity. Or you can skip reviewing the past completely. That is, you can just start playing again, with no pressure and no demands. How do you decide when and what to do? Why don't you let your inner chess player tell you what to do? He cares an awful lot about you, and he loves chess, too.

Topic for next month: Speed Chess

(Please start submitting questions concerning the above topic for the next column.)

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