Responsibility Versus Apathy

Responsibility Versus Apathy

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I think the term “responsibility” in chess was coined by the late GM Alex Wojtkiewicz. Well, this term might be understandable without an explanation and didn’t really need to be “coined”. Nevertheless, it was Alex who I heard use this term to describe a particular tournament situation and its consequent effects on one’s mental state.

It was in the Foxwoods tournament of 2006. I had been having a decent tournament (for me, at the time). This was during a time when things were difficult for me. At that time, many life problems affected my chess play, which is why I only "improved" in chess later than most people - that was when things in life started to get better.

Anyway, it looked like if I won in the last round I would get a large prize which would have been for me almost a life-changing amount. At first I thought I would play white against GM Sergey Kudrin. When the pairings came out, it turned out I was actually playing black against IM Jay Bonin. While I am sure Bonin is a good player, it was nevertheless a better pairing. I happily told my friend Alex that, and he said, waving his finger (or more likely, a cigarette), “Yes, but remember….responsibility!”

The idea was that when you have a lot to play for, you have (or feel) responsibility. The sudden switch from my expected opponent (Kudrin) to a lower-rated opponent gave me “responsibility” to take advantage of this. And this responsibility would affect my mindset and nerves. The concept of responsibility is that you have gained – and now you can lose. If you had not gained there would be nothing to lose. It also happens when you are having a great tournament. In each subsequent round the “responsibility” increases. As it turned out, the responsibility was too much for me and I played an atrocious game and lost.

On the other side of the spectrum is Apathy. When I say apathy I do not mean that you simply do not care about your result. In a certain way, you probably care deeply. However on another level you cannot put in the required effort at the board. It is as if your perfectionism has broken down. I have often experienced this after losing a game in the previous round. I then play very quickly in the next round, angry about the earlier game, and hoping to crush my opponent quickly. Other times I have felt this sort of apathy when I don’t feel like playing chess. This usually leads to no good.

I learned as a kid that one part of success in chess is balancing responsibility (okay, I had not met Wojtkiewicz yet, but nevertheless understood the concept of caring too much about one’s result) with apathy – or caring too little about one’s result.

I will show you one old game that I played when I was still a kid and lived in Alaska. A few times I was able to travel “to the lower 48” and this was one of those times. I played in the Western States Open in Reno. My rating then was somewhere in the 1800-s, although it was very inaccurate because I couldn’t play much. Hence I had five out of five in the section for players rated under 2000 and stood to win a large prize with either a win or a draw in the last game (I was clueless to the fact that in that same tournament there were many GM-s and IM-s who played much better than I did but would go home empty-handed, because they were required to play much stronger opposition than I was. Unfortunately I was not yet aware of the ethical issues of that).

I still remember the nervousness of that game, which literally made me dizzy. I think the responsibility was too much for me. At the time I was inexperienced, and it never occurred to me to simply offer a draw and split the prize, as would be quite normal! I remember at the critical moment it was very hard to think. I thought in circles, but suddenly an inspiration hit me…

I am sure I had too much responsibility during this game. Maybe by luck I found the winning combination. But as you could see, I had some trouble even afterwards, in the endgame. This is one of the reasons it is so hard to win a “won” position – responsibility, again.

About a year later I quit chess, in a way. It was the end of high school, and some things had changed. I no longer studied chess or really cared about it. Nevertheless, I ended up playing a few times for various reasons. I played a tournament in California in which I was not interested at all. Naturally I had a pretty bad result. Unlike a year or two earlier, when chess was everything for me, I felt no nervousness. But I began to understand that you need to have a certain amount of nervousness to have a good result. Just not too much.

So how do you balance your responsibility with your apathy? I think perhaps I know. I heard someone (I forget who) say that if you want to know who is going to win the tournament, look for the person who is most happy to be there. If you really are enjoying playing and want to play chess, then your responsibility and apathy dial will be healthily centered. If, on the other hand, you don’t feel like playing, or are not happy playing, then you will be unbalanced. Either you are having a good result, in which case you will feel too much responsibility (because you are not enjoying the game itself, the reward – whether money, title, or rating – becomes everything) or you are having a bad result, in which case you will be upset and at the same time not care at all. So the moral is to remind yourself why you like chess and why you are playing at all.

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