The Curse of Unrealistic Expectations

The Curse of Unrealistic Expectations

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Homosapien asked:

I have been playing chess since I was 6, and I’m 17 now. I’ve never had the chance to play it very seriously but I have always loved it, so I forced my parents to put me in some chess classes last year. I really wanted to get a rating, so I would lock up my room at nights, pretend to go to sleep or study for my exams, while actually I would be studying chess to whatever extent I could.

My point is that I put in a lot of effort into this game over the last one or maybe two years and I did so passionately. My coach, an experienced coach and player himself, said I’ll manage a rating between 1600-1700 within a year and I took him seriously and went to play a rated tournament. I was confident I’d manage to get a rating of about 1600 if I tried and I really wanted it but when I played in my tournament, I somehow managed to lose most of my games against rated players (scored 0.5 points out of 4) and win almost all my games against unrated players (4 on 5). After this disaster I decided not to play anymore rated games for a year, because I lost to people below the rating of 1500 and I realized I needed to improve something. The problem is I don’t know what it is.

I just seem to have a psychological barrier of inferiority when I’m playing against a rated opponent and I play carefully and timidly and I can’t seem to change that – if my middlegame seems to be going steady without anyone having a serious advantage, I would immediately start planning for a draw without even thinking about it. Then I’d end up making some small error in the endgame leaving me with a lost position.

Dear homosapien:

You are operating under the misconception that a year or two of effort will automatically make you 1600 or higher. That’s clearly not the case. Here are a few things to think about: 

EXPERIENCE IS THE BEST TEACHER – One can read books until the cows come home, but it doesn’t mean anything if you look into your opponent’s eyes and melt into a quivering puddle of goo. Take boxing for example; you decide you want to be a serious boxer so you go to the gym and learn to hold your hands up high, and you master many techniques and punches. But, how will you react when you step into a ring and feel your opponent’s fist smashing your nose flat? Of course, nobody (even pros) likes the feeling of a flattened nose, but a boxer needs to accept that pain is part of the game (which is why most people don’t box – few can deal with being hit).

The same is true of just about anything, and chess in particular. When I started out (at 12-years of age), I was laughed at by everyone. The other kids were brutal. And tournaments were no better. I lost 5 out of 6 games in my first event, went 0-4 in my second event, and viewed anyone rated 1400 as a chess god. The fact that I studied night and day didn’t help. I worked and worked at chess, and was constantly rewarded with humiliation and failure.

My goal wasn’t just to play chess, but to be really good at it. And, clearly, that seemed to be light-years away. I was seriously depressed, and felt like the biggest loser on Earth (heavy stuff for a kid of 12 and 13). At this point, I was facing a serious decision: I could either chalk my chess dreams up to juvenile fantasy and quit (quitting is what most people do when faced with serious adversity), or I could change my attitude. I went with the latter. Naturally, I hated to lose (even more than most people hate to lose), but I realized that I was facing serious problems in both skill and psychological stability. And, with that honest appraisal, I was able to formulate a plan to fix my chess related ills.

Aside from constant study, the following things ultimately turned my fate around:

Rule #1: LEARN TO NOT FEAR HIGHER RATED PLAYERS – I decided to only play people who were better than me (in tournaments that offered class sections, I would play in sections at least one class higher than my own). Yes, I was wiped out again and again, but I viewed it in a novel way: While my stronger foes were building up their egos with my pieces’ blood, I was (and this was how the 13 year old Silman viewed it) stealing all their knowledge, game by game, loss by loss. One guy would take me down with a certain tactic, and I would study the hell out of that tactic when I was alone, making sure I would never fall for it again and that I could use it against future opponents. If I fell before my opponent’s extra space, I would study that topic (space) from books and make sure I knew how to combat it while setting myself up to crush future opponents with that same kind of territorial plus.

This takes us to Rule #2: EVERY GAME IS AN INVALUABLE LEARNING TOOL – If you ignore the lessons from your losses and wins (winning doesn’t necessarily mean you played well! Be critical with yourself in every game, and don’t let the result rob you of the game’s lesson), you’ll never achieve your goals. 

Chess, like all other games/sports, can be viewed as a way to have fun. Hard work isn’t necessary, and you’ll improve over time just by the accumulation of experience.


Chess can be viewed as a challenge where you will push your limits in an effort to see just how good you can get. If you seriously take this path, then you need to fully understand the following rule:


Some people are blessed with enormous talent or even genius in a certain area. Good for them, but that’s just not the case with most of us. If you’re not gifted, you have to make up for it via hard work and a never-say-die mentality. In boxing, talent is often defeated by a man that hones his technique to perfection and whose work ethic never fades. Outrageously hard work can take you to the moon, or to the top of ANY profession. Sadly, most people seem to have an allergy to seriously hard work, and most people’s egos have a cut-and-run attitude when faced with defeat.

In chess, you WILL lose lots of games unless you go out of your way to play people weaker than you are. If you can’t handle the heat, if you freak out over a few losses, then don’t expect to get anywhere.

Mr. Homosapien, you have to toughen up and be a bit more realistic. Almost everyone bombs in his first tournament. Why should you expect success when you have no tournament experience? And how do you gain that kind of experience? NOT by quitting after your first event! Instead, play in as many events as you can and look at each game (win or lose) as pure educational gold. Don’t expect success, expect to have fun, delight in the battle, try to learn as much as you can, and let success or temporary failure take care of itself.

I see three more problems:

1) You are completely into the result, and forgetting about the joy of playing. And if you don’t feel joy while playing, if it’s not fun, then why in the world are you doing it? You mention that you were studying “passionately”, but were you playing with the same passion? Play with passion because you love to play, don’t play for a result and lose sight of your passion!

2) It’s natural to be afraid of those with more experience than yourself. The only cure for this is to forget about winning or losing and just try to wipe them out, knowing that you might well get hacked to bits, but you’ll become a stronger player as a result. Just do your very best and, if you lose, understand that it’s an unavoidable part of the learning process.

3) You feel inferior to more experienced players because you are, most likely, inferior to them. They are probably just better than you are at this moment. Even if you know more than they do about some positions or openings, their experience gives them a serious edge. If you can’t accept that there are many people better than you are (even I have to accept that there are many players stronger than I am!), then you’ll be dragged down by delusion, and won’t be able to embrace the kind of adjustments that will make you king of that hill (but keep in mind that once you conquer the B-player hill, you’ll have to start that climb all over again on that A-player hill).

Please keep the following things in mind:

* Learning calls for ups and downs. If you can’t handle the downs, you won’t enjoy the eventual ups.

* Be philosophical and accept that losses are inevitable. That doesn’t mean you should enjoy losing, but it does mean that you’ll use those losses to improve, and you’ll see those defeats as instructive gold.

* Experience is a huge asset. Right now, you don’t have it. The only way to gain tournament experience is to play in tournaments and earn it by face-to-face battle.

* Don’t get so caught up in the result that you forget to have fun!

* After losing to a higher rated player (or anyone, for that matter), be humble, congratulate him on a good game, and ask, “Please, what did I do wrong?” Many events have a skittles room, so do your best to coax your opponents to that room so they can analyze with you. Such analysis not only helps you isolate your own weaknesses, but also allows you to see just how weak some of the guys you play are. This in turn will take away much of your fear – it will convince you that, in time and with a bit more experience, you will leave all of these guys in the dust.

* Please understand that you have nothing to lose. This should make you fearless over the board since winning is great, drawing is acceptable, and losing promises a very valuable learning experience.

* Finally, I hope you know that the average tournament rating is around 1500? That’s a strong player! Many of the people who have a 1500 rating have been playing for decades. The fact is that you are expected to lose to them. Stop beating yourself over the head with the stick of unrealistic expectation. Instead of giving up, leap back into battle and get even. It might take a couple years and several tournaments before this happens, but it will happen!

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