Under Pressure

  • WGM Natalia_Pogonina
  • | Jan 31, 2012

While most of us prefer to be on the attacking side, quite often we end up under the opponent’s pressure. In fact, the nature of the pressure can lie in the chess realm and/or in the field of psychology. By chess pressure we mean a long-lasting active play by the opponent, when you have to stay on the defensive. It can take the form of tactical play with sacrifices, or even a positional game with maneuvers that improve the position. In both cases you will be feeling like the defender of a besieged fortress. There are quite a few top players who greatly value initiative and like to put pressure on their opponents. Kasparov used to play like that. Shirov, Topalov, Sutovsky are bright examples. Their style is very energy-consuming, but extremely dangerous for their competitors.

Psychological pressure can be either legal, or illegal. Some people are so strongly motivated to win and focused on the game that one can feel that with one's skin. The energy can even be targeted at the board, not the person, but it’s still hard to withstand it. That’s why many people were uncomfortable when playing Tal, Fischer, Kasparov. Carlsen is an excellent example of a person whose aura is so strong that some players claim he has hypnotic powers. The rule of thumb in such cases is to trust in oneself and stay calm no matter what. By the way, facing strong players with high energy levels is a good test of your suggestibility. If you are able to handle the pressure, it means that your state of mind is strong enough.

Kramnik was asked if the grimaces and other gestures Kasparov used to make quite often when seeing an unexpected or inferior move were really part of his technique of putting opponents off balance. Vladimir said that many players indeed were disappointed by such actions and, trusting Kasparov as the supreme authority in chess, concluded that they must have blundered. On the contrary, Kramnik treated such signs as small victories: “Maybe he has overlooked something, or he is upset about the strength of my move”.

When Anand elaborated on the same subject, he mentioned that the primary factor behind Kasparov’s chess strength was, after all, in his moves. If he had been a weaker player, people would have just made fun of his behavior.

Unfortunately, some chess players resort to illegal practices of putting pressure on the opponent. They can start making nasty noises, shake the table, stare at you aggressively non-stop, walk behind you and almost lean on you, etc. If you believe the opponent is misbehaving, you should consult the arbiter as opposed to making counter-moves or talking to your opponent (which is forbidden). Also, no matter how kind and intelligent you are, don’t act as a martyr who can deal with anything: displeasure will grow and negatively affect your game.

Playing against a motivated and energetic partner is a real challenge. You should ensure your nerves are under control at all costs. Sometimes being too hot-blooded makes a person go berserk and self-destruct. Therefore, you should offer your opponent a chance to go wrong and try to use his energy against himself, martial arts-style. Stay alert and watch for counter-chances. Trust in your position and ability to handle it well. Some players even like to play cat and mouse with their opponents and let them dominate for a while. A bright example that jumps to mind is the legendary Viktor “I will accept your sacrifice and beat you” Korchnoi.

If you know in advance that you will be facing an active and energetic player, you might want to reconsider your opening choice and choose something uncomfortable for him.


Photo by Martin Chrz

To complete this article, I will show you one of my worst defeats ever - a recent game played at the Snowdrops vs Oldhands match vs Rafael Vaganian. He is a very strong grandmaster, ex-champion of the USSR, and a fierce attacker. Vaganian was obviously well-prepared and blood-thirsty in this game. I got problems out of the opening and, somehow bedazzled by his authority, failed to find the right moves at critical moments. Chess normally offers a few defensive chances during the game, but one should be calm and concentrated to take advantage of them.  

My opponent lured me into his home prep (during the post-mortem he mentioned that they have been studying this line with 2700+-player Sergei Movsesian). Nonetheless, his play wasn’t perfect, and theoretically I could have put up a fight. Alas, I played poorly, and missed a critical counter-shot on move 19 when I should have sacrificed my queen.

P.S. One of the important aspects of chess is creating interesting games that are appreciated by chess fans and professionals. While we all like to win and get nominated (e.g., Pogonina-Kursova, 1-0 became the only female nominee for ChessPro’s game of the month in November 2011), being a co-author is also an honor. Smile While I don't have a very high opinion about the quality of the game I have presented to you, it has still made it to top-10 best games played in December 2011 according to ChessPro, leaving such eminent clashes as Nakamura-Howell and Anand-Kramnik (both played in London) behind.


  • 19 months ago


    @Natalia Pogonina: Interestingly enough I had a problem with pressure, but it was a very different kind.  Nontheless, not only did it affect me, and what's more remarkable is that I was a beginner, at the time, but I played really horrible, due to high levels of the, "Fight or Flight" response. 

      So, the game went like this:

    1.e4, e5 2.Nf3, Nc6 3.Bb5, Nf6 4.Bxc6, dxc6 Now, this is where all of the stress causes me to go wrong, so I played 5.Nxe5  Ok, it is an even exchange, but the time could've been used to develop something, and if I weren't under a time crunch, I would have played 5.Nc3, preventing what is about to come.  So, now comes 5...Bd6 6.Nc4, Nxe4 Now this is where I make the losing blunder, as I'm under the most pressure and, am in fact, hyperventilating.  Getting shaky and assuming that I won something back, I played 7.Qg4?? with the idea of getting a piece back.  Had I taken longer to think about this, I would've realized that the Q is left en-prise, and this mistake lost the Q.  Now, if I weren't stressed, I would've taken longer to think about and would have won something back with 7.Nxd6, so after he captured with 7...Qxg4, I resigned.  The moral to this game is that it's better not to play when you're under pressure.  From that point on, if I had a time crunch, I took a break and left the chess board.  Then, I would come back when there was more time since it was not a blitz game.

  • 3 years ago

    WGM Natalia_Pogonina

    Let’s stay in touch on social networks! Here are my official accounts:

    Account 1, Account 2, Account 3

  • 5 years ago


    19. Qh6 cxd3 would have been ok up to that point I reckon.

  • 5 years ago


    Excellent thank you!

  • 5 years ago


    Thanks for sharing your experience with us :) and i would ask you if you could replace an example for "" “I will accept your sacrifice and beat you” Viktor Korchnoi "" ?
    Thank you :)

  • 5 years ago


    Great article!

  • 5 years ago


    loved it loved it!!!

  • 5 years ago


    with human nature being what it is, thank god technology hasn't progressed to the point where people can disorient/torture/torment someone from a remote location while the person is trying to play, using something like, I don't know, electromagnetic weapons or some other science fiction. thank god chess players are professional enough not to wage enormous, insidious, aggressive stalking/ psychological harassment campaigns (involving thousands of people, use of military grade technology, sending the person death threats etc) for weeks on end before the tournament and the game in order to give the person a nervous breakdown and shatter their mind into a million pieces. thank god.

  • 5 years ago


    psychology has a big impact on how we play. other intimidating/distracting players are nose pickers, bad breath and those with really bad hygienes, yaiks! Smile

    nice article!

  • 5 years ago


    Thanks to GM Pogonina for her continued solid advice as it pertains to all aspects of this most complex game...

  • 5 years ago


    "I guess this is the variation which Ms. Pogonina had mentioned about the Queen's sacrifice in the above article. It's not in move 19 but in move 21...Qxg3.  Well, i'm not sure about it.Undecided " form S. P.

    Very good meaning. Could really be that...

  • 5 years ago


    Thanks for sharing.  We have to be prepared for the opening, prepared for the fight in the middle game, prepared for the endgame, and if that wasn't daunting enough, prepared for our opponent's kicks under the table.

  • 5 years ago


    Enjoyed reading the article..Thanks...

  • 5 years ago


    "your willingness to show bad loses is why peopleI  LIKE and respect you as a chess superstar....!"

    I really agree with this, I've never seen a top GM being so severe with herself and so humble at the same time. This is also a great teaching for chess and for life and that's why Natalia she's so strong. Maybe also a great teachings from a woman's different perspective and attitude we should (as man) all welcome.....and think about.

    "Therefore, you should offer your opponent a chance to go wrong and try to use his energy against himself, martial arts-style." sad Natalia.

    Perhaps before we beat our chest and snort in face of our opponent,we should remember that women can be much more psychological, quite  and intelligent and try to learn something Smile

  • 5 years ago


    I guess this is the variation which Ms. Pogonina had mentioned about the Queen's sacrifice in the above article. It's not in move 19 but in move 21...Qxg3.  Well, i'm not sure about it.Undecided                                                                       

  • 5 years ago


    thank you..Laughing

  • 5 years ago


    itsmatty  good question. After pasting pgn in my engine and browsing several times through variations, I think she refers to 17...cxd3 when black plays 21...Qxg3 and remains some sort of exchange down. Anyway, I'm not sure :-(

  • 5 years ago


    Thank you for this great article.

  • 5 years ago


    Nice article!

  • 5 years ago


    Nice article!

Back to Top

Post your reply: