Whatever Goes on in Your Mind

Whatever Goes on in Your Mind

| 17 | Endgames

I have been recently fascinated with the short stories of American writer David Foster Wallace. Particularly, his profound discussions about sport and specifically about tennis (he was once a competitive junior tennis player) intrigued me, because it is tempting to draw a parallel between tennis and chess. In his review of Tracy Austin’s autobiography, Wallace advances a theory as to why we bother to read sports memoirs-- or I would add any kind of sports interviews.

Athletes are images of speed, strength and beauty. Whatever the sport they play they look so elegant, moving naturally and unambiguously. As Wallace puts it “great athletes are profundity in motion”. They embody the abstractions of power, grace and control. Naturally, we want to know these semi-Gods: watching them on TV or live is just not enough to figure out how they do it. We want to get inside their heads and see the world through their eyes. We want to hear about “humble roots, privation, precocity, grim resolve, discouragement, persistence, team spirit, sacrifice, killer instinct, liniment and pain” – in other words to hear the Story. We want to know what it is like to be number one and not to buckle under the pressure when millions of eyes are watching. “What goes through their minds? Are these athletes real people?” One looks for the answers in their interviews:

Tracy Austin on the first set of the final against Chris Evert at the 1979 US Open:

“At 2-3, I broke Chris, then she broke me, and I broke her again, so we were at 4-4”

Here, the chess parallel – Hou Yifan on the first game of the semi-final match of the 2010 World Championship:

“In the first game we entered the ending which was almost equal. Later Koneru played not very good and in the bishop ending I won a pawn and the position became almost won.”

To me the two sayings look alike. The great tennis player in the first quote and great chess player in the second one are recapturing the match in few words without adding a single extra adjective. We hear the same kind of emptiness in describing the feelings again and again and it is almost an essential part of what an athlete has to say and we expect him to say these things, these dead clichés:

“Well, Bob, I’m just trying to take it one pitch at a time. I’ve been focusing on the fundamentals, you know, and trying to make a contribution..” (Foster uses this quote as an illustration, not sure who said that)

Hou Yifan on her mood before the final of the World Championship 2010:
I have just normal mood, I will play the final as any other round.”

Alexandra Kosteniuk on her preparation for the WC: “It's the same kind of preparation which I use for all the tournaments. I focus on all the problems that I have at the moment…”

Part of the problem is that the great athletes tend to be inarticulate on the matter of expressing feelings. But there is more to it; as how is it possible to have a combination of unbelievable mental powers and at the same time a vapid “narrative mind?” Those who played under high stakes know how easy it is to crumble under the pressure and to become self-conscious, paralyzed. Just one wrong thought “what if I blunder my knight?” can destroy a mental set and I guess that this one extra thought separates extraordinary from mediocre.

Foster concludes with a brilliant answer to what goes on in a top athlete’s mind when she is about to play the game of her life: “nothing at all”. Maybe the clichés of “one move at a time” are simple truths to the best athletes, and are obeyed and followed at all times.

After the lengthy discussion above, I want to return to last week’s position. The game situation is that a 2200-ranked player has a winning position against GM Kachieshvili. What do you think goes on in his mind? I think there are mixed thoughts on probably having their first GM scalp, on trying not to mess up the position and on how thrilled his friends would be. At least, these are the thoughts that I have had in similar moments. These thoughts are extremely dangerous; on the contrary, having no thoughts at all is like being “in-the-zone”, feeling the numbness, apathy to everything but the position at the board.  I just do not see how a 2200-rated player can lose this position without taking into account the psychological pressure he experiences.

White is up two pawns and there are only 2 moves left to complete a time-scramble. He can go straight into the rook-less endgame but has to evaluate the final position correctly or he can keep the rooks on the board. Which one would you choose?


The following ideas are worth remembering:

  • When trying to convert an advantage the first question one should ask is: “Does my opponent have an active plan? How can I prevent it?” When taking the pawn on c5 white allowed black’s rook to become extremely active.
  • Placing the rook behind the pawn (40. Rd5) is almost always a favorable thing to do in rook endgames.
  • When the advantage is slipping it is important to evaluate the position correctly and to play accordingly. White missed the point where he could have easily drawn the game (not exchanging the g4-pawn for the g3-pawn). I am sure if he had not been playing for a win he would easily have seen it.
  • Even the two vs. one knight endgame was probably a draw. White just needed to defend precisely and not let black’s king get into white’s camp. This could have been achieved by keeping g7 under attack.
  • Kacheishvili in the end deserves a win as the amount of patience he had is unbelievable. He waited more than 30 moves in the end until his opponent made a mistake. I guess it is important to have faith that eventually the opponent will make a wrong move.

For the next week we will look at the following endgame.


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