When a Masterpiece Becomes...a Monsterpiece
“Oh, good evening. Me still Alistair Cookie and this still Monsterpiece Theater.” – Sesame Street
We’ve all heard that familiar refrain at chess tournaments – “I had a winning position, but then…I blew it.” You’ve said it, I’ve said it. But what causes your beautiful masterpiece game to turn into something ugly – a monsterpiece?
I had two of the most absurd instances of this happening in my most recent tournament, the Bulgarian Open, which I thought it would be worth examining. First a little background – I had just returned to Europe after spending the last few months in the U.S. For the most part I did not play any chess there, since I really needed a break. In the four previous tournaments I had lost about 50 rating points – my nerves and concentration were completely destroyed and I had no idea what happened. Before that I was playing quite all right.
The Bulgarian Open started well with 4.5 points out of 5. However, I could not deceive myself – my play was very poor, and also this tournament was one section, so the average rating of my opponents was very low. However, I was technically not in bad tournament shape when I played my first GM of the tournament, Momchil Nikolov:
How could such an absurd thing happen? I had three extra pawns and the attack! I could not bear to look at the game afterwards, although running through my mind were thoughts such as “why did I not just take the rational path, trade queens with 45.Qd5+, even if it took a little longer?” At the same time, I realized that, looking with a clear mind, I would find multiple paths to victory that were even simpler than that. Sometime while I was trying to fall asleep that night I realized what I had hallucinated in the 43.Rc1+ line.
But why exactly do these things happen? I have to admit that around the time I played 41.Be4, I “wrote the game off”. This is something you must never do! The moment you consider the game finished, it becomes finished for you, and you lose concentration. Still, even very experienced players do this sometimes. Obviously, time pressure was a factor, although with thirty seconds increment it should not have mattered. I cannot fault my time usage earlier in the game – not only was my opponent in the same time pressure as I was, but I got a won position. If I cannot win such a position on the thirty-second increment, there is no point in trying to get a won position at all…
Besides the most common sin of “writing off the game”, the other big factors were mental/physical condition and confidence. In the first case – well, I am not sure why, but I have not been able to concentrate on anything recently. This is something that can happen and which has to do with a person’s life in general. The solution is far from easy – you have to sort out your problems – but it is also something faced not just by chess players.
Physical condition is also important. Probably I used a lot of energy earlier in the game, which was why it was so tempting to relax concentration later. It is no surprise that top players consider exercise important. Chess may be a mental game, but the brain requires a lot of nutrients and blood flow. You can find some overweight grandmasters, as well as a lot of drinkers/smokers. However, they are handicapping themselves, at least physically.
Another factor is confidence. As I mentioned in my last column – about Nigel Short’s 1993 match with Garry Kasparov – it was harder for Short to win his winning positions because he was so much less used to getting them against Kasparov. I don’t think this was the case in my game though. The position was so much winning, that I think if my opponent were even higher rated it would only help me, because I would maintain my concentration longer. However, the confidence factor came into play – I believe – with regard to my recent terrible results. This would have been the first time since June that I had beaten a GM. While at the same time I had “written off the game”, I still had thoughts like “can it really be possible that I will win a game against a good player?” Note that you can prematurely write off the game and still feel nervous. Your mind may consider the game not worth thinking about anymore, but you still feel the same nervousness. This is the worst combination.
Not surprisingly, the tournament went downhill after this game. In the next game I played like a patzer and lost without a fight against a lower rated player. In the following round I reached an overwhelming position easily, but played badly and drew. By the last round I really did not want to play anymore, but amazingly by winning I would still get a prize. My opponent was a fairly young Georgian player, so I expected it would be a tough game. Surprisingly I got a completely won position very easily. But again I produced a “monsterpiece” of terrifying proportions – between move forty and move sixty, computer evaluations show my position as ranging from +2 and +22 (pawns, that is). Try to imagine a position with one side having 22 pawns more…
To sum up, I believe that the best way to avoid these “monsterpieces” is to:
1. Never, ever write off the game before it is finished. In both of these games I basically considered the positions to be completely ridiculous, and expected resignation at any moment. Looking at them with a clear head I see that – while it is true they were completely winning positions – they were still not trivial. Variations had to be calculated, and if they were not, I would lose my advantage.
2. Try to maintain a positive and happy outlook. It is crucial that you enjoy the winning process. You choose to play in a chess tournament. So the most fun part of playing should be when you are winning, right? Yet some people get miserable when they are winning. Some people even get angry that their opponent doesn’t resign. And you should enjoy the actual process of winning the game for its own sake – not thinking about the reward when the game is over. During the game with Lomsadze, I was thinking about finally – for the first time in six months – going up to the podium to collect a prize, however small. In the end that didn’t happen, and I spent the closing ceremony in the hotel lobby.
3. Maintain your physical and mental health. This includes not putting too much pressure on yourself to have good results. As one GM told me, “when you try to play really well, you usually play badly.”