On Variance, Slumps and Plateaus

Jun 29, 2014, 7:00 PM |

I knew once how it feels to fly. To soar was not a dream, but my reality. After starting my chess improvement program in July, 2013, I met near immediate success. During the summer and fall, I took home big money prizes in the U1400 section of tournaments. I even won a small local tournament outright, scoring 4/4 and launching my rating as high as 1583 USCF. I played almost 60 OTB games during those 8 months.

And then it stopped.

By late June, my rating plummeted to as low as 1461 (120 points) before bounced back to its current level in the low 1500's. Why? What changed in March? Was this just expected statistical variance? Or, have I hit, heaven forbid, a chess plateau or slump?

I looked on the web to find out more about expected rating variance in Elo systems. I wasn't able to find much (that I could understand) but I do suspect that plus or minus 100 points in one's rating is well within the norm for someone whose chess strength has not changed at all.

But I know many players who are very consistent and whose ratings tend to stay in a neat plus or minus 25 point range for years. Though now that I think of it, they are generally Class A or higher level players--and I believe the K-factor in ratings goes down substantially as one get up into those rating levels. (From what I understand, the greater one's K-factor, the more rating points one gains or loses from a given game. And one's K-factor is determined solely by one's rating.) 

So, yes, I may well just be experiencing normal statistical swings. But I doubt it--it doesn't ring true with how I am feeling.

Instead of statistical variance, I could be on a bit of a plateau. Or even in a slump. What's the difference, you ask? I think of a performance plateau as a level one reaches where one's knowledge or abilities are insufficient to get them to that next level.

For instance, recently I've been losing a half point frequently by not being able to convert winning endgames into wins. Sometimes I even manage to turn winning endgames into losses (yes, it happened yesterday!). After thinking about this and discussing it with stronger players, it is apparent I lack technique around winning won endgames, even those where I "know" the theory. Putting it into practice in a game situation (IE, recall the theory, make the calculations, manage the emotions, etc.) is different. It isn't knowledge that has transferred completely into ability.

Because I have several of these types of knowledge/ability gaps identified that are clearly causing me to lose or draw games, it is evidence I may be on or near a plateau that will require addressing these weaknesses in order to continue improving. It doesn't prove I am on a plateau, but it is evidence.

A slump, in my opinion, is an extended string of abnormally poor performances that are not warranted by one's current knowledge and abilities. One is underperforming. Slumps seem to be often, but not always, caused by extraneous factors, such as lack of confidence, impatience, fear, greed, physical fitness, focus, etc. 

There is some evidence I am in a slump. Since March, I've had a high number of draws in my games, something I've never had before. I've also played some very erratic tournaments. In one recent rapid tournament, I lost all three games, with two of the players rated 200-400 points below me. In another tournament right after that episode, I was psychologically determined to punish any lower rated player I came across--not just by beating them but by blowing them off the board. As you can imagine, I lost both of my games in that tournament to players rated 300 points below me. And I had good or winning positions in both games but made poor decisions in order to accomplish my God-given right to a flashy win. How dare the unwashed masses put up resistance to a mightly 1500 player?

You get the picture, I'm sure. So, yes, I believe I may have been in a slump the past few months because of my attitude, not my knowledge of endgames or opening variations, or even how to convert a win.

I've found three possible explanations for why I've been stymied the past three months. I don't know which is the correct explanation--in fact, it could be a bit of all three.

My plan to move forward is to continue working on my training program with tweaks so that I spend more time practicing winning won positions (from my lost/drawn games) against the computer.

Maybe more importantly, though, is that I am moving forward with a different attitude when I am playing. As much as I can, I am not going to think of the potential win or loss when I am at the board. I am not going to think about how my rating differs from my opponents and what ramifications that should have on the game. I am going to practice patience and look for the best move in the position, no matter who is sitting across from me. I am going to play with confidence and not with fear or arrogance.

I'll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, here is a quote I found on performance slumps

"Finally, you’ll have success busting slumps by learning how to control your focus. Specifically this means learning how to keep your concentration in the NOW. Slumps and blocks are always fed by “mental time traveling.” That is, the stuck athlete goes back and forth between the PAST and the FUTURE. She remembers the last time or two she struggled and then she worries, “what if it happens again?” This past to future focusing tightens the athlete up and makes proper execution impossible. As an athlete you can only do your best when your mind is in the NOW, focusing on what is going on right at this moment. Time traveling breeds fear and undercuts confidence. By disciplining yourself to stay in the NOW, and immediately bringing your focus of concentration back whenever you drift, you will get in touch with your true potential."