Jan 9, 2016, 4:46 PM |

I played my twin brother in a suite of blitz games recently. Last time we played, a few months ago, I had a bit of an edge, maybe 60/40. We have similar ‘serious chess’ ratings but I’m more of a specialist at blitz and bullet. 

I got trounced. The final score wasn’t that bad – maybe 70/30 in his favour – but he was simply playing better. If he thought at all, he was taking seconds to where I was taking almost a minute. Apart from one big blunder, he didn’t seem to be making any mistakes I could exploit. None of my usual stratagems had any effect: Every kingside attack fizzled, every positional advantage seemed to fade to nothing. What had he been doing in those last few months? Would my beloved twin spend hours studying the openings I play in order to destroy me in the very variations I hold most dear? Well, he’s a lawyer who works for the government. A trustworthy fellow... He wouldn’t blindside me like that. ;)

All credit to him; whatever he did made me realize I’ll have to step up my game this year. Interestingly, I think a big part of why I did so badly was not just that he had improved, but the psychological factor that I didn’t realize he had improved until it was too late. I thought I was just getting ‘unlucky’. I tried to play against my old brother’s skill level, using a lower level of concentration and attempting tricks that no longer worked. I didn’t give him the proper level of respect. I needed to buckle down and think harder. If he was playing for blood, I should have been too. 

Of course, you should always try to play the objectively best move, whether you’re playing against a grandmaster or a patzer. But that’s harder to do than it sounds. You have to go against your natural inclinations. Of course against a GM you’re going to check and double check every variation every single move. Against a weak player you’re going to lazily toss out some cheap traps and if they don’t work, hey, you can outplay them later. It’s simply a logical way to apportion mental resources; to spend less effort when more effort probably won’t be needed. But this is not optimal. Even a weak player can surprise you with their acumen. And even a strong player can play lazy moves that you shouldn’t be frightened of. Always play the position in front of you. Respect the game. 

It’s an even bigger mistake to think you’re entitled to win because you’re the stronger player, or have the higher rating, or know more about chess, or have more tournament experience, or are older, or more attractive, etc. I’m an obsessive collector of chess information so I know a great deal, and can even impress stronger players with some of the stuff I know, but it doesn’t always translate to playing better moves than the opponent. That also requires independent thought at the board, working out variations and actually applying what you know. You can’t afford to be lazy. Something you have to get used to very quickly in chess is that you can have many years’ experience playing and a stack of chess material that turns your study into a literary labyrinth, and still get trounced by a talented 7-year-old who learned the game six months ago. Disheartening, sure, but it doesn’t mean all that study wasn’t worth it. That’s not just chess, that’s life. 

Liquor in the front, poker in the rear

A bonus story. Not chess, Texas Hold’em. I make no apologies for not explaining the terminology; go hop on wiki if you don’t understand! Expand your mind! 

I was drunk and hadn't sat at a live poker table for about five years but was arrogant enough to think I could outplay everyone. It’s pretty small potatoes; $100-$300 buy-in and $2-$5 blinds. Not a great structure, but hey, there’s only one table running. 

There was a quietish, baby-faced, expressionless Asian fellow of indeterminate age who seemed like the real deal. I resolved to avoid getting involved with him but we still manage to play three big pots. Two were essentially coinflips that very fortunately went my way, and the third was a split pot (we both had AQ on AQx). 

Next to him was a large, boisterous fellow. I could tell he knew what he was doing because of the way he laughed and joked and threw the chips around like he was just there to have fun, but always seemed to have the nuts when it all went into the middle. 

The rest were different shades of terrible, not that I’m much better. 

So I worked my stack up to about twice my buy-in, not doing anything particularly special. Did some incredibly stupid stuff due to nervousness, including folding a straight instead of double-checking my hole cards. 

The big guy noticed I was doing a lot of raising and made some jokes, calling me the table captain and such. Then he started trying to bluff me. I caught enough of them that he started muttering about not being able to get me off a hand. He’s throwing pretty big bluffs in my direction and I only have to pick off one or two to make a nice profit. 

We get into a huge hand. I have KT on TT79. He check-raises the turn. Listen up kids: that’s a huge show of strength. If a non-professional does it, they are pretty much never bluffing. He’s basically telling me he has, at minimum, a straight, and probably a full house. I go all in. I’ve got him! I think. Silly guy is either trying to bluff me or he’s gonna be sitting there stewing with a T and a worse kicker, like T8. It’s an awful move, based on emotion and nothing else. I just want to show him who's boss (and here I was thinking I was immune to that sort of thing…maybe it was the alcohol). If he’s bluffing, he’ll just fold, and I won’t make any more money. If he has trips and a worse kicker, he might fold as well, again I won’t make any more money. But if he has a straight or full house…

He instantly calls and flips over J8 for the nut straight. ‘No King!” he calls and the poker gods comply. I just lost not just my profit, but most of my original buyin. I have a sad little stack of about $40. I congratulate him on the hand and the table starts breaking up about half an hour later. It’s 2:00am. 

After not sleeping I make a pledge not to play any more poker. Luckily I break that pledge a few days later and it turns out pretty well, maybe a story for another time…

Anyway, the point is: whatever game you’re playing, you must respect your opponent. Don’t underestimate him or her. Think about their moves rationally and objectively. And never feel entitled to win. Just play your best and eventually – it could take a while, but it will come inevitably – good things will happen.