For the love of the game (and money)

For the love of the game (and money)

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I want to make a couple of straightforward points, with examples from my own games. The theme of these points is that, while we all know not to change our playing style because we might win money, gain rating points, or are playing a much stronger/weaker opponent, it is so much easier said than done. But I want to suggest something kind of heretical, which is that this is okay. More than okay, it can even be an advantage. My diagnosis of where people go wrong is not that they change their style or strategy. Rather, it's that they don't know how to change their style or strategy. They lose not because they're giving in to external factors, in other words, but because they're doing a bad job accommodating those factors. 

Conventional chess wisdom says that you should play based on the position in front of you, and not based on external considerations floating around your head. Drawish game that would put you over to the next rating class if you win? Don't force it. Unclear position with winning chances where you only need a draw to cash in? Don't play for the draw. Playing somebody 400 points above you? Don't be passive. Playing somebody 400 points below you? Don't play that speculative sacrifice. In theory, this makes sense.

Here's an example where I realized that, with a win, I'd be over 2000, which was my goal for the year. Guess what this did for my game. 

Black's 22nd move is textbook 'forcing it'. My position is no worse, but I want that win! As it happens, I had also requested a 4th (last) round bye, and after scoring a nice upset over a 2200, a win in this game would put me in the money. So, despite uncoordinated pieces and no clear plan after her accurate reply, I went for the win because I wanted the win, rather than because I saw one on the board. 

This is the familiar line that playing based off of external pressures is never the way to go. Here's more grist for that mill, presented without comments. I'm playing a much higher rated player, so passively roll over. 

So, if you're unfamiliar with this general line of reasoning, hopefully these examples help illustrate why changing up your strategy or style based on rating or money is generally considered to be a bad thing. Now, to complicate this discussion a little bit. 


First, a general note about the general sorts of 'stay in the moment' or 'play the board, not the person' dictums. I think they're BS, and not just in chess. The idea that our goal in anything should be to remove ourselves from the context we're in seems misguided. It stems from the wrongheaded idea that having any sorts of emotions or needs (desires for rating, fear of losing, anxiety about winning a tough position, need to make back some of that money you sunk into this tournament because you're broke but hopelessly addicted to chess) is necessarily a weakness to be avoided. 

Rather, my diagnosis of what is going on is that we don't pay enough attention to our emotions. Go back to the first game I shared. Here, the easy read is that I played too aggressively, because I was thinking about making money/points with a win. I would have played less recklessly had I not had those external motivations. But, the thing is there's nothing wrong with looking for a win. I looked for one and found the most aggressive move. But then, if I *really* wanted to win, the next thing I should have done would be to ask if I could have coordinated my pieces better before launching an attack. Then I would have found the best move: Nc6, totally equalizing the position and starting to take more of the initiative. Playing for a win at all costs was not a problem: going about it badly was. If I really wanted to attack at all costs, I could have harnessed that desire to find natural developing moves. 

As a different example of this, check out this win I scored against IM Jay Bonin. 

Note: Bonin tells me that 2..Qe7 is known as the 'Brazilian defense'. As a soccer joke, I told him that my line of response designed to poke holes in black's position should be known as the 'German attack'. I don't think Bonin cares about soccer, but he politely smiled. 

Against a weaker player, I would have tried to go directly for the center, which is the 'proper' way to challenge off-beat openings. But against Bonin, who has beaten me soundly before by taking a slightly worse position and complicating the heck out of it, I decided I wanted to keep the center slightly closed and make it harder for him to figure out what, exactly, my plan is, so he couldn't frustrate it. Of course, I didn't make a 2400+ player hang a bishop, but I was no worse (and missed a pawn win a few moves prior) while feeling in control of the game. I did change my play style because of who I was playing, but instead of playing 'safe' I just played...weird. But I still had an active plan via a4-Qb1-Qa2 (similarly to a line black plays against the Italian that I watched Nakamura beat MVL in a few times in the blitz play-off on I was not merely playing safe, but rather trying to tailor something to frustrate my opponent that made sense to me and was fun to play. This last point is important, too: I saw the opportunity of playing somebody I had no intention of beating (or drawing) as a chance to do something a bit more inventive than I usually let myself get, since I do care about gaining points and at least breaking even from all the tournaments I've been playing. So I found this chance to play weird to be liberating and exciting. That's a lot different than the way I passively lost to the other IM in the above game. 


I'm sure I'll find more examples to add to this later, but the basic idea is that trying to play a completely 'objective' game is not only a waste of energy, but oftentimes blinds you to alternative strategies that might be really helpful. These external 'subjective' pressures only start getting in the way when you don't know *how* to apply them, not the minute you start considering them. Really wanting to win a game is fine, but remember that this means you need to remember your attacking principles, and not just wildly play the most aggressive move you see. Being afraid of the 'correct' strategy because you think you'll be outplayed is fine, but the alternative can't just be accepting weaknesses and passive play, but rather must be finding an off-beat strategy that is still active and makes sense to you. 

There is the more general points that irks me, too, about the idea that is bad or weak to worry about making money in a tournament. Sure nobody at the club level is playing chess to make a living, but for lots of people, making a few hundred (or thousand) bucks on the outcome of one or two games is a huge deal, and the idea that being aware of how huge of a deal it is is bad is just...inconsiderate. The question is not how to avoid thinking about this, but rather how to use this as a way to remember, rather than get distracted from, your principles.