How Psychology Makes Easy Tactics Hard to Find
Against USCF players under 2234, I still have a 13-game unbeaten streak. That’s something. The reality is that I was a heartbeat away from beating a 2300, but I missed. Let me show you something. How is easy is this problem for you? Black to move.
If you said, “not hard” or “easy,” I would agree. I was interested in my own stats on problems specific to one-move deflections with check to win material. After sifting for a little while through a bunch of my tactics training software and server info, I found that I missed 1 in about 312 problems that I’ve done. That’s about 99.7% of the time that I find the solution to this position. It is also worth nothing, that all of these problems were done in a very short period of time, often 10 seconds or less, and rarely in more than 20 seconds. I looked at my score sheet, because I write down the time of each move, and I spent a solid 90 seconds on thinking about this move; so what in the world went wrong, and why don’t I have a 2300’s scalp to my name???
Before I go into it, I want to say to the reader who immediately has the opinion, “okay, that sucks, you missed it. It happens, but it’s really just error, nothing systematically problematic,” there is something at work that makes the tactic harder to see in the game. In a Skype analysis session win a 2000+ FIDE player, he rolled right past the solution to the position, and I said, “Wait. Didn’t you miss something?” It took a few seconds for him to roll back and find the solution. “Okay, so Experts make mistakes, too, especially if they aren’t acutely interested in the game.” That’s fine, but my coach, GM Miljkovic missed the move, too. (This was actually quite amusing, and made me feel much better.)
I think what’s going on is that the narrative arc of the game feeds into our psychological state when playing. Let me say that, when my brother, a Hold ‘em poker pro, saw this, he thought it was “leveling,” which is when you give the stronger player way to much credit and simply expect them not to do something stupid –a common psychological issue in poker, too. That definitely wasn’t it, in this case, though I’ve definitely been victimize by this before. In this case, I was looking for tactics on just about every move. I was even using extra time at the end of each move to find a way to jump out of the bushes and smash him, so to speak. (Ask the Master I played in the last round: I came after him and tried to murder him in cold blood in a quiet position –though the win was there in that game, and I missed it to for the same reason in this one.) The reason I missed the move in the game was that, for just one move, I reacted to my opponent’s move. Despite looking for tactics on every move (except the critical one) of the game, I didn’t look for the tactic, because my psychology put me into a passive state of mind.
Let me give you a quick overview of my mental state, and then you can have a look at the game. First of all, I don’t know openings. I know setups, but that’s about it. I rarely even have ideas about what to do, because I haven’t gone through many Master games in my openings. That’s actually why I thought I was worse or possibly losing in the opening of this one: I was familiar with the idea that Li was employing, which I think is the Korchnoi Attack, as well as the idea of Nh3-f4 to hit upon my weakened pawns, and it seemed the position called for Q-side castling. All I kept saying to myself is, “how could Q-side castling in the Dutch be good?” A friend told me that there are quite some games where white attacks hard on black’s Q-side early, and so black castles long. I didn’t know this. I thought I was surviving okay, before blundering and losing a pawn. The blunder there was that I didn’t realize I could hold on to the pawn by exchanging queens. After gaining material, it added to the survival mode thinking. When Li brought the R to d1, recall what I was thinking and what I was looking at. This is the biggest thing: I was only looking at a place to put my Q that might save it, cover everything, and maybe attack with the Q. While there was some minor hit of aggression in how I might like to move the Q, there was definitely not the vaguest attempt to look for a counter-shot that didn’t involve an immediate Q move. The shame is that I am usually pretty good at this: attack me, and I’ll attack you back much harder and more recklessly until you make a mistake, and the nerves of being counter-attacked against usually help me out. I go out on my shield in nearly every case. In this one, I was already dreaming about a draw and keeping the game alive as long as possible to find a shot. The problem was, the shot had already past, and though I’m usually a deeply psychological player who uses it to its every advantage, psychology and the narrative arc of the game defeated me in this one.