His Aqueduct Burst Behind His Blunder. Yet, All I Saw Were Droplets

His Aqueduct Burst Behind His Blunder. Yet, All I Saw Were Droplets

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An angry swear word fell off his lips as my opponent blundered during one of our casual games. “Gotcha,” I chuckled, naively. Frustration, anger, swearing, and self-defeat – I’ve seen it all when people blunder. What I didn’t realize at that moment, however, was that behind that angry word laid a whole iceberg of intense emotional struggle and violent thoughts. And I was oblivious.

I met Mike a year ago during one of my chess adventures with strangers’ “expeditions” at a local library. We’ve been playing chess on a regular basis ever since. He’s an excellent chess player, very creative on the board, and more importantly incredibly nice and considerate.

By the time I won my third game in a row that evening at a local pub, however, Mike was transformed into fumes. He was so visibly frustrated and furious with himself that I thought he would somehow explode.

I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t understand why he felt this way. It was just one of our typical friendly matches. It was just chess - just a game. I tried to remind him that he’s a great chess player: “Remember that one day when I lost ALL of my games to you?” I asked. But no matter what I said, my words had no value to Mike. I was essentially asking him to “breathe under water.”

I lost my will to win and with that, I lost my fourth game, unintentionally. Slowly and with effort, Mike recovered from this strange emotional episode and was resurrected back to the jolly man that I always knew. Win or lose, he was fine. And I was back in the game, playing my best.                  

Playing chess with Mike at a local library.


A few days later, Mike opened up to me about something very serious: mental health issues; his struggles and ways of coping with anxiety, managing onset stress, and much more.  A whole new world of human struggle and suffering unlocked in front of me as I tapped into the unknown.

I thought of all the men I’ve played previously who were overreacting to their losses. And I wondered – how many people are out there struggling with similar issues? And how many people, like me, are walking around completely ignorant of what others are going through? And why chess, in particular, can drive people so mad?

And with these questions in mind – I invite my friend Mike to tell us in his own words what it’s like to be in his shoes. Through chess, we meet people from all walks of life. And this walk of mental health must be understood not only by people experiencing it but by the passive observers too.

The following is written by Mike

Content warning: The following blog contains descriptions of the experiences of a person living with an anxiety disorder and discusses themes that may be upsetting or triggering to some readers. This includes descriptions of intrusive thoughts, depressive episodes, and self-harm. Please exercise self-care while reading.

Imagine an aqueduct that feeds water to a low-lying village in your head. For decades, you have called this village your home, looking up at this aqueduct, thankful for its supply of clean drinking water and energy for your home. You don’t know it, but this aqueduct has a fatal design flaw. The aqueduct is a ticking time bomb.

Over time, the aqueduct has rusted and formed hairline cracks. You notice a vague hardness in your drinking water, but you can’t pinpoint the problem. You become accustomed to the water’s taste, not realizing that it’s slowly poisoning you. The water eventually fogs your brain, blurring your vision and preventing the organization of your thoughts. You don’t know where or how, but you feel a sense of dread.

Eventually, the problem feels so big you lose the self-efficacy to continue caring for the aqueduct. The problem builds, further deepening the cracks in the aqueduct and further poisoning your drinking water. 

Finally, a small seismic shift causes the aqueduct to collapse on top of you. Dark, rusty water floods over you, uncontrollably and inescapably. It floods your home, and a sudden breath full of water tenses every muscle in your body at once. You recoil in shock. You can’t see two inches in front of your face. Overwhelmed and confused, you forget how to swim. You violently kick and lash out, inhaling more water while struggling to regain control. Suddenly, your chest tightens, as though constricted in a dark tunnel. Every breath tightens your chest more, and your heart races. The rational part of your brain shuts down, and it’s like you’re watching yourself fight against an unseen predator.

Comfort has become fear. Control has become chaos. One moment, you can breathe. The next moment, you’re drowning.

What I’m describing to you is the mental rollercoaster of an anxiety disorder; the mental health condition I live with. Neurochemically, anxiety disorders are not that different from clinical depression. Anxiety and depression are medical conditions that predispose a sufferer to have automatic intrusive negative thoughts. Several examples of these negative thoughts may include:

         -Personalising mistakes: “You’re such a worthless idiot! How could you have been so stupid!”
         -Overgeneralising: “I can never get this right, why do I always screw up so badly?”
         -Perfectionism: “This can’t possibly go right for me, it never does. I shouldn’t even bother trying. I’ll never be good enough.” 
         -Catastrophizing: “I’ll never be able to live up to mine/my family’s/my peer’s expectations!”

Gradually, if not addressed, these thoughts can poison your thinking (the water becoming rusty) and can cause you to lose your sense of self-efficacy, neglect your own well-being, and at worst, can cause suicidal ideation. Any small, otherwise minor event can trigger an anxiety attack; a total loss of control over your emotions, sending you fully into a fight-or-flight response (the aqueduct bursting).

When I was very young, my anxiety would lead to outbursts, especially when playing competitive chess.   

Young Mike (on the left) playing in a chess tournament.

I vividly recall playing a tournament when I was about 8 years old. I was playing a game and made (what felt to me) like an obvious blunder. Immediately after noticing it, I burst into tears. My opponent, who did not see the error, was understandably perplexed. He missed the error, and I ended up winning the game and the tournament.

My junior chess career is riddled with stories like this. Sometimes I’d swipe the board, sometimes I’d burst into tears if I recognized that I might lose, sometimes I’d just completely shut down at the thought of playing less than perfectly every time. 

As I matured, this became a drag on my love for the game. I have stayed up late into the night playing online chess, unable to stop, as I fell deeper into a pit of anger and competitive fire. I have punched my thighs, face, and desks hard enough to leave bruises and bloody knuckles. I’d scream into pillows so loud and for long enough that I’d lose my voice entirely. I have curled up into a ball and cried myself to sleep under my desk after bad sessions of online chess.

After my episodes subsided, I’d feel too emotionally drained to function. I’d feel like a freak; like a beast that should be chained up somewhere deep underground. Entire days and weeks of my life were consumed recovering from the emotional onslaught my own mind put myself through because of a few bad blunders in winning positions. It’s like the rational part of my brain had fallen into the Sunken Place, and I’d be grasping the deepest reaches of my mind just to regain control.

Sometimes, I just get to sit back and watch as a person I don’t know takes control of my body and inflicts pain on me. Frankly, I felt unfixable; at one point I had accepted that I’d always be this way, and nobody could ever change me. I felt the need to quit chess entirely, as the trauma I endured at my own hands became too much.

I did eventually return to chess. After all, it had been with me since I was two years old. There were few things I had ever known better than the dances, duels, and Sunday walks on a chessboard. All it took was a community of enthusiasts to re-ignite my interest. I joined a group that met in a pub every Wednesday night to play games over a less-than-responsible number of drinks for the worknight. 

Social chess. Mike vs. Hikaru Nakamura. Chess In The Park, Toronto, October 2022. Photo credit Drew Williamson

I can’t tell you how many tired mornings I had early in my professional career because a strong blitz opponent and several beers brought out the side of me that lives for a wild gambit. It showed me, once again, that chess is not just a game to be won or a skill to be perfected, but an art admired among friends, rivals, and colleagues. 

Over time in the first lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, I began meditating. Somehow, I came to my own realization that I did not need to feel this way, and I made it my mission to overcome it. In July 2020 at age 25, I was diagnosed with Generalized and Social Anxiety Disorders, and I began my journey of self-acceptance and discovery which I am still on today.

I now realize the areas where I insist, unreasonably, on perfection of myself. This process has helped me learn all the other ways this condition affects me (believe me, I wish that chess was my only trigger). As days go on, I become more adept at out-witting the bully that lives in my Amygdala. 

My condition and the coping mechanisms I have adopted have caused my relationship with the game to change. I no longer play online chess. When I do play, I aim for a friendly, social environment where camaraderie and learning take precedence over competition. I focus on teaching others and using games as learning opportunities.

The community of chess enthusiasts I have re-discovered as an adult helped me re-discover the love and passion I had for this game as a child. I couldn’t be more thankful to have them in my life. Who knows? Maybe I’ll supplement my Wednesday night habit of tipsy-blitz by studying up to play a classical tournament or two. 

That said, my anxiety disorder is a part of me, and will likely never go away. Sometimes I simply need to get up and walk away from the board.   

More social chess at a local cafe. Photo Credit: Olga Mushtaler.

In the early 2000s, when I first contended with the idea that blundering a rook was a heinous act worthy of corporal punishment, the idea that a mental health condition might be behind such a thought pattern was not prevalent.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I received a lot of well-meaning but unhelpful advice. I’d get comments like “It’s just a game,” or “Everyone loses, you’ve just got to deal with it,” or “Take more time with your moves.” In this case, giving advice like this is a little like telling someone to just breathe when their head is already underwater. When your brain is not following a rational thought process, proposing a rational solution will not pull you out of it.

Those who believe that they are drowning need to be reassured that they are not about to suffocate. Someone suffering from anxiety requires care, empathy, and validation, not further evidence that they can’t manage their emotions in a way that’s acceptable to those around them.

Several years ago, I got a tattoo on my left inner forearm of a knight from the Isle of Lewis chessmen

Mike’s tattoo of a knight from the Isle of Lewis chessmen.

It’s the same knight that Vinny gifted the fictionalized Josh Waitzkin in Searching for Bobby Fischer. It has a lot of different meanings to me, but one of the main things it reminds me of is my resilience. It reminds me to trust myself; that no matter what I say to myself, I am more capable than I believe I am. 

A few years later, on my other forearm, I got another tattoo of a cartoon skeleton popping out of the ground, with a headstone behind reading “Stay Positive.” 

Mike’s “Stay Positive” tattoo

I like to look down at this one anytime I can feel the cold, rusty water sliding through my toes, and it helps remind me how to swim. 


Powerful! And absolutely BRAVE! Thank you Mike so much for sharing this important and eye-opening experience! 

When I read this essay, I wanted to cry and give Mike a big hug. I’ve been so clueless about my friend’s suffering all this time … 

Mental health issues are on the rise and people need support. With that, I asked Mike two more questions: 

What would you like a fellow chess player to do or say when his/her opponent is experiencing extreme mental struggle during or right after a game? 

Mike: Firstly, we should acknowledge that everyone struggles with mental health at some point in their life. We don’t need a diagnosis to have problems with anxiety or stress.

The first thing I'd advise anyone to do is to just listen to what someone has to say. It's difficult in the heat of the moment to understand what's going through someone's head. Consider taking someone aside and just asking "Hey, how are you doing? Really, how are you doing?" Create a space where they feel safe enough to be honest with you. Reserve judgment. Recognize that this person may have things going on away from the chessboard that are out of your field of view. It's rarely the case that one thing in isolation (like a bad day or a bad game of chess) is causing someone to have mental health problems. Usually, there are other things going on for them that you can't see just by looking at them. 

The person you're speaking to may resist your attempts to help; if this happens, don't push too hard. Just make sure the person knows that you're available to hear them out, and they can share as much or as little with you as they're comfortable with. Practice empathy and listen actively. Above all, make sure the person knows they are not alone.

What advice can you give to all the chess players who are struggling with mental health issues during chess?

Mike: Firstly, know that what I just said isn't a platitude; you are not alone. About one in five people in Canada over the age of 18 live with a mental illness; this goes up to about one in three if you look at adolescents and young adults (ages 12-25). You don't need to suffer in silence; people will listen and they do care about you, despite what you may believe.

Not all mental illnesses go away over time; many are permanent conditions. Just like a diabetic needs to monitor their blood sugar, take insulin, or avoid foods that are high in sugar, someone who has a mental health condition may need to monitor their thoughts, take prescribed medication, or find ways to predict and proactively manage situations they know will cause them distress. 

Figuring out how to manage your mental health will require a lot of trial and error, finding a good therapist, or being prescribed medication for your condition. (Fun fact: Antidepressants are one of the most commonly prescribed classes of drugs in Canada; about 15% of people have a prescription for one). Unfortunately, these treatments have barriers to entry for many people, such as cost, access to care, or other socioeconomic factors.

Here are a couple of tangible things anyone can do right now, without the help of a prescription or a therapist, to help manage their emotions (whether they have a mental illness or not):

· Label your thoughts. "I feel X because of Y." Verbalize this to yourself. Write it down. Say it out loud. The more you acknowledge the feelings you have, the less venom they will have.

· Breathe slowly. Inhale for a count of five, hold for a count of five, exhale for a count of five, hold for a count of five, repeat. When you are breathing fast, not getting enough oxygen, or holding your breath, your body's natural reaction is one of distress. Breathing slowly will flip a trigger in your head that naturally calms you down.

· Step away. Just take a break. Go outside. Get some sunlight. Have a drink of water. Just give yourself a chance to not think about anything for a few moments. 



If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, please get immediate help. You are not alone, people are listening and they care about you. Below is a list of crisis resources available in the Greater Toronto Area. Everyone who lives outside the GTA, please find local resources in your area. 

-Toronto Distress Centres: 416 408-4357 or 408-HELP
-Gerstein Centre: 416 929-5200
-Spectra Helpline: 416 920-0497 or 905 459-7777 for Brampton and Mississauga residents
-TTY: 905 278-4890; Languages: English, Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Spanish, Portuguese
-Assaulted Women’s Helpline: 416 863-0511; Toll-free: 1 866 863-0511
-Kids Help Phone: 1 800 668-6868; Languages: English and French
-Community Crisis Line Scarborough and Rouge Hospital: 416 495-2891 for 24/7 telephone crisis support.
-Service borders: south to the lake, north to Steeles Avenue, east to Port Union Road, and west to Victoria Park
-Durham Crisis and Mental Health Line: 905 666-0483
-Distress Centre Halton: For Residents of the Halton Region (Burlington, Halton Hills, Milton, and Oakville). Oakville: 905-849-4541; Burlington: 905-681-1488; Milton/Halton Hills: 905-877-1211

Cover Photo credit: @palamedescacchi

Former Canadian Girls Chess Champion (1999 tied for 1st, 2001 1st place)

Busy mom of two

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