On The Psychology of Winning, Productive Breaks And The King’s Gambit Nonsense

On The Psychology of Winning, Productive Breaks And The King’s Gambit Nonsense


What does it take to have a winning mindset? Dear friends, I’d like to share with you one of my most psychological wins ever and the power of a desire to win.

I will tell you about a game from a tournament I played in 2004, against a chess master Yuri*. His rating at the time was 2297 and mine was 1912. That’s almost 400 points below! How did I manage to win? Let’s find out.


I dropped studying and playing chess at the end of the summer of 2001. Instead, I focused on my final year of high-school and then university. For nearly 3 years, I did not even look at chess. In the fall of 2004, a huge nostalgia had overcome me and I signed up for the Toronto Open. Now, 3 years of hiatus is long time and, as some of you may know, your chess skills can get rusty. Agree? Or, is this last statement a bullsh*t statement that we often tell ourselves because others have said it over and over and we just take that one for granted, ingraining it in our heads?

The Psychology of Winning

I think the truth is actually in the middle. Here is what I told myself while signing up for that tournament, and I remember this so clearly because for me, it was a psychological experiment. I said that “even though I haven’t touched chess for 3 years, thanks to my university experience (that constantly stirred and turned my mind upside down), I have become a smarter person. As such, I should be able to play better and smarter chess than I did 3 years ago.”

Pretty bold statement, isn’t it? But I made this hypothesis and I put it to a test. Remember, my rating was 1912 at that time.

The result? I had the best tournament performance in my entire life! I won against the following ratings: 2056, 2093, 2297. Drew against 2280 and lost to 2174. With 3.5 / 5 points I tied for the first place.

Reflecting back and knowing what I know now, this result was not a fluke for two reasons:

  • I strongly believed in my ability to play better chess, despite a 3 year hiatus. But faith alone is not enough. You need a massive amount of energy for this type of mindset, and, in my 20s, I was “flying”. The key to feeling this energy, is having a strong drive, or desire to win. Just take one look at Magnus Carlsen, for example. It’s written all over his face. Set your reasons straight for why you want to win so badly and there you’ll have it. Desire + Believe = Powerful Stuff. 
  • I spent 3 years doing, what I call, a chess substitute, or chess-enhancing activities. In my last year of high-school and first two years of university I did some pretty hard-core math and computer science. The logic problems I had to solve probably doubled my neurons. And, yes, math, computer science (coding per say) and chess require very similar type of reasoning, hence complementing each other.

I am writing this because:

ONE: there are so many chess players out there, for whom chess is a secondary activity. It’s not their main focus in life, as compared to a grandmaster for example, who dedicates his whole life to chess. As such, we often take long, looooong breaks from chess to pursue other things in life. And coming back strong is often a challenge. The two things I shared above are just my two “things”. Find your own and get back onto some winning streaks!

And TWO: to point out that chess is so much more than just studying/knowing theory, games, positions etc. The way we play chess goes far beyond our chess knowledge; it reflects who we are. Our mindset, our drive, our confidence and so much more, play a huge role in the outcomes of our games. As such, I encourage everyone to work on the above and their mental stamina.

The King’s Gambit Nonsense

And now let’s discuss my most psychological win. It was the last round of the tournament discussed above. I was facing Yuri, a well-known master in the city. He is from Russia, just like me. But he overlooked that little detail. I was playing Black against him. The first 2 moves went like this: 1. E4 E5 2. F4?!

Why am I awarding “?!” marks to Yuri’s second move? Because this is how I read it – generally, I consider King’s Gambit as slightly inferior opening for a high-level player compared to many other openings. You don’t see grandmasters playing this very often in serious tournaments. In addition, growing up in Russia, I have also seen some Russian guys, when playing much lower rated players, purposely play one or two inferior moves at the beginning of the game, to make it more challenging for themselves. Otherwise, it’s too easy and boring to play (and win) for them.  To me, Yuri seemed like one of these noble Russians.

Now, whether this was true in Yuri’s case or not, doesn’t matter. What matters, is what I believed it to be. We are talking about the power of psychology here. I was so happy when Yuri played 2. F4, that it dramatically increased my confidence and willpower to win. I wanted to “punish” him for viewing me as an “inferior” player.

The entire game was a mental wrestle. Each time white tried to do something, black responded with careful moves. I played “clean” as they say it, not giving white any chances to do anything. This really frustrated Yuri and drove him to his psychological defeat. He was sweating.

Yuri (White) vs Olya (Black):

At the end, we were both running out of time, and stopped recording the game, which is why you see it end so abruptly here. But you can also see, that black has a advantage and I was able to take it to the finish line.

I hope Yuri never reads this, but if he does – thank you Yuri for this great opportunity and memorabilia. In my books, this game is very special!

And there you have it. One little tournament. One interesting experiment. One illustration of the power of psychology. If you like to read more about the psyche of chess, willpower, positive mindset etc let me know, for I have lots more to say. Otherwise, I wouldn’t want to bore anyone 😊

*I decided to omit his last name here, in case he or his students ever read this, as I’m sure he’s not proud of this game.