A personal journey through the psychology of chess.

A personal journey through the psychology of chess.

Mar 5, 2015, 11:04 AM |

I believe that some 75% of success in any given chess game (between at least somewhat comparable opposition that is, say +- 300 points) is psychology. Yep, you read that right and no, I am not crazy :) Let me try to convince you... 

So the question that has plagued me for a while was: "why does my performance vary so much from game to game?". For a long time I answered this simply by "I am just not very good at chess". Even though that statement is relatively true, I don't think it is an answer in this case. 

People I have talked to about this really liked to give the following response - "well, chess is just so deep that in each game you encounter completely different setups and your playing strength can vary quite a lot because of the type of position and other chess-related factors". 

Okay, it is somewhat true. Hence in my previous statement I left 25% for chess-related factors  The thing is that the depth of chess really does not matter THAT much for us mere mortals. If we take the entire depth of chess as 100%, in a game between two 2300 players we are covering maybe 5% of it. The rest of the 95% is not important, unless someone accidentally stumbles on to something that is good, but beyond his understanding - however, that can go both ways, so it cancels out. So those 5% is pretty much 100% for those 2300 players. That is like a separate realm where their game is played. Most of the things they consider are the same. Most of the lines they calculate are the same. Even when one beats another, based on a tactic or some strategic idea, the other usually realizes that it was not some novel idea, he has that type of motive in his chess knowledge, he just was not able to find it at that time. 

Of course that in the long run, our chess knowledge is very important. However, it grows very slowly and even when we learn something new, we might not be able to apply it any time soon and it is often very hard to gauge just how important that knowledge was. So what matters from a game-to-game basis (again, I mean games between somewhat comparable opposition) is not the amount of knowledge we have, but the execution of it! And I believe that the level of our ability to execute our knowledge properly relies, almost solely, on our psychology. 

When I came to this conclusion it finally hit me - I have to keep accumulating chess knowledge if I want to make big improvements in the long run, but if I want to do well in the short run, I have to work on my execution, not on my knowledge. In other words, I have to work with myself at a psychological level and fix leaks that I have in that area. And that is what I am trying to do (not without a lot of failure though, I admit). 

I am going to try to illustrate this by some relatively recent examples from my own experience. Let's start with European Team chess Championship. I went there to represent the Lithuanian national team on board 4. Before the tournament, when the lineups for other teams were released I started seriously panicking. I was rated 2305 at a time and I saw that despite of how poorly we do in the tournament, most of my opponents will be GMs, with maybe a couple of IMs thrown in for good measure. Our team as a whole was also one of the last seeds and we were going to be over-matched in every match. I was scared as hell. "Who am I going to win against?! There is no one I can count on beating in this tournament! Oh lord, it is going to be horrible and the entire Lithuanian chess community will see it". For a month straight I was panicking every single day and I was sure that I am going to bomb this tournament really hard. During that month I was losing seemingly every single game of chess, whether it be rapid/blitz or classical training games. I couldn't solve anything on tactics trainer. I tried studying endgames and I just failed miserably. But then, thankfully, some real magic happened - literally on the morning of my departure to the championship, my wife announced that she is pregnant. Wow, did that put things in perspective! It took the entire pressure away immediately. "What does this tournament matter? I am going to be a dad!". We were taking a bus to Poland which was about a 15 or so hour ride and during those hours, when I didn't sleep, I just thought about my future. Not as a chess player, but as a man. And when I arrived to Poland, I just felt so inspired that I knew that I am going to do well in this tournament. 


The result: http://chess-results.com/tnr114411.aspx?lan=1&art=9&flag=30&wi=821&snr=162

My first IM norm and 2550 performance. Not too shabby for a person who lost every game for a month and thought that he can't even beat players 400 lower rated than him.. So what do you think happened, did I magically acquire some massive chess knowledge overnight... or was it all in my head?

A couple weeks after that there was an Open Lithuanian Rapid Chess Championship. It had quite a large prize fund for Lithuanian standards and therefore there were a lot of strong players, a bunch of GMs and IMs. My rapid ELO was at 2310 and I was the 22nd seed. I am not a good blitz/rapid player, but I came in to this tournament very inspired by my recent performance and I felt nearly unstoppable. So I beat some lower rated guy in round one and get paired with 1970 as white in R2. Naturally, I think this is going to be easy. How can this guy pose any problems to me, the GM and IM crusher?! I was arrogant and I got punished for it. He just completely wrecked me, I did not stand a chance. It was not due to some opening surprise either, it was a very well known opening line for me in which he simply crushed me. I could not take him seriously and therefore I did not concentrate properly. Again the same question - did my chess ability just randomly went away for one round, or was it there, but I was not able to execute due to my messed up mental state? I think the answer is rather obvious. After the game I was extremely frustrated with myself. Not because I lost a game - I am now experienced enough to expect such losses here and there. I was pissed because I realized WHY I lost and it made me feel ashamed and weak. I took a walk in fresh air (since I got crushed quickly I had some free time) and came back to the playing site as a new man.

The result: http://chess-results.com/tnr115430.aspx?lan=1&art=9&fed=LTU&flag=30&wi=821&snr=22

I scored 7.5/8 in the next 8 games before losing in the last round to a strong GM (definitely chalk this to the other 25%, my mental state was fine, he just outplayed me). I beat an IM and scored 3.5/4 vs GMs in that streak. Same tournament, same day, I lose to 1970 hopelessly and then have these results. Did I just magically remember how to play chess? Or was it the result of my psychology? Again, I think the answer is rather obvious. 


After this tournament there was a rather long period when I didn't play much, but studied quite a lot. I felt that I have improved quite a bit, was doing very well during training games, was solving various problems with ease. That gave me big self-confidence going in to the next tournament. 

I beat a couple of lower rated guys, playing some fairly decent chess. You would think that I would have learned from my previous mistakes, but, sort of like a drugie, I fell back to bad habits. In round 3 I was paired versus a 2150 guy (I was rated 2344 at a time) as black. Having all this self-confidence from before, AGAIN I stepped on the same rake. I didn't take him seriously enough, did not concentrate and was simply wiped out. Again not a surprise in the opening, just a regular opening after which I got wrecked as if I was a beginner. What was really scary is that I had several chances to try to head towards some worse-but-drawish positions during the game, but I was still so arrogant that I had no doubt that I am going to outplay him somewhere down the line anyway. After I extended my hand in resignation again I felt this huge surge of shame. How could I've done this again? This guy has even played in the national championship final, how can I disrespect him like that? I was very disappointed in myself, not in my chess, but in my mental weakness. Thankfully I had a full evening and half of the next day to recuperate. Again I was able to hide my mental flaws and went on a tear chess wise, winning four games in a row and beating a strong IM and GM in the process. With 6/7 I was suddenly in the lead and I was starting to feel arrogant again. Got paired versus a young and upcoming 2220 player and my first thought was "well THAT is a pretty nice pairing for a tournament leader, ho ho ho". Thankfully I caught myself in time. No more stepping on the same rake! I went in to the game confident, but respectful, was able to concentrate and won a nice game. Phew, one bullet dodged. Now I was on 7/8 and had a full point lead. Got paired versus another 2216 guy, very young and talented (he is now almost 2400 I think due to the K of 40). I was white, all I needed was a draw to clinch. Again I managed to maintain my mental state and went in to the game respecting the opponent, but I stepped on another rake - I played like scared because the draw was enough. Got promptly completely wrecked, even though I was white. Again, the reason for the loss was not my chess ability... Again and again and again.. I still have a long way to go it seems, but I am showing some positive signs. 



So, here you go. I have more examples like these, but this is already much too TL;DR anyway. I have a firm belief that my performance from game to game is much more influenced by my mental state than my actual chess knowledge. Feel free to prove me wrong, though 

Cover photo credit goes to chessmaniac.com!