How To Fight Perfectionism In Chess

How To Fight Perfectionism In Chess

Aug 2, 2009, 8:29 AM |

The Pubering Brain

I just watched a weekly Dutch television show called “Boeken” (”Books”). In it the host interviews writers about their new books. Today the guest was Eveline Crone. She is a psychologist and researches the developing brain. The book she wrote is entitled “Het puberende brein” (”The brain in puberty”). Crone states that young adolescents obviously have not yet developed their frontal cortex in the same way as adults have. The frontal cortex is the area of the brain that does a lot of controlling and directing. Whereas the frontal cortex of adults functions much like a speedy motorway and has solutions for most problems and situations, the frontal cortex of children in their puberty is more like a set of meandering paths in the wood. One consequence is that the young adolescent has a more natural access to creativity and intuition. This outline prompted me to think about my own rusty, albeit speedy, motorways in chess.


Last Friday evening I played a game at my local chess club. In it I fell victim to one of my old bad chess habits: perfectionism. My opponent played an inferior move in the opening and I gradually outplayed him. Just when objectively speaking I should have reaped the fruits of my play, I was prone to wanting and carefulness. I felt that my position was so strong that I should be able to win more than just that one pawn that I could take on a number of occasions. Imagine analyzing after the game only to find out that indeed I should not have taken the pawn, but should have gone for bigger game (which is usually the case when I feel like that)! Also during the game I repeatedly thought of an advice that IGM Normunds Miezis once gave to a friend of mine: “One pawn is just enough! Why didn’t you take it?” But even gifted with the advice of an experienced grandmaster I could not stop behaving like the monkey that puts his hand in the cookie jar, “…trying to get all the cookies, only to end up with useless crumbles” (Anand after a game in which Karpov had spoiled a big advantage against him). lastly I felt that maybe my opponent would get some counter play when I would take the pawn. Yes indeed, I wanted it all, and under the most favourable circumstances!


We can only win a game if we bring about a so-called imbalance. IM Jeremy Silman uses this term to describe differences between the two sides in a chess game. Didn’t Fischer already say: “In order to gain a square you have to give up a square”. I think I somehow should have trusted to my intuition and taken the pawn at some moment. I certainly would have had better chances to win the endgame being a pawn up than with the material count being even, right? In this case that would have required courage, because going against your perfectionism is not an easy thing to do! Yes, a strong chess player also needs courage from time to time…


I think that at the root of perfectionism lays fear. Probably fear of losing the game, or of not winning the game. And win I need to, if I want to stay in the race for the club championship. The objective of perfectionism is to control events and their consequences. OK, in a way it helped me, because I didn’t lose the game, but I also did not win it and I felt grumpy about it! But hey, what have I got to lose? I am not playing for the World Championship here! Why not consider the game as an experiment and try and fight my perfectionism? That is probably the only way to grow.


Just to show you how difficult it is to change the brain when you’re no longer in puberty let me tell you that several weeks before the game I agreed not to think longer than 5 minutes about a chess move when playing a “serious” over the board game. Just the week before, when I played another opponent, I fell in love with the possibility of a queen sacrifice and spent 30 minutes on it, completing forgetting (?) about the agreement I made with myself not to spent more than 5 minutes per move. I had reminded myself of the same agreement before the game I played last Friday. You can imagine that I spent way too much time trying to figure out if I could not win more than just that one pawn. Nevertheless, I feel that it is a vital experiment just to try and test my intuition, so I will remain true to this agreement. Coming Tuesday I have a new game coming up and therefore a new chance for an experiment!

Which Antidotes Do You Try?

Some of you may have discovered psychological flaws in your chess playing. I can recommend everybody to try and find an antidote to them. Take this perfectionism for instance. Obviously one way of fighting it is not thinking so long and saying to yourself: OK, I will now play this move regardless of the consequences, because I cannot foresee and control all of them, and the move I have in mind feels right. But, try one experiment at a time! The brain has enough difficulty taking an exit from the motorway as it is, for our flaws are not just flaws for any reason.


If you like, please leave a reaction to this post about your own psychological flaws and the antidote you try or recommend. That way we might have a nice discussion about it.

Game Analysis

Come back and check this post for an update. I might just feel inclined to post a video analysis of the Friday game…

Signing Off

I wish you courage to try and break your bad chess habits and wish you lots of improvement!

feeling courageous