Choking on the Mustard Seed Cloud

Choking on the Mustard Seed Cloud


This weekend, I had the opportunity to play in the Progress with Chess Mustard Seed Cloud tournament after my friend and fellow chess improver Stacia Pugh invited me. I am a little curious as to why the tournament was named "Mustard Seed Cloud" but decided not to ask as perhaps it was something I was supposed to know as a native Clevelander. This tournament as many if not all tournaments these days was held online right here on It was a 4-round G/24 with a 5 second increment. 

The time control was a little fast for me, as I've been playing a lot of 45+30 and 90+30 these last couple months. This was also my first cash prize tournament I've played in a while. I was pretty excited and a little nervous to say the least. This showed in my play. I ended up with a score of 2/4 which I felt fortunate to have considering the quality of my play. 

I do not write this to be too self-deprecating, but instead to hopefully identify some of the systematic errors I made in my play and then correct it for future tournaments. I will highlight not only the blunders, but the erroneous thinking that led to those mistakes. As to not beat myself up too much, I will share my best game from the tournament as well.

My first game found me playing the black side of a Najdorf. I got an advantageous position, but I failed to capitalize. This brings up our first test position, where I could have taken the lead in the game:

I did what I am starting to call "getting too fancy." Instead of playing the "obvious" move - here trading queens then winning the exchange, I find (or hallucinate) all of my opponent's counterplay and look for a tricky way to avoid it and thus in a chessic sense sticking my foot in my mouth.
Amazingly, I had chances later in the same game, but failed to find the simple solution in time trouble. Perhaps you can do better here:

In this position, I was in time trouble, but also had tunnel vision. I failed to look at my other candidates - especially forcing moves. I think perhaps this is a symptom of the fact that I play a lot of long games, and I'm never really forced to play in time trouble, which means that I'm not used to it. As much as I hate to say it, it maybe a case where a little blitz here and there might be helpful! Just a little, though. However, I think it may be more playing in the pressure of tournament conditions that is more important here. The conditioning to the nerves you get when you play is something that really can only be developed by playing in tournaments. Although I've played in many tournaments in my life, you can lose this conditioning if you don't play frequently enough. 

One other thing this position teaches me is that you're never to old to do your checkmate problems!

In my second game, I was on the White side of a Scheveningen Sicilian. I played a little better, but even here I made some rash decisions and missed a quick win:

Despite missing this shot, I was able to win later in the game. This is a case where I made a superficial judgment without actually looking at the resulting variations. Sometimes, especially in shorter time controls we have to do this, but I think it was worth examining since it is such a forcing move. This may be a case too where I need to develop this pattern when I develop a bishop and queen battery aiming at the h6 square. 

In my third game, I was on the Black side of yet another Sicilian - this time facing the fearsome Smith-Morra Gambit. I chose to decline it with 3...Nf6 but quickly got myself in some trouble with a few inaccuracies. My opponent boldly sacrificed a piece for an attack and it looked like I had staved off the worst of it. However, I blundered horribly in another fairly straightforward position. Have a look!

Again, faced with a straightforward decision to simplify, I thought I was winning a pawn using a "lifeline" tactic but failed to find my opponent's best reply which was simply to win the rook instead. Time trouble was partly the cause, but partly I was just lazy about my calculation. It could have been from fatigue but more likely I had developed the bad habit of not looking at my opponent's forcing moves. This is also another example of getting a little too fancy when a simple solution would have won the game.

Well, the final round brought some relief to my choking on the mustard seed cloud as my opponent blundered fairly early. I'm not sure that I found the most efficient way to convert the advantage, but I played safe and actively, eventually giving back a piece (temporarily) to open up my opponent's king position. The finish was a little sloppy, but never in doubt. Here is the full game with my notes. The game was of course another Sicilian.

This was a rough tournament for me. Writing this post and actually looking at my mistakes though helps inspire me to work harder to improve. The fact is we all choke sometimes. The key I think is to not let a short-term setback turn into a long-term setback (or failure). How do we do this? Here is my plan:

  • Acknowledge that it happened. Don't make excuses.
  • Figure out the causes for the poor performance.
  • Set up a simple plan to improve upon the weaknesses observed or to mitigate the causes.
  • Execute the plan.
  • Don't give up.

If you're interested, I'm going to go in more detail in an upcoming e-mail. If you want to receive that e-mail, sign up for my free e-mail newsletter!