How I achieved my biggest comeback ever after starting 0-3 at the Marshall

How I achieved my biggest comeback ever after starting 0-3 at the Marshall

NM eltenedor

The 2015 Marshall Chess Club Championship last month, in which I started with 0-3 out of positions that were highly favorable for me -- the first with a practically forced win against an IM -- was incredibly frustrating and tested me to my core. But I didn't give up; in the spirit of Lasker and Marshall, who are memorialized by this classic annual tournament, I fought like hell! Because that's what chess is about! It's not some luxury where you get to sit around and push back your cuticles while your opponent pushes wood and his position crumbles voluntarily. Oh no! It's war -- a struggle of ideas -- we know that! But we must relish it; we must take defeat as a challenge that energizes us rather than gets us down; as a character building process; as a hurdle that we must clear in order to arrive at our final destination: Victory. The victory of knowing that we gave it our all, that we fought on, that we didn't cower before difficult circumstances that might temporarily hurt our pride, sheepishly withdrawing from the tournament because we were afraid that our precious rating might get punctured -- but rather that we rose to the occassion, that we gave everything of our essence, proving to ourselves, and no one else, that we've got heart. 

That's what I did. I passed my own test. And once I did, I achieved a new kind of breakthrough in the battle against myself, after which I knew there was no turning back.

If you take one thing away from this entry, I hope it's this: Never give up! If it's two things: Never withdraw just because you have a bad start (in a tournament or otherwise)! And if three: Shift your perspective. Take defeat as an opportunity for what's to come, rather than a "failed" past.

So, let's get to my initial three failures. No need to tip-toe around them. I lost, lost, then I lost again; that's the reality! Who cares? (Well, if I went on to lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, and lose again, I might care a little bit, but hey, maybe then I'd have a comeback story in the next tourney?) Try to find the strong moves that I missed to win or solidify a strong advantage:

Onto the next "could have been." 
To put the icing on a terrible start, I just played sloppy in the third round, allowing an early edge to slip away, regaining a good position, then blowing it again. I'll save you (and me) the pain on that one. But it was clear: enough was enough! On the subway and on my walk back that night, I thought long and hard. What the hell is going on? Why am I not only not winning, but losing positions where I'm in a wonderful, if not winning position?! Oh yeah, it was frustrating. But I knew that I was playing well and that the current result (um...0 out of 3!) didn't actually represent the entirety of my play. But chess has a funny way of stumping you sometimes when you slip up, even just a bit. Caissa is teaching you a lesson! Not to mention reminding you to be a little bit humble! But there's no better time to calibrate your play than during a tournament itself, when you know exactly how you're playing and you're at your sharpest.
So I rigorously analyzed my games, trying to remain as objective as possible (that's where our silicon friends, I've come to recognize, are invaluable; a coach is useful, too, especially since streams of variations don't always lead to, well, chessic enlightenment). Then, as I've detailed in a previous blog, I wrote down what I learned. I think this is very important because there's so much information, so many ideas floating around, but if we can distill those ideas to their bare essentials we can get to the heart of the matter. Not to mention that having those key "here's what you need to do to win and not lose based on the stuff you've been doing" ideas written down allows us to review them before our rounds so that we can keep those important lessons fresh in mind when we're playing, during the fog of war, when it's difficult to remember lessons learned and such (apparently, this amnesia thing also happens when state leaders declare war, but that's a different story). So I wrote down what I learned. And, all in all, it worked.
I'll just copy and paste exactly what I noted in my little phone memo. A lot of this stuff is super basic, but it's important, I think, that we mention this stuff because often when we got caught up in the complexities, not to mention the heat of battle, it's so easy to forget. These applied to me at the time, and they still very much do. Maybe some of these points will be helpful for you, too, or maybe they will be obvious. At any rate, I hope that you glean at least something useful from it:
MCC Lessons

Seize every moment. While you should fight relentlessly for the initiative, don't mindlessly go into some crazy line just because you don't want to draw! Follow your instinct. Your first line is usually the correct one. Remember that if you come up with the second line to rigorously check it against your initial line to make sure that it is in fact superior. Make simple moves more quickly, and take time for the longer ones. Once you gain an advantage, take a step away from the board. Then come back and convert it into a win with all your energy. You can't stop all counterplay while it is it worthy endeavor to restricted [sic...voice text] as much as possible. Just make sure that your opponent's kind of play doesn't stop you from pursuing your own. Sometimes, merely pursuing your own plan is enough. Make small concessions if you need to. That's much better than making a huge concession just because you're a little bit unhappy with your position! Simplify to find the most accurate move every move, while sticking with a plan. Remember to maintain your flow throughout the game. Stick with your plans. Be confident in yourself and your ability. Take your time but be efficient. Most importantly, use the opponent's time. Keep them under maximum pressure while remaining solid. Press. Look at all lines. Don't lose your voice, the conscious flow of logic througout the game. Double check. Dont make this about ego or aesthetics but finding the best moves. Forget about everyone else in the room. Don't impress. Stay calm and focused. Proper technique. Good luck!

Note that I gave myself a little encouragement at the end. We must be our own best ally, both during and after the game; if we can't support ourselves, no one can (but a moral support network is also nice, and I am very thankful for mine)! I went on to win the next round with precise endgame play, and the round after that. Then I was at 2-3 and back in the tournament. But I didn't relax! Instead, I rigorously analyzed those two games, realizing that, even though I happened to win those next two games, there was room for improvement and still lessons to be learned (that humility thing). Here are the lessons from rounds 4 and 5, in a slightly more positive note based largely on what worked (equally important) about my approach at that time. Because, you know, I'd probably want to remember something like that!

After winning rounds 4-5:
Best to approach each round with calm mindset. You're trying to solve a problem each round. Speak to yourself in reassuring voice [this can prevent impatient moves, fear, loss of objectivity, etc.] while asking yourself questions at each move to ensure objectivity. Such as: are there any other options? Is this the most straightforward move--and if it isn't, can I prove that it's superior to the most straightforward move? Have I made sure that my opponent doesn't have any resources that I've overlooked. And have I made sure that I've addressed all his options and stopped them with my move (while pursuing my own plan) if possible? You want to be your own best ally. And you can only do that by asking yourself these key questions each move. This will help you to avoid falling into the "that looks good" trap. Approach every move with scientific precision. You must pick apart your opponent's position like a surgeon.

I began doing some "picking" in round 6, gaining a completely winning position only to botch it in time pressure. Then I moved faster, applied the principles I learned from my games (and reinforced with my notes) and went on to win the last 3 rounds, finishing with a plus score and the same as last year, 5-4. Though, given the tremendous comeback, I view the result as a victory. To end on a positive note, here's my last round win:

By the end of the comeback, I had gained exactly one rating point. And I've never worked harder or been prouder than that one point!