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Anatomy of a Slump
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Anatomy of a Slump

mkkuhner
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19

I returned to tournament chess after a very long absence in 2014.  USCF gave me a provisional rating based on my 2100 FIDE rating (I don't know what happened to my previous USCF rating) and it promptly crashed to around 1800--no wonder, as I'd been playing almost nothing but blitz and had some serious bad habits.  It then improved to the mid-1900's.  I worked on endgames, which had been my weak point as a young player, and changed up my openings a bit, and felt hopeful that I could get back to Expert.  The Washington Open in 2017, in which I played four NMs in a row and beat two of them, was particularly encouraging.

Then something seemed to go wrong.  Between late 2018 and late 2019 I played in seven disastrous tournaments in a row.  I lost to kids; I lost to adults; I made strategy errors, tactics errors, judgment errors.  As a particular low point, in one State Championship game I calculated that Qe5 was the only saving move, and then played Qe4; my puzzled opponent was just reaching for the free queen when I resigned.  The graph above shows what this did to my rating, but doesn't reflect the hit to my self-confidence and enjoyment of chess.

I don't have the expertise to offer general advice about slumps and how to fix them.  All I can do is reflect on mine; perhaps it will be of some use to readers.  As a side effect, I can dispense with a string of tournaments too depressing to get individual write-ups....

How did I get into this fix?

Fatigue, often due to lack of sleep, is a major issue for older players in particular.  During this period I was struggling with my work life--the project I was working on was encountering a lot of roadblocks and offering no satisfaction, and also my attempts to get funding for the next year all failed, leaving me likely to lose my job.  Having grant proposals rejected is a double hit to morale:  you do all that work only to hear that it's not good enough, and you've also committed emotionally to a project that you won't actually get to do.  It's like setting up for an exciting attack, and suddenly being checkmated instead.  I was also struggling with political events:  there is a lot of political turmoil and uncertainty in the US right now.  I felt I should be doing something about this, but my efforts to volunteer were mostly frustrated.  I went to a few protests, waved signs, wondered if I was accomplishing anything.  Between these two factors, I didn't sleep well, and I didn't have a lot of physical or emotional energy going into tournaments.

This can be seen particularly clearly in the Washington Women's Championship.  I knew I was in no shape for this tournament, and if it had been an ordinary event I'd have skipped it--but the Women's Championship!  I would really like to win this someday, and I love its combination of tranquility off the board and utter violence on the board.  So I showed up to play, and it went like this:

Despite the fact that I won it, this game showcases just about everything wrong with my play.  I missed my opponent's threats half the time, and reacted with unnecessary timidity to the ones I did see.  I played impulsively at key moments, and too slowly the rest of the time.  While I can't remember my exact thoughts during this game, in similar games I've noticed myself thinking "I'm going to play this anyway, why bother analyzing it?"--not a mature or successful approach.  I didn't have patience, and I didn't have focus:  I calculated variations and then forgot them, or didn't bother calculating at all.  As a result I came within a hair of losing to someone who wasn't quite sure which way the pawns were going. It also took until around 11 pm, so I was physically exhausted.  I sized up the situation and withdrew from the tournament, something I'd never done before this year, and have now done twice.  It just wasn't going to be much fun, playing like that....

I went to the doctor and asked if I might have Alzheimer's.  He gave me a test that went like this (there were other parts, but this is the one I remember vividly):

Doctor:  Name as many fruits as you can think of.

Mary:  Strawberry, blueberry, blackberry, ollalieberry, cranberry, gooseberry, salmonberry, apple, pear, persimmon, kiwifruit, mango, papaya, dragonfruit, orange, kumquat, lemon, lime, grapefruit, pomelo, lychee, loquat, peach, nectarine, apricot, banana, plantain--  [Or something like that]

Doctor:  Stop, stop!  It's only a danger sign for dementia if you can't get up to six.

Anyway, we decided that my brain was still functioning, but that I was distracted and unhappy and short of sleep.  I had also had to quit martial arts due to an injury, and wasn't getting enough exercise.  Of course when you're distracted and unhappy and short of sleep, you don't feel like exercising....

What kept me there

Things start going wrong when you've been playing badly for a bit.  While I tried hard to fight this, I couldn't help looking at experts and feeling as though they were way above my head, even though the same players had seemed manageable when I was rated in the 1900's.  After all, if I couldn't even beat little C players (like Sophie Wang, 1493, in the Evans Memorial--she completely took me apart in the opening), how could I hope to beat experts?

The Winter Classic was particularly brutal in this regard, because I hadn't forseen being the low-rated player in a double round robin with two experts and an NM.  I managed to eke out one draw--my best game of the year, I think, except that I was winning in the position where I took the draw--and missed draws or wins repeatedly in the other games.  You could take that as saying I *could* play against experts and even masters--but it didn't feel that way.  It's hard to lose so many games in a row, and 0.5/6 is a pretty discouraging score.  This should have been a great tournament, a chance to pit myself against really strong opposition.  I couldn't help thinking that a year earlier I'd have been up to it.

I remember Joseph Truelson accepting my resignation in a position I'd been winning only a few moves earlier.  "I don't know what to say," he said sadly.  Me neither.  When I blunder a lot, doubt creeps into my play.  I try to blunder-check, but then I get in time trouble (as I did nearly every game in that event).  I use up energy worrying about blunders.  I'm too timid to play necessary moves or to trust my calculations (thus the draw against FM Perez--I just wasn't sure my king could escape, so I took the perpetual).

The other problem is that I started looking for results.  I would find myself sitting at the board and just wishing the game would be OVER, so I could see the result and stop worrying about it.  This is no good at all; I play much better chess when I'm enjoying the game, even with my back to the wall.  The wins didn't please me all that much, as I needed more wins, and wins against stronger opponents, to even start to recoup my losses.  I was like a gambler making wager after wager to try to regain my stake, and getting further into the hole each time.

Digging out

After bailing from the Women's Championship (as I had from the Seafair Open a few months earlier) I decided to skip a couple of events and try to recoup.  One thing I knew is that I was hardly studying, not even typing up all of my games after the event (which I have done diligently since I was first competing in 1978); I didn't have much energy to think about chess, and I was discouraged.  My spouse suggested that I shouldn't play until I was actually hungry to play.

In the meantime I needed to get some energy.  I crafted a set of rules:

  • No caffeine after 2 pm
  • No computer in the bedroom in the evening
  • No food after 8 pm or before 8 am
  • No screens after 10:30 pm
  • In bed by 11 pm
  • Walk to work every day unless it's raining hard (about 2 miles)
  • Don't eat anything I'm allergic to (dairy, chocolate)

Did I stick to them?  No.  Part of being tired and discouraged is that you have no willpower.  But sometimes I did.  Nothing seemed to happen for a while, but then it became a routine, and I felt a bit better.

I also looked for things that were making me unhappy, and got rid of some of them.  I quit Facebook and a bunch of web sites.  I put a limit on my political news reading.  I didn't stick to these perfectly either, but it was a small improvement.

As a positive chess step, I also took up the Survival mode of Puzzle Rush.  The timed forms are bad for me, I think; they encourage snap moves without much thought, which is the last thing I need.  But in Survival it doesn't matter how long you take as long as you get all the puzzles right.  Three wrong and you're done, and have to start over with basic back-rank mates.  You can do this with regular Tactics Trainer as well, but it doesn't enforce "and you're done" so I was prone to cheat (doing another puzzle even though I failed the previous one); and it doesn't have the morale boost that comes with doing the first 15 or so puzzles effortlessly.

I could tell my endurance hadn't returned because in so many Survival games I'd get to 25 or 30 and then just run out of steam--oh gosh, this is too much trouble, I'm just going to guess. That's the same problem that blighted my competitive games.

In late November I was feeling quite a bit better.  I missed my chess friends and the focus of competition.  So I decided, with some fear, to play in the Class Championships.  Our finances are a bit strained by my job problems; I'm getting only 65% of my salary since last September, and it will run out completely in April.  None the less, my husband kindly gifted me with a hotel room out in Lynnwood so I wouldn't have to commute. It's an hour or more back to Seattle by bus, so having a room really does make things easier.

My friends said, you should play in A, or maybe Expert.  Get over your fear, start playing well again.

I said, I'm a B player right now, I'll play in B.  Maybe I can win it!  I don't need any more discouragement.

In round 1 I played a C player who was intimidated by my attack and impetuously resigned a position that was far from losing.  Nice to win, but not reassuring--could I have won that in a normal way?

In round 2, in a very sharp position, my opponent repeated moves and I offered a draw.  Without comment he made a different move to avoid the repetition, and had to resign three moves later.

And in round 3, from the most promising opening I ended up having all tournament, I let my position slide and was ground down in the endgame by Anand Gupta, a 1500 player according to the wallchart.  That was a real low point; I thought about withdrawing.  But there I was in Lynnwood, I'd already spent the money...might as well play.

Round 4 was interesting.  When I studied it with my coach later, he felt I'd never been much worse, and in fact better through a good chunk of it.  But that wasn't how I felt at the time:  I felt that my opening had been busted, I was just waiting for the axe to fall and looking frantically for any way to delay it.  And then my delay turned into counterplay, which turned abruptly into a tactical win:

It was hard to believe in any of these wins.  But I noticed a few things.  One was that Anand Gupta was no 1500 player.  He played a truly gorgeous endgame in the last round, good N vs. bad B--I stayed late to watch the whole thing and it was as good as an endgame class.  And he won the event 5.5/6, ending up with a rating in the high 1800's (that wall-chart 1500 was stale--it happens with kids).  So, losing to him wasn't quite the debacle I thought.  And another was that I have some good qualities as a player:  I can find counterplay in bad positions, and I don't give up.  I could have lost to Nathan quite easily, and I think I would have with rote play. 

I won my next game, vs. Dan Matthews, with the kind of ragged but ultimately successful attack that yields a large proportion of my wins.  Had he just defended badly?  Or was I finally getting a bit of my attacking mojo back?

In the last round I was paired with Frank Fagundes, who has been a real problem for me--he's beaten my twice, both times in hyper-tactical, complex positions where I just went astray.  He tried a weird line against my anti-Sicilian, and I was in the frustrating position of remembering that my coach had recommended a response (from the last time I played Frank) but not remembering what it was.  (Of course, I remembered on the bus home....)  I dropped a pawn and the bishop pair.  But I struggled, and won the pawn back on a cheapo, and then offered a draw at the transition to a rook endgame.  It's a winning endgame for Frank, I'm pretty sure, but the cheapo had demoralized him, we were both tired, and we shook hands.

And I went home thinking--4.5/6 is pretty good!  Third place is not bad, and I won my entry fee back!  But...if I were really 1900 wouldn't I win class B?  Why did all my wins come in doubtful positions?  But...at least I get back to class A, by a whole 11 points.  That's something.  But....

I took another month off.  I kept my bedtime rules, I played my Puzzle Rush, I worked with my coach once a week.  My Indian study partner and I started working through a Chernev book which showcases attacking games--we would set ourselves to guess every move for both sides.  Sometimes this was laughable as we were reduced to trying every move on the board, and sometimes we found that defensive play has advanced a lot since Chernev's day--a modern opponent would not roll over so conveniently. We refuted a couple of his variations, even without an engine.

And in January I went to the Seattle City Championship, beat a master, and won the event 4.5/5.

I don't know if that's the end of the slump.  I sure hope it is.  I am fairly sure that better sleep habits helped; I don't know what, if anything, else did, except that the less-disastrous result at the Washington Class was good for morale.

Final thoughts

Chess takes energy.  Physical and mental energy of course, and also willpower and emotional resilience, which I think is another form of energy--the thing that keeps you engaged even when your position is terrible, rather than giving in to despair.  If you don't have enough energy, no matter how good your skills you won't have good results.

There are probably times in my life when I just won't have that kind of energy (next March, when I lose my job, is shaping up to be one of them).  I either have to make my peace with losing or take a break, and from this experience, I think taking a break is better:  I don't actually make peace with losing to much lower-rated players, which I did a lot of in 2019.  I can be philosophical about one game, sometimes, but not a whole string of them.... I think my next project is to work out how I can come back from a break having benefited from it, rather than just being rusty.  And, of course, sticking to that bullet-point plan above, because, much though I hate to admit it, those somewhat childish rules make a whole lot of difference.