Chess and emotions

Chess and emotions

Jun 4, 2011, 7:50 PM |

It may seem that chess is a purely logical game, in which each player tries to make the best move in an objective sense, and that the winner is the player whose logic proves more sound. Yet Judit Polgar said, "Chess is 30 to 40% psychology". So the logical side may be only 60-70% of the story. In practice, emotions such as impatience, greed, excitement, tenseness, boredom, anger, fear, hope, pride, and exuberance all affect the conduct of a game. One can play in a spirit of risk-taking or caution. Most importantly and least understood, is how emotional factors contribute to the production of blunders, which often determine the outcome of the game.

I get very tense and even a bit fearful when I play. It's partially because of a lurking suspicion the opponent is about to launch a vicious attack, one I have failed to foresee. This in turn, is partially due to my not making enough of an effort to play for the other side. The other reason is that when I analyse a position I get lost in a maze of possibilities. "But what if he does this, what if that...?" The stress of all those half-perceived possibilities causes disquiet in me. I find I am disinclined to analyse aggressive lines for my opponent, especially sacrifices. Worse, I am occasionally in denial regarding the true state of the position. Wishful thinking is a familiar form of self-sabotage, one that I find hard to avoid.

How much uncertainty and risk I tolerate depends on my mood, my judgement of the opponent's strength, how seriously I am taking the game, and other factors extraneous to the actual position. Sometimes, I am tempted to play for a win when I should be only playing for a draw. For instance, I may play for a win in an inferior position, hoping for an opponent mistake. The opposite can also happen - I might play for a draw whereas I have winning chances. I can under-estimate or over-estimate what can be achieved in a given position due to an excess of confidence, or its opposite.

Occasionally, bravado or bluff can lead to victory. I might make an aggressive but unsound move, such as a sacrifice. My opponent may play too cautiously if they assume I know what I am doing (which they may well do if my rating is much higher), allowing my invalid tactic to succeed. Conversely, when I know my position is dire, I may make desperate moves in a (usually) vain attempt to find some way out.

Some people are uncomfortable defending, others find the attack does not come naturally to them. When I evaluate a position, my assessment is not just a logical value, which a computer might assign, because my assessment involves how I feel about the positions resulting from the various candidate moves. Certain positions feel uncomfortable for me, even though they may be objectively neutral or even positive. In some instances, I would be uncomfortable to play with either the white or the black pieces in a given situation, which shows that my judgement is not objective.

In other words, as in other areas of life, both intellect and emotions are involved in making judgements. For instance, if I have had a bad experience with a particular kind of endgame then I may try to avoid this, even at the cost of arriving at a worse position.

Impatience and getting bored with calculating all the possible lines are important emotional factors that depress my performance. As in other fields, quick gratification is a lure, one which often leads to failure. Move in haste, repent for the rest of the game. I can get greedy, snipping away at pawns when I should be thinking about defending my position.

Subjective preferences are important in various situations, such as deciding whether to trade a bishop for a knight, whether a doubled pawn is worth worrying about, whether I need to be concerned about endgame chances in the opening, and so forth. In one game I had the choice of winning a knight outright or swapping queens. I chose the latter, as I was already up on material and the swap led to an easy endgame win, whereas playing an endgame of Q+R vs Q would be more difficult.

Feelings can be the ultimate arbiter when it comes to deciding whether and when to resign. Should I continue the hard grind of trying to slow down his attack, or is a quick death (by resorting to a desperate move, or simply resigning) preferable? This is not a rational decision. Feelings can cloud my judgement when I consider whether to allow the loss of the exchange immediately, in order to avoid losing the queen for a rook further on, although I might later be able to find a way to avoid it. It's tempting to postpone pain. Yet, it's important to cut your losses, rather than trying too hard to hang on to a pawn or to avoid the loss of rook for knight.

Enjoyment is an important emotional factor. Do you play just to win or for the love of the game? It makes a difference whether you are playing because you love the game or because you want to win at all costs. The latter attitude is likely to make you play more conservatively and decrease your chances of learning.

I have for a long time believed that emotions, not logic or rationality, run our lives. The trouble is that often we rationalise and convince ourselves that we are acting completely rationally. Because playing chess is easier to analyse than our behaviour in real-life situations, one can see the role of emotions more clearly. For instance, I became very annoyed at myself (for being short-sighted) during a game I am playing at the moment. This caused me to work really hard on finding a tactical plan that would turn the game around. I succeeded in finding a strong attack, but I am sure I would not have found it had I felt comfortable in the position. It's factors like frustration and self-anger that spur me to try my best, whereas a complacent attitude has the opposite effect. Pain is a powerful teacher.

Another telling example: Edmar Mednis, a strong grand master, said he played his best game of the Adelaide international tournament against Judit Polgar. "I was careful in that game," he said. "Grandmasters don't like to lose to 10-year-old girls, because then we make the front page of all the papers." Judit Polgar is a chess prodigy who took her first grand master scalp a year later.

Putting all the above aside, probably the most fruitful area to examine in the psychology of chess is the making of mistakes. What causes us to miss a move, not see that an escape square is missing or temporarily forget why a move is unplayable? If I could answer these questions I would really be onto something.