Archive for May, 2008

Looking Across the Board

May 3, 2008

After long, long radio silence, I finally publish again!

I got the idea for this post recently, after having played a number of chess games online. This is somewhat unusual, in that I don’t typically write about chess; and yet, I’ve spent some time both playing the great game, and thinking about it, and I would like to share those thoughts.

Chess is often portrayed as a very analytical game, a process of deterministic decisions whose outcome, at the highest level of play, can be easily predicted many moves ahead. Nothing is further from the truth. Games between top chess players are matches of will as well as wit, of psychology as well as strategy. Chess Grandmasters make mistakes all the time – mistakes an amateur wouldn’t notice, but ones that nevertheless change an “obviously won” position into a drawn one. They do so for two reasons: one, human beings are not machines, and are generally error-prone; and two, chess is stressful business. Tournament games can last up to six-seven hours, and the higher the level of play, the more intensive the brain-work. My first chess games, as a wee six year old, were fun, moving the pieces around the board and gleefully capturing my opponent’s. My current chess games are intense mental exercises, where tiny slip-ups can easily lead to defeat.

Thus, the path to being a better chess player lies not only in meticulous study of the game, but also in psychological preparation. Accounts of world championship matches during the Soviet era (and beyond) abound with tales, verging on the paranormal: psychics sitting in the audience, sapping the will of one of the players; adverse lightning conditions created to instill headaches; ill-willed programmers who interfered with the decisionmaking of Deep Blue to throw Kasparov off during their momentous meeting. There is a well-known practice of “sandbagging” in large American tournaments: strong players will purposefully lose games in small tournaments, which results in their USCF rating going down. When the time for the big tournament comes up, their rating is so low that they are matched against much weaker opponents, and win easily. Chess may not be a sport in the sense of requiring physical prowess, but it is just as competitive – and vicious – as the Olympic events we will see this summer.

The methods listed above may help individual results, but it will not advance you as a chess player, it will not help you get to a truly higher level of play. That is not to say that psychological preparation is irrelevant to the pure pursuit of the game – far from it. And this brings me (at last) to the intended topic of the post: looking across the board, or, more explicitly, respect for your opponent.

I have played many games of chess, and lost quite a few. I think I can probably say that the vast majority of my losses can be attributed to a lack of respect for my opponent. I define respect here in a very specific way – not just respect for your opponent as a human being, or as the person you’re going to be sitting across from for a few hours. You don’t have to chat your opponent up (in fact, that’s frowned upon in tournaments), or take them out for drinks after. Respect for your opponent in chess means truly, 100% believing that they are capable of beating you, and that they will, unless you try your hardest to beat them. When you are in this state of mind, you play your best chess; you might still not beat Kramnik, but you will perform much better against opponents of your level than otherwise.

There are many reasons for why I’ve failed to “look across the board” in specific matches: I’ve been sick, tired, distracted by my thoughts or by other events. (A brief aside on sickness: I’ve actually played some of my best chess while running a fever. It might be that when I’m in that state, I feel so miserable that I need to concentrate on *something* that is not me, and if that *something* happens to be the board in front of me, I play well). I have also, plain old, failed to consider that my opponents could actually beat me: look at that kid, I would say mentally, with his rating of 700. He doesn’t understand chess nearly as well as I do. At best, he’s got a couple of dumb tricks up his sleeve. And so, I play poorly, miss optimal moves, and end up conceding defeat after a lackluster performance.

It is easy to list all of these reasons in hindsight, but much harder to predict what mental state I will be in before a match begins. I’ve tried different methods of mentally conditioning myself to “look across the board.” So far, I have found only two that worked.

One: play *less*. Ideally, you should play at most one long game a day, not every day. This is normally easy to accomplish, or at least, it was, before the onset of the Internet. Now, I can get online and play 10-15 quick games against human opponents on the Internet Chess Club. This is actually terrible for your game: at *best*, you will lose most of the games you play, and get discouraged. At worst, you will win a lot, but not learn anything, and get overly optimistic, so when you do eventually go on a losing streak, it’s all the more crushing. In contrast, a small number of long games forces you to concentrate on the games, and not on the results. You analyze your moves, think about your opponent’s strategy, and even if you come out the worse, you feel like you learned something from the game.

Two: (closely related to one). Don’t get upset over a result! A chess career is composed of many, many chess games, and the important thing is that you learn and grow in the course of your career, not whether you win or lose some particular game. This is true even for the strongest players out there. I remember GM Topalov’s performance in the nineties: he lagged behind Kasparov’s star, and seemed to “peak” as a strong, but not-memorable GM who had no shot at the world title. Now, in the 2000’s, Topalov had some amazing performances, both bad and brilliant, and is a much more impressive figure than he was ten years ago. He just kept playing, just kept improving his game. I don’t think I’ll ever be nearly as good as him, but I hope to emulate his dedication to chess and continue enjoying this great pastime throughout my life.

Signing out,