Tuesday, September 11, 2007

"Practical" Chess Psychology (Part I)

I'm not a psychologist, psychiatrist, "success coach," guru or shaman, but I'd be willing to play any of these on TV for $100,000 per week--have your people call my people and discuss.

Despite these lacks, I am a reasonably successful professional (that is, I work for The Government in an Undisclosed Location and am entrusted with important Confidential Information that I'd like to share with you, but then I'd have to kill you, &tc.)...

Let's see, what's the point and where the hell was I?

Chess psychology--hot babe GM hypnotizes opponents with FAR-out threads

Oh right, this is supposed to be a chess blog and I really am going to approach the Point, if in a roundabout way. Despite my lack of professional credentials I have indeed read and studied hundreds of books, articles and audio presentations on success psychology, personal improvement, happiness and health, and I think that there are some things I've picked up in these fields that can help us score more points in our games. This isn't about how to study chess, what to study, or actual chess moves as such. It's about attitude, viewpoint, goals and knowing why as well as how.

score more points in our games...

This is the first major break point, right here--before we get too far into this we need to define why we're playing a chess game, what type of game (tournament, internet, blitz, casual) we're talking about, and identify our desired result in the larger picture of our chess career, and life. This post and the Parts that might follow will focus on "serious" chess, that is rated over-the-board and internet games with longer time controls (29 minutes per side and longer). Blitz and casual chess have their own special considerations, and I might take them up sometime later.

You may be saying right now, "Well, my desired result is simply to win this game, the next game, in sum, when I sit down to play chess I want to win every game, though I know that's not really feasible."

In general, this is true, and admirable, but I think a first step forward in the area of chess psychology is to get outside of the moment and take a broader view of chess results. For example, in a few weeks I'm going to be playing in the Western States Open, a big six-round Swiss. I will be one of the lower-rated players in the Class B (1600-1800) section. I would like to score 6/6 and achieve Chess Perfection, realize that 5/6 will almost certainly win first prize and a considerable sum of $$$, and recognize that 3/6 would be a good performance and would advance my USCF rating by a decent interval...so let's say I win my first round against a 1700 player, and after 5 hard hours of play in round 2 I can barely see straight (it will be midnight) and can either take a perpetual check or make an unclear sacrifice of a piece that I am unable to calculate to any conclusion. At this point it will be nice to have thought in advance about what I am playing for, what I feel is an acceptable risk over the board and how it will affect the rest of my tournament. Maybe I don't care about externals, tournament position or ratings--I'm a chess Romantic and I always play to win. Maybe I make a tournament-strategic decision to make a draw, go home and sleep and come back tomorrow at 1.5/2. Defining my goals in advance would make the decision a lot easier.

The Psychology of Ratings

Most of the time, these considerations don't apply and we play to win from move 1--or do we? There is a lot to be considered right here, before the first move is made. I'm going to get to the psychology of openings in the next Part, but another point that has a bearing on the "serious" chess I'm talking about is the comparative ratings of the two players.

All of us, I dare say, love to defeat higher-rated players and don't want to lose to lower-rated players. This is just a fact, and not something to be ashamed of or too concerned about. But it can affect the way we play the game in several ways, most of them not very constructive for maximizing our potential to score more points.

First off, many lower-rated players have a serious inferiority complex when facing much higher-rated opposition. A 1500 often plays a 2000 with the attitude "There's just no way I can beat this guy; he's an Expert, 'a book in the opening, a magician in the middlegame and a machine in the endgame' " (quote from GM Rudolf Spielmann).

Bollocks! The 2000 probably feels the same way when he plays a 2500-rated IM. He's a human and he's going to make mistakes in the course of the game. Don't "believe in" his moves as always good, or you might as well just not play.

In his very interesting book Chess for Tigers Simon Webb advised that when playing a stronger player one should attempt to tactically complicate the position as much as possible, on the theory that there is a greater chance that the stronger opponent will make a losing mistake in such a position, whereas he will generally grind you down if the game is "simple chess" or an ending. While there is some merit to this argument, I think it's easy to take it too far, play some junk "attacking" opening or unsound sacrifice and then end the fight with the thought "well at least I tried to complicate."

My view after many years of tournament experience is somewhat different--regardless of the opponent's rating, play what you believe to be the best move at each turn. This will simplify your life, as you won't need to consider the opponent's rating while trying to calculate and plan. If you love wild attacking chess, play it against both stronger and weaker opposition--you may lose a few points against the lower rated, but you will be true to your chess vision and enjoy the game more than if you are constantly trying to adjust your play based on the other person's rating. Simon Webb was a GM and a very fine writer, but personally I don't try to take rating into account in my choice of moves.

It can be useful to consider ratings in one area, and that is in playing for a draw or for a win, or accepting or rejecting draw offers. Some scenarios:

You're rated 200 points higher than your opponent and you consider the position on the board "very drawish," say rook and three symmetrical pawns each. You both have plenty of clock time. He offers a draw. Accept or play on?

The same situation, only you're 200 points lower?

In a sudden-death time control, you have two minutes, she has 10, but you're up a pawn in an ending that might take 25 moves to win. She offers a draw...

I'm not going to tell you what you should do in these types of situations, I'm just suggesting that you give some thought to your goals in a rated game before the game starts. Based on rating and tournament situation, is a draw okay or not? In the spirit of "scoring more points" I'd say never lose when you could make a draw, whatever the ratings or other considerations. But this is experience talking--I've not always followed this advice in the past. Perhaps you can use my hard-won experience and avoid some painful defeats.

(In Part II we'll talk the psychology of openings, optimism and opening optimism, amongst others).


transformation said...

excellent! bravo! authentic! true voice, thank you!

Id like to say more, but still very, very tired since an alpine summit saturday, so for now, please accept these few words, without constructive comment, much as i wish otherwise.

warmly, dk

Temposchlucker said...

Nice dress.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting!