Friday, September 21, 2007

"Practical" Chess Psychology (Part II)

At the end of Part I of this look at "non-chess" factors in improving your chess results, I promised that we'd talk about "the psychology of openings, optimism and opening optimism, amongst others," in Part II. This is known in the business as a "tease," hoping to keep the reader on tenterhooks until the next part--the equivalent of the pretty girl, tied up and laying across the railroad tracks in an old Western movie serial.

I doubt that anyone who read the first part has been experiencing that degree of anticipation, but I was very pleased to see that the Portuguese blog Ala de Rei linked to it here--I hope the translation program didn't mangle my thank-you comment too much...anyway, enough preliminary blather, forward to

The psychology of openings, optimism and opening optimism...

Again, these posts aren't going to be about the merits of specific openings, study methods or tactical training as such, but about other factors;
attitude, viewpoint, goals and knowing why as well as how.

Openings and optimism

Some weeks back I wrote a series of posts about openings that started some good discussions, including the one in the comments here; one of my main points was that it was a mistake to try to win games in the opening, though of course it's enjoyable if we do get an overwhelming position after very few moves. But it's bad success psychology to hope or expect our opponents to fall into our opening traps or collapse as soon as we make a few aggressive thrusts with the kingside pawns. When and if they don't, it's all too easy to become discouraged and either blunder or try to force the position further with unsound sacrifices. This happens to everyone at times, at least everyone who is not a Master, and it probably happened to all of them once or twice on their way up the ladder. The only good way to approach the opening in my opinion is to mentally prepare for the opponent to play good moves; then if he does so you're not disappointed, and if he does not you are happy to take advantage of his mistakes. Being optimistic before the game means being optimistic that you are going to play good moves, not that he will play bad ones.

In fact, you might feel delight if he plays very well, thus providing you with an opportunity to show your best chess and perhaps play the "game of your life." That's the sort of optimism I believe can really prepare you for the opening, and for the rest of the game as well.

The World in Black and White

I recently ordered Jonathan Rowson's book Chess for Zebras, but it hasn't arrived yet and so I write this without the benefit of having fully read his ideas on playing White and Black (though there's a nice excerpt here). At any rate, in relation to "opening optimism" I recall that early in my chess career, when I was learning a lot and going up the ratings ladder fairly rapidly, I compiled some numbers and found that out of my first 50 or so tournament games I had won slightly more games as Black than as White! Admittedly, this sample wasn't the millions of games that show that in practice White has approximately a 56-44 percent advantage; it was just a sample of my games on the road from a 1200 to a 1400 rating. But looking into things, I realized that as White I was playing 1. e4 and pressing for attack (my "birthright" as White) and as Black I was more flexible and patient, "letting the game come to me" as the saying goes. I soon switched to 1. d4 and became more comfortable with the White pieces but the lesson has stayed with me.

Another thing I've noted with great interest is that in the "Best Games" books of great players like Alekhine and Nunn (two I can think of without actually having the books in front of me) there are a lot more games with Our Hero playing White than with Black, though of course these players won many a game with the Black pieces in their long careers. True, this type of book usually only presents wins by the author, but I think you'll find if you look through a larger sample that most of the "Best Games" books are at well above the 56 percent level (say about 10 wins for White to every 8 for Black) that we know are the actual results of millions of games in the databases. What to make of this?

My theory is simply that when the Grandmasters go through their careers looking for "best" games that will entertain readers (and presumably boost sales) they understand that "attacking" games are mainly what the buyer wants to see (though some exciting attacks resolve into a winning endgame). And the type of game where the author pulls off a beautiful attack is more likely to be with White, as a lot of Black wins at the Master level are longer, tougher fights.

What has all this to do with practical chess psychology? I think a lot of players that these articles are aimed at (say 1200-2000) are a little less confident, a little more uncertain, with Black. Not everybody, mind you, but a good many of us. And I think that in order to be a stronger player you need to embrace the Black pieces--you're going to have them half the time, after all. You need to feel that it's at least as much fun to play Black and that the odds of the opponent making a mistake and giving you an opportunity are just as great when he's White.

That's opening optimism, too.

Perhaps this doesn't completely apply in the to the guys playing in Mexico City for the World Championship, but we can all cross that bridge when we come to it.

(Next time in Part III we'll try to figure out why sometimes it's so much easier to see the right move when you're spectating, rather than playing).


Eric Shoemaker said...

Hi Robert, I came across interesting 'Statistics' at and what I found was that in comparing the Black defenses the percentages didn't look that good for Black, but yet were deceiving if one was not objective. Here is what I mean by that awkward statement:

If one plays any variation of the Queen's Gambit Declined (my favorite Queen Pawn Defense), then White usually scores around 33%-35% with a Draw Ratio of around 50%-52% in lines like Capablanca's Freeing Maneuver in the Orthodox Defense or Lasker's Defense (I play them both and it's more fun to play Lasker's Defense), while Black can expect to win around 15% of the time.

This is rather dismal if you need to win, but the solidity of it is greater than the Indian Defenses.

But in the Indian Defenses, the Draw Ration drops about 16% and this is evenly distributed with higher win percentages for both White and Black. It looks similar to this: White scores around 40% or better and Black scores around 22% with the Draw Percentage or Ratio being around 35% give or take a few percentage points depending on which Indian Defense is chosen.

What does this mean? Well it means that White in a Queen's Gambit Declined is only likely to have an unfavorable result (a loss) 15% of the time while Black is only likely to have an unfavorable result about 34% of the time, a near 2-1 ratio.

But in the Indian Defenses, White could have an unfavorable result 22% of the time (not scoring the win or the draw) while Black could have an unfavorable result 38%-40% of the time.

This means that if the player of the Black pieces wants more wins, then he must take more risks and play an Indian Defense.

If the same player with the Black pieces wants a more solid game with less risk of losing, but also less chance of winning, then he would be wiser to choose some form of the Queen's Gambit Declined and this includes the Slav and Semi-Slav Defenses.

In other words, I do not believe we as chess players and this includes all of us who play and love the game can have it both ways. We must choose!!

How much risk as Black are you willing to take seems to be the question?

Bobby Fischer who disliked draws chose the King's Indian Defense over the Grünfeld Defense thereby accepting more risk, even though some of his well known games were with the Grünfeld such as his game with D. Byrne and M. Botvinnik.

World Title Candidate Henrique Mecking was a solid player whose main defense was the Q.G.D, but when he needed a win, he chose the Benoni Defense more often than not.

It would seem that Black needs two defenses to the Queen Pawn, one solid and one involving some risk in order to win.

When Bobby Fischer needed solidity, he turned to the Q.G.D/Ragozin Defense.

As my rating nears '2000' I see a need to choose an Indian Defense because I need to take greater risks against those who are my betters, such as those in the Open Sections. But I feel more at ease in the Queen's Gambit Declined which has served me well, yet stronger players and certainly masters can really make it difficult not losing 85% of the time while statistics would show that a competant player with the Q.G.D wouldn't lose but 35% or less of the time.

That's lopsided, but Black would only increase by an average of 8% if choosing an Indian Defense while White's win percentage would also increase if an Indian Defense was chosen by 8% also.

How much risk are we all willing to take? And is a draw really that bad?

It seems we must all soul-search and I doubt there is a correct answer or solution. It's what we can live with--with the added complication that we all change from time to time--in our interpretation of various lines of play and whether or not we still find them acceptable.

God forbid we find things mundane or boring from time to time. That too would be a factor if we were to change our opening repertoire.


Loomis said...

Just the other day I was thinking it would be a cool experiment to measure people's excitement (indirectly optimism) if their opponents followed a known opening line or deviated from opening theory.

At the class level a deviation is typically an inferior move. Here I mean a deviation from chess theory, not one particular person's opening knowledge. I think a lot of people are excited when someone plays their pet opening line -- even more so than when someone deviates with a worse, but unfamiliar move.

Eric Shoemaker said...

There's some logic there "loomis", I have to admit, but these days, it's getting hard to get into unfamiliar territory. I'm seldom surprised in the Opening stage of the game and I'm only "1956."