Monday, November 21, 2011

Learning Lessons from Losses

I am a big fan of being disciplined enough to learn from your losses. While nothing gives me greater pleasure than flipping over tables and throwing a colossal hissy fit when I lose, I keep it in check and always review the game with my opponent. Thus, I have learned more after my games than during them.

Humans have an amazing capacity to learn from other people’s mistakes, but we also have an equal disinclination to do just that. Your parents can warn you that the boiling pot of water is hot. You can either take them at their word or stick your hand in it and decide for yourself.

In the same regard, I urge you to learn from my silly mistakes. They will save you headaches. Here are some lessons I have learned, the hard way, through my losses as a chess player.

Lesson 1 - Pawn Structure is overrated until you are a master
Once I got paired against a dude rated around 1200.  At the time, I was rated 1650.  He was still provisionally rated as this was only his 9th tournament chess game. I played a gambit opening that gives people trouble who are not well-versed in its intricacies. As I expected he got into some trouble in the opening and had a shattered pawn structure. I calmly and thoughtlessly traded down into an endgame so I could “take advantage” of his wrecked pawn structure.

It turns out that his Rooks had two more half-open files to work with than I did. He willingly let me control an open file while he doubled up on a half-open file. I was kind of powerless to stop him. His rooks zipped all around the board because his own pawns were not standing in his way.

Long story short, his rook mobility became the decisive factor in the game and he ended up winning. But for the record, this guy regularly beat Class A players in speed games, so he was no pushover. But the spirit of the story remains.

Lesson 2 - Always Expect your Opponent to Refuse a Sacrifice
Sacrificing material is so much fun. I absolutely love doing it. I have many thrilling wins where I have sacrificed material for a very satisfying mating attack. I also have numerous devastating losses that all seem to have one thing in common, my opponent refused my sacrifice.

Most chess players are capable of finding fun sacrifices that lead to annihilation when accepted. However, I have come to learn that when my opponents get startled by a sacrifice, they will most often find that accepting my sacrifice comes at a high price. Most of the time, they will look for, and often find, a clever resource or a decisive in-between move that causes my sacrifice to fail.

Early on in my chess playing days, it was nothing for me to throw a bishop at a pawn on h7 and go for the kill.  I have come to learn that your opponent certainly does not have to accept your Greek gift and when they are given time to work out the problem, good moves are available. Be careful when sacrificing material and always ask yourself, what if they refuse my sacrifice?

Lesson 3 - Inferior Openings do not yield a winning advantage
I used to roll my eyes when someone played some weird opening.  Luckily this was not a tournament game, but I lost an online game to a kid from my club who played 1.g4 as white. I had never seen it before, but totally scoffed at it and played whatever I wanted to because anything will beat this opening. My little buddy knew all of the traps in this opening and he was up a Rook and pawn for a Bishop very quickly.

Offbeat openings are to be regarded with caution and respect, not laughter!

Lesson 4 - Sleep is Important
For whatever reason I seem to be plagued with a poor night of sleep before tournament games. It’s really obnoxious and I don’t have trouble sleeping. However, it always seems to work out that I get a miserable night of sleep before an important game. It could be something as simple as a neighbor’s dog barking all night long, or obnoxious roommates drinking beer, playing blitz, and laughing to the top of their lungs until 3 a.m. while I’m clearly trying to sleep, you jerks!

Anyways get a good night’s sleep before games.

Lesson 5 - When an opponent spends more than 10 minutes on a move then offers you a pawn, don’t snatch it.

This means he has spent a very long time figuring out what to do if you do take the pawn. Giving the pawn grab a glance and saying, “I think I can hold this pawn” then taking it is a poor decision. I could almost expand this section to include, be wary of taking any material without exhaustive analysis first!

There you have it, take it from me. Following my advice will earn you at least 1000 rating points. Maybe not, but it will certainly help you avoid some heartbreak.

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