Monday, November 28, 2011

The Waves of Success and Failure: 5 Way to Handle Ups & Downs

Every competitor, regardless of the sport of choice, knows the feeling of riding the waves of success and getting crushed by the torrent of failure. Most chess players I know have the tournament experience where they can seem to do no wrong. Moves come smoothly and fiercely. Your vision is unparalleled, every tactical trick seems like it jumps out at you.

Then there are tournaments where you can easily play 1,000 points below your rating.

Success and failure comes in waves. The people who get frustrated with a lack of improvement are those who cannot handle the downswings in the natural performance cycle. They get frustrated that improvement is not a smooth, steady climb. Rather it’s an uncomfortable, herky-jerky ride that can be absolutely maddening at times.

Develop a Short Memory
The best advice I think I have ever heard given to competitors is to develop a short memory. If you win a great game, you need to enjoy it for a time, then forget about it, move on and prepare for the next one. If you lose a tough game, you need to learn from it, then shake it off. Forget about it and then move on to the next one.

You frequently hear this advice about quarterbacks especially. If you throw a touchdown, great, you need to forget about it, keep your head screwed on straight and keep performing well. There’s a whole lot of football left to be played, don’t get too excited. If you throw an interception, that sucks, but move on. Don’t let the last play affect the next one. Same with your chess. If you screw up and lose a pawn, keep your head screwed on straight, the pressure is now all on your opponent to convert to a win.

Learn How to Handle all the Non-Chess Factors
The longer I have played, the more I’ve learned that competitive chess is about 20% chess knowledge and about 80% how well you handle fear, excitement, anguish, your clock, uncomfortable positions, noise, heat, fatigue, diet, distractions, etc., etc. The human element is the most unpredictable in chess and is probably the reason for the vast swings in quality of play from one competition to the next.

There’s no way you can prepare for the moments you are going to be hungry mid-game, you just have to learn these things from experience.

Identify the Conditions that Lead to Mistakes
It took me about four games to realize any time I get up in material, I have a tendency to shut-down and think “it doesn’t matter what move I make, I have the win in the bag.” Huge mistake.

Now every time I play, I give every move all I’ve got until one of us tips our king over. Also, I knew a player whom, when he got hungry, he was not able to calculate effectively and would frequently drop pieces. So he learned to keep snacks in his chess bag.

When you are aware there is a giant bear trap somewhere in your path, you are far less likely to step on it. Be aware of when you are likely to make mistakes and you will see a reduction in them.

Don’t Sweat Your Rating
I know you are proud of your rating and have worked really hard to get it. I know you don’t really want to do anything to damage your shiny rating. Listen, here's the deal, your goal is not to obtain a strong chess rating. Your goal is to become a good chess player. If you accept a draw because you are scared of losing rating points, then you may in fact be losing rating points by missing a valuable endgame lesson. Generally speaking, I refuse draws unless the position is dead-drawn (or I'm losing!)

A few years ago I put a ton of work into "Reassess Your Chess" by IM Jeremy Silman. For two straight months my rating steadily slipped from 1480 to 1430 after I finished the book. The weird thing was, I could tell I was becoming a stronger chess player even though my rating was not reflecting it. I kept at it. Before the year was out, my rating shot up to 1630. The funny thing is not once did I care about my rating slipping. I could tell my chess was improving even if the results were not yet showing.

Work Hard, but Have Fun
Chess like anything else is going to be reflective of the amount of work you put into it. Do not expect results if you never work at improving. You cannot keep doing the same things you are doing and expect to improve. That being said, never lose sight of the fact that chess is fun and should always remain so. Practice, play, study, and reviewing games should all be fun. When you stop having fun and approach chess as if its a job, then you will get burned out and will begin to loathe the work instead of loving it.