Monday, April 16, 2012

Chess is Combat Against Self

Wolverine vs. Wolverine
I began playing chess almost four years ago to the day. I got into chess for a number of reasons but the main one being that my competitive tenacity is insatiable. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than crushing an opponent. In this regard, I am pretty sadistic I admit.

It took me playing for about three years to finally realize that your biggest opponent in a game of chess is yourself.

When I sit across from my opponent, combat begins. But the biggest and nastiest opponent of them all is me and my bad habits. My own self is way more prohibitive of my success than the skills of my opponent.

There are several mental landmines hanging around during a game of chess but a few of them are distractions, hunger, discomfort, annoyance, fear, thirst, anticipation, daydreaming, excitement, fatigue, anger, forgetfulness, and something else I forgot. Despite having to come up with good moves, you have all of these things to worry about hanging over your head too. It’s a wonder we can complete a game of chess at all.

The lessons I have learned from playing chess for the four years I have played have as much, or more to deal with how I manage myself during a game than actual poor moves. Or to put it another way, the reasons I lose games is usually because of a lack of discipline, not a lack of knowledge.  Everyone can identify when they make a colossal blunder, but the real art is understanding why you made the blunder.

There have been many instances in the last four years where I have flat-out dropped a piece. But in each case I identified the reason why and now I am aware of the conditions being present that frequently lead me to making a huge error. The two most frequent times when I make colossal mistakes is when I am clearly winning and when I am tired.

For the first two years of my tournament chess foray, every time I was clearly winning a game, I shut down mentally and thought, “I can just cruise to a win from here” or “I wish my opponent would just resign”. National Master Dana Mackenzie once said, “when you start thinking things like ‘I wish my opponent would just resign’ you had better open your eyes, you are about to blunder a piece”.

I found this to be true but learned it the hard way in one of my games when I was up a piece against my opponent, whom I had done some preparation at home against. Twenty moves in and I not only was I up a piece, I had three connected, passed pawns. Easy win right? Wrong. He kept playing the best moves he possibly could. I cannot adequately express to you how aggravated I was that he did not just tip his king over, he was clearly lost.

In my annoyance, I dropped a Rook late in the game and went from completely winning to completely lost in one swift stroke.  That game taught me a huge lesson. Now in the rare events that I am clearly winning, the celebration does not begin until the other person resigns or tips the king.  Clearly a defining moment in my chess play.

Often times when I am very tired, I try to conserve mental energy by going very lazy. I do not do this on purpose. However, subconsciously my thinking is lazy, fragmented, and chaotic. The sad part is I’m usually not aware of it until I drop my first pawn or so.

A few years ago I played at the Land of the Sky chess tournament in Asheville, NC. The night before the games started I only got about four hours of sleep. My first opponent was a kid who played notoriously fast (but very strong! he was rated over 1900). His fast play kind of sucked me into an autopilot mode where I was, without realizing it, matching him move for move in terms of speed.

About nine moves into the game I totally missed a desperado move that won him a pawn and eventually the game. I was playing thoughtlessly and robotically without even realizing it and it cost me my king’s head.

I am convinced that mental traps like these can only be overcome in two ways; one is by recognizing that mental traps exist, and two is by experience only.  Now that you are armed with the knowledge that there are mental traps all around while you are playing, go forth and gain your experience!