05 October 2013

Chess performance and chess skills: not the same thing

The last two analyzed games (Annotated Game #104 and Annotated Game #105) provided a useful reminder that chess performance - by that, I mean a player's actual results in their games - is not necessarily a reflection of a player's chess skills.  This will not surprise longtime players, but it is still worth examining as a phenomenon.

It is said that there is no luck in chess, but that is not quite true.  Because it is a mental game (or sport), anything that affects our mental abilities on a particular day can significantly influence our performance at the board.  Life events, personal issues, random encounters and of course our physical health can all perturb our minds.  I recall that during one tournament, I drove about ten minutes away in order to pick up lunch and bring it back, with not a lot of time to spare before the next round.  Of course that was the time a police officer decided to pull me over for "aggressive driving" because I kept trying to beat the series of lights on the highway which were badly timed.  I hadn't in fact done anything wrong (wasn't speeding and hadn't run a light), so nothing happened to me, but I didn't have the best mental focus for the next round (also having to eat a cold lunch by that point).

Because your skills aren't going to improve while playing in a tournament (or an individual game), what therefore matters most about your performance is maximizing the use of what skills you already possess.  This requires concentration, focus and good judgment.  The flip side of this, of course, is that if you can disrupt your opponent's focus and judgment, your own relative winning chances increase.  I don't advocate intentionally annoying your opponent off the chessboard, but rather doing everything possible to disrupt their play on the chessboard.  This is especially needful when in objective terms you are losing.

As the analysis showed in the last two games, I was either objectively lost or at a serious material and positional disadvantage.  This indicates a failure of chess skills (thinking process, calculation, prophylaxis, etc.) but performance-wise I still won both games.  What happens when this kind of result occurs?
  • One could simply say that the winning player was lucky enough to execute a swindle.  This may be true, but doesn't help our understanding of why and how this "luck" was created.
  • Tenacity is essential for the initially losing and eventually winning player; for that reason, it was highlighted as its own category in my Chess Performance Inventory.  Annotated Game #104 was a great personal example, as I nearly gave up and resigned after Black's kingside breakthrough (which gave him an objectively won game), but made the deliberate decision to fight as hard as possible.
  • Although refusing to give up the fight is a necessary condition, it's obviously not sufficient in itself to disrupt your opponent's play.  Creating threats by obtaining active play for your pieces is absolutely essential, otherwise your opponent will have no trouble finishing you off.  In other words, give them an opportunity to go wrong with their subsequent play by ignoring your threats (the same way you got in trouble in the first place, no doubt.)
On a more sophisticated level one can use what GM Alex Yermolinsky in The Road to Chess Improvement calls "trend-breaking tools".  For example, a pawn sacrifice in return for enhanced piece play can let you seize the initiative and get more practical chances, even if a computer engine might indicate no difference in the evaluation (or perhaps a slightly worse one).  One characteristic of master games is how highly valued the initiative is, as the side which possesses it is the one making threats and dictating the course of the game.  Psychologically speaking it is almost always harder to defend than attack, even when an objective evaluation of the position might be completely neutral.

Something that is often mentioned by chess trainers, especially for players at the Class level, is how aggressive players with less knowledge of the game tend to win much more often than players with greater skills and understanding, but who play passively.  Naturally a too-aggressive player can and will over-press their opponent and lose, but it's worth reflecting on how their performance over time will still overshadow that of a too-passive player, who simply does not create enough opportunities for themselves.  It's much easier for a winning, aggressive player to then fill in the skills and knowledge gaps and thereby improve, than it is for the passive player to break out of their rut.

My own historical "playing style" was certainly more on the passive side.  One of the key aspects of improvement for me has been to break out of that stereotype and my more recent games have reflected that - although it's obvious a good deal of work remains to be done on my skills.

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