21 January 2017

The curse of caring too much about chess

Perhaps it is more accurate to say that this post is more about the need to lift the curse of caring too much about your short-term results, either in an individual game or tournament; naturally, if we did not care about chess enough, then we would not bother playing seriously at all.

Over the next couple of weeks I plan to take stock again of the overall state of my game, as previously done in the chess performance inventory and analytics posts. From my own observations and game analysis, qualitatively speaking my game has strengthened significantly since I started this blog. This has not yet been reflected quantitatively in terms of rating, however. This fact occasionally leads to frustration, but that's not very helpful. The point is that plateauing is a real and common phenomenon, and the only thing that will get you beyond a plateau is more work (although not always the same work, which is an important distinction).

A more helpful approach than rage quitting - which I think many of us are tempted to do after a disappointing result - is to better understand what is going on. My primary diagnosis for the (lack of) quantitative results so far is a failure to pursue consistent tournament-level play over time, something necessary for some fundamental performance elements. I also need to do better in focusing on, then completing, elements of my training program.
  • Energy management - this has always been important, more so now that I am no longer a teenager. Too often I am the one to miss something on the board (i.e. blunder) first due to tiredness, after a couple hours of play, rather than my opponent. As with any physical activity (and intensely using your brain falls in into that category), if it is done with regularity and without excessive gaps in practice, your ability to do that activity improves.
  • Keeping skills honed - I have been struck by how chess is similar to other practices such as playing musical instruments and speaking foreign languages (as well as kung fu), which are complex skills that require both memory and creative thought. In each activity we can establish an initial baseline of skill, with sustained learning effort and competitive practice over time, that will only slowly deteriorate with disuse. However, advancing the skill requires more consistent, regular practice, in part to avoid having to remember or re-learn particular items, rather than "automatically" recognizing them. In chess, pattern recognition is the foundation of this, and it's simply easier to recognize and remember what to do in specific situations if you regularly face them. The games we play are the test of our abilities, but also sustain our momentum in terms of performance.
  • Time management - I've found that I have enough time outside of work and other responsibilities, but often I have not felt that I had the requisite energy to devote to chess study, which is a different problem. Partly this is mental attitude, partly this is a need to continue to make healthy choices about food, drink and exercise to make sure I can sustain a reasonable pace of study on a weekly basis, if not always daily.
Returning to the main theme, here is a recent observation from one the United States' top (2100+) young female players, Alice Dongposted at Chess^Summit:
So when does one start to realize what chess means in their lives? For me, it was when I started playing for myself, for the enjoyment of the game rather than the success of the wins. I started to go to tournaments because I missed chess not because I wanted to win my section. It was also around that time that I became proud to be a chess player. Soon, the confused but amazed faces my peers when they found out I was a player amused me rather than scared me. Now, I know there are some of you out there who have also felt this change in what chess means in your life – what was it that led you across this bridge?
This kind of healthy attitude is one path to success; the opposite approach, obsessing over your results and handing over power to the game to define your life can also bring results, but it will also bring a lot of negative qualities to your life without any guarantee of ultimate success. The bottom line is that letting go of things like ratings fear and loathing and avoiding obsessing about your own rating is ultimately a sign of strength, if done for genuine love of the game and as part of a commitment to improve, rather than just a convenient cop-out if things aren't going your way.


  1. Another good post, I've really enjoyed reading your blog since I found it last year. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks George. I try to have a mix of more reflective posts along with the more technical or training-oriented ones, based in part about how I'm feeling about things.


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