28 October 2018

Streakiness in chess performance

From "How much does one game affect the next game?" by Michael Richmond
"Streakiness" is the tendency to keep losing (or winning) several times in a row.  It's a well-known phenomenon in team sports, also including individual performances in sports like baseball and cricket where particular results (for example pitching vs. hitting) can be meaningfully isolated from the overall team performance.  Naturally, this tendency to have positive or negative results in streaks also extends to individual sports like tennis and chess.

As with any complex phenomenon, it's nearly impossible to point to a single, definitive explanation for a particular string of results.  I do think a large part of it, however, often can be explained by the psychological expectation or "hangover" that is generated from the previous game.  Winning generates positive feelings - although this is not always helpful for an improving player, if it masks substantive weaknesses.  On the flip side, if you lose, it is common to experience unhelpful emotions such as anger, shame, feelings of worthlessness, etc.  This type of personalized reaction is in fact natural - a lot of time, effort and preparation goes into a serious game.  As a player, you almost always are mentally invested in even a casual match.  It's therefore healthier to experience the emotional reaction and then move on, rather than try to repress it.

So how does a chessplayer break out of a losing streak, which is the most common concern with streakiness?  Most of the time we are talking about a short-term losing streak, but in some cases it may be the symptom of a longer period of stagnation or decline in results.

Substantively, it is important for improving chessplayers to work on all aspects of their game, as it's rarely the case that a specific weakness is wholly responsible for a streak of bad results - unless you (perhaps unconsciously) keep playing into situations where you are weak.  For example, a player may have little knowledge of endgames, but nevertheless tends to head straight for them by exchanging down material whenever possible.  Another common issue is reaching middlegame positions for which you don't know the standard plans and characteristics of the position-types.  These weaknesses can be addressed (or at least better avoided) through candid self-assessmentanalyzing your own games, and targeted improvement plans.  Self-analysis will also directly contribute to understanding and avoiding the repetition of the same types of errors across different games.  These long-term practices will tend to boost your overall playing strength over time and contribute to shorter-term success as well.  There is no magic pill for instant short-term improvement in chess skills, in other words.

Psychologically, especially in terms of your short-term performance, it is more important for players to overcome the "hangover" of a previous loss or losses by focusing fully on the game in front of them.  Success in accomplishing this is partly based on willpower and your ability to focus, but is more strongly underpinned by adopting an attitude of mental toughness in all your games.  Getting in the habit of treating each new game as unique, as winnable, and as a stepping stone on the road to mastery goes a long way towards erasing bad vibes from previous games.

Finally, it's important to understand that your opponent "gets a vote" in the result of a chess game - meaning that you may play well and still lose, or alternatively play poorly and still win.  In addition to cultivating mental toughness as mentioned above, for improvement purposes it's therefore better to focus on your quality of play in each game, rather than solely on the final outcome.  You can't fully control the results you have, but you can dedicate yourself to playing with increasing excellence - which is a reward in itself - and that will inevitably be reflected in your playing strength and future competitive results.

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