30 October 2019

Annotated Game #225: A new beginning and defeating ratings anxiety

One of the avoidable curses of playing competitive chess is an obsession with ratings. Focusing on your opponent's rating when compared to your own can be quite unhelpful while at the chessboard, as covered in "Ratings Fear and Loathing". Similarly, caring too much about your own rating can - rather ironically - create anxiety and stress whether it is currently going down, up, or staying the same.
  • A declining rating can obviously be depressing, especially if it is associated too closely with self-worth.
  • A stagnant rating can become frustrating, leading to thoughts of "I'll never improve" and such.
  • Achieving a particular ratings goal can lead to a crippling desire to maintain it at all costs, which in an extreme form can include deliberately not playing in order to protect it.
The below tournament game is the first one after my breakthrough to Class A, so it was the first time I faced the last situation above after achieving the new rating level. I felt it was important to consciously combat both the potential short-term and long-term effects of ratings obsession. Some observations that helped the process:
  • Ratings are a statistical phenomenon and there is little meaningful difference in minor (30-40 point) fluctuations. This means that an arbitrary threshold like 1800 for Class A has no intrinsic value, so falling a short distance below it (if that happens) should not have an outsized psychological impact. People grapple with this psychological phenomenon all the time when nominal statistical data points like body weight, stock prices, etc. are involved. What really matters is the long-term trend line, not short-term ups and downs.
  • You have to be willing to lose games in order to win them - nothing risked, nothing gained - and to improve your chess strength over time. This means accepting the statistically inevitable negative results when they occur in the short term, then clearing your mental slate for future games.
  • Quality of play is more important for someone truly interested in chess. Focusing on playing well (the process) rather than gain/loss of rating points (the results) is a much better and healthier improvement strategy.
  • Mental toughness is a phenomenon that ignores ratings.
In contrast to my usual rough start to a tournament, this game is a win and features only one significant slip, a hard-to-see tactic on move 21 which my opponent also misses. The idea - uncovering control of a key square that would disrupt my skewer tactic - was eye-opening and well worth the analysis.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class B"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B12"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "106"] {[%mdl 8192] B12: Caro-Kann: Advance Variation} 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 Bg4 {this is the point of playing this variation, that the bishop (unlike in the Advance French) is not locked in.} 6. Be2 e6 7. O-O Nge7 8. h3 Bxf3 {otherwise the bishop wastes time by retreating, so this capture is standard. Also, it removes a protector of d4/e5, which soon come under pressure.} 9. Bxf3 Nf5 {continuing with minor piece development to ideal squares.} 10. Be3 $2 {White underestimates Black's threats.} (10. dxc5 Bxc5 11. Bf4 $15 {keeps the material balance, but Black still has the easier game.}) 10... Qb6 {a standard and good move in these types of positions. The queen adds her force to the a7-g1 diagonal and also hits b2, now vulnerable because of the bishop move.} 11. Qd2 $6 {this drops the d4 pawn with no compensation.} (11. Nd2 {at least gets another piece out for White.}) 11... cxd4 12. cxd4 Ncxd4 (12... Nfxd4 {I also considered, but judged it weaker and Komodo agrees. Black for the moment can dissolve the pin on the knight by ...Nxf3, but Bg4 then removes that possibility. The text move allows for ...Nxe3 if needed.}) 13. Bxd4 Nxd4 14. Be2 Rc8 {hard to argue with developing the rook on the open file. } (14... Bb4 {is slightly preferred by the engine.} 15. Bb5+ Qxb5 16. Qxd4 Rc8 {may be a slightly better version of the idea, as all Black's pieces are now developed and if} 17. Nc3 {then} Bxc3 18. bxc3 Qa5 {leaves White down material and stuck with the weak c-pawn.}) 15. Nc3 Bb4 (15... Nxe2+ {simplifying down may be easier, but at the time I did not want to exchange my very well-placed knight.} 16. Nxe2 Bb4 $17) 16. Rac1 O-O (16... Nxe2+ {now I do think that trading off the bishop is superior before castling. After this, White would not have sufficient material to pose any threats to Black's bare kingside.}) 17. Rfd1 Nc6 $19 {Black has no weaknesses and with the protected passed d-pawn has a decisive advantage in the endgame.} 18. Qf4 f6 {played in the hopes of an exchange on f6, which is only to my benefit, but White doesn't have to do this.} (18... Be7 19. Nb5 $19) 19. exf6 (19. Bg4 $5 f5 20. Bh5 $19) 19... Rxf6 {now I have the half-open f-file and can swiftly dominate it with my rooks. The e-pawn is sufficiently protected as well.} 20. Qg3 Rxf2 $2 {this appears to be an obvious tactic, due to the possibility of a follow-up skewer on the a7-g1 diagonal by Black's bishop if White takes on f2 with the queen. However.. .} (20... Rcf8) 21. Kh1 $2 {White fails to find the tactical refutation, which is very hard to spot.} (21. Nxd5 {busts the idea, as the knight sacrifice opens the c-file for White's rook to control c5. No bishop skewer now.} exd5 ( 21... Rf1+ 22. Kxf1 exd5 23. Qf2 $16)) (21. Na4 {also works for White.}) (21. Qxf2 Bc5 $19 {was the idea behind Black's previous move.}) 21... Bxc3 {this is a removal of the guard theme, targeting the Be2. White can actually save the piece, although again it's difficult to find.} 22. Rxc3 $2 (22. Bg4 { threatening to capture on e6 and fork Black's king and rook, thereby gaining the necessary tempo for recapturing on c3.} Rf6 23. Qxc3 $19) 22... Rxe2 { with a piece and two connected passed pawns up, the win is essentially trivial from here, even if it takes some more work.} 23. Rf1 Qc7 24. Qf3 Re4 (24... Rxb2 {is preferred by the engine, but I felt further pawn snatching was unnecessary and simply diverted the rook away from the main action.} 25. Qg4 Qe7 $19) 25. Rfc1 {although everything is losing at this stage, I think allowing my next move made it that much easier for me. I'm happy to dominate the kingside and center and let White make some demonstrations on the queenside.} Rf8 26. Qd3 Qf4 27. Qb5 Rb4 28. Qe2 e5 29. Rd1 Rd4 30. Rdc1 Rd2 31. Qb5 Qf2 32. Rg1 Rf7 {shutting down the threat to b7.} 33. Rd3 Rxd3 34. Qxd3 Qd4 {the plan is to get rid of distractions with the queen and just roll to victory with the pawns.} 35. Rd1 Qxd3 36. Rxd3 d4 37. Rd2 e4 38. Kg1 Kf8 { with White's king cut off from the action, I just march my king up to help the pawns. This is a no-brainer win, so why waste calcuating power on anything else? The engine shows quicker wins, but that's irrelevant.} 39. g4 Ke7 40. Kg2 Ke6 41. Kg3 Ke5 42. Re2 d3 43. Rd2 Kd4 44. Kg2 e3 45. Rd1 d2 46. Kg3 Kd3 47. Kh4 e2 48. Rg1 e1=Q+ 49. Rg3+ Qxg3+ 50. Kxg3 d1=Q 51. Kg2 Rf3 52. Kh2 Qe2+ 53. Kg1 Rf1# 0-1

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