06 August 2020

Bad chess attitudes #1: My opponent spoiled my opening

Many things can hold us back in our quest for chess improvement. One of the things that we can control (and improve) is our attitude towards chess, both at the board and away from it. Attitude directly affects our behavior and decisions, which in turn affect the outcomes we get at the board. This is why "chess psychology" is not some esoteric or academic topic, but in fact a very practical one for improving players.

I'll be highlighting in a short series of posts some bad chess attitudes that can actively harm our progress. To avoid being seen as too judgmental, I'll only share ones that I've struggled with myself.

From tigerlilov.com
1. My opponent spoiled my (favorite) opening (and must be punished for it)

This is an attitude you see a lot among amateurs, but almost never among masters. It is born out of frustration at frequently not reaching your favorite opening lines, ones that you've put so much time and effort into preparing. The attitude reveals an emotional attachment to particular lines and their aesthetics, which are then mentally built up into some sort of chessic ideal - which is then "spoiled" on the board by the opponent, who refuses to cooperate in creating this artistic masterpiece. I think having aesthetic value as part of your opening selections is actually helpful, since it is part of why we derive pleasure from chess as a game and an art, but becoming mentally wedded to some sort of "pure" type of opening position is not.

One common example is on the Black side of Sicilians, where amateurs can enthusiastically undertake preparation of lines in complicated systems (Dragon, Najdorf, etc.). These often get derailed at the board as early as move 2 or 3, which then results in complaints about opponents' poor attitudes or worthiness as chess players because they choose to avoid the "best" lines. This kind of reaction ignores the fact that your opponent always gets an equal vote in chess: it's called their move. It is just common sense, however, that if your opponent plays a move that is not theoretically best, but is nonetheless good or at least not a blunder, getting upset about it or wanting to "punish" it will not be very productive for you on the chessboard.

As with many things that are bad for us, social influence and pressure are factors that help create this kind of attitude. "Best" openings are frequently argued about, with fashionable variations or whole opening complexes pushed heavily in publications and public forums. This gives us the social phenomenon of opening popularity, which doesn't necessarily have anything to do with opening effectiveness for you.  Similarly, out-of-fashion openings are put down or ignored. We no longer see so much the Sveshnikov Sicilian against 1. e4, or the Grunfeld against 1. d4, or the Spanish game (Ruy Lopez) as White at top levels. Yet all were considered to be the top choices of professionals not so long ago - and may again be, in the future. No doubt you can think of your own examples.

It should be understood that at the top GM level, variations or openings tend to become unpopular because near-forcing drawing lines have been worked out in them, or it is found over time (and numerous practical examples) that one side (typically White) gets a slight plus with best theoretical play. However, this assumes that both players know how to play at that level and have worked out what to do through the middlegame or even the endgame (such as with the Berlin Wall variation of the Spanish game, which has frustrated professional-level White players). However, what is considered best for the 2600+ crowd at a particular time, while interesting to know, is not necessarily the best guide for your own play.

The most effective antidote for too often being a "taker" of others' opinions on openings is simple, but sometimes hard to do: think and evaluate for yourself. This is absolutely necessary to make progress in all phases of chess, but may be harder to do for openings, since so much material has been published on them. Your own evaluation of particular lines can of course be guided by "expert" opinion, but it should always be a conscious choice and for reasons that you understand. Otherwise your play and results will suffer, even if someone else (or an engine) has informed you that the position you reached was the "best" possible. The fact that any sound opening is playable, at any level, should be remembered. If you do at least semi-serious opening research, you will also inevitably find that "experts" disagree over time - and even at the same point in time - about their evaluations of variations, reinforcing the point that your own judgment is what counts most in the end.

Fundamentally, the purpose of the opening phase is for you to reach a playable middlegame position. This means one that is not clearly advantageous to the opponent, and contains elements and plans that you can understand and execute over the board. This seems like a simple proposition, but it is violated a lot in practice. We need to remember that opening preparation and analysis should be a tool for us to use for our own ends, not to blindly follow.

A modern-day analogy is the relationship we have with our phones: are they consciously used by us as an information and communications tool, understanding the trade-offs in time and efficiency involved? Or do we forego an active role and simply react to it, like a dog in Pavlov's experiment believing that it's always dinnertime when they hear something buzz? You decide.

From verywellmind.com

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