It’s All About Confidence

by admin on October 17, 2007

In my last entry, I wrote about last year’s Western States Open, where I went 4-2, won a nice chunk of change, and played the best game of my life. This year… well, it was a different story. I drew three games, lost three, and didn’t win a single one. That gave me a woeful score of 1 1/2 – 4 1/2.

It’s difficult to write about a disaster like this without lapsing into self-pity, which I refuse to do because I know that no one wants to read it. So let me try to draw some kind of positive lesson from the experience.

The difference between last year and this year was all about one word: confidence. I had it last year. In that historic game against David Pruess, I was in complete control from beginning to end. For the first and only time in my life, I had some inkling of how grandmasters must feel every day. The pieces (even my opponent’s pieces!) were totally at my command.

This year, though, my confidence meter hit zero. It’s a vicious circle. First I make some bad moves, and I start to worry. Next game, I’m double-checking and triple-checking my analysis (a huge waste of time, as you can read in Think Like a Grandmaster by Alexander Kotov). That gets me in time pressure, and leads to more mistakes. The second-guessing also causes mistakes even without the time pressure, because I talk myself out of natural, simple moves and play unintuitive and usually inferior moves instead.

The last two games in Reno were especially discouraging. In round five, I probably had a slight advantage after 28 moves, when my opponent offered a draw. At that point I had only 14 minutes left to make 12 moves, and my opponent had about an hour. I no longer had any faith in myself, so I cravenly accepted his offer. In the last round, I actually did play with confidence for about 15 moves, because it was an opening that I knew. But suddenly, over the course of just two or three moves, I lost the thread of the position. From then on, I was just too tired, too confused, too burned out to put up much of a fight.

In truth, this crisis of confidence has been building for some time. This fall I set myself a very ambitious challenge — to play in three master-class tournaments in a little more than a month. Out of 14 games (11 of them against masters), I lost 10, drew three, and enjoyed a single solitary victory. When you’re getting hammered over and over again, it’s easy to get discouraged. Even when you have a good position, you’re playing scared and wondering what might go wrong. And when your position actually does start to go downhill, the voices in your head are saying, “Here we go again.”

I didn’t want to begin my blog this way. I wanted to write about another glorious triumph. But now the chess teacher needs your help. How can I get my groove back?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Carina J. October 18, 2007 at 2:35 am

One of my favourite lectures by Jesse Kraai is called “A Universal Training Program” recorded back in 06, I really suggest you check that out, he talks about the analysis of own games to uncover the psychological patterns that leads us to make inferior moves or mistakes.

With the lecture recorded in 07, “The Final GM Norm: Part III: Training”, Jesse then gives examples of positions from games where psychology made all the (negative) difference in the world. I think that these 2 lectures together really provide a sophisticated insight into the fact that the chesspieces are an accurate mirror of the player’s psychology, and that sometimes, in order to make process, it becomes necessary to be brutally honest with the mistakes you make, and more importantly: why you make them.

For me, I have only just become aware of this whole concept, and it’s kind of scary to look at my games in this manner, trying to read my minds phobias and psychological knots from moves that fuck up an entire game. I’ve previously brushed such moves off with “I just played badly.”, but fact of the matter is that there’s often a reason why I played what I did, and by brushing it off I never realize my own weird patterns. I still can’t identify these patterns yet, but I’ve realized they’re there, like an undercurrent to my thinking, a subconscious factor in my decisionmaking that I cannot touch before understanding it. As Jesse says, this aspect of chess is like psycho therapy, only more painful because in therapy you can blame your parents, whereas in chess you can only blame yourself, hahaha.

I think you should do some self-analysis lectures, like the series Bill Paschall is doing. 🙂 Although I guess this is only useful when you know what you’re doing wrong and more importantly – know how to fix/improve it! I like this quote by our new world champion, Anand:

“When you have interesting stuff to play, then you look forward to the game and I think it’s very important to get into that frame of mind.”

I think this simple point is very true. One way I’ve combatted my own fear of losing every game in chess (as a child, I really used to have nightmares about losing 5 times in a row), was setting small goals for myself. I would search for a concept that would improve my game, like “alright Carina, in this game you wanna look out for sacrifices, and if the opportunity presents itself, grab it!”, because sacrifices are a thing I’m having difficulties growing comfortable with. Also, new opening theory has made me excited before games and set a positive frame of mind, where you’re concentrating on what can go right, instead of what can go wrong! When I quit chess 6 years ago, part of the reason for this was that I had lost the frame of mind Anand is talking about. Never looking forward to a game turned chess into hell for me, which is such a pity, with all the potential I had. Also, the fact that I quit instead of overcoming my problems, means that I still have these problems now, when returning. And these problems are what I am currently trying to identify, by attempting honesty with the thinking in my head, and the moves I make over the board!

Anyways, this was a rather long rant about the possibility of mistakes being deeply psychologically founded. Ofcourse this doesn’t even have to be the case. In jiu-jitsu which I train (a martial art), I sometimes – frequently, even – experience periods of low motivation and low performance. This seems to be a natural thing. The body isn’t a static thing, but works like a roller coaster – peaks and lows, improvement followed by setbacks, but the main thing to pay attention to, is that the setbacks are never greater than the improvements happening. If the setbacks are greater, it’s probably because I’m pushing myself too hard, like not taking enough time to recover between training days. If I panicked when such a setback happens, and tried to train even harder to overcome it, I’d soon be in a scary state called “overtraining”, where the only cure is a long break. Maybe it’s the same with the mind. Maybe you have simply been playing too much chess? (especially the ambitious challenge you set yourself could point in this direction)

If this is the case, then relaxing about the game and having fun with other things for a while might help.

I’m not sure that this is a good idea though, if it means taking a break from recording lectures to 🙂 You’re my favourite lecturer there, and the reason for this is not founded in theoretical superior knowledge or analysis, but the obvious sense of humour, enthusiasm and life with which you run through the games. I sometimes feel like I’m watching a creative comedy show (especially with the Nuke The Sicilian series), and not a chess lecture. I think that that’s a great way to approach the game, because all the instructive lessons are still highlighted, but in a way that makes it fun to absorb and learn.

Maybe you just need to focus on this creative/humerous aspect of chess when you play the next tournament game. Maybe prepare some kind of unusual opening line, like the terrible/toothless Traxler, lol. I think that if you play the game dryly and without hope for creative and amusing lines, then ofcourse your game would suffer. And if you worry about losing everything, then just embrance this possibility and play on, in spite! In the end, chess is a thing that can never be mastered, and when we experience the joy of dominating the game and the board, then it’s good to hold on to that moment and appreciate it as the height of our playing ability, but also know that all the times where we don’t dominate the board, it’s okay, too, just as long as the board doesn’t dominate us. And with that I mean that you should never get depressed about chess. Explore the possibilities of correcting your mistakes, and then play with the ambition never to make them again. The rest of the time, just have fun with the mental challenge of chess and look at the treasure hunt on the board as a world of play, because really, that’s what it boils down to!

No pressure of performance, no worries about what might come or what is happening, just play – the way kids do. 🙂

I really hope you overcome your problems!


admin October 18, 2007 at 8:05 am

Welcome to my blog, Carina, and thanks for your kind compliments! I do love talking about chess, and I love playing it … most of the time. Sometimes I am probably too focused on my results, and that leads to the kind of apprehensiveness that I wrote about.

I do think that studying one’s own games, *especially* the losses, is the #1 route to chess improvement. It’s inspiring to me that Jesse has risen to grandmaster using analysis of his own games as his primary learning method. It gives hope to me, and the rest of us, that you don’t have to have a Russian trainer or God-given genius to succeed. Actually, though, I think that Jesse is a genius. He’s got such a lucid approach to chess that I love every one of his lectures.


dribbling November 1, 2007 at 8:56 am

I am overjoyed that you’ve started this blog. You may not be the best player on Chess Lecture dot com but in my book you are by far and away the best teacher there. It is not only your wise use of mnemonics (hook-and-ladder-trick, eight dimensional chess, move your opponents pieces, etc.), but your tone, your delivery, everything, you’re a natural and no amount of losing can take that gift away from you.

I am a septuagenarian (I know it sounds awful but the truth shall make me free) and I’ve seen more than the usual share of winning and losing because for thirty five years I was involved in relatively demanding competitive sports, first as a player later on as as a coach (basketball, I won a bronze medal in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics playing for my native country, Uruguay).

So my age and experience allow me to make a pompous fool of myself by consenting to give advice to my teacher: don’t worry about a thing!

Sing your song each day
And when the time comes to pay
Die like a poet.

I think that Carina’s art is wonderful.



Jose A. Fadul September 30, 2009 at 8:35 am

Chess reflects so much of life. As a chess player you should know by now that you cannot always win in life, that you must stay focused, etc.

Chess can be therapeutic, if used correctly under the supervision of a trained social worker, guidance counselor, or an experienced psychologist or psychiatrist. If incorrectly used, it may lead you to depression.


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