My fellow ChessLecturer, International Master Bryan Smith, just finished a very interesting series of three articles at chess.com, which you can find here, here and here. They’re very amusing and fun to read, and I don’t want to give away too much, so I’ll just tell you the broad outline. In the first article, Bryan talks about how he decided to go to Europe to play in some tournaments, and then (after a breakup with his girlfriend) he decides to actually move there. But around the same time, the end of 2010, he has a string of disastrous tournaments in the U.S., and so in January he suddenly finds himself in Prague, having committed himself to the life of an itinerant chess player, yet without a shred of confidence in his game.
Bryan does okay in Prague, and then he’s on to his next tournament, in Marianske Lazne, also in the Czech Republic, where he has an awful tournament. Now he’s questioning everything, and in fact he decides that he is going to give up on chess. He decides to go to Budapest and hang out for a little while with an American named Erik who is living here — almost certainly Erik Kislik, whom I have written about in this blog a couple times before. Here’s how Bryan describes his mood:
I can say I was the most confused I have ever been in my life. I had no place of residence. I did not know if I was going to live in Budapest, Prague, or return home to Philadelphia. I thought I would quit chess, but was not sure, and did not know what I would do instead of it. I did not know if I would play in the Bulgarian Open, as I had planned. Perhaps I would stay in Budapest and play in the First Saturday tournament, or maybe move my plane ticket to an earlier date and go home? If I was not going to play chess, I was not sure what I would do in Europe.
In part three, Bryan goes on to Bulgaria to play in the Bulgarian Open (Georgi Tringov Memorial), where he is the first American ever to play in the tournament. He is still absolutely certain that he is going to give up chess, and he plays the first few rounds in a carefree, “Que sera, sera” style. I’ll bet you can guess what happens next. He gets on a roll, scores 7 out of 9, finishes third in the tournament, and earns his first Grandmaster norm!
At the end of the article Bryan doesn’t tell us whether he has changed his mind about quitting chess, but he does say, “I was happy being a chess player again.”
As I said, the articles are great reading, both for Bryan’s internal debates and for his descriptions of what it’s like to be a young person traveling through Eastern Europe. Check out the illicit activity he observes on the train from Budapest to Sofia! Also, of course, Bryan gives extensive analysis of his games, which I haven’t even looked at yet. No matter what happens later in his life, I am certain that Bryan will look back at his European adventure with nostalgia and fondness.
It’s interesting how so many people seem to have a crisis point when they seriously contemplate giving up chess. For Sam Shankland, of course, it happened last year when he was mad about not making his GM norms. It also happens to more ordinary chess players. My fellow blogger, Ernie Hong, has been struggling with motivation for the last couple years, and rarely blogs about chess any more. We met for dinner just before the Far West Open last week, and he told me that he sometimes feels “betrayed” by chess. I think that he feels frustrated because he does not see himself making progress, and also his despair when he loses is ten times greater than his happiness when he wins. When that happens, you’re not playing a zero-sum game any more, you’re playing a negative-sum game.
I think Ernie actually felt a little bit better after our conversation, and I hope that he will be inspired by Bryan Smith’s example to keep on trying. It worked for Bryan to put a little bit less pressure on himself, and maybe the same thing could work for Ernie, too.
Strangely, I don’t think that I have ever felt betrayed by chess. Many times I feel betrayed by my own stupidity, or by my inability to stay out of time trouble, but never by chess. I think that perhaps I am lucky that I was never really very good to begin with. People like Sam Shankland and Bryan Smith have enjoyed so much success that they can seriously contemplate chess as a career option. Then they get a faceful of cold water when they realize how difficult and uncertain a career it is. In my case, it was clear from the beginning that chess was not my career. It was only going to be a pastime. I went through school, got the appropriate degrees and landed the appropriate jobs. I never experienced the kind of agony of indecision that Bryan is (or was) going through. I did go through a little bit of agony, but it came later and had nothing to do with chess …
By the way, I checked my rating after the Reno tournament, and it went up … by one point! That’s like winning a one-dollar prize. I could be discouraged by this, because it seems to imply that my current rating of 2094 (up from 2093) is about right. Which is bad, because I still want to get my rating (both USCF and FIDE) back up to 2200. But instead I’ll look at it optimistically. I have now gained rating points in two consecutive tournaments!