Psychological preparation

by admin on August 29, 2008

As I mentioned in my last post, my next big tournament is coming up this weekend — the CalChess Labor Day Open — and I have not had time to do any real chess preparation. But last night I did some psychological preparation, and I’d like to talk a little bit about this.

First, I remembered reading or hearing somewhere about an idea for chess improvement — go over your last ten losses and try to identify the reasons for the loss. I thought I might have heard piece of advice this from Andy Hortillosa, but looking at his Chessville articles I don’t see it there. So maybe I got it from someone else… maybe one of the other readers of this blog? Anyway, it seemed to me like a very good idea.

Actually, I “overfulfilled the quota” and reviewed my last eighteen losses! That’s how many tournament games I have lost in the past year. That, in itself, was quite a sobering statistic. How many people lose 18 tournament games in one year? Not Kramnik. Not Kamsky. No, I have achieved a level of ineptitude that they can only dream of.

(If you’re curious, my overall record for the last year was +9 -18 =9, for a winning percentage of 37.5%. Normally I score well over 50%, so something is clearly wrong here. Well, one obvious reason is that I challenged myself by playing in a lot of master-class tournaments. But that is no excuse! I challenged myself and I failed the challenge, and now I have to understand why.)

Of the eighteen losses, two are games I haven’t analyzed carefully yet, so they are excluded from this analysis. Of the remaining sixteen losses, here were the reasons I identified for losing:

  • Didn’t play simple, natural chess: 5+
  • Played opening badly: 5
  • Too optimistic (overestimated own position or underestimated opponent’s): 4-5
  • Committed obvious blunder, not forced by time pressure: 4
  • Time pressure meltdown: 4
  • Did not play actively enough: 3
  • Played endgame badly: 3 (including two B-vs.-N endings)

The numbers add to more than 16 because most of the losses had multiple reasons.

What conclusions can I draw from this? First, play simple chess! This means playing moves that are well-founded on strategic considerations, what Jesse Kraai calls “dynamic imbalances.” It means not talking myself out of the move that my gut says is best. (That happens to me a lot, especially when I go into a long think.) It may be useful to ask, “WWJD?” (“What would Jesse do?”) because he is a big advocate of simple chess. (Conveniently, “WWJD” also stands for “What would Jeremy (Silman) do?” which is another good question to ask.)

Second, I need to include more main-line openings in my repertoire. This is extremely painful for me to admit, because I’ve invested a lot of time in various offbeat variations, and Dana’s Opening Philosophy says that main-line openings are overrated. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean they should be avoided completely. The numbers don’t lie: Against masters especially, I’m losing some points because of my openings.

Third, I played too many outright blunders this year. At times I felt like a class-C player again. I need to implement Andy Hortillosa’s eight-step approach to avoiding blunders, the most important point of which (in my opinion) is identifying your opponent’s most serious threats, even if they seem to be adequately defended. The reason is that blunders often happen when you make a move that inadvertently allows him to carry out a threat that you thought was defended.

Fourth, as always I need to manage my clock better. That means both avoiding time pressure, and not melting down when I am in time pressure. Easier said than done, because I’ve been battling this particular demon for 30 years. But as I’ve said before, I think the key concept is poise, which is a combination of emotional calm, psychological balance, and mental preparedness to cope with unexpected events. Balance includes not getting too excited about good positions (thereby overestimating my chances or underestimating my opponent’s) and not getting depressed about bad positions.

Fifth, I need to trust in the power of active pieces. This is actually one of my mantras: I am a big fan of fighting for the initiative in all positions. You’ve heard it in my ChessLectures. Nevertheless, I was surprised to see that in a few of my losses, I did not trust my pieces enough, and fell back into a defensive mindset. A useful question here is: WWFD? (“What would Fritz do?”) The computer excels at finding ingenious ways to exploit piece activity.

Sixth, I need to study endgames more. But that is not something I can fix between now and this weekend, so we’ll ignore this for the moment.

So, to recap, here’s the game plan for this weekend:

  1. Play fifty percent mainstream openings.
  2. Aim for and achieve a state of poise.
  3. Avoid obvious (1- or 2-move) blunders, using Andy’s system.
  4. Play for maximum piece activity at all times. (WWFD?)
  5. Play simple chess. (WWJD?)

My main objective for the weekend is not to go 6-0 (wins vs. losses). The objective is to go 5-0 (accomplishing the items in my game plan).

One of the great things about writing this blog is accountability. Next week I will have to tell you how I did. In the past, accountability has been sorely missing in my chess; I haven’t had to answer to anyone but myself for my mistakes. Now I do!

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Andres D. Hortillosa August 29, 2008 at 3:51 pm

I wish you great success!

Regarding your time management issue, here’s what I learned from my first-round loss at the New England Masters. By the way I lost the game on move 32 (time forfeit) but I got into time trouble even before reaching move 15. My error on move 18 was induced by time trouble.

For all practical purposes, the game was lost around move 18. At postmortem, the young Canadian FM (who has one IM norm) commented that I took too much time with my moves in the opening. He said second best moves are good especially within the context of the time control. He was right. I took that comment to heart in the rest of the games though not completely because I got in time trouble at two other times.

Some players count a time advantage of 20 minutes to equal a pawn. The antidote to time trouble is to count time as material. We do not usually give away pawns or the exchange, do we?

Just know that we are so much behind you. Most important of all, have fun but play hard.


thadeusfrei August 29, 2008 at 5:07 pm

yeah good luck I might see you there but Im gonna do the two day tourniment..


Office Cubicle Chess September 17, 2008 at 7:32 am

This is the only chess blog worth reading. Looks like I’ll ignore the Knights Foolish and other MDLM morons if I want to have a “2” at the beginning of my rating.


admin September 17, 2008 at 10:24 am

Thanks for the compliment! I don’t want to go around dissing anyone else’s blog. However, I do think that the Michael de la Maza approach is somewhat misguided. At best, it’s a narrow, results-oriented approach that will not increase your enjoyment or understanding of chess.

The one good thing about MDLM is that he emphasizes hard work. But I suspect that if you took someone else’s method and worked equally hard on it, you would have as good results. Probably if you follow Jesse Kraai’s guide on you will have even better results! But that is just my personal opinion.


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