Bad Habits in chess
First World Chess Champion
And so this is the dilemma that every chessplayer who wants to improve (and whose main chess ‘diet’ consists of weekend chess) faces : while not being unappreciative of a few easy points in each tournament (and a few more rating points…), how does one go about dealing with that nasty side effect—the bad habit?
This little blurb is dedicated to discussing some of those bad habits, and their origin, with the hope that pointing them out and making players aware of them is the first step in the ‘cure’.
So it is in chess, for example. We determine success through our ability to win as many games as we can.
And what is more, why should he change something that works? Isn’t there a famous line that goes something like ‘Nothing quite succeeds like success,’ ? This is how bad habits begin, settle in, and then become an ‘invisible’ part of each player. Invisible because the player doesn’t even realize it.
For example, it doesn’t matter if little, timid and very nervous Joey Patzer sits down to confront a super confident and radiantly smiling Garry Kasparov …one thing is absolutely clear: Kasparov will NOT win the game UNLESS little Joey makes a mistake big enough to give Kasparov the chance to use his tremendous skills and techniques to exploit that very error!
Another important observation, more obvious than the last, is that the game of chess has three (3) perfectly legal and respectable results: 1. you win 2. you lose or 3. you draw. The likelihood of any of those results in any game is identical.
Chess players sometimes get carried away with the intensity of the struggle and the colour of their emotions associated with the often unpredictable nature of the game and feel that a draw is too little reward for so much torment and anxiety!
This of course, is ridiculous. Some of the hardest fought, most complex and uncompromising struggles in chess history have ended in draws. Besides, what does one have to complain about when neither you nor your opponent make no serious errors at all? (Remember, someone has to make a serious mistake in order for winning chances to occur.)
There was a comical example of such ‘abuse’ in a recent (’95) super-tournament in Spain, organized by the ‘world champion of organizers’ Luis Rentero of Linares. (Sr. Rentero is a notoriously weak player who has often tried to give advice to the world’s best players-including Garry Kasparov himself!)
Ready! Set!…. Go!!
Anyway, back to the example under discussion (95), in one of the games was revealed one of the most important theoretical opening novelties of the 90’s in a very topical line of the popular Slav Defence. (For those interested, it was Khalifman-Bareev)
Upon agreeing to the draw, the two players–obviously quite satisfied with the creative aspect of the game and very much aware that one of the most important theoretical games of the decade had just been played—ran off to the analysis room followed by a keen crowd of chess enthusiasts.
While they were analysing some of the intricate consequences of the novelty, someone came in and interrupted them to inform them that Sr. Rentero—upon hearing of the draw—had decided to fine both players 50000 pts (about 500 canadian dollars) for not displaying enough fighting spirit!!
Bareev and Khalifman; penalty!
A draw result has every right to exist and to be accepted as a perfectly valid sporting conclusion.Like the previous point I emphasized, it is important for the chessplayer to not lose sight of just what kind of game chess is. If you go into the game with a false (though romantic) idea of what kind of game you are playing then you are setting yourself up for certain disappointment.
I can assure the reader that I have lost many a game precisely because I got so ‘used to’ winning game after game (as does happen in the Swiss weekend tournament) that, regardless of the consequences, I wanted to continue to do so when I started to play in round-robins. It is all very heroic, but it failed more often than it worked!
I am all for taking calculated risks—this is all part of the game also—but to take any risk just to avoid a draw is pure stupidity. Accept that chess has three plausible results! The rules have!
CONCENTRATION AND ENERGY
I sometimes think of my own chess development as consisting of two distinct stages : stage one—becoming one of the very best players in Canada (72-83); stage two—becoming one of the three best players in North America (83-88)
While there may not have been such a big chess difference (on the outside) between these two stages, on the inside the difference was enormous! Especially with respect to how I dealt with my concentration during the game.
Years of playing in weekend tournaments, almost always against much weaker opposition, led me to develop poor concentration habits—simply because I didn’t need to concentrate very much in order to win!
I played a lot of chess at the Alekhine Chess Club in Montreal in the 70’s
I could hardly blame myself, because playing two or even three games a day is a very draining routine, and it is very difficult to remain disciplined for long periods of time, especially when it is unnecessary.
But I had some problems against stronger players. Not that I didn’t give as well as I received, but I noticed that my game revealed more ‘cracks’ in it than I would have liked. During this time I was constantly working on the chess aspect of my game, paying little attention to my attitudes during the game.
Then one day I changed…
I began to realize that what was missing in my chess was a certain consistent focus or steady concentration. I would normally only be focused for my moves, and at other times I would be dispersing my energy. After a few hours I would become tired and inefficient. In fact, I would not be far from the truth in stating that most of my energy was used in the subsequent re-focusing at every move.
Plus, I became more aware of proper breathing techniques to help cut down stress and anxiety, and to moderate my energy needs.
I was very proud to be included in an 1989 Aislin cartoon!
The result: between 83 and 84 I won every major North American tournament (The World Open twice, the New York Open, the Canadian Open, Quebec Open) except the US open—and that because I wasn’t able to play in it. (In fact, only once did I play in the US Open (77) and finished in second place.)
With respect to offering advice to the readers, I am not advocating giving up all ‘living’ during a game. Sometimes one has to talk. Everyone has to go to the washroom every now and then. What I am recommending is that you consciously reduce the number of distractions during the game to a minimum. Distractions take a lot of energy from you. Sometimes they even disturb you emotionally, and prevent you from maintaining a ‘balance’ during the game.
Meeting Prime Minister Brian Mulroney after my victory over Russian GM Andrei Sokolov in 1988
Soon without fully realizing it, we become chess players specializing in only one thing: how to beat weak players as quickly as possible.
When you play chess (and this is true regardless of the level of your opponent) FORGET about your opponent! Better still, play each game as if it were against Garry Kasparov! Play the board. Build your faith in strong moves—not weak opponents! Have expectations that only concern your own ability.
TIME AND DECISION MAKING
As mentioned before, there are 3 possible results to any game. That means, in a very practical way, that during any game a great deal of uncertainty exists. For who can really say at what move the game is going to be decided? And in whose favour?
The outcome in chess is the result of a struggle between two human beings. Both try their best, according to their ability and knowledge.
The chess player should try to focus only on making decisions that involve the position in front of him on the board. Everyday decisions. Normal decisions. Rarely is one called upon to make an extra-ordinary decision that will affect the long-term course of the game.
A lot of players are afraid of making the first mistake because they feel that others will consider them to be weak. This is the wrong type of thinking to have if you want to succeed in tournament chess. Not only because by trying to avoid making a mistake (instead of looking for a good move) you use much time on the clock, but wrong also because one little mistake will normally be insufficient to lose the game anyway! Very often a small mistake can actually give the game a sharp and unexpected turn to it.
Another common mistake for a chess player is not being able to regain one’s composure after making a mistake. It is hard to continue the fight without one’s full attention and focus. One of the biggest differences between a strong player and a weak player is that the stronger player can recover psychologically and continue to make good strong moves. The weaker players usually roll over and die.
The best thing is to move quickly and confidently in such positions. It will very likely unnerve your opponent and force him to think. If you can create a situation where your opponent has the better position but you have more time then the practical chances begin to even out.
OVER-ESTIMATING AND UNDER-ESTIMATING
Let me make the following training suggestion: suppose you want to start preparing for a club championship where you know there are no weak players…how should you start? My idea is to spend a little time before the tournament looking only at endgames ! By focusing on positions where ‘little’ details are important you will become accustomed to thinking in a concrete and practical manner.
”All that matters on the chessboard is good moves.”
From my own experience I can recount numerous examples of seeing little known masters playing well known positions better than either Kasparov or Karpov. Sometimes even refuting the accepted evaluation of the position!
SPRAGGETT ON CHESS