I've been reading Josh Waitzkin's new book The Art of Learning. In the early chapters he writes about his experiences as a young chess player. He describes a tournament where in the middle of a complex position he starts hearing in his mind a Bon Jovi song that he heard earlier in the day. He couldn't get the song out of his mind, couldn't stay focused on the analysis and blundered. He went on to say that this was a problem that continually plagued him as a kid. He felt he was the only one with this problem until later when he learned other high stress performers experience this too.
I've experienced this same phenomena not only in chess but also during intense bike rides. When I'm exercising I don't mind it so much. Sometimes the songs that play in my mind fit well with the moment. There's a short but annoying hill on one of my training rides where often the first line of the song "Journey to the Heaviside Layer" from "Cats" comes to mind. The first line goes "Up, up, up, up past the Russell Hotel, up, up, up, up to the Heaviside layer." Somehow it's fitting as I'm trying not to get dropped by the pack while climbing this hill. For awhile it became my mantra on that hill, and worked well.
However when one is trying to figure out what is going in a complicated position and all you're hearing is the annoying chorus of a song you sang at summer camp eons ago it can be rather aggravating. Anybody who has gone to summer camp knows what I'm talking about. It's those goofy songs with silly choruses often accompanied by funny hand movements or changes in volume. As kids we thought they were lots of fun to sing, and we'd drive adults crazy singing it over and over again. I guess the payback is we hear these same obnoxious songs in our minds as adults.
I'm not sure how I ended out with this particular song going through my mind as I'm trying to out race the clock and my opponent in a wild rook and pawn ending. But there I am hearing "John Jacob Jingle Heimerschmidt" running through my mind as I sac a rook to stop his pawn from promoting, and then race my pawns up the board to queen. The song has a very catchy little tune, the lyrics are quite repetitious and it gets sung either at the top of one's lungs or in a whisper. "John Jacob Jingle Heimerschmidt, his name is my name too. When ever we go out, the people always shout! There goes John Jacob Jingle Heimerschmidt! Na, na, na, na, na!" Repeat ad infinitum in varying volumes.
Some how I managed to win this particular game despite the distraction. It's funny because I've played this particular player many times at the Marshall Chess Club, and my record against him sucks! I think I've played him around 20 times. I've gotten a few draws against him, but this only the second or third time I've beaten him. This game was typical of how our games go. He quietly builds pressure, I defend solidly and then one or both of us get into ridiculous time trouble, and the position goes all to hell. If I'm on the wrong side of hell when the game ends, he usually makes some comment where he thinks he's being kind, but it comes off as very condescending. I hate being talked down to.
This was one of our typical games. I had almost no time left, I chucked pawns, and thought I was toast. However, he left his king in check, and I got two minutes for the illegal move. Ah sweet relief! Except for "John Jacob Jingle Heimerschmidt" echoing through my brain. Maybe it the "na, na, na, na, nas" getting louder and louder that blocked out all the other noises in the background, and allowed me to not panic when I gave up my rook for his pawn. Suddenly he was the one with 2 seconds left on his clock, and looking at a position that despite being up in material was lost.
Score one for John Jacob Jingle Heimerschmidt. Though I usually don't fare so well with annoying choruses running through my head. I much prefer when I can control what music I hear. I'll take the Three B's over the Three J's any day of the week.