Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Chess Psychology 101

I already gave away the ending with my previous post, but now it's time to talk about the two battles going on during this game. In any chess game there is the battle that occurs on the board with the pieces, and then there's the battle with the mind. As much as one wants to start each game with a clean slate and only think about the moves on the board, often there are other issues at hand. Sometimes it's about what happened in the previous round. Sometimes it's about who you're playing, or how he is acting. Sometimes it has nothing to do with chess itself.

For me I was fighting the battle of what had happened to me from the fourth round onwards. I should note that my fourth round opponent who received the gift of my rook went on to win the section with a score of 6-1. *Sigh* If only I hadn't hung the rook...... I'm playing a kid from New York City who attends one of the major chess power house schools. That's not exactly who I want to be paired against when I'm in one these foul funks, but I can't dwell on it. I knew before the pairings went up that I was going to play him. So it wasn't a big surprise. Yes I too sometimes succumb to the pairing game and try to figure out who I'm playing next.

This is the game, and I have added some annotations to it. However the analysis only tells about what I saw on the chess board. It was what I saw off the board that was crucial to how this game went.

As I have stated on this blog and in the comments of other people's blogs I much prefer the human element of live chess that one does not get when playing on the Internet. Seeing my opponent let's me know more about him or her. Sometimes that's good, and sometimes it's not so good. It's interesting to watch how certain players sit at the board, how they handle the pieces and clock, how they react to what's going on around them, etc.

Some players sit very still, while others are in constant motion with bouncing legs, tapping feet, or changing positions in their chair. Some players move the pieces in a very deliberate and precise manner. Others casually flick the pieces out and if you're lucky they land on the center of the square. Then there are the slammers. Those are the ones who on every single move slam the piece down like they just played the killer move. Some players show a calm confidence in their move as they deliberately place their piece on the square. Others are showing a "in your face" cockiness as slam their pieces.

Most of the time one needs to tune out their opponent's "board side manner" and not read anything into how they physically move the pieces or how they're sitting in their chair. In this particular case I couldn't help but to notice my opponent's demeanor during the game. He has been trained in the Kotov "write first, move after" school of thought. There's been much debate about how useful it is, and whether it should be allowed at all. In my pre-Mon Roi days I had tried it off and on, but didn't find it overly helpful for me. I think it's helpful for some players to follow that routine, and I when I'm playing I don't care whether my opponent is writing before or after he makes his move.

The only reason I paid much attention to it this time was because what he did after going through his analysis. Most of time when a player uses this method he will think about the move, write it down, think about it some more and then play the move. If they don't like what they've seen, they'll erase it and repeat the process again. My opponent would go through the first three steps, but then when he went to make the move there was often significant hesitation. It seemed like he was spending an awful lot of time on the opening moves. If one plays e4 as White one should have his set lines for openings like the Sicilian. The c3 line gives White the opportunity to steer the opening into something that he knows, so spending 5 minutes on his fifth move of h3 indicated to me early on that perhaps he wasn't going to be the next King Kong of my chess career.

He spent 14 minutes on his twelfth move, Ke2. He had written it down, had looked at it for quite awhile and then when he went to make the move he kept hesitating. He'd reach towards the king and then pull his hand away, then he'd reach for the king again and pull it away again. Then he picked up the king, hovered over e2 and then pulled it back to e1. He's still holding onto the king, but now he has three plausible choices for connecting the rooks; 12. Ke2, 12. O-O or 12. O-O-O. He finally did play 12. Ke2. His reasoning was that I had already pushed a6 and b5 so he was concerned my queen side attack would be faster then his king side attack.

The funny thing was when he played this move I was actually nervous about the potential onslaught of pawns backed up by his rooks on the g and h files. I was even more nervous after he played 13. Rag1. I've fallen victim to many of these types of attacks while not being able to get at the opponent's king on the other side. Given my mental state going into this game I was having one of those "Here we go again" moments. However what I was forgetting about was that this position had not come from a typical Accelerated Dragon so I had actually gotten in a few extra moves on the queen side while he pulled the bishop back to c2 and pushed d4. So even though he had the center, my king side was solid, and I had nice possibilities on the queen side.

I figured I'd try to distract him with 13...Na5 with the idea of 14...Nc4. I thought he might just ignore it and play 14. Bh6. This was the point where his hesitations over making moves became more pronounced. I sensed that he was scared of the play I was getting on the queen side. I still didn't think my moves were such a big deal, but he did and I could tell that was his thinking. He actually was correct in his assessment of the position after Na5. He can't simply ignore 14...Nc4. Though b3 was probably too passive on his part.

When he played 14. b3 that changed my entire attitude about the position. I think if he had confidently played Bh6, I may have been intimidated by the move. Given my recent record against kids playing intimidating looking moves it might have totally psyched me out during the game. However looking at the game afterwards with no pressure and the aid of Fritz I can see that 14 Bh6 is an illusion. It's actually not so good any more since if he plays it, 14... Nc4 allows black to pick up the b pawn after 15. Qg5 Bxh6 16. Qxh6 Nxb2. Even with White's queen on h6 his attack is too slow. Black will get a lot of play with White's king in the center. However I wasn't seeing any of this at the time so when he played the defensive move of b3 I felt tremendous relief and I went on the offensive with 14...Rc8.

He could have played 15. Rc1 to shore up his weak c file, but he was overly concerned about 15...b4. At first glance it appears I win the pawn on e4, but after 16. Nb1 Bxe4 17. Bxe4 Nxe4 18. Qxb4 it's equal. At that point anything could have happened. Instead he play the very passive a3 weakening the queen side even more. That move totally energized me. Now I was feeling like a shark who smelled blood and was going for the kill. I was seeing lots of possibilities in the position for me. The game kind of played itself after that.

This game clearly showed me why it's important to play with confidence and not give anything away with body language. Poker faces are important in chess too. Even my third round opponent who was totally busted and had very little time kept playing his pieces as if he had some crushing blow. I think he was waiting for me to blunder in the time scramble. So by playing quickly and decisively he certainly made me nervous, but I kept telling myself I had time and not to be hasty in my responses.

There is a fine line in reading too much into an opponent's actions, but I think an experienced player has a feel for what is real, and what may be for show. Even though I've never played this particular kid before, I've played enough kids to have a feel for their perceptions of the game in progress. Kids can be intimidating and scary to play at times, but I think they're easier to read. Kids are more real in their emotions. I think adults are better at BS-ing their way through stuff so they're harder to read.


tanc(happyhippo) said...

Very interesting post, Polly!

A couple of notes:

You adopted a very good attitude before playing your opponent and that is not to be distracted with who your opponent is.

You can always adopt the famous Mikhail Tal "stare" at your opponent. Naturally, what Tal is doing at the board is not looking at his opponent but trying to figure out what the opponent is thinking about (and in particular, which area of the board by looking at his opponent's eyes and head movements). This allows Tal to "read" his opponent's ideas easily. Other players like Shirov looks at the ceiling. What they're doing is not showing disrespect to their opponent but by trying to picture the chessboard on the ceiling (taking a distant view of the game).

Chess indeed is pretty much a mental and psychological game.

Congrats on your win!

Wahrheit said...

I love the psychology/emotion/motivation part of the game and enjoyed this post very much. I'm definitely from the "poker face" school; I think it's a big mistake to give anything to the opponent, but I also appreciate the need to tune out their attempted reverse psychology mind-rays! The old "make a move and look concerned" when setting a trap with seeming material loss should only work once on anybody.

BlunderProne said...

Great post!

I tend to play like I meant it after a blunder. I like live action chess beacause of the psychological aspect. Kids are great because they tend to wear their emotions on their sleeves.

drunknknite said...

Nice game! And nice post!

I used to be very bad at concealing my intentions and emotions at the board, since I've matured I am stone cold. On the topic of writing moves before you move, I've developed a habit of not writing down my opponent's move until I see a good move (or more) and by that time when I go to write the move my opponent gets all excited like I am going to write my move down, but I just write their move down and put my pen down and go back to thinking, it's pretty funny because it will work several times every game as if I'm going to change all of a sudden and start writing my moves down before I move.

As far as happyhippo's comment, I've also started looking away from the board to try to decipher differences between different positions. You get to the point a lot of times where you no longer need calculation but a more subtle evaluation of the underlying themes, and looking away from the board as you work out the important elements in different positions I find to be helpful at times.

Polly said...

Unfortunately for me, often the innder child comes out, and I too wear my emotions on my sleeve. When I played in the Parents & Friends tournament in Houston the TD told me how much she enjoyed watching me play. She liked my animation while I played. When I get into that type of mode I'm kneeling on the chair, or standing up. I find I become much like the kids.

I try to be Ms. Cool when I blunder horribly but sometimes it's hard. After my opponent took my hanging rook in round 4 I said fairly loud "Jesus Christ!" I don't like using the Lord's name in vain like that, but it's what came out at the time. I supposed it was a little better then saying "Oh f$%k" but it was hard not to react to such a gross oversight.

drunknknite said...

When I dropped my queen last weekend in the opening I looked at her and I was like "Really?" and she was like "yeah" and I just stopped the clock said good game (smiled and shook my head at someone who was watching the game and laughing at me) and walked out. But I still kept it pretty cool considering when I was a kid I definitely cried over games and one time at the Western States I knocked the pieces off the board... Now when I'm winning I like to take a walk and then I don't show my emotion at the board. I also play poker though so I know how to hide my emotions.

Anonymous said...

Polly - Looks like that "little Bishop in front of the d pawn" maneuver was something your opponent saw in an opening book. It actually looks pretty good.

But then when his opening knowledge ran out, he started playing like a complete novice.

I didn't play through the whole game- but -
bringing the King to the center of the board with Queens on in a near-opening - for no good reason - unless Mikhail Tal is doing this, I am going to have to attribute it to suicidal tendencies.

You should have pushed your center pawns and opened the center, sacrificing whatever material you needed to- to keep the King trapped in the center, and definitely not exchange Queens.

Just my humble opinion.

Andy B.

Anonymous said...

Your last posts have been rich and interesting.

Internet play of course has become very popular recently; it certainly loses something of the feel of chess compared to OTB. I assume my opponents learn as much or more about me as I do about them, and try not to read too much into their emotion on a given move. Although, as you say, it's a better bet with young'uns.

I love playing against someone who writes down moves before playing them. This gives me some extra insight into what they are thinking.

chessloser said...

really really interesting look into the actions of players. i wondered if, when i play a really good move, i act hesitantly, take my time, then after i make the move, act like i just messed up huge, quietly curse to myself, and give the guy a false sense of security right before i destroy him, would that work? would they fall for it? then i think, why not play chess and let my pieces do the talking, so i don't know.

Polly said...

Loser: A lot of times I can't read squat about my opponents, especially adults. Though a few months ago I was playing an adult with 1200 rating. The worse the position got for him the harder he'd slam his pen down after writing down his move. I could tell he was gettung angrier and angrier. It didn't impact my play, but I felt like tell him to chill out.