Friday, September 26, 2008

Chess Survival

I'm reading an interesting book right now called Deep Survival (Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why) by Laurence Gonzales.

It's been really interesting reading about different incidents and how people manage to survive or end out dying. Some of the stuff he writes about in the first chapter is really interesting. I could see some correlations between what happens in dangerous situations and what happens in some of the more tense moments in a chess game. He writes about how the brain functions. He writes about the difference between cognition and emotion. "Cognition means reason and conscious thought, mediated by language images and logical processes. Emotion refers to specific set of bodily changes in reaction to the environment, the body or to images produced by memory. Cognition is capable of making fine calculations and abstract distinctions. Emotion is capable of producing powerful physical actions."

Later in the chapter he writes about the chemistry of stress, and how the entire memory system, both input and output are affected. "As a result, most people are incapable of performing any but the simplest tasks under stress. They can't remember the most basic things. In addition stress (or any strong emotion) erodes the ability to perceive. Cortisol and other hormones released under stress interfere with the working of the prefrontal cortex. That is where perceptions are processed and decisions are made. You see less, you hear less, miss more cues from the environment, and make mistakes. Under extreme stress, the visual field actual narrows. .....Stress causes most people to focus narrowly on the one thing that they consider most important, and it may be the wrong thing."

The book is referring to how people react in extreme situations that are possibly life threatening. He gives examples of experienced climbers, snowmobilers, and river rafters who despite all their knowledge and experience, end out doing something that gets them killed. One example he gave was a river rafter who fell out of his boat. An experienced rafter knows not to try to stand up, but to ride the current to a safer spot where he can be helped out of the water. Standing up can cause the person to slip and perhaps get caught in between rocks and get sucked under. The victim stood up, stumbled and got caught in the rocks and drowned. His cognition would tell him to ride the current to safer ground, but his emotions said "I need to get out of the water as soon as possible."

Another example he gave was about Navy pilots landing on an aircraft carrier. As they say in the field, taking off is optional, landing is mandatory. Many crashes on landings occur because despite all the warnings that are telling the pilot he's coming in at the wrong angle, he's so fixated on the deck, that he blocks out the warnings and ends out overshooting the deck instead of pulling up and going around for another try. If he's lucky he might end out only trashing a very expensive airplane. The unlucky don't live to tell about it.

Reading this got me thinking about how different players react to different tension filled moments in a chess game. Why do some players get easily rattled by time pressure, whether it's their time that is short or the opponent's time? Why do some players handle the "money round" so well, and others choke? Why are some players so calm in the face of vicious attack on their king, and other freak out even though the attack may not be as strong as it looks?

It also got me thinking about how I react during chess games. Sometimes I'm Ms. Cool in time pressure, and pull rabbits out of my hat. Other times I implode and create a total disaster area on the board in a game that I was winning. There are games where I have all the time in the world, and there is no clock induced stress, yet I find the worse possible move on the board. Why does this happen, and what can I do about it?

So do these types of situations in chess cause the type of stress related chemical reaction discussed in Gonzales' book on a smaller scale? Is chess blindness caused by the stress hormones that interfere with the functions of the prefrontal cortex? Is our field of vision really narrowing when we're in a tense situation such as time pressure? Thinking about myself, am I overly sensative to those triggers? (Maybe that's why I have no desire to climb Mount Everest, or go white river rafting. I know myself too well.)

As any of you who read this post knows, the last few weeks have not been so easy for me. Some of the games I lost during that period seemed to come down to chess blindness (narrowing vision), "I probably shouldn't make this move, but what the hell" (emotion), and "That could be a threat later, but isn't right now so I'll worry about it later" (focusing on the wrong thing.)

Perhaps this game from the organized bedlam round robin set the tone for what has been a rough couple of weeks. I'm White against the number two seed rated 1753. This was only the second time I've played him. He won the first game. We had reached this position after his move 22...Rhd8.
Somehow in the course of the first 12 moves I had won three pawns. With my rook and bishop undeveloped on the king side he was getting some play for his pawns. However one would think that I could come up with a reasonable plan such as 23. Rxd4 Rxd4 24. Rh2, but noooo I got overly excited and decided to be bold, daring and creative by trading my queen for the two rooks. I played 23. Qxd8?? overlooking the fact that his queen now has an entry on g3. He played 23...Rxd8, 24. Rxd8 Qg3+. A few moves later he won my rook on h1. On move 37 I resigned.

There were no clock issues to deal with. The time limit was Game/75 with a 5 second delay. It was simply a matter of getting overly excited and trying to simplify by get rid of two of his pieces for one of mine. I looked at the straight math 5+ 5 > 9 and didn't take into consideration my undeveloped king side. My gut was telling me that Qxd8 was not sound. "Your other rook is out of play, you still need to develop the bishop, and your king is in the center of the board." However my opponent has his moment of chess blindness in the position too. The difference was his only prolonged the game longer then necessary. Do you see how he could have forced mate in 4 after 23. Qxd8? Answer in the brackets [ 23...Qg3+ 24. Ke2 Re4+ 25. Kd2 Qe3+ 26. Kc2 Rxc4# ]

This position arose last Thursday against Larry Tamarkin. He was serving as the house player to spare me from the all annoying round three bye. Larry and I always have totally bizarre games with one or both of us in time pressure. This game was no different.

He had sacrificed a knight for a pawn and an attack. I had managed to beat back the attack, and we reached this position after White played 23. Bg6. My emotions are running amok as time is ticking away and somewhere in the back of my mind I'm thinking that just maybe I could put an end to my 0-fer (0-14) against him. Here came my first bout of chess blindness in this game. My position is cramped, and I was concerned about White's passed pawn. (focusing on wrong thing) I attempted to resolve the passed pawn issue by playing 23...Qxd5? I had spent a few minutes on the move, and had considered the possibility that he could play 24. Bxf6, but wasn't concerned since I could play 24...Qxd1. I was blind to the in between move of 25. Bxe7+, Rxe7 followed by 26. Rfxd1, and now he's gotten his piece back.

I'd like to say that I hung on and got a draw, but 5 moves later with only seconds left I walked into a fork and lost my bishop. Again I wasn't looking at the entire board so I missed the forking move. A few minutes later the clock put me out of my misery.

On Friday I reached this position against Eric. He's a middle school kid rated 1530. I had gotten a big edge on the clock early in the game, but as we approached the middle game I had given back the time advantage I had earlier in the game.

This position came up after Black played 25...Raf8. My position was cramped and I really wanted to get rid of the knight on d4. Given that we were both short on time I should have played something along the lines of 26. Qd2 followed by 27. Qe3 and 28. Rc3. Black does have a space advantage, but it's unclear how he's going to break through. Instead of choosing a safe plan I tried to free myself by encouraging the trade of the Knight. I played 26. e3?!, knowing full well that he'd play 26...Nf3+ forcing 27. Bxf3 Rxf3. This was a case of focusing on the wrong thing. Yes the knight is a nuisance and is tying my queen down to e2, but I created more problems for myself by allowing his rook to come to f3. Th game continued 28. Kg2 Qf7 29. Rc2 Qf6 30. Rd2 Qf7 31. b3 h532. Qe1 Qe6 33. Rg1 hxg4 34. hxg4 Qxg4+ 35. Kf1 Qh3+ 36. Ke2 Qh5 37. Kf1 Qh3+38. Ke2 Qh2? He missed 38... Rxe3+ 39. Kd1 Rxe1+ 40. Rxe1 Qg4+ 41. Kc2. Time was clearly on his side at this point. The game continued 39. Kd1 Rxf2 40.Rxf2 Whites loses on time. 0-1.

One can easily write off these three positions as "she needs to work on her tactics", but I think it goes beyond that. I'm trying trying to figure out how I can be more aware of what is going on inside my brain, and use some of the survivor patterns and mindsets that Gonzales discussing in his book. IN a future post I will discuss some of things I have gleaned from later chapters.

Note: I started the post last Saturday, and it has taken me almost a week to gather my thoughts and examples. I should note that despite going 0-4 last Thursday, and 1-2 on Friday, that I have bounced back this week with a solid 2-2 result in this week's "4 Rated Games Tonight!" I lost two games against 2100s and beat a 1900 and an 1800. The two wins featured my nerves of steel time pressure technique. I wish I had one of those sensory boards so I could have the game score to the end. The fun stuff started and we stop keeping score.


Anonymous said...

It's already a few years ago but after a game my opponent was mad at me because i didn't show any emotions during the game.

I was presured all the way to the endgame, just able to save myself from a quick defeat. In the endgame my opponent made a mistake and i went on to win the game.

I show more emotions if i have the advantage and should win the game. However my arm starts to shake then and i have difficulty drinking my coffee because of this shaking. It doesn't last long, this shaking, but the first notion of 'Hey, i can win this game' seems to make me more nervous then 'Sigh, all i can do is defend, defend, and did i mention defend?' .

Polly said...

I am a high energy type of person. I show emotion easily, and sometimes that gets me in trouble. The worse is when I strat thinking about winning before the outcome.

This whole exercise that I did in writing thi post has helped me be more aware of how I'm wired. I think it helped in the games I played last night.

Anonymous said...


I have also hit a point of similar frustration with my chess; perhaps not to the same degree as yourself, but you do play a lot more games than I do. But I am at the point where I am tired of playing d4, I am tired of the positions I get, and I feel like I've lost some of the efficient thought that I used to have during games (I feel more lost). I've decided to start anew, so to speak. I'll be reading My System again (first time was about 18 years ago) and changing to e4. I know it's not about openings, but about finding freshness in the game. I don't know if it will work, but I feel like I have to do something besides the same old thing, or I shouldn't bother to invest time in the game at all.

That probably comes off more depressing than I feel towards chess. Another way to say it: When your comfortable shoes start breaking apart, it's time to buy new ones, even if they don't fit as well at first.

Michael Goeller said...

"Deep Survival" is a great book, and your post made me recall my own forgotten idea of making a post on its application to chess. I remember thinking most that the key concepts I took away from it are that you have to be curious and engaged to be resilient enough to survive. The people who die are the ones who, when falling down a mountain or out of the sky, keep their eyes tightly closed and hope the bad stuff will go away. The survivors keep their eyes open and become deeply engaged in what is happening to them and around them.

Polly said...

Scott: I agree with you about the freshness aspect of our games. I've toyed with the idea of learning some new openings, because like you I'm getting tired of the SOS (same old @#$%). I think that is part of the elemnt that Michael refers to in his comment after yours.

Michael: I've been amazed at the stories that Gonzales tells in the later chapters. The whole element of not giving in, and soaking up what's happening is such an interesting concept. I think it's a principle that applies in our chess games. I'm just still trying to translate it into a practical application in chess. Last night I felt like I had it figured out, tonight was a different story.

likesforests said...

Sounds like an interesting book! In emergencies, there's a line between being stressed and panicked / shocked. Once you cross that line, it's hard to react in a sensible mannger even if you're usually tough or smart.

When someone you know is injured badly, you may find yourself in shock and when you call 9-1-1 you explain in detail what is wrong and totally miss the operator's questions, like "Where are you?"

And while whitewater rafting, when you go under for 10 seconds and get hit and scraped by rocks and breathe in water it's instinctive to panic and desperately try to stand and enter the raft instead of floating feet first through rapids until the river calms a bit.

I never thought about chess from that perspective, but I am shaking and have made strange decisions near the end of tense games. You are right, there is probably some connection and lessons to learn.

likesforests said...

I just downloaded the unabridged audio version onto a couple CDs. :)

Rolling Pawns said...

I think it's a good idea to apply this book to chess. Couple of months ago I described in my blog, how I had a meltdown playing in the big tournament. I went under time pressure from won (deservedly) position to equal and then to losing. Probably, sudden realization that I don't have much time and few good defensive moves by my opponent after long attacking, gaining material advantage and being in euphoria caused this. I think, describing it helped me as well as playing quite a few blitz games after that, not lousy 8-10 minutes ones, but 5. A month after that I had another OTB game and drew it in endgame (it was right result), staying pretty calm with 2 minutes remaining.

Polly said...

Like & Pawns: Some people have said life is like a game of chess. Gonzales even writes that dealing with Mother Nature is like a game of chess. You have to makes good moves in dealing with these extreme situations.

Chess is a lot like life. I think how we handle situations in life often carries over to how we handle the chess situation of a similiar nature.

Anonymous said...


Your problems could originate from many areas; but I think you're on the right track when you realize that your poor moves come from an area unrelated to chess knowledge or general tactical ability. There are many possible reasons for you playing Qxd8, too many to list -- and even if I tried, I'd miss some. It's possible that you would assess Qxd8 as a bad move if you were at home, not in an OTB environment. Note: The second article in the new book, The Chess Instructor 2009, is a non-technical article written by Dvoretsky, where he writes that non-chess character traits account for a large chunk of chess strength. He also extensively quotes Rowson's work too. Rowson is a good place to start reading, if you haven't done so already, and Dan Heisman's Novice Nook articles are full of interesting insight into what accounts for practical strength/ability. Of course, the best thing, if you can afford it, is to sit down with a strong player or coach, and work through these issues. It takes time.

The article in the recent Chess Life on egoless chess is the tip of the iceberg WRT to long-term strategies for coping with stress/time-management/ego issues at the board. I think that players like Nakamura are just so fearless, because they've checked their ego at the door before entering the tournament hall. I have a list of good Zen performance books, which I've enjoyed reading, and which have helped get me thinking about my ego in productive ways (check out The Inner Game of Tennis, Zen in the Art of Archery, One Arrow One Life, Mastery by George Leonard [also recommended by GM Ashley], The Art of Learning by Waitzkin, etc.)

This is a complex and interesting topic, and I can only scratch the surface right now. I enjoy following your blog...when I get the time...

Come on, Polly, I know you can get back to 1900 -- then 2000!

Howard Goldowsky

Polly said...

Howard: So glad to see amongst the living. It's funny you should bring up the CL article on Ego and Elo. I initially read it online a few weeks ago, but today I actually had sat down and read the article in the magazine. This was even before I saw your comment. Sometimes I find I do a better job of absorbing the information reading paper version.

I saw a lot of myself in what he was saying. A number of the mental mistakes he talks about crop up a lot with me. In the last few weeks they have come up with maddening frequency.

The Rowsen book sounds interesting. Blue Devil Knight has been doing summaries on his blog as of late about Chess For Zebras. I may just have to break down and buy another chess book.