Friday, April 16, 2010

Switching Gears - "I've met the enemy and she is me"

I've written often about the role the psyche plays in chess. Many games have been won or lost because of things going through the mind that might have little to do what is actually occurring on the board. Sometimes just one little random thought can derail several hours of hard fought chess. It could be something you think you see in the position that's not really there, or it could be something happening elsewhere in the room. It may not even have to do with chess. "What am I going to have for dinner before the next round?" Suddenly you're thinking about fettuccine Alfredo, instead of the bishop fianchetto on b7 taking away your escape square on g2.

I wanted to include a graphic with this post, and Googled Pogo "We have met the the enemy and he us." There are quite a few hits when searching this, and I came across this very interesting article on a poker site. The author Lou Krieger wrote the following;

"Like so many others, I loved Pogo for the simple yet profound truths that jumped out of its panels on a regular basis. "We have met the enemy, and he is us" is the most famous and most frequently quoted Pogoism, and it's applicable to most every area of life and human endeavor. I don't know whether Walt Kelly played poker or not, but that statement certainly got to the heart of the game's psychology.

As poker players, it's no secret that we are frequently our own worst enemy. We do it to ourselves repeatedly, in oh so many ways. And what's worse, we seldom realize it. We can be our own best friend, too, but we're our own worst enemy a lot more often. In our competitive zeal, in our zest for doing battle with other players, in our compelling need to impose our will on opponents, in our psychological need to outplay them, and in our longing to be recognized by our opponents as the toughest, trickiest, and most inscrutable player at the table, we ignore the obvious: We usually beat ourselves. We are the enemy. He is us."

He goes on to give some examples of what poker players do to beat themselves. In part II he gives more examples and then gives some sound advice on taking control of our thoughts and actions. I could see myself in this quote. "This imbecile always wins; why can't I?" "Why, dear God, does this always happen to me?" "If not for bad luck, I wouldn't have any luck at all."

He then goes on to write;

"Does this sound like you? Have you ever thrown cards, pounded the table and shouted out something like that, or even turned inward and said it to yourself? You know what you're doing here, don't you? Whenever you utter any of these or dozens of other similar statements that reflect your frustration, you're abandoning your locus of control over the very game you're playing. You are, in essence, walking away from whatever ability you have to take the right steps and make the right plays - the kinds of things you have to do to be a winning poker player in the long run.

It's tough making do in life or in poker when our first instinct is to deny accountability and blame others for anything and everything we don't like. It's all too easily done, and all too many of us do it in poker and in life. When we look outside ourselves for a place to point the finger, blaming forces beyond our control is often easier than taking responsibility for our own actions and holding ourselves accountable for the results we achieve."

We can replace the word poker with chess, and it becomes applicable to our own games. Poker and chess are very different in that chess has no "cards dealt" element. However it is easy to blame other things for our own failings in chess. "The room was too hot, too cold." "My opponent was _______ (pick one) banging the clock, slamming the pieces, eating at the table, chewing gum, not keeping score, etc." "The director made a bad ruling, doesn't like me, I got bad pairings." You get the idea. I've probably written at least one post on every single one of those excuses with the exception of "the director doesn't like me." Does beating up on myself when I'm playing and directing count as "the director doesn't like me"?

I can ask that question in jest, but seriously often it's the beating up on myself in the middle of a game that blinds me to what is actually happening. In round 4 at the Grand Pacific Open I reached this position after I played 17...e5 and White replied with 18. Nb3.

I realized after I had kicked his knight with e5 that I no longer had the option of protecting my knight d5 with a pawn. I could see all sorts of problems defending the knight with it being pinned to my queen, and then White being able to pin it to my rook by playing Bf3. The one move I really wanted to make would have been a disaster. I really wanted to take his knight on b3 so that I wouldn't have ugly doubled pawns on the a file. However taking the knight gives him another attacker on d5. After I defend again he'll get the third attacker with Bf3 and a second pin.

I spent 20 minutes on my next move. I alternated between trying to find a reasonable move and bemoaning the fact that I played e5 instead of e6. I found myself on the verge of wanting to burst into tears thinking I'm going to lose my third game in a row, and I don't know a damn soul up here. "Woe is me. Maybe I should have gone to Philadelphia and let everyone fuss over me. What was I thinking??" When my thoughts went from analyzing the position to analyzing my psyche I decided I had to just get up and walk away from the position for a few minutes, and trying to clear my head of all the negativity. I went to refill my water glass and look at the lovely view from the tournament room. I watched eventual champion Lawrence Day pace around outside on his opponent's time.

After a couple of minutes I composed myself and went back to the board. I finally came up with the move 18...Qe6, but I still wasn't convinced that I could hold on to the knight, or not have to give up the exchange. I expected him to play 19. Nxa5 followed by 20. Bf3. I wasn't really sure what I was going to do. Was I going to just suck it up and give up the exchange after 20...Rd8, 21. c4? I hadn't worked that part out yet. I was still trying to come to grips with my emotions, so I left the room.

On my way back from the ladies room I got talking with somebody. He asked me how I liked the tournament and how I was doing. I told him I liked the tournament but I didn't like my position and thought I might lose the exchange. Generally I don't like saying anything about my position good or bad while I'm still playing. It's not that I'm going to talk about specific moves or accidentally get some unsolicited advice. I feel as though saying "I'm winning" I might jinx myself, or if I say "I'm losing" it may be self fulfilling. But for what ever reason this conversation seemed to just relax me and let me feel like it was going to be okay even if I lost again.

When I came back to the board he had played 19. Nxa5 just as I expected. I played 19...bxa5 and he played 20. Bf3. None of this was a surprise to me. What did surprise me was that suddenly a little light bulb went off in my head, and I found the move 20...Nb4. This move allows me to break the pin along the diagonal and eliminate loss of the knight or exchange. I did end out losing the pawn on a5, but it was preferable to the alternatives.

Even though I survived "the near death experience" of losing significant material, I still felt like I was much worse in the position. I was down a pawn and he had a protected passed pawn on the c file. My psyche had not shifted from the overly defensive mindset of "I'm still in trouble, but maybe can get a draw if I'm lucky." I going for cheap shots on the back rank and trying to come up with ways to simplify down to his one extra pawn in a bishop ending. The problem with this line of thinking is missing the good moves that swing the game my way. Here is the entire game. I missed several opportunities to win back my pawn, and get an edge.


My 5th round game I was having the opposite problem. I was overly optimistic about my position, and rather oblivious to some of the dangers I faced. My opponent had pushed his pawns wildly both on the king side and the queen side. He had pushed h6 early and I retreated my bishop daring him to commit to g5. He waited until his 9th move to play g5, but at this point he had already played a6, b5 and c5. After 9...g5 10. Bg3 I expected 10...Nh5 looking to trade my dark squared bishop. I played 11. Ne5. If he plays 11...Nxe5 I'll play 12. Bxe5. However that's not exactly what happened. After 11. Ne5 Nxg3 12. Nxc6 we reached the following position.

I was expecting the very natural looking 12...Bxc6 based on the assumption that Black would want to keep his queen side pawn structure intact. That's what Black did play. However I get in trouble if he plays 12...dxc6. After 13. hxg3 the game would continue 14. hxg3 cxd4 15. cxd4 Qxd4. Black would be up a pawn with a lot of pressure on d3.

Fortunately for me he played the natural move of 12...Bxc6. Play continued 13. hxg3 Qb6 14. Nf3. This looks like a solid move for White by placing the knight on f3 and protecting d4 a second time. However the protection is temporary since Black has 14...g4. However he plays 14...O-O-O. This move allows me to pick up a pawn with 15. Nxg5. It went downhill for Black after this since he missed the threat of 16. Nxf7 forking the two rooks. Here's the game.


After that it was a matter of not being sloppy or getting overconfident. I've had too many train wrecks in positions that were so called "easy wins". I did keep myself focused, and did not let my mind get in the way of what was happening on the board. There's a fine line between thinking the worst and thinking the best. It's a matter of not letting one's emotions blind one to the reality of the position. In the first game my pessimistic mindset made it impossible for me to find the good moves that would have totally turned the game around. In the second game I made a couple of decisions based on the opponent making positionally sound moves. Fortunately my opponent was thinking on the same lines so I got away with those moves.

What to take from these two games.

1. Don't dwell on what didn't happen.

2. Be flexible and able to move on.

3. Look beyond so called sound positional moves.

4. Expect and look for the unexpected.


The Mascot said...

There was this one time I went to a chess tournament. Not to play, just to look. And a lot of players were obviously distracted by gawking at the chess moms, probably wondering what they look like naked.

Now this wouldn't apply to you; it's not like any good-looking guys actually go to chess tournaments.

Rocky said...

Thanks for posting this Polly. I really needed to read this after playing perhaps the worst game I've ever played this past weekend.

I don't think I'll quit chess quite yet.

chesstiger said...

I guess that is what i did in my chess slump, beating myself up already before a game started with the sentence "how will i lose today".

Gonna try to think positive for my official game today of first round of the club championship. But not to positive so that i dont think that i already won the club championship. :-)

Polly said...

Good luck Tiger!

Wahrheit said...

1. Don't dwell on what didn't happen.

2. Be flexible and able to move on.

3. Look beyond so called sound positional moves.

4. Expect and look for the unexpected.

More than just good chess advice, I'd call that a pretty good philosophy of life!

Note to the The Egg: There are too some good looking guys at chess tournaments! Like Capablanca, for instance. He apparently had the ladies going after him like a rock star. Of course he died around 1941 but there are others...really. Like, umm, let me do some Googling and I'll get back to you...

Liquid Egg Product said...

@Robert: Actually, Topalov isn't bad-looking, but everyone who's not Bulgarian thinks he's a jerk.

Polly said...

LEP: His making the draw offer via the arbiter reminded me this conversation often heard amongst squabbling kids sitting next to each other.

Sally: Tell Patty I'm mad at her, and I'm not talking to her anymore.

Mary: Patty, Sally is mad at you and is not talking to you anymore.

Patty: Tell Sally, Fine! I'm not talking her anymore.

Mary: Sally, Patty isn't talking to you anymore either.