He was winning,
but he didn't see it
and I escaped - as usual.

-Levon Aronian

Essential Tournament Skills: What To Do When Everything Is Losing

By drunknknite

It has been a while since I've really written on the subject of chess outside of game annotations. I want to do a series on the skills necessary for success in tournament play. I am not a chess master although I do aspire to be one someday but I have been playing in club tournaments and class tournaments along with fellow bloggers and I have defeated each class in succession through a method that worked for me. I do not think that this method can work for everyone but what I hope to do is inspire readers to develop methods that work for them.

I am mostly going to discuss practical skills that will help WIN games and tournaments. I think a lot of times people are hesitant to judge success by rating because it is true that one can gain a very full understanding of the game without ever playing a tournament game. Also the tournament format is very stressful for many people and they may be able to play much stronger chess when not under the immense pressure that is present in a large tournament hall. A rating is simply a comprehensive, objective, history of a player's performance in rated games. I believe that the goal of study is to increase performance in rated games; my approach reflects this.

Inside my most recent game and a surprise game....

When I got to chess club last Thursday I was not particularly excited, Garingo and I had some good blitz games but then I was slated to play Mike Filipas, a 1500-1600 player. These games with 400-500 point differences or more can be very uninteresting. Mike never really thought he had a chance and gave up shortly into the game after losing some material. Since this game was a disappointment I have also included a game from when I had Mike's rating and I played a very strong expert at the time. It was the first time I beat a player over 2000 in a rated game and the moment I realized that I could be an expert. From this game onward it was no longer if I would become an expert but when. I didn't know it would take over 6 years but hey, that's what happens when you take breaks and don't work that hard. Anyways, check out the games.

The games.

I also want to use this post to introduce what I consider to be a very important tournament skill: What To Do When Everything Is Losing. The point during a game where I feel the most frustrated is when I start to look at all the different moves and every move seems like it is bad. The moment when you realize that this position is not in your favor. It is tempting at this moment to become paranoid that my opponent knew he was winning all along and is going to finish me off in a swift and impressive manner. Alas, this rarely happens and I consider myself to be one of the feircest fighters from behind, definitely at Reno Chess Club, perhaps in the world... ;) hehe...

Hopefully this post and the subsequent posts will help you become more of a fighter when hope is lost. This post will simply open the discussion but in later posts I will introduce examples from my games (one game in particular really comes to mind, I haven't posted it yet but it is a definite favorite of mine) and also from top grandmasters who are put in a tough situation and take the necessary steps to correct the course.

So let's begin with a list of things to do when you fall behind in a chess game (or just feel like you're losing):

1. TAKE YOUR TIME: Obviously if this happens right before the time control and you have not budgeted your time wisely then this may not be an option, but in general on moves that I fall behind or have overlooked something I use much more time than an average move. Oftentimes between 10-20 minutes on a move like this is necessary to recover from the blow that your head will suffer and find the correct course of action. More on this subject in a little bit.

2. FIX YOUR HEAD: This is different for everybody and in time you will learn how to do this at the board. But it is very frustrating to put so much effort into something and 2-3 hours in be (seemingly) hopelessly lost. Your efforts have been fruitless and this is not good for the ego. Get up, look at some other position, go outside and punch the wall or yell out loud, get a drink, get something to eat, do something that is not chess related. If you do not want to look like something is wrong, get up and get a cup of water and return to your seat, this is perfectly normal and legal during your move and should not betray your dismay with your position if you're trying to maintain a poker face. At this point just try to forget the position.

3. REBUILD YOUR ASSUMPTIONS: This is more complicated. At this point in the game your evaluation is based on several assumptions you have made up to this point. However, these assumptions are all wrong. Whatever led you to this position is wrong. I know it's hard to admit, but you need to do it. You have been wrong about this game all along. You don't understand it, that's why you are losing. Accept that and you will free your mind for the coming stages. Look at the board with a fresh eye. You may find some move that is not losing at all, this is of course ideal and you would be surprised how often it actually happens. You started looking at the "normal, obvious" moves and all of them were losing, that's why you got worried, but there may be a line that you didn't think of or that was too complicated that is now beginning to make sense and you may not be in trouble at all. This is why it is very important to NOT MOVE for as long as possible. As long as you don't move you can't make a mistake. Also do not be afraid to spend a very long amount of time on this move.

4. STOP THE BLEEDING: This is where you have to actually start looking at variations again. You are not necessarily looking for a way to level the game. But you do not want to fall behind any further. Playing 80 moves in a losing position is a hard grind and it is not fun, but half a point is half a point. In a tournament setting, especially a large tournament, one loss is enough to get a player out of contention for first so preventing one loss is of the utmost importance if you are trying to WIN a tournament. At this point you have to look for variations that are safe and that release the pressure on your position. Just get your opponent to back off, then you can start to create chances. It is ok to reorganize all your pieces at this point as long as you are not falling further behind.

5. THINK OF AN ENDGAME: It is tempting when we fall behind to lash out and attempt some crazy suicidal mission where more material is sacrificed in the interest of an attack that cannot be sustained with the reduced material. The logic is that the game is lost anyway maybe they will make a mistake and I will win by accident. We do not want to seek points by accident. At this point you need to PLAN. Think of all the things you know about the new relationships on the board. Think of all the endgames you know with this imbalance. If you have lost the exchange, remember that if all the pawns and all the other pieces on the board are gone then you will have a draw, a rook cannot beat a bishop or a knight by itself. It is important to know these things so that you can pose your opponent the most difficulty along the coming stages of the game. If you can keep yourself from getting mated, then you want to give them the most complex middlegame and most difficult endgame you can, really make them earn the point.

I think that these points are a good place to begin a discussion. How do you feel when you fall behind in a game? When is it that you first realize you made a mistake? What steps do you take to try to overcome this challenge?

I know that this is an abstract topic, it is fairly psychological in nature and is not something that can be taught in a book. There is no objective best way to deal with the emotions that are present in a chess game. Every person has to deal with them in their own way. But this does not mean that this is not an aspect of our game that can be improved. And I believe that my dedication to playing the toughest in positions where I am behind has been very good for my rating and for my attitude about chess as a whole. If you think about and address this issue in your game I think that you will show improvement in your rating.



A Familiar Itch

By drunknknite

Earlier this week I was reading some blogs and BDK asked me when I was going to post again. Just from looking at all the chess out there I really wanted to play a game. So I took a trip down to the Reno Chess Club where I played yet another insanely fun game of chess. I also included a funny game Grant Fleming played last night. Enjoy.