Friday, September 30, 2011


Nothing depressed him more than the moments in which he contrasted his current mental powers with what he had formerly possessed. Every day he declined in sagacity and vigour.

- Philip K Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I'm stopping for a bit.

After changing my mind every thirty minutes or so, over a period of several weeks, I finally decided not to enter the Huesca Provincial championship this year. A particular shame, since I won it last year, and I would have liked to defend that title for all sorts of reasons. But chess has been getting to me, and I decided it was better to stop for a bit. So while I haven't played my last game of chess, I've probably played my last game of chess this year.

To stop for a bit, and then, perhaps, when I start again, to pick up in a different place, and in a different way, from where I left off.

When I say "chess has been getting to me" I mean of course that losing at chess has been getting to me, since I've been losing a lot, to the extent that I've slung away something in the region of eighty Elo points in a couple of years. The Elo points don't matter in themselves, of course, not that I would say so if I'd been gaining rather than losing them, and it seems only recently that I was fantasising about getting close to 2200 rather than wondering if I'd ever see 2100 again. (Losing the game described here might have marked the end of that particular mirage.)

But it's how and why the points have been lost, rather than the fact of losing them, that matters, and it seems to me that over the past three or fours years, but increasingly so more recently, two patterns have become prominent in my chess which were not at all prominent beforehand. One is losing games to players a couple of classes of strength, or more, weaker than me. The other is a pronounced tendency to lose games after holding a large advantage early on.

Sure, everybody loses games to weaker players, even much weaker players, from time to time. I used to do so occasionally. Now it's regularly. Everybody loses games from positions where they're winning. But they also do the opposite, which I do but rarely - while the trajectory of my games is so often like that, we might as well depict it on a graph and title it My Typical Game. (I've not titled the axes: I'm sure it's self-explanatory.)

It's a hard way to lose, I think, and familiarity makes it no easier: rather the contrary. It's a lot harder to accept as a pattern than it is as an occasional hazard.

Why this has happened to my chess, over this period, I don't precisely know, and you can be sure that I don't have the time, nor do I have the inclination, to carry out the sort of exhaustive self-analysis that would likely be required, nor the extensive course of improvement that would likely have to follow. No thank you: I am forty-six years old and my future in chess is mostly behind me, and there are many better things to which I could devote my time.

Of course, being in my forties, I also recognise that Anno Domini is friend to no chessplayer, and I notice little things, outside chess, that indicate a tiny loss of focus: lapses of memory, confusion of words, a difficulty in processing and understanding statistics, a problem in grasping the logic of an argument with which I am not already familiar. In truth, I've always been better at generalities than specifics, and if the mental machinery is not working quite as well as it used to, then that tendency can, only be accentuated. And it's a fatal tendency when it comes to the point of the game at which exact calculation is required.

Presumably tiredness plays its part, too, exacerbated by working round the country and sometimes travelling for hundreds of kilometres on the day of a game, or the evening before: maybe the mind, in those circumstances, can only maintain proper levels of concentration for so long, and that length of time time not quite enough to win a hard-fought game of chess. Maybe. Maybe it plays a role. But probably not the major one.

Whatever the causes, all this leads to stress, from which I've suffered, to one degree or another, for quite a long time, presumably much longer than I really know, since there must have been symptoms of stress long before I knew them for what they were. Anyway, that stress has gradually whittled away my capacity to play, and cope with, chess.

About a decade ago, I found myself unable to complete a British weekend tournament. Instead of playing five rounds, or six, I would habitually find myself missing at least the Saturday afternoon, and the final, Sunday afternoon round. Maybe more than those: a particularly difficult-to-take defeat would normally send me home earlier than that. I've entirely cut out rapidplay, blitz, lightning: I've also cut out correspondence chess (far less enjoyable than it used to be, anyway). As for internet chess, I never took to it in the first place.

Now I'm taking a rest from club and tournament play, too: as it stands, chess isn't good for me. Better to give it a rest until such time as I know I'm missing it- and when I start playing again, to play a little less. So that I am less tried when I play. But more importantly, so that when I lose, it matters less. And so that when I play, I'm looking forward to it.

I look forward to that, at any rate. I like chess, in principle. I don't think this is where I stop playing chess competitively. But I think it might be where I stop playing regularly. To play chess less, to appreciate it more.

[Dinky graph: National Centre For Education Services Create A Graph]


Jonathan B said...

One of the things about playing chess is that it's *very* hard to be satisfied.

I have often heard about golfers 'rebuilding their swing'. Since I don't play golf I don't really understand what this means, but it seems to me that as chess players 'rebuilding our think' is often what we need to do to make progress (or limit deterioration) - and that that's *very* hard to do.

Andy said...

I can relate 100% to that, and for most of the same reasons. I'm never happier than when my opponent doesn't turn up. And when, my opponent says "do you want a draw?", I hear "do you want a drink?". Of course I do! Many half-points have been mislaid along that path.

I find that doing some organisational stuff helps keep me involved without being going through all the effort.

I hope you keep blogging, anyway.

Mike G said...

There is always the traditional option of "playing up" a section*:

1. You meet fewer weaker players. You may still lose occasionally, but the number of losses is greatly reduced.

2. When you are beaten by stronger players you know that was going to happen anyway.

3. You will (occasionally) beat stronger players.

*in the case of a Provincial Championship there is presumably no higher section, this is merely confirmation that you are correct to decide not to play. I won a title once - it took me a year to realise I wasn't going to win it again (without the luck that accompanied my first win) so I decided to play in another section/competition.

John Cox said...

Sorry to hear that, Justin, although as you point out, why should be one be sorry - there are other things in life.

Missed your post on Horton-Hernandez at the time, but I'll post two reflections here rather than there if I may.

Number one, even after mislaying that piece was the position not still quite drawn?! Rxe4+; Kf3 Rxf4+; Kg3 and so on? I should have thought it would be possible to organise an exchange of queenside pawns.

Number two, I loved your account of Marin-Edouard, but if I were to make one (doubtless very unoriginal) contribution to chess knowledge, it would be to point out that Fine's advice is absolute crap. I learned this after losing as an over-educated 12 or 13 year old in the Shropshire county championship of 1974 or so in a very similar fashion to Edouard. There *are* some tricks in the corner, as we saw, whereas if you aim for a position with the king on d8 and the bishop on h2 there really aren't even any decent blunders you can make, short of actually leaving the bishop en prise.

I don't know about rebuilding our think, by the way. My own theory is that the best way to ward off the ravages of age (in a chess sense, anyway) is to avoid any kind of thinking at all and stick pretty firmly to routine and, if in the given situation you can't manage that, instinct. Thinking only leads to trouble in my experience.

ejh said...

even after mislaying that piece was the position not still quite drawn?! Rxe4+; Kf3 Rxf4+; Kg3 and so on?

Oh yes, quite possibly. But that happens a lot - a lot my games which I should have won, I should also have drawn.

Now what this would normally get put down to is a lack of fighting spirit or something, but I don't think that's really it: I think a consequence of stress is that it makes it almost impossible to think clearly.

I'll maybe post a game some time next week which may illustrate this theme.

Jon H said...

I also think that the whole concept of ratings causes this sort of malaise.

I tried for a while to "not give a sh1t" about ratings - and lo and behold ... I had a really good season (won 18, lost 1, draw 2, that sort of thing)... which gave me an impressively higher rating ... which I was so proud of ... which meant I got stressed the next season about protecting it ("must find time to study my lines against the Najdorf"). Oh dear back to square one.

And the worst feature of this is that I was definitely aware that it was happening; and there was precious little I could do to change those inate feelings, other than give up chess, which I have not done.

One of the reasons I have not given up chess is that it is still a wonderful pastime - in fact I have just shelled out a lot of money for an antique Jaques set (Club size for those in the know) so that when I play a game at home with one of my little boys, we are handling the wonderful heavy pieces and experiencing a little slice of the original charm of chess.

That's why you shouldn't give up Justin.

Ryan said...

I think there's enough statistical noise in chess results to account for supposed dips in 'form'.

Regardless, breaks from chess are surely healthy to retain one's enthusiasm. There's no point in playing if it becomes a chore...

Anonymous said...

I remember you entering the Barnet Congress about a decade ago, winning your first round game, then withdrawing on the basis that 'It's far too nice a day to spend playing chess.' I liked that.


ejh said...

Yes, I went to see Middlesex at Southgate instead. Those were the days.

dfan said...

I don't think I know any tournament chess player who isn't concerned about their rating.

I try to think of myself as "a person who is capable of beating people rated X", rather than "a person who is rated Y", since the former is much more stable, and my self-worth doesn't bounce up and down quite so much every game.

Of course that does make it easier to give away half points when you decide early on that it just isn't your day. I try to fight this by attempting to maximize my score during any given tournament.

Niall said...

Chess is a hard mistress. You love it too much, and it'll kill you. You can't really stop forever though. Can you?

Thing is, if you've stopped enjoying it, stop playing. It is hard though, enjoying superior positions and then frittering them away. Even worse than being beaten hollow by someone better than you. It's almost as if you beat yourself.

I like dfan's approach
"I try to think of myself as "a person who is capable of beating people rated X", rather than "a person who is rated Y", since the former is much more stable, and my self-worth doesn't bounce up and down quite so much every game."

I've recently started taking this mental approach in my games, and as a 1611-rated player, I think I can give anyone up to 2000 a hard time. Hopefully I'll be able to do so a couple of times at the Gatwick Major at the end of the month. I'm not putting any pressure on myself, I'm only going over to play chess and drink ale.
Having said that, I am taking my preparation seriously (fitness, sleep, patching up my repertoire, going nuts on tactical practice).

Does this mean there'll be no picture on the blog of Benasque in 2012?