Saturday, February 21, 2015

Mastery: Dabblers, Obsessives, and Hackers

From my last post, one reader commented that I should read some books about sports psychology. It reminded me of a book I did read on the subject a few years ago called Mastery: The keys to success and long term fulfillment by George Leonard.  You can read the cliff notes version of it from here:
The goal driven nature  entrenched in our society fuels a competitive atmosphere where we are constantly measured up against each other’s successes in various pursuits. This  puts the emphasis on the make or break end result rather than enjoyment of the pursuit.  What I liked about his approach is the caricatures  he presents as a result of the lopsided focus on results.

The Dabbler:

The Dabbler attempts each new sport, hobby, or interest with initial enthusiasm but quickly loses interest and moves on to the next shiny pursuit once the initial one slows down, or encounters difficulties.  Dabblers start many new things with gusto but once they hit a wall or plateau move on.

The Obsessive:

The Obsessive lives for the growth spurt in a skill. If he's not constantly and actively growing he presses himself harder and faster. Eventually the Obsessive burns out and moves on to something else. A  lot of the old “ Knights errant” had fallen  into this category.  I think Michael De La Maza was one as well.

The Hacker:

As for the HACKER, once he has passed over the first major growth spurt and is on the first plateau he just stays there. He doesn't actively spend time trying to learn and grow. He just tinkers with the bit of skill he's developed and remains satisfied at that level. But who wants to be just a hack in the competitive chess world?

So What are the keys to mastery then?

The book goes on to describe the keys to mastery: Instruction, Practice, Surrender and Intentionality. Those last two we tend to forget about. Surrendering means being willing to lose a few as we change styles. For instance,   I knew I was going to lose rating points when I surrendered my old opening system a few years back ... and I did...but having done so  I have since gained valuable knowledge in D-pawn games.   Recently, I have become uncomfortable in open positions. I need to surrender and embrace the learning process once more.

As for Intentionality, this refers to focus. I lose focus with all the distraction life throws and then I fall into either of the three categories.  Getting to the point where I am OK with plateaus and set backs is hard when every cell in my body feels like it needs to be measured against some gage for success. Changing the mindset to be at ease with the way things are is a meditation in and of itself. It brings me back to basics as to why I love this game in the first place. I love the learning process. If I can remind myself of this more often before the games in a tournament, the more I can enjoy the journey.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Psychological Game: Confidence Index

I recently played in a one day G30 event with friends. Despite my deliberate practice honing chess skills with my opening repertoire, positions that may arise and tactics; when you’re off your mark, you will have poor results.  After a draw and three goose-eggs , I decided to cut my losses and not play in the last two rounds. The organizer for this mini event summed it up this way.

“ I look at chess skills in 6 factors, openings, middle games, endgames, positional, tactics and performance. It’s that last one, even if you are up on all the other 5, if you are playing as if someone keeps poking you with a tack, then your performance will suffer. “ -MK

I had some time to reflect on this.  In my last post (, I drew a game that had I played it correctly earlier I could have won, the end position was a loss for black but I was happy to come out of it with a draw.  Part of the issue is getting used to a faster time control, which I wanted to do and why I agreed to play in this event.  With my schedule getting into a once a month event G30 event  gives me 6 serious enough games to see my progress in my studies and keep the rust off.  So that’s my motivation.

Psych element 1: Worrying about ratings:

Depending on the event, if I come in at the bottom of the roster, I have nothing to lose in the first round and I find my performance is improved.  When I play in an event where I am in the middle or top, the first round can be a little more stressful for me in a swiss pairing event.  This is especially true when paired with a lower rated player ( going for it). In the round robin event of the G30, we were evenly paired in ratings.  Notice how I am taking about ratings?  I should just play the board, never mind about my opponent’s rating and how many points are on the line, right? In practice, I find this is not easy to do. I’ve tried many tricks like deliberately not look at the rating when the pairings are posted. But regardless of my efforts I fall into the rating trap.

The first Psychological element I bump up against is worrying about rating points ( one of the reasons I like playing “up”).  I usually give myself a few minutes of mediation before each round to keep this element in check but playing in a quick event or some venues don’t allow for me to go to a contemplative space to clear my head.  I’m not using this as an excuse, I am just making myself aware of how important that “Inner Game” is in terms of performance.
So, that first round in my head went kind of like this:

(on looking at the pairings) – “I see my opponent is only a few rating points higher than me, I could win this. “

( opening phase) – “ He’s playing an off beat variant of my Caro-Kann Defense, if I can get to a middle game, I’ll bet I can out play him.”

(Middle game)- “ Cool, I’ve got that advanced –pawn chain, I know what to do and now, look! I can get double advanced passers”

(End game) – “Crap, he’s now got pawn majorities on both sides, my king can’t keep them back. How’d I let this game slip away? ( spiral begins)  Thank GOD he offered me a draw under time pressure.”

Psych Element 2: Out of comfort zone

In round 2, I was paired with someone with a lower rating who played a Benko Gambit, my least prepared opening preparation.  Already my head was in a deficit mode about trying to outperform my opponent but I just was out of my element.  I had cursory knowledge of this gambit line and decided not to take that second pawn. Then odd things happened. Being out of my comfort zone, I found I had to rely more on my  calculation skills which are not that great even with “normal time” chess matches. In a G30, I found myself going “ Let’s see, I need to get e4 in play but he’s already got that square protected, maybe I should just take the pawn on b5 with my knight.. awe hell, Nxb5 (hits clock). “  The game kind of went along those lines so that by move 28 I dropped a piece:

Aside from needing to understand this gambit more and become more comfortable with the position ( it’s on my list), I need to figure out a way to “recover” from a disappointment  such as this.  My spirit was crushed. Didn’t Bobby Fischer say something about enjoying that moment when he crushed his opponent’s spirit?  

Psych Element 3: The Confidence index

When I play in a tournament, and have a first round win, the next couple rounds I play more to my chess skills and less to my psychological deficits.  I call this the confidence index.  After 2 disappointing rounds, I entered round three again looking at my opponent’s rating and AGAIN with an odd variant from my Caro-Kann (out of my comfort zone).  Here’s the odd part, Round one versus Round three, I reached the same exact position on my move 3.  The first round, I was brave and bold and went for 3…d4 to try something new and mix it up.  It may not be correct, but it took my opponent out of the book and gave me a middle game position I at least knew what to do with. I had MORE CONFIDENCE.

On round three, 3...d4 was NOT EVEN considered!  I was already playing with a mental deficit that had me looking at the higher rated player, out of my comfort zone, I wasn’t willing to take risks or even think of them! After the game, I was amazed at how that blind spot came up and I just went for “rote” moves ( dxe4, bf5 etc) because I was looking for familiarity. I wanted “comfort food” moves to just get through this game. I was mated on move 13.

Here’s this aberration:

The confidence index is a strong one and could sum up all these elements. When you are out of your element you lack confidence. When you worry about ratings, you lack confidence.  In my last game, I was OK in the opening stages despite the QGA not being my strongest preparation.  But I found my calculations, and ability to shift gears into an open position dropping my confidence and I lost rather quickly.  Hanging pieces is an indication for me that these psychological elements had taken over my actual playing ability. It was as if I was being poked with a tack.

The Take-aways:

  •        Yes, I need  therapy.  J
  •         I need to figure out how to just play the game and develop more self awareness of when these psychological elements start to come up.  If I am conscious of them, I have meditative techniques that I can use to regulate them.
  •         I have some work to do with my game: 2 Knights C-K solution, Benko Gambit,  understand Open pawn structures ( open center, open Queen’s wing). 

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Recent game where I used the Advanced D-pawn chain ( as Black)

Just a quick post showing a recent game were I played an advanced d-pawn chain as black with a PLAN! The issue is that I faced an “Anti-caro-kann”  set up twice in the same day. The first one I mainly went for the advanced d-pawn setup and had a clear plan.   The game is below.

My next post I will look at my losses and one with a similar Anti-CK  but how oddly it was that played the wrong moves and didn’t even consider the moves I played 2 rounds earlier.  A friends commented that despite knowing openings, middlegames, endgames, tactics and positional strategies, if your performance is off, none of that matters. I’ll explore this in more depth on my next post.