Psychological Resiliency: The Art of the Bounceback


If you’re anything like the prototypical chess player, you probably hate losing more than anything in the world. Or even drawing games that you think you should have won. It sucks, but I’m not going to give the usual “study your losses and learn from your mistakes” spiel. Instead I’ll focus on the short term instead of long term response, because immediate reaction to disappointment is critical to consistency and improvement.

I am no stranger to periods of frustrating stagnation. After starting tournament chess in 2007 and ending with a rating around 2050 by the end of 2009, I struggled to improve noticeably for quite a while. My results were woefully inconsistent: good results alternated with bad results. Basically everything I’m going to tell you I didn’t know. It took me the next 15 months just to break 2100, during which I considered quitting chess completely after every tournament.

When we hit plateaus, often good tournament results are alternated with horrible tournament results. Rarely do players plateau because they continuously have average tournaments. If you can increase your floor performance level, then you give yourself a great chance to have a breakout result eventually that isn’t offset by other major losses.

I’m a big stats and data guy (it’s actually my job for the summer), so take a look at the below table and see what you can notice:


Not coincidentally, I made master towards the end of 2012.

Basically, try to avoid ever losing twice in a row or being upset twice in a row. Whenever you get hit, get right back up and hit back harder in the next game. I know it’s a whole lot easier said than done, but if you put yourself into this mindset all the time you will develop a psychological resiliency that can carry over not just from game to game but also from move to move, or tournament to tournament. Even many strong players seemingly can’t do this. How many times have you seen one of the top seeds get nicked for a draw or loss in round one and immediately withdraw? There’s a certain word I would use to describe these people, but this blog post is probably not the appropriate place to say it.

The exception to this is if you play up. If you play up against much higher rated opposition, this becomes tough to do, otherwise you should be at their rating! Playing up can help you gain experience against strong opposition, but if you find yourself just losing game after game, it really does you no good. My suggestion is to develop a pattern of strong consistency against lower-rated and equally-rated players. Once you can consistently take their money and rating points, move up.

I am convinced my slow, eventual grind to my current rating of 2350 could have been a lot quicker if I had been able to develop a greater psychological strength earlier on. (That, and better study habits. Isaac seems to be a lot better and more methodical at this!) I like to feel like I’ve improved in this area, as I have very few catastrophic results anymore. I feel like my approach has matured. Of course, I don’t claim to be great at this even now, as it is an ongoing process for all players. The next step is to increase my chances of super strong results, for which actual chess study plays a much larger role (go figure).

As I’m writing this, Hikaru Nakamura has notched his first ever classical win against Magnus Carlsen in round 1 of Bilbao. But perhaps even more remarkable is that Carlsen won all of the next three games to surge back to clear first. What I’ve noticed is that in the rare occasions that Carlsen does lose, he comes back with a vengeance, and often steamrolls his next opponents. That’s part of the reason why he is in a class of his own. He doesn’t let losses get to him. Instead, he uses them as fuel for the fire that is unleashed upon his upcoming foes. Be like Carlsen, channel that competitiveness, and GET PISSED OFF when things don’t go your way.

I have my share of 20 move demolitions, but the example I’m showing is the best display of the theme of resiliency:


Liu, A (2360) – Xu, G (2284), Continental Open 2013, Position after 18. Kf2

I was coming off a tough loss in the previous round, having missed many opportunities to draw against a 2500+ player. This game looked like a forgone conclusion too, and I can’t remember ever having to defend such a depressing and sh***y position. It’s move 18, and not a single one of my pieces have left the back rank, except for my queen that is about to be pinned by Re1. However, I was determined not to lose, and tried to make the win as difficult as possible for my opponent.

18…Kd8  only move 19. Re1 Qf7 20.Qf4 Qf8 this looks even worse, doesn’t it? 21. gxf6 Nxf6 22. Rg1 Nbd7 23. Qg5 b5!? A move of desperation, but a very practical decision. I couldn’t wait for White to slowly build up pressure and crush me, and had to seek some kind of activity. 24. Nf4 Nb6 25. Ne6+ Bxe6 26. Rxe6 27. Qxg7+ Qxg7 28. Rxg7 Nfd7 29. Bh3 b4 30. Bf6


White still has a tremendous position and is winning, as his powerful rooks and bishops paralyze my knights. However, I was able to avoid getting mated or suffering massive material loss, giving me a chance to keep fighting. Granted, my opponent doesn’t play with the best precision leading up to the time control, but I refused to die and played “annoying” chess.

30…Rae8 31. Rxe8 Rxe8 32. Rxh7 a5 33. Be6 a4 34. h4 b3 the only way to set problems 35. axb3 axb3 36. h5 Ra8 37. h6 b2


White is only a couple of steps away from victory, and I had calculated in all lines that I was losing, but I held my breath….38. Bf5?? White tries to play it safe, but finally errs. The simple Bxb2 Ra2 Re7 Rxb2+ Kg3 Ra2 h7 Ra8 Bg8 would have won. 38…Rf8! I grab my opportunity and realize I am probably out of the woods. 39. Bxb2 Rxf5 40. Rxd7+ The computer actually still says Re7 is winning for White, but that is a tough move for a human to calculate thoroughly with little time, so White bails out. Kxd7 41. h7 Rh5 42. h8Q Rxh8 43. Bxh8 Nxc4


I end up with a better endgame in which I was able to press, but alas, I missed a couple wins later on and the game ended in a satisfactory result of a draw, and I avoided two brutal losses in a row. 1/2-1/2

This kind of tenacity and resiliency is a widely seen attitude that generalizes to a life approach (see the Confucius quote at the beginning of this post). Besides Carlsen, there are many other examples:

-The Golden State Warriors never lost two games in a row in their magical 73-9 regular season run. They often blew the opposing team out of the gym in the next game after the games they did lose. Perhaps fittingly, when they finally started to lose multiple games in a row, they almost got eliminated by the Thunder and lost the championship to the Cavs.

-The five minutes after a soccer goal is scored is often said to be the most dangerous period of time for the team that just scored. The opposing team is often at its hungriest and most motivated to strike back in this period.

-Before his retirement and subsequent attempted “unretirement”, Muhammad Ali only lost three fights in his career. After every single loss, he won the rematch, often decisively. Ali is considered by many to be the Greatest of All Time.

Developing resiliency goes a long way. It’s difficult to do, but those that can master it achieve greatness.




2 thoughts on “Psychological Resiliency: The Art of the Bounceback

  1. Lots of good points, Grant. I had some big upswings and downswings in December, while playing in NYC. I had a couple of tournaments where I did quite a bit worse than allow an underdog beat me: I was up huge amounts of material, was positionally crushing, and had the initiative, yet allowed counterplay that caused tremendous problems and lost those games. The frustration of playing (probably) 400 points stronger than opponents, then losing, was nearly impossible to deal with. I ended up losing games in later rounds, right out of the gates, because I was so angry. One of my coaches, GM Miljkovic, said something like, “if you aren’t going to play the best moves every turn, why play?” I think this is the microscopic side of your macroscopic perspective. It’s really this kind of shift toward consistency, through attentiveness and control of emotions, which yields the sort of statistics you shared.

    For me, the emotional swings are kind of paradoxical: on the one hand, they can wreck your performance, either in that game or the next; but they can also induce a greater work ethic in studies and practice. Self-control is really what it comes down to, on the microscopic level.

    Great read. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Czech Mate! A Little Luck in Liberec – chess^summit

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