For those caught up with the recent chess events, you’ll know that Wesley So of Webster University won the 2016 Sinquefield Cup, staying half a point in front of the field from round 7 and onward. Wesley So actually began the tournament as the fifth seed out of ten people – right in the middle of the field. Now, of course, this being one of the prestigious tournaments in the Grand Chess Tour, everyone in the field is around the same level: the top of the top. But in a way he had it different, finishing in last place the previous year. Wesley So truly made an amazing comeback.
Most of us can only ever dream to be at the top of the world like the players at the tournament, but (hopefully) we can usually relate to what Wesley must have felt going into the tournament: the feeling of being the underdog – nothing to lose and experience to gain. It’s that feeling of being the ‘expected loser’ that gives us that adrenaline and courage to play those crazy, and sometimes brilliant moves that help us clinch wins or transform losses to salvageable positions.
I remember when I first breached that sacred barrier between 1900 and 2000 – it was my first tournament in 2011, where I beat an expert, a master, and drew a master in a quad. Growing up, I always played up a section – I was that fearless little girl who played the king’s gambit and constantly had my pawns extended towards my opponents king. I took risks. Risks that mostly paid off because my size and rating combination frightened my opponents.
So naive little me thought, “Now that I’m 2000, I should totally play in the open section at Liberty Bell this year! It’ll be fun!” Nope. Not fun. Out of seven games, I got 2.5 points – a bye, and a draw and win against two other experts. Sure, I didn’t do horribly, but my self-esteem was basically gone. I played the same kind of chess – but those who truly belonged in the Open Section had the experience that made it evident I was either bluffing or just playing unstable chess.
Sure, sometimes we have brilliant performances playing in the sections above us – but a question we really need to ask ourselves is “Can I beat those people lower rated than me if I were to play them?” Maybe you can – perfect! I strongly encourage continuing to play up to gain experience (unless you’re trying to win money of course). However, if you’re like me and you have a rather poor score against those lower rated than you, consider playing in your own section for once. Sometimes it’s necessary to lose and realize the necessity of creating a strong foundation for your rating. For me, it was accepting the fact that I needed to learn to beat those lower rated than me before challenging those higher rater that finally helped stabilize my performance and allow me to reach 2100 after four very long years.
To truly succeed as an underdog in a section, it’s necessary to build a solid foundation so that we don’t waste our points losing to those lower rated than us.