We’ve all been through it: you’re playing a (possibly much) higher rated player and things seem to be going ho hum smoothly, and suddenly your opponent uncorks a move you hadn’t even considered, or considered and thought was impossible. What he just played has to work, right? No way he flat out just played a horrible move or is bluffing, right? You hunker down and calculate all the lines, and don’t see what he is seeing, but out of fear play a different move. A couple moves later, you realize you have played into his hands completely.
The intimidation factor is natural: members of society are taught to respect those higher up, so it makes sense to trust that a stronger opponent knows what he is doing. When you’re on the delivering side, it can kind of feel like hope chess, but if you play these “bolt from the blue” moves with confidence it can psychologically unnerve the other side. When you’re on the receiving end, it is critical to trust yourself! If you have the ability to calculate everything and have things figured out, play the move you think is best. In positions of crazy complexity or positions where you simply have a worse understanding, you might still get ultimately outplayed, but it is always better to have yourself rather than the other side dictate how you play.
This is easier said than done, and I’ll be the first to say that I have had my fair share of not trusting myself when playing against those higher rated than me. Now that I’ve gathered a little more experience (you might notice I like to pick out the psychological elements of the game), I have learned to utilize this to my advantage as well as stabilize my play more against higher rated players.
The following example involves a familiar name to you readers:
Li, B -Xu, G, CMU Open 2016, Position after 21.a4
Black has the preferable position here, with the two bishops, better piece activity, and more prospects of improving his position. Beilin had just played a4 here to try to free himself a little bit, and got up to use the restroom. I exhibited a mental lapse, and for some reason I thought the move Rxa4 won two pieces for the rook when it actually didn’t. Thus I played 21…Rxa4 pretty quickly and confidently. A spectator commented after the game that I “played like Beilin made an instantly losing move”. Once I hit the clock though, I realized my assumption was wrong. Now Rxa4 is not a bad move, but it’s certainly not the best or easiest way for me to improve my position. Objectively, it was still a decent move. I kept my confident demeanor though, and play continued: 22. Nxa4 Qa7+ 23. Kh2 This natural move actually proves to be quite damaging. My guess is that Beilin assumed he couldn’t trade queens cause the exchange sac should work. Thus Rf2! wasn’t found, after which White can trade queens and be fine. Without Rf2, White is a step late to stop the a pawn. After 23…Qxa4 24. Qb1, I had superior piece activity and a lot of pawn targets. A rook blunder made my work easy, but still, I was able to win despite my earlier hallucination. My bluff worked!
There are a couple takeaways here. One, the body language and demeanor with which you play a move can be quite important. Psyche your opponent out! On the flip side, in critical positions I put my hands over my forehead so I only see the board and not the expressions and gestures of my opponent. Two, your opponent isn’t always right! Basically, intimidate others and don’t be intimidated. Of course, don’t play unsound moves and sacrifices all the time, just like not all of your opponent’s seemingly unsound ideas should work either. Trust your play and yourself. You’ll gain confidence and improve! (That you can trust me on)