After the recent disasters that have plagued my play (and I wrote about in my previous article), I was anxious to break out of my funk but also was highly concerned it would continue when I played in last week’s Columbus Open with Isaac. Going into the tournament, I wasn’t feeling super excited to play and took a relaxed approach to the event. I ended up scoring a decent score of 3.5/5, but I believe there was the potential for the score to be higher. Regardless, I was glad to finally break out of my slump, and I noticed a couple of things from the weekend, which I discuss below:
Playing to always win or trying too hard to win can be worse than just sitting down and trying to play a good game. It’s easy to tell oneself this, but for me it’s been incredibly difficult to get my mind wired this way. Part of this is because my style is just to always play to win every game, taking risky chances to eschew draws and often lose. Another reason is my environment and personal situation. Ever since I’ve graduated high school and spent the most of my years at college in Pittsburgh, I’m almost always a top three seed in local events. As a result, not winning every single game feels like a disappointment. I am forced to try to win tournaments rather than just playing my best in a tournament that I have no practical chance to win. In addition, I’ve had to fund all my chess-related expenses since I’ve entered college, so winning back at least the entry fee and travel expenses is always in the back of my mind. Both of these things apply psychological pressure on me throughout games and tournaments that I play in now. I entered Columbus as the fifth seed, so while I obviously had a shot to compete for the top places, I didn’t feel obligated to go bananas trying to win the whole thing. This, and my lowered expectations based on my recent play, took a lot of external and internal pressure off me. I noticed I was able to play with a lot more freedom and clarity than I have in recent months because I approached the games in a much more normal, levelheaded way.
In rounds 1 and 2, I managed to win quite smoothly against lower rated players. I was able to dictate the flow and the direction of the game. Staying in control is essential against lower rated players, because the odds are better of an upset occurring when chaos erupts on the board. I also stuck to openings that I knew how to play, rather than using these opponents to conduct opening experiments on. Those experiments could be conducted in a no risk setting online.
In round 3, I was paired up to the top seed Mika Brattain (~2470+). After getting by Mika to win two state middle school championships back in Massachusetts, I was absolutely dominated by him ever since, unable to avoid losses in every single game we played. Clearly he had the psychological edge based on our head-to-head history. I told myself to play naturally and reminded myself every single move I could lose (I did this in all the games except the one I lost, as this mindset allowed me to remember a game is never over till it’s over). With very little effort, we reached an endgame where I was very slightly worse, but I thought a draw would very soon be the natural result. Sure enough, as soon as I thought the game was decided, I dropped a pawn and White’s advantage was objectively winning. I had two choices: defend passively (objectively better) or defend actively (objectively much much worse, but better practical chances). I decided to go for checkmate threats on the opponent king, forcing him to use up a lot of time. As time control approached, the computer evaluation swelled to a +9 for my opponent, but the continuous threats allowed me to luck out and escape into a drawn endgame. I breathed a sigh of relief and was happy with the result, but I also knew that I had to work much harder than I should have to get that result.
Due to color mismatches, I stayed on the top board in Round 4, playing white against Grandmaster Pavel Blatny. If I won this game, I would have had the inside track to winning the tournament outright in round 5. As it goes, I played simple, strong chess for 20 moves, obtaining what I thought was a small, riskless advantage. But once again, my mindset started to stray as I failed to consider even my opponent’s very simple ideas. Once I achieved a good position, I relaxed and threw away my sense of caution, and this time I wasn’t able to luck out and salvage anything at all. The engine revealed I had a winning shot right before I started to give the game away. Thus, I entered the final round pretty irked about the previous game but also indifferent to the final game considering I had no chance anymore to play for the top prizes. I was able to smoothly defeat a master to cap off a satisfactory event. I realize that a break in concentration and mindset, even for a split second, can affect my results dramatically. My goal is to take some of the lessons I learned from this event to develop stronger mental discipline and play at a more consistently high level. Next major event: The U.S. Junior Open in Minnesota.