We’ve all had that sinking feeling, the adrenaline suddenly rushes through your body and you freeze – you have just blundered. Everyone who plays chess blunders; we’re only human. However, a GM friend once told me that “mistakes never travel alone — they always come in twos.” What he meant was that after you blunder once, it is much more likely that you blunder again, making what could have been a recoverable position get worse and worse.
While I had experienced this many times, something didn’t make sense to me. In a stressful situation, shouldn’t we be motivated to be more focused, not less? Wouldn’t the adrenaline help us to get super focused, and come up with clever ways of making up for the mistake?
But I think in this situation, this doesn’t happen very often. Blunders do tend to come in pairs. All of this is familiar to me. I can think of many times where my response to a blunder was a not well thought out move, which resulted from being demoralized. To combat this problem, I needed to develop a way to fight my instincts. I call my approach resetting.
To illustrate the point, here is my third round game in the Marshall Chess Club Championship against Nasir Akylbekov.
Click here for game pgn.
In this game after my bad blunder f4, I completely underestimated my position. If I had looked at the position with a fresh mind after 19.f4 (which actually doesn’t turn out to be that bad) I would have noticed that on bh6, white has a decent attack and black’s pieces are all over the place resulting in equality. Instead I played kh1, a move which leads to a worse position for white.
Grandmasters and even the World Champions are also susceptible to this typical psychological mistake. During the second tiebreaker game between Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin, Carlsen would have won by about move 35 and in my opinion was much better with the trade of the two pieces for the rook. Nevertheless, they made it to this endgame position.
Click here for game pgn.
Here Carlsen missed a complicated win with 62. Kf7 Rc2 63. G4, and played the horrible bg4 which allowed black to consolidate after re8 (he was trying for Bf7 then Bf8, but it doesn’t work).
After this blunder, he was faced with another winning position, but he couldn’t refresh himself, he couldn’t bring himself back into that objective mindset and missed the win.
After 73. Be6 Kh8 74. Bf8 (Threatening Bf7) f5 75. Gxf5 Ra7 76. F6 Gxf6 77. Bf7, White is winning.
It is very easy to fall into this never ending downward spiral during your game. In order to keep my objective mindset after a blunder, I use a few simple processes to reset.
- Go to the bathroom and wash off your face. This may not seem like much to you, but it provides a break from the board and you come back with a new perspective on the board.
- Similar to number one, just taking a walk around the tournament hall or outside can also provide you with a break from the board.
- Resetting and getting your objective mindset back can be different for everyone, and sometimes has to be done without leaving the board — adjusting my glasses reminds me to reset — or stopping all thought about the game and taking three deep breaths.
The key is that these processes have to be automatic. These rituals can trick the brain into forgetting about the stressful thing that just happened and moving back into thinking mode.
There have been times that I have used the idea of resetting, which has resulted in winning losing games. I have been told by coaches and GMs that there is no such thing as “lucky” over the chessboard. I have felt very unlucky at times — and lucky at others — but the truth is when I was unlucky, I simply wasn’t resetting and remaining calm throughout the game. More recently, I have found ways to come out on the other side of that equation with some resetting that gave me the confidence and demeanor to continue fighting for what seemed like an impossible win. As we all know, chess is more than tactics alone.
In this game I made a pretty big blunder out of the opening and found myself in a worse position. However, throughout the game I played without a loss of motivation, just as I normally would, and tried my hardest not to crack under pressure. In the end, after many mistakes from both sides, we reached this position and I found the drawing tactic (he blundered in the end and lost). This just goes to show you how difficult you make it for your opponent to win when you play as you normally would in any position. they are expecting no resistance and can be surprised by strong play from their opponent when they are relaxed and have an obviously winning advantage.
Click here for game pgn.
After 33.Rxd5! I equalized and later won the game (due to consecutive mistakes made by my opponent as well as my ability to reset throughout).
These concepts might seem simple, but they have been very effective for me, although not always easy to implement. Chess is a constant reflection on life and what I learn over the board, I try to apply to my life in general. Chess is a gift that feels like it will take you down. However, if you step out of your comfort zone and work like crazy to understand your strengths and weaknesses, you don’t even realize that it is building you up. Dealing with blunders and losses and resetting in a short time span is a life skill that I am grateful to be learning.