We’ve all had that sinking feeling, the adrenalin suddenly rushes into your bloodstream and you freeze – you have just blundered. Everyone who plays chess blunders, because we’re only human. However, a GM friend once told me that “mistakes never travel alone — they always come in twos.” What he meant, in his poetic way, 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?
I did a little research, and found an explanation for this. When you blunder, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode. This includes things that we are probably all familiar with: heart rate goes up, your mouth gets dry, you start breathing faster, and you may start sweating. All of these have logical connections to our caveman ancestors who needed to fight with or flee from the saber toothed tiger. The one that was a bit more relevant to chess is the impact that a stressful situation has on the brain.
According to research, stress can actually help you remember things that are simple and mechanical. But it gets in the way of your brain doing anything that is the least bit complicated. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective too. Y0u don’t really have time to devise a complex strategy when the tiger is racing after you — so your brain has been trained to move into a more simple mode. As one researcher points out, “The natural judgement system is also turned down and more primitive responses take over — this is a time for action rather than deep thought.”
Boy did that sound familiar to me. I could think of many times where my response to a blunder was a “simple” or “mechanical” move rather than a well planned move. 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, my brain went into “primitive” mode and 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. They are like the rituals that world class tennis players use to rest (bouncing the ball exactly the same number or times, or adjusting their strings in exactly the same way). These rituals can “trick” the brain into forgetting about the stressful thing that just happened and moving back into “complex thinking” mode.’
There have been times that I have used the idea of resetting, which has resulted in winning losing games from time to time. 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.
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, meanwhile, 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. It is teaching you more through your losses than your victories. Dealing with blunders and losses and resetting in a short time span is a life skill that I am grateful to be learning.