Tournament Momentum: A Case Study of the 2017 Supernationals

Every chess player knows that chess is a mental game both on and off the board. That is, a player’s performance during the game is only one factor in determining his overall performance in a tournament. The other factor is determined by the player’s habits after the game is over: when he sleeps, what he eats, his state of mind, etc. Most of all, it is important to maintain a level emotional state throughout the tournament, although this is difficult as chess is often an emotional ordeal.

Case in point: At the Supernationals this year, I entered the fifth round as one of only two remaining perfect scores in the K-12 section. I was paired against the talented Kesav Viswanadha, an International Master and fellow All-American teammate. Our game started slowly, and for over three hours neither of us could claim an advantage. Finally, nearing the fourth hour and the beginning of time pressure, I successfully crashed through his defense with a calculated pawn sacrifice. I achieved a winning position! But then, I relaxed.

This is the great danger of achieving an advantage: a player loosens the pressure when victory is near. Conversely, the person losing redoubles their efforts, struggling with the tenacity of a cornered animal, desperately clawing at any chance, any possibility, to recover.

My mind began to wander. During the game, the stress on the brain is so quietly intense, so wholly pervasive, that the mind takes the first chance possible to escape the tension. It takes extreme focus and discipline to maintain a high level of concentration throughout the entire match. I started to wonder: what would I eat for dinner? Would that sushi place still be open at this hour? I checked my watch: 11:45. Probably not. How much longer would this game take?

I wasted time and effectively squandered the advantage I achieved from three hours of toil in a mere ten minutes. In the end, I drew (tied) a position which was so absolutely winning that I could have converted the full point when I was five. But in time trouble anything is possible. We each had seconds left on the clock. It was no longer a battle of skill, but rather a test of stamina. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…

When I play chess, I can feel exactly how long a minute is. A minute is enough time to calculate three variations, maybe four. It is enough time to mentally break down twice, and recover three times. It is enough time—hopefully—to make the right decision in a crunch. The final minutes of a chess game are akin to the fifth set of a grueling tennis match. The pristine, clean-cut, calculated play from earlier deteriorates into a brutal street fight fraught with sloppy attacks, incomplete defenses, and missed wins. In those minutes I feel—more than any other time—the true length of a minute.

Despite this lackluster performance, the real blunder came later that night, after the round, back in my hotel room. I felt robbed. I felt cheated. I cursed foul words and abused the hotel pillows with my fists. I could not believe what had happened, and I definitely could not sleep. My mind tormented itself, a destructive, self-effacing process which was not helped by my ability to visualize the game mentally. The final moves played on an infinite loop in my mind as I forced myself to watch all the potential wins I had missed. I broke down, the greatest mistake a player can make during a tournament. I sacrificed my performance in the final two rounds because I could not move on from my mistakes in fifth round.

The next morning, I lost my penultimate round from a similarly winning position. I could not bear to play chess anymore. From this experience, it is obvious a chess player must find a balance between caring too much and not caring enough. Playing with emotion and passion allows one to play more imaginatively and focus more intensely, but it also left one more vulnerable to the debilitating pain of losses. Still, caring is unequivocally essential to improvement and progress.

Finding the right balance of emotion is a lesson that may be learned from chess, but one that may also be applied to life as well. It is important to keep in mind that although the greatest pains come from caring, the purest joys are born from it also. The best wins, the most creative, brilliant, pure demonstrations of chess ingenuity, are created from intense personal investment. Most importantly, however, in finding this balance between care and apathy, a player will be able to more easily move on from losses and not let them affect the remaining games in the tournament.

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