Luck or Skill?

Two weeks ago, I managed to do what every chess player dreams of doing: finish a tournament with a perfect score. However, beating four 1900s was anything but straightforward. In the first three rounds, I entered chaotic tactical fights, and was objectively losing for some time in every game; the endgame in my final round was a draw (or a very difficult win). Yet all of my opponents faltered at the end, some committing egregious blunders that gave me an immediate win.

So after this tournament, I’ve been prompted to reflect on whether my success was all due to luck, or did it involve some skill. I’m more interested in studying the psychology aspect of the games than the analysis of the play; I’ve marked only the obvious game-changing moves.

Round 1Round 2Round 3, Round 4

I believe the key epiphany that led me to my positive results was recognizing the importance of the psychological aspect of the game and using it to my advantage. It seems that many chess players are aware of this extra dimension to the game (it’s also been alluded to several times on this site), but when they actually play, they are too absorbed in the physical position to pay attention to it. Since I was facing only lower-rated players in this tournament, I felt comfortable (at least before I got into trouble in every game) not devoting all of my energy to calculation, and instead experimenting with this new approach to the game.

The psychological strategy I employed (perhaps unconsciously) was the “Golden Rule” applied to chess – thinking in my opponent’s shoes. Even though chess is a game of complete information, opposing players inevitably perceive the position from different lenses. If I have an idea of how my opponent will play, I can figure out how to respond accordingly. I don’t need to make the objectively best moves; I just need to play a little better than my opponent to take the point.

Fortunately, I had some understanding of my opponents’ state of mind, drawing from my own experiences facing higher-rated opponents on top boards. The most memorable were my loss to Alex Katz despite getting an advantage right out of the opening, and my blunder against James Black, caving into exhaustion and pressure in the final round of the day. Notice the similarity between these games and my Round 1 and Round 4 games, respectively; I was just on the stronger player’s side this time.

My understanding is that in a game between players of different ratings, the weaker player’s thoughts are focused primarily on survival, while the stronger player’s thoughts are focused on not messing up. The weaker player assumes the stronger player makes the correct moves, and thinks first about reacting to them instead of refuting them. They invest a lot more energy than necessary in calculating small details, if only for the purpose of feeling that they are matching their opponent’s skill. On the other hand, as long as the stronger player verifies they haven’t made an egregious blunder, they are content.

If a player is unaware of this difference in mindset, they would not be able to see all elements of the game, especially when playing someone stronger – they are limited by their thoughts. It is possible, or even likely, that a weaker player might forget not to mess up, and a stronger player might forget to survive. I speculate that a player could improve significantly simply by keeping an open mind throughout the game, being cognizant of the different perspectives through which one can view a game.

I think this effect manifested itself quite clearly in my games. I started off my first three games too aggressively – forgetting about survival – and was punished by my opponents in a natural fashion, an attack on the king. Yet I managed to come out on top in the tactical middlegames by staying confident (even when I should not have) and waiting for my opponents to either expend their energy or succumb to time pressure, at which point they opened up weaknesses.

I know I was very lucky during this tournament, but it was also my adopting the mentality of the stronger player, even when my position was objectively worse, that carried me to success this time. I wonder if it would also be possible to use this mentality against stronger players as well? We’ll see how I do in my next tournament.

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