Trying too hard: The need for objectivity

Here’s a scenario: You have been pushing for a win all game with a good (or even equal) position, and then suddenly a wrench gets thrown into the position and the tables turn. The objective evaluation drops to a drawn position or even a lost position, but you find it impossible to change course and mindset to fit the new needs of the position, and disaster ensues. If both you and your opponent were reseated at the same board with the same position, with all memory of what had previously happened in the game erased, then surely you would think and play differently.

This is just one example of how often perceptions and expectations don’t match up with the realities of the position we are playing, especially when there has been a dramatic shift from the overall tenor of the game up to that point. This doesn’t just happen when one is better or winning for much of the game, but in my experience often happens against lower rated players. Against these players, I always like to preserve some type of winning chances on the board, which often leads to some rash and risky decisions. Of course, taking risks is not something to be looked down upon, but the risks have to be smart risks (it’s late and I’m not sure if that makes much sense, but it does in my mind). If the result of the game seems to be headed towards a result you were not expecting or don’t want, it’s important to evaluate the position correctly and adjust play accordingly.

In my first two tournaments of 2017, I dropped a total whopping 40 rating points, putting up incredibly weak performances against similarly rated or higher rated players, and struggling mightily against significantly lower rated players. While it has been a problem nearly my entire chess career, my failure to maintain objectivity and trying too hard in positions that didn’t warrant trying so hard hit me hard game after game. And in suffering these upsets and losses, I felt with every passing game I had to win and redeem myself, leading to a horrible cycle. Here are two examples:

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Nakada, A – Xu, G, Liberty Bell Open 2017, Position after Bf5

It’s clear to any observer that White holds a nice advantage here, with nicer pawn structure, possible attacking opportunities with f4, and the fact that Black still has a hemmed-in bishop on c8 on move 22. But I outrated my young opponent by nearly two hundred points, and my (quite illogical) thinking was “I’m not losing, so I should still try to somehow win this”. The logical continuation for Black is d5, finally freeing the bishop. But I instantly rejected this obvious move for the dumbest reason: I saw White could play Bxh7 Qxh7 Qf6+, forcing a perpetual. But there was no objective reason to shy away from a draw, especially since it’s not likely my opponent even considered playing it (he had rejected the same continuation a move earlier), and the alternatives are quite a bit worse. I ended up playing Qg7, and White kept my bishop entombed with Qh3. The game eventually resulted in a draw after the time control, at a position in which I (deservedly) remained worse. At least my poor decision making didn’t lead to a loss, but I can’t say the same for the next game…

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Xu,G – Lapan, D, Liberty Bell Open 2017, Position after Kg7

In the final round of the tournament, I desperately wanted to win in order to restore some confidence. I took quite a bit of risks in an equal endgame to try to push the issue, and arrived at this position. Here, I saw the natural Kc6 leads to a draw, as both rooks end up being sacrificed for a passed pawn. Yet it was in this situation that my brain totally shut off, and made a nightmare tournament even worse. I played the horrible Ra3??, intending to play Kc6 on the next move, but missed Black’s strong reply Rg6!, which cuts my king off completely and gets the rook behind his passed pawn. Here, Ra7+ still holds the balance, but I continued stubbornly with Rh3, and after Rh6 suddenly realized the position had flipped 180 degrees and I was likely lost. What happened here was a stubborn, irrational ability refusal to accept the objective evaluation of the current position, and I ended up playing inferior moves out of frustration as a result.

I definitely hope to improve on this shortcoming in my psychological approach to the game, and not letting external factors or what happened in the game earlier to cloud my judgement or calculation. Hopefully you all will judge positions in a smarter way than I did, or at least for the right reasons!

My First Ever Chess Goals

As far as sitting down and thinking about what my future chess goals are, I’ve never really done this. To be honest, I’ve just gone with the flow without aiming towards anything concrete for the past 10 years, as I’ve felt setting hard goals is restrictive. I’ve always felt they were pretty arbitrary, and I’ve always felt “doing my best” and “improving as much as I can” were sufficient enough direction for me. To many others, goals such as “breaking 2000” are quite useful. For me, it was easier to just play and not have any outside pressure to achieve something. But as I’m on the verge of climbing over 2400 USCF, I realize that improvement comes slower and slower, and titled players are a whole different animal to take down. To that end, I’ve outlined a list of things I would like to accomplish by the end of this year, my first chess goals if you will, as I know that instinct and blind faith has its limits, and if I want to keep improving I need to reach towards something (instead of nothing):

  1. 2300 FIDE and the FM title:

I’ve played in relatively few FIDE tournaments in my career, so this one may actually prove to be one of the toughest goals to accomplish. I’m currently hovering right around 2200 FIDE, but I would like to bring that up significantly. Doing so would prove I can hold my own against stronger and more varied opposition (generally FIDE rated tournaments are much stronger). It’s easy to have an inflated USCF rating simply from playing the same people or in the same area all the time, so I would like to perform well outside my usual bubble.

  1. 2450 USCF:

If the first goal was the hardest, I would say this goal might be the easiest, though still not trivial or simple by any means. I have around 50 points to go, but gaining rating points from this point will be a slow climb, unless I have a godly performance at one tournament. I think sudden breakouts are super tough though at this point, so I’m aiming for steady improvement. If I had a huge block of free time when I could just study chess nonstop, it might be possible. With college and work and other stuff, it’s hard to commit a ton of time or even consistent time to study chess. The important thing is to keep playing though, as rust is a real thing. I’m actually playing more regularly now than in my last two years of high school, and my performances have slowly been getting better.

  1. IM Norm:

Screw it, this might be the toughest. Checking the US top under 21 list, I might be the highest rated junior that doesn’t have at least one IM norm yet. I’ve only ever played in one tournament where a norm was even possible, so I have no concept of what it really takes. What I do know is I have to score well against many titled players, which goals 5, 6, and 7 will all help with. The most likely tournaments I will play are the Washington International and the US Masters, but this is still to be determined.

  1. Threepeat:

This year’s PA State Championship will be in Lancaster, and in March. I imagine the location of Lancaster instead of Pittsburgh will attract some stronger competition, but I look forward to kicking spring break off with an attempt to defend my title and repeat as state champion for the third year in a row. Like goal 3 (but a little easier), this will involve strong, consistent play, and a will to try to win against anyone.

  1. Improve Calculation

I’d like to say I have a decent intuition and understanding of the game, but my calculation is seriously lacking. This will involve doing some engine work and doing some difficult tactics. Also, I think endgame studies will also be quite helpful, as the more empty the board the harder it is to calculate, as the range of viable candidate moves increases.

  1. Have an Opening Repertoire

Yeah, I’ll admit it, my openings are probably like 1700 level. They suck. That’s not gonna cut it against stronger opposition, so I finally have to study my least favorite part of the game and do some memorization. On a side note, I think chess960 is a great idea, as chess really shouldn’t be a contest of who can memorize the most moves to start a game. But whatever, it is what it is, and I will need to improve on this if I am serious about getting better.

  1. Be Clutch

Be able to perform under pressure and when it counts. I spoiled a tremendous position and a 40 minute time advantage against IM Eylon Nakar in the Pan-American last week, which would have saved the match for the CMU team. I’m not totally sure how to work on this, but I think just gaining more playing experience in these situations goes a long way. Being able to do this will help with goals 3 and 4.

All in all, I’m excited for the challenges that lay ahead and to be working towards what I have outlined above. Cheers to a great 2017 of chess for all of you, and may you reach your goals, whatever they may be!

Playing on Tilt: Defending My State Title

On Tilt – To gamble recklessly and aggressively after a bad or improbable beat or series of bad or improbable beats. Usually results in losing all of your money and then some. Good gamblers avoid this at all costs, even if it means going home earlier than expected. (Urban Dictionary)

The PA State Championship returned to Pittsburgh for the second year in a row, the first time in the tournament’s history and a great stroke of luck that afforded me convenience in my attempt to defend my 2015 state title. Thus, before the tournament even started I was lucky that I didn’t have to travel 5 hours to Philadelphia for the weekend. I entered the tournament as the top seed, with fellow masters Petesch, Minear, and Eidemiller close behind.

I took a half-point bye in round one on Saturday (it worked so well last time!) to grill meat (last year I did so to make an interview, so maybe the necessity was slightly questionable this time). I was quite rusty and probably had played at most a couple blitz games in the past month due to time commitments. Arriving late to round two, I played Isaac with the white pieces, which he has already mentioned in a previous blog post. Not wanting to deal with normal chess, I played a questionable line in the Vienna that somehow afforded me a slight edge. I quickly allowed Isaac back to equality in a rash endgame decision around move 20, and I thought my chances to repeat were going to end right then and there. Unfortunately for Isaac (and fortunately for me), he wasn’t able to find the route to secure the clear equality and actually self-destructed soon after. I was relieved that I hadn’t allowed a draw with the white pieces against an opponent 300 points lower rated than me, but it was clear I was not playing anywhere close to good chess, and that I would have to seriously step up.

After taking a nap, I arrived at round three and received as easy a pairing as possible against 2100-rated Joe Mucerino. Little did I know that I would go on to play one of my worst games in recent memory, committing blunder after disastrous blunder and continually not being punished for them. Possibly still dissatisfied with my previous round performance, I was clearly on tilt, playing feckless moves that failed to consider simple possible replies from my opponent. Time after time, I stared at what I had done in disbelief, and thought my tournament was going to end right there. Even if I avoided losing, a draw was still a terrible result and would make winning the tournament quite difficult. To give you a sense, here’s a sampling of what I did:

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I played 21…0-0?? here, forgetting the simple reply of 22. Qg3 after which I am certainly lost. I struggled to find lines in which I wasn’t getting mated or losing large amounts of material. An imprecise move order allowed me to escape, but not for long:

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While I have to tread carefully here, I should be perfectly fine after a move like 32…Ne5, but instead I played 32…Nf6 which was met by 33. Raf1! and left me shaking my head. White achieves powerful pressure. The most grotesque mistake followed soon after:

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Here I quickly moved 36…Bc8???????? Which should have run into 37. Nc6, game over, I resign. Instead, I survived even this mistake, and went on to win a horribly imperfect and nerve-wracking game after four and a half hours, with both of us reaching around a minute left on the clock. Clearly, I wasn’t prepared in a psychological or chess sense, and my dumb play was barely squeaking by thanks to large amounts of luck.

Thankfully, I returned Sunday refreshed and hopeful of actually playing chess in the last two rounds. I delivered a smooth victory over Franklin Chen in Round 4, allowing me extra rest time (I won round 4 quickly last year too) while Minear and Petesch dueled it out on Board 2 to determine who would play me in the final round. Their game came down to the wire, with Petesch coming out on top but probably more fatigued than I was going into the last game. I had the Black pieces and decided to not press too much, as a draw would still clinch a tie for first. Again, a stroke of luck came my way when Petesch began to burn insane amounts of time on the clock, falling behind by almost an hour. This allowed me to slowly grind him down in a relatively equal position with natural moves, as he had to move almost instantly towards the end of the game.

Thus, I was able to retain my state title for another year, but it was clear I had to have a lot of things go right for me on the first day. I’m fortunate that my opponents didn’t take full advantage when I was on full tilt and I had to forget those things quickly for the second day, in which I calmed down and played less heart attack-inducing chess.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Intimidation Factor (and why not to trust stronger players)

We’ve all been through it: you’re playing a (possibly much) higher rated player and things seem to be going ho hum smoothly, and suddenly your opponent uncorks a move you hadn’t even considered, or considered and thought was impossible. What he just played has to work, right? No way he flat out just played a horrible move or is bluffing, right? You hunker down and calculate all the lines, and don’t see what he is seeing, but out of fear play a different move. A couple moves later, you realize you have played into his hands completely.

The intimidation factor is natural: members of society are taught to respect those higher up, so it makes sense to trust that a stronger opponent knows what he is doing. When you’re on the delivering side, it can kind of feel like hope chess, but if you play these “bolt from the blue” moves with confidence it can psychologically unnerve the other side. When you’re on the receiving end, it is critical to trust yourself! If you have the ability to calculate everything and have things figured out, play the move you think is best. In positions of crazy complexity or positions where you simply have a worse understanding, you might still get ultimately outplayed, but it is always better to have yourself rather than the other side dictate how you play.

This is easier said than done, and I’ll be the first to say that I have had my fair share of not trusting myself when playing against those higher rated than me. Now that I’ve gathered a little more experience (you might notice I like to pick out the psychological elements of the game), I have learned to utilize this to my advantage as well as stabilize my play more against higher rated players.

The following example involves a familiar name to you readers:

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Li, B  -Xu, G, CMU Open 2016, Position after 21.a4

Black has the preferable position here, with the two bishops, better piece activity, and more prospects of improving his position. Beilin had just played a4 here to try to free himself a little bit, and got up to use the restroom. I exhibited a mental lapse, and for some reason I thought the move Rxa4 won two pieces for the rook when it actually didn’t. Thus I played 21…Rxa4 pretty quickly and confidently. A spectator commented after the game that I “played like Beilin made an instantly losing move”. Once I hit the clock though, I realized my assumption was wrong. Now Rxa4 is not a bad move, but it’s certainly not the best or easiest way for me to improve my position. Objectively, it was still a decent move. I kept my confident demeanor though, and play continued: 22. Nxa4 Qa7+ 23. Kh2 This natural move actually proves to be quite damaging. My guess is that Beilin assumed he couldn’t trade queens cause the exchange sac should work. Thus Rf2! wasn’t found, after which White can trade queens and be fine. Without Rf2, White is a step late to stop the a pawn. After 23…Qxa4 24. Qb1, I had superior piece activity and a lot of pawn targets. A rook blunder made my work easy, but still, I was able to win despite my earlier hallucination. My bluff worked!

There are a couple takeaways here. One, the body language and demeanor with which you play a move can be quite important. Psyche your opponent out! On the flip side, in critical positions I put my hands over my forehead so I only see the board and not the expressions and gestures of my opponent. Two, your opponent isn’t always right! Basically, intimidate others and don’t be intimidated. Of course, don’t play unsound moves and sacrifices all the time, just like not all of your opponent’s seemingly unsound ideas should work either. Trust your play and yourself. You’ll gain confidence and improve! (That you can trust me on)

Finding Your Inner Artist: Creativity on the Board

Beautiful, flashy, and unexpected. While in a large number of cases simplicity and banality are the correct route, these are the types of moves and games that we love to play. Developing a strong creative sense can make chess a lot more fun, and if harnessed correctly, can elevate your play to a whole new level.

It seems like with the emergence of computers, tablebases, exhaustive opening theory, and centuries of ingrained positional principles, the artistic side of the game is being pushed to the wayside. But we have to remember that chess is still played by humans. Chess as a mental sport, chess as a game, and chess as a problem may be dominated by computers now, but the one area left we can lay claim to an advantage over the silicon beast is chess as an art.

When this is discussed, the first thing that often jumps to mind is tactical creativity. Creativity is not just restricted to the tactical realm though, and tactical possibilities often need to be executed in conjunction with other counterintuitive ideas for a creative combination to work.

We can go on and on about what it takes to do this, but in my view, it all comes down to one thing: knowing when to break the rules. As the saying goes, rules are meant to be broken, and playing with a sense of flexibility and openness is a lot more useful than strictly adhering to principles. (Of course, this means you also need to know when to follow the rules)

Our first example is a classic, and something almost all of you have probably seen already:

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Short-Timman, Tilburg 1991, Position after 31…Rc8

Black is completely tied up and can barely move, with the White pieces dominating the board and more importantly the squares around the Black king.  If you haven’t seen this idea before, it’s not immediately clear what to do though. Computers are still flummoxed to this day at this position. In fact my computer (which admittedly is pretty old and terrible) says the position is equal! (!!) Venturing a guess, this is probably a result of the machine not being able to find a clear tactical breakthrough and Black’s “better” pawn structure (which means absolutely nothing here). Short noticed the helplessness of all the Black pieces, and the juicy dark squares on the kingside, uncorking a shocking, brilliant maneuver:

  1. Kg3!! Defying common sense. It’s only when you realize there’s no need to worry about the “rule” of king safety that Kg3 even pops out as a possibility. Even after this move has been played, some engines still show the same evaluation as the move before, exhibiting a blindness because of the premium the program places on king safety. 32…Rce8 It is only after this move that the engines recognize White’s idea, and the evaluation quickly flips to totally winning. 33. Kf4! The march continues. 33…Bc8 34. Kg5! And Black resigned in the face of the unstoppable Kh6 with mate.

One more example, this time from one of my games. While this wasn’t a killer winning combination or even objectively the best move in the position, I thought it was a good example of creative thinking.

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Goeller, M (2040) – Xu, G (2151), USATE 2012, position after 19. g5

In this position, the two sides are trying to generate activity on different sides of the board. White wants to push his pawns and bring his pieces for a kingside attack, and Black wants to exploit some weaknesses on the queenside and generate some piece activity there. The natural move seems to be Nc5, targeting the weak d3 pawn. The problem with this is that it allows f6, which looked highly unpleasant for me. Other plans like an a5-a4 push were too slow for my liking. So then I asked myself “Is there a forcing and unexpected way for me to take advantage of those weak pawns?”

19…Nxd3!?  Who said two knights have to attack the pawn for it to be taken? My engine prefers a5 or Rfb8, but then again, my engine is able to play a lot more precisely than me after that, and I thought the position was more straightforward for White to play. Nxd3 was a nice practical decision, as the surprise factor unsettled my opponent a little bit and let me direct the play. 20. Qxd3 Nc5 21. Qd1 Nxb3 22. Qxb3 Bxc4 Basically all forced. Before move 19, I had figured the activity I would get and the two pawns were enough to compensate for the piece. Nxd3 wasn’t in my engine’s top 10 options, but I feel like it gave me great chances. While I didn’t play totally accurately from this point on, I was still able to eventually win.

I guess the main takeaway from this is to not limit yourself when considering the possibilities in a position, and to never consider a certain move you or your opponent can make to be “impossible”. I’ll be sure to show some more examples of creative play in future posts, and hopefully you are encouraged to create your own art in the games you play!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Psychological Resiliency: The Art of the Bounceback

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If you’re anything like the prototypical chess player, you probably hate losing more than anything in the world. Or even drawing games that you think you should have won. It sucks, but I’m not going to give the usual “study your losses and learn from your mistakes” spiel. Instead I’ll focus on the short term instead of long term response, because immediate reaction to disappointment is critical to consistency and improvement.

I am no stranger to periods of frustrating stagnation. After starting tournament chess in 2007 and ending with a rating around 2050 by the end of 2009, I struggled to improve noticeably for quite a while. My results were woefully inconsistent: good results alternated with bad results. Basically everything I’m going to tell you I didn’t know. It took me the next 15 months just to break 2100, during which I considered quitting chess completely after every tournament.

When we hit plateaus, often good tournament results are alternated with horrible tournament results. Rarely do players plateau because they continuously have average tournaments. If you can increase your floor performance level, then you give yourself a great chance to have a breakout result eventually that isn’t offset by other major losses.

I’m a big stats and data guy (it’s actually my job for the summer), so take a look at the below table and see what you can notice:

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Not coincidentally, I made master towards the end of 2012.

Basically, try to avoid ever losing twice in a row or being upset twice in a row. Whenever you get hit, get right back up and hit back harder in the next game. I know it’s a whole lot easier said than done, but if you put yourself into this mindset all the time you will develop a psychological resiliency that can carry over not just from game to game but also from move to move, or tournament to tournament. Even many strong players seemingly can’t do this. How many times have you seen one of the top seeds get nicked for a draw or loss in round one and immediately withdraw? There’s a certain word I would use to describe these people, but this blog post is probably not the appropriate place to say it.

The exception to this is if you play up. If you play up against much higher rated opposition, this becomes tough to do, otherwise you should be at their rating! Playing up can help you gain experience against strong opposition, but if you find yourself just losing game after game, it really does you no good. My suggestion is to develop a pattern of strong consistency against lower-rated and equally-rated players. Once you can consistently take their money and rating points, move up.

I am convinced my slow, eventual grind to my current rating of 2350 could have been a lot quicker if I had been able to develop a greater psychological strength earlier on. (That, and better study habits. Isaac seems to be a lot better and more methodical at this!) I like to feel like I’ve improved in this area, as I have very few catastrophic results anymore. I feel like my approach has matured. Of course, I don’t claim to be great at this even now, as it is an ongoing process for all players. The next step is to increase my chances of super strong results, for which actual chess study plays a much larger role (go figure).

As I’m writing this, Hikaru Nakamura has notched his first ever classical win against Magnus Carlsen in round 1 of Bilbao. But perhaps even more remarkable is that Carlsen won all of the next three games to surge back to clear first. What I’ve noticed is that in the rare occasions that Carlsen does lose, he comes back with a vengeance, and often steamrolls his next opponents. That’s part of the reason why he is in a class of his own. He doesn’t let losses get to him. Instead, he uses them as fuel for the fire that is unleashed upon his upcoming foes. Be like Carlsen, channel that competitiveness, and GET PISSED OFF when things don’t go your way.

I have my share of 20 move demolitions, but the example I’m showing is the best display of the theme of resiliency:

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Liu, A (2360) – Xu, G (2284), Continental Open 2013, Position after 18. Kf2

I was coming off a tough loss in the previous round, having missed many opportunities to draw against a 2500+ player. This game looked like a forgone conclusion too, and I can’t remember ever having to defend such a depressing and sh***y position. It’s move 18, and not a single one of my pieces have left the back rank, except for my queen that is about to be pinned by Re1. However, I was determined not to lose, and tried to make the win as difficult as possible for my opponent.

18…Kd8  only move 19. Re1 Qf7 20.Qf4 Qf8 this looks even worse, doesn’t it? 21. gxf6 Nxf6 22. Rg1 Nbd7 23. Qg5 b5!? A move of desperation, but a very practical decision. I couldn’t wait for White to slowly build up pressure and crush me, and had to seek some kind of activity. 24. Nf4 Nb6 25. Ne6+ Bxe6 26. Rxe6 27. Qxg7+ Qxg7 28. Rxg7 Nfd7 29. Bh3 b4 30. Bf6

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White still has a tremendous position and is winning, as his powerful rooks and bishops paralyze my knights. However, I was able to avoid getting mated or suffering massive material loss, giving me a chance to keep fighting. Granted, my opponent doesn’t play with the best precision leading up to the time control, but I refused to die and played “annoying” chess.

30…Rae8 31. Rxe8 Rxe8 32. Rxh7 a5 33. Be6 a4 34. h4 b3 the only way to set problems 35. axb3 axb3 36. h5 Ra8 37. h6 b2

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White is only a couple of steps away from victory, and I had calculated in all lines that I was losing, but I held my breath….38. Bf5?? White tries to play it safe, but finally errs. The simple Bxb2 Ra2 Re7 Rxb2+ Kg3 Ra2 h7 Ra8 Bg8 would have won. 38…Rf8! I grab my opportunity and realize I am probably out of the woods. 39. Bxb2 Rxf5 40. Rxd7+ The computer actually still says Re7 is winning for White, but that is a tough move for a human to calculate thoroughly with little time, so White bails out. Kxd7 41. h7 Rh5 42. h8Q Rxh8 43. Bxh8 Nxc4

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I end up with a better endgame in which I was able to press, but alas, I missed a couple wins later on and the game ended in a satisfactory result of a draw, and I avoided two brutal losses in a row. 1/2-1/2

This kind of tenacity and resiliency is a widely seen attitude that generalizes to a life approach (see the Confucius quote at the beginning of this post). Besides Carlsen, there are many other examples:

-The Golden State Warriors never lost two games in a row in their magical 73-9 regular season run. They often blew the opposing team out of the gym in the next game after the games they did lose. Perhaps fittingly, when they finally started to lose multiple games in a row, they almost got eliminated by the Thunder and lost the championship to the Cavs.

-The five minutes after a soccer goal is scored is often said to be the most dangerous period of time for the team that just scored. The opposing team is often at its hungriest and most motivated to strike back in this period.

-Before his retirement and subsequent attempted “unretirement”, Muhammad Ali only lost three fights in his career. After every single loss, he won the rematch, often decisively. Ali is considered by many to be the Greatest of All Time.

Developing resiliency goes a long way. It’s difficult to do, but those that can master it achieve greatness.