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:
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…
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!