How to Deal with Losing

Fall seven, rise eight

My kid are not playing well. I’m so bad at chess. How can we avoid losing.

These are the comments from parents and chess players alike when the chess journey gets tough with a bad tournament or game.

Parents often ask how can we deal with losing, especially when the younger players cry after games.

When I hear these questions, my response often will be: I hear you, and I can understand your pain for the short term.

However, chess journey is a long game and there are ups and downs for every player.

Let’s first get the painful truth out first.

Losing sucks! No doubt about that. Just ask Magnus about it, this is the best player of our time, and he’s still having trouble handle losing.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about why losing is an important part of the chess journey, and why often losing early can be more beneficial than winning without progress.


If you’re a 2000 rated player, and hypothetically let’s say you can play in the U1200 section.  More likely than not, you’ll be able to win every single game. 

Losing may not be part of the equation in this hypothetical scenario, but will you improve chess skills over 1-year?

Not likely.

Every game, you’re playing weaker players, basically you’re providing training opportunities to the new players.

For anyone to improve, it is necessary to play against stronger players. And each time we jump to a higher section, it is part of the process to struggle against stronger players, but then improve thru the learning experiences.


The Chess Journey is a marathon, and losing in chess sometimes feeling like struggling on the 3rd mile on your first practice run.

That’s why we all need to practice many trial runs before the final marathon run. The first practice will be far from perfect, the second will be a little better, but still long way to go.

However, each time, you’re building stronger muscles physically and mentally, and by the show-time, you’ll be more robust and less likely to be bothered by small aches in the run.

Chess tournaments works the same way, in the first tournament for a child, losing feels like the end of the world.

Then it becomes less annoy, and soon many kids wants to play again especially after a lost because there are more fire in them now.

It’s not easy seeing your child cry from their first loss, but remember many players have the same experiences, I cried twice from chess games when I was younger (details in a future post).

The more a chess player experiences the ups and downs, the better s/he will handle in the future.

Next time you or your child experience a painful lost, please keep below quote in your back pocket.

Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.

                                                                -Mae West

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Why Tournament Matters

Have you traded stock with paper money before?

Most of the time, this is an exercise used in High School or College finance classes, and it’s an opportunity for the students to learn about financial literacy.

I’ve done that.

When I traded stock with paper money, I did not check the daily ups and downs of stock trend for months.

During a good market (2009, right after the 2008 crash), when I returned to check results nonchalantly six months later, paper money have risen over 20%. I wish I could turn the time back and put in some real money instead.

Now fast forward to the first time I put $100 of real money into the stock market. The market had ups and downs as usual, however, this time my psychology changed completely.

I was checking stock tickers over 10 times a day on my phone, and everytime there’s a $1-2 of movement in price, I wondered whether I made the right decision to buy and when should I sell.

What does this story has anything to do with chess tournaments?

The title of this post tells you.

Playing in rated chess tournament versus casual games is like trading stock with real versus paper money.

The difference is in a player’s psychology.  To truly improve in chess, you have to go thru the trials of tribulation in facing tough times from tournament games.

Whenever I talk to parents of new students, we discuss how to improve in chess (topic for another time) and when should a student start playing in tournaments.

My recommendation: once basic chess skills are developed and the student has played 1-2 unrated tournament to get a feel of the environment, it’s time to get into the action of rated games.

Sometimes I hear parents say I want my child to work more at home and be ready to play in tournaments where we know s/he will have a good showing.

I politely disagree.

Chess tournaments are not like school tests.

School teachers often give students study guide after study guide.  If the student is well versed in all the practice questions, s/he is ready for the test and getting an A or 100 is no problem.

In chess tournaments, doesn’t matter how prepared you’re, you may face any of the following circumstances

-Other player’s strength; Stronger than their rating indicates

It’s often hard to gauge exactly how strong is your opponent. They can come from a different country or state, or they took time out from chess and only came back recently.

-You’re own emotional response to meaningful games

The way you feel in a casual game is not the same as a meaningful game. The stock analogy earlier in the article covers this point. The oh-no moments will be much more painful than a skittle room’s game.

-Tournament Surroundings

There are tensions in the tournament room. In any given moment, the room is quiet, you can hear chess pieces move but nothing more. The nerves and the tension become less intimidating for the more experienced players.

————–

You can only get better in tournament chess by experiencing more.

And remember, you’ll never be 100% ready.

Treat chess tournaments as job interview instead of school test, there is no guarantee, but the best practice to improve your odds of success is to experience more and learn from these experiences.

Focus on the Craft

Result of wins and loses are easy to measure and powerful to experience.

But often these are short-term thrills, and across the many ups-and-downs, it is easily dismiss-able from our memory.

When we focus on short-term results, our mind are buried into looking at certain outcomes, and chess improvement is anything but certain.

On the other hand, the process to improve the craft is what matters in the long term, and we are in control when making the effort.


As many of you know, I’m not currently active in playing tournaments (albeit a fan of in-person blitz tourneys). Instead, my focus in chess is help more students reach 1000.

While working on the side hustle of teaching, I see the parallel of improving teaching methods to the process of chess improvements.

Rinse and Grind

In any training day, the calculation exercise that you work on, or the endgame study that you struggle with will not show result immediately.

They are, however, the seed of improvements. And it is by repeating the exercises day in and day out that the seed will blossom.

Teaching chess is similar, looking thru 1 game or 1 puzzle will not give me enough information to understand what is the student missing.

But the process of continuing to observe will slowly reveal patterns.


No one knows how long it will take us to the promise land. But we CAN control the effort.

Focus on the Craft!

Put in more effort and worry less about the result.

Adapting and Adulting

For today’s Chess^Summit article, I want to talk about something that’s new for me, but perhaps for many of my readers, will be relatable on a somewhat personal level. Rather than talking about chess and analyzing positions today, I want to discuss an element of chess (but perhaps equally important) that doesn’t get talked about a lot – adulting.

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Playing a game at the Folklife Festival in the National Mall

For the first time in my [short] life, I’m working a day job (internship – let’s not get carried away) and living in a studio apartment in Washington, DC. While I don’t have to prepare for classes during the week, the first thing I realized is that unlike being a student, I have a lot less free time now… It’s the hour-plus commute to and from work, it’s the 30 minutes it takes to cook dinner every night, and don’t forget – the additional thirty minutes it takes to clean your kitchen afterwards. After a long day of work and then errands, there’s not really a lot of time left during the week.

And for those of us who aspire to play chess competitively and improve, that can be quite frustrating.

Personally, after what felt like a promising showing at the Chicago Open, I felt like my momentum came to a full stop a few weeks later in the Continental Class Championships here in Washington. With three draws and two losses, my rating dropped to 2099, and even though dipping below 2100 again may have as well been a rounding error, it still really stung. In my last nine games, I’ve scored 6 draws and 3 losses, no wins. Since, I have really struggled to find time to invest in my chess at the level I want to.

I have to be totally honest here – for me, the concept of “making time to study” is a little foreign. When I was in Pittsburgh, I didn’t have to make time, there was time – the hour gap between classes, for example. Furthermore, I also had the benefit that many of my friends also played competitively, and we would regularly train together. It wasn’t a conscious decision to train because we needed to be ready for the next tournament – this is just what we did for fun, and it happened to be beneficial.

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Night out at the Washington Nationals game!

As someone adjusting to professional life, putting aside time to study can be difficult. Your non-chess playing friends might ask you last minute to catch a drink. Maybe there’s an event happening in the city you want to attend. Or perhaps you need to call your parents tonight because it’s been too long since you last called them. Is there a world in which you can possibly do everything?

I can’t promise the best answers or even enough experience in adulting (don’t forget I’m relatively new at this), but here’s three tips I’ve learned so far this summer:

1) Adjust Your Goals – What’s Reasonable?

This is the toughest pill to swallow, but it’s important to start here. For those of you all who read my articles, you know my career goal has always been breaking 2200 and earning the National Master title. But right now, at least until the start of the fall semester, I’m not in a place where that’s realistic. My new short-term goal is to learn how to find pockets of time to study, while simultaneously keeping chess stress-free.

That being said, it’s also important to not push back your long-term goals too far, or else the instant gratification monkey takes over forever:

So give yourself reasonable deadlines. Since I will graduate (hopefully) in August 2019, my goal is to break 2200 before then, with the understanding that I will have to use my time wisely during the semester. Seeing as I broke 2100 for the first time in October of my freshman year, that gives me more than four years to figure things out (25 points a year, right?). If it doesn’t work out and I’m not particularly close, I plan on taking a short break from actively seeking the title (I’ll still play) and writing a chess book – something I would prefer to do as an NM, but who cares about sequential order?

2) Manage Time Better

A lack of time might be temporary, but managing it is something I need to learn now if I want to become a stronger player. While my move back to Pittsburgh is around the corner, many of my chess friends have now graduated or moved. So with only six planned rated games left this summer, it’s the perfect opportunity for a test-run of independent study before the semester starts.

One thing I’ve started doing is bringing a chess book to work (not openings), and during my thirty minute lunch break, I take 15 minutes to work through it (unfortunately without a board). Doing this means that when I come home, I can spend 15 minutes on tactics, and I’ve already put in 30 minutes for the day. A minimal thirty minutes a day during the work week means two and half hours invested before even making it to the weekend… that’s starting to sound doable!

3) Chess is Hard, But it is NOT Work

You shouldn’t do things that will make your experience with chess more stressful. If you have a full-time job, you don’t need that in your life. Of course, we all have goals we want to reach, so it’s important to break them down into small, manageable pieces.

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View from the Lincoln Memorial.

First, if you have a full-time job, you are not a junior. You’re going to have moments in your life where you can’t dedicate as much time to chess. Maybe you have a really demanding job, or it conflicts with another activity, or perhaps you have kids! That doesn’t mean your goals aren’t attainable, it just means you have to not force your goals to happen to avoid unnecessary stress.

For example, I mentioned earlier that I’m officially 2099. Well, at this weekend’s Potomac Open, you won’t find me in the Open section, not the U2300 section, but yeah – really, the U2100 section. Admittedly, not the most courageous thing I’ve ever done, but tournaments can be kind of expensive, and if you aren’t prepared to play in the Open section, then why blow your paycheck on registration fees and hotels if you’re not going to be happy with the way that you play! Just because you aren’t playing in the Open section doesn’t mean that you are not getting valuable experience.

I’m going into this weekend knowing it won’t be a chance for me to make a monumental step towards master, I just want a chance to engage with chess in a low-stakes environment and see what happens. Regardless of how I do, it’s still something fun and a distraction from work – I’ll learn my lessons and be ready for the next open section.

Closing Thoughts

Having a full-time job and being a competitive chess player isn’t always easy. For me, adjusting from the junior chess mindset is certainly going to be the most challenging hurdle. That being said, it can be done – you just have to know how to study chess smarter… but for most of you reading this, you probably already know this. This is what adulthood (or attempting to adult) looks like kids!

What techniques do you use to budget study time and work? What’s the hardest part about transitioning into adulthood? Leave a comment below! 

Momentum in Chess: How Emotions Can Win Games

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, and maybe you can relate with me. In a lot of my recent tournaments, I’ve noticed that the quality of my chess is stronger after a win than a loss. Winning seems to create some unstoppable force, and losing sees it all come to a screeching halt. When I started to think about my own results, this seemed odd – often I’m playing in the open section, and usually without much of a chance to win the tournament, so why the gap in quality?

You may recall my recent article about the Chicago Open, where my third round opponent hanging his queen gave my tournament a much needed spark. I played arguably my best game of 2018 in the following round, and despite a close loss in the fifth round, I had the resolve to get a draw against a higher rated player before closing out the tournament. This spark helped me find untapped potential, and “momentum” to finish with a respectable result.

What is momentum, and what is its role in chess? Without a lot of common ground for chess psychology, we should probably start with some foundational basis. Within a game of chess, we as players experience trends. Trends, positive or negative, describe if the natural flow of the game favors us or our opponents. As much as chess is about the quality of moves being played over the board, how we react to certain positions emotionally is equally important. Understanding the flow helps us ask questions like: how did we react to a dubious move? and what happened when we missed a strong move for our opponent? The stronger the trend, the harder it is to break the current and fight for a stake in the game – even if the actual moves required are not so difficult to find.

To demonstrate this, I found an example in one of my own games where the negative trend was so strong that I failed to find a basic resource to equalize the game:

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Bachlechner–Steincamp, position after 21. Rac1

Up to this point in the game, everything has gone swimmingly for White. My opponent has more space and better piece coordination, so it’s clear that he has won the opening battle. He continued with a strong exchange sacrifice after 21…Rab8 22. exd5 Bxd5 23. Nxd5 cxd5 24. Bxd5 Nb2 25. Bg2 Nxd1 26. Rxd1

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Bachlechner–Steincamp, position after 26. Rxd1

White has given up the exchange for two central passers, and Black’s chances of surviving look rather bleak. I could have chosen a more stubborn defense with 26…Rbc8 and held my ground, but feeling like I needed to do something, I played 26…Rb4? -+ to which not only can I not sufficiently explain why I played this move. Play continued 28. d5 Qb5 29. c6 Rc4 30. Bf1? Rxc2 31. Bxb5

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Bachlechner–Steincamp, position after 31. Bxb5

If I gave myself this position without exposing myself to the prior frustrations the game brought, I would almost instantly find the blockade, 31…Rd6!= to which White can never hope to make progress. After 32. Re1 g6, White realizes he doesn’t have enough dark square control to promote his pawns, and would have to settle for a draw. But frustrated, and more or less convinced I already lost, I capitulated with 31…Kf8?? and after 32. d6 Rc5 33. a4, I resigned as I can never stop White’s passed pawns.

Negative trends are strong because they constantly force the defender to constantly keep the position secure under extreme duress. If you have analyzed your own game with an engine and realized you missed a simple tactical/positional resource to get out of a worse position and asked “how did I miss that?“, there’s a good chance that it was influenced by some sort of negative trend. We are human after all.

While trends occur at the micro-level in our games, they occur at the macro-level too, as our relative success in a tournament can also effect how we play. For lack of a better word, I think this can best be described as momentum. So let’s revisit the original question I posed. Why the gap of quality in play after a loss? Why do the consequences of a game “carry over” into the next round? After some introspection and a bit of research, I think the best way to explain this is that after a loss, there seem to be two common approaches: locking down and going for the win – and they both have their problems.

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Wesley had quite the roller coaster finish in Leuven! photo: Lennart Ootes

While trends occur at the micro-level in our games, they occur at the macro-level too, as our relative success in a tournament can also effect how we play. For lack of a better word, I think this can best be described as momentum. So let’s revisit the original question I posed. Why the gap of quality in play after a loss? Why do the consequences of a game “carry over” into the next round? After some introspection and a bit of research, I think the best way to explain this is that after a loss, there seem to be two common approaches: locking down and going for the win – and they both have their problems.

By “locking down”, we cramp our creativity – the emphasis is more on not making a mistake than playing our best chess. While this is an effective strategy to stop the bleeding, I’ve noticed that in my own games that the actual game play can seem rigid and unenterprising. In going all out for a win, we lose a lot objectivity in our emotional approach to the game, as chess is deemed equal from the start. Both approaches have their own form of blindness, which can prove to be detrimental in the long run.

Unlike trends, I think momentum is harder to see with over-the-board moves, and is best explained as an emotional approach to each round. Finding a strong idea or tactic in a worse position shouldn’t be attributed to momentum or confidence, but a string of results can be better understood in this light. Let’s take a look at Wesley So’s performance in the recent leg of the Grand Chess Tour in Leuven:

Rapid Results: W   W   D   W  W  D  W  D  D

Finishing +5 against GCT competition is quite the feat – even in rapid! In this stretch, it was clear that Wesley’s preparation was working, and his games had a natural flow to them. I was really impressed with his fourth round win against Anish Giri – Wesley was in second gear, and had established a significant lead over the competition.

Sure, you could argue in some of these wins (like his 2nd round win against Mamedyarov) Wesley shouldn’t have won, but he pressed as much as he could and his opponents collapsed. Sometimes to win, you have to create your own luck.

Blitz Results: D   D   D   D   W   D   D   L   L   L   D   D   D   W   D   W   L   L

Wesley’s blitz results will probably force him to ask what changed between formats. Is Wesley’s rapid genuinely better than his blitz? or Was Wesley trying to play more solidly to secure his lead in the tournament? or Did fatigue become a problem late in the tournament? I can’t speak for Wesley, but just by looking at his results some form of momentum was lost in the transition to blitz.

Admittedly, I missed much of this leg of the Grand Chess Tour because of my own tournament this past weekend, but I did catch his loss against Nakamura, where nothing seemed to go right, and then on top of that, he blundered in a theoretically drawn endgame:

After losing his first game of the tournament to Mamedyarov a round before, I think Wesley’s focus was to draw and enter the next day with a three point lead. As a result, Wesley didn’t do much with White and let Nakamura get an active position, got outplayed for a little, and then after saving the game, blundered.

So we now have some general sense of how momentum works, but how do we influence it without having to wait for our opponents mistakes? Honestly, I’m not sure, and I couldn’t speak from personal success here. But I think it can be done – just take a look at Fabiano Caruana’s recent stretch of good results:

Candidates (1st place): Won two consecutive games after loss to Karjakin in round 12

US Championships (2nd place): Finished +5 despite early loss to Izoria with White

Norway Chess (1st place): Won tournament after 1st round loss to Magnus

Caruana’s ability to bounce back from losses is admirable and should be studied further as it shows great emotional discipline in critical moments. Again, since I don’t know Fabiano personally, I can’t speak for his approach to handling losses, but in preparation for this article I looked over a lot of my games after losses and thought of ways to curb their effects:

  1. 23-round6-Candidates-DSC07020-Emelianova
    Comeback King and World Championship Challenger. photo: Maria Emelianova

    Losses happen. Though obvious, I feel like this is a good starting point. Don’t beat yourself up for being human. Instead it might be more constructive to figure out why you made that mistake immediately after the game finishes. This way you enter the next game with a concrete reason of why you lost rather than the self-deprecating “I suck at chess” line.

  2. Treat all games equally. Not easy to do since tournament situations can dictate what results we need. But if you’re winning most of your games and you need a result to win a prize, why play for a draw when what you are currently playing seems to be working? If you’re struggling, maybe it would help to change openings for a game. I played 1. e4 in my final game of the 2017 Reykjavik Open without knowing any theory, and admittedly I was much more excited to play because of this switch – and I won! Different things work for different people, but make it fun!
  3. Take away positives from your games. I think with engines, it’s really easy to see where we went wrong more than right. Give yourself credit for the things you do right too! Maybe if you see that you are bringing good ideas to games, it will be easier to put aside a loss and mentally prepare for the next round.

It’s important to understand that I am not expert in chess psychology (or psychology alone for that matter), and that I’m struggling with this as much as you are as I write this – this stuff his hard. However, I think it is important to discuss how we approach games, especially if we want to hold ourselves accountable to a certain standard of play. If sports psychology is important for the development of athletes, why don’t we talk about it as much for chess? Let’s not forget that a lot of the beauty of chess is in its humanity, not what the engine thinks.

I’m curious to hear what you all think. Do trends play a factor in your results? Are your results what dictate your approach to a game? Any good anecdotes? Let me know in the comments!